Understanding DesignOps and Their Role in Design Teams

Understanding DesignOps and Their Role in Design Teams

Design can be a competitive advantage. To deliver great experiences, product teams need to get design right. So teams constantly search for new ways to streamline the design process. As companies’ understanding of design matures, they realize that it’s hard to change the design process without changing an organization.

Design operations teams—often called DesignOps teams—are one of the recent changes in company structure that have arisen. This role is intended to maximize the design team’s value and impact.

Despite this role being discussed in many different contexts, for many of us, ‘DesignOps’ is still a buzzword. Many people from the design community perceive the term differently—some limit the idea of DesignOps to just a single activity (i.e., a creation of design system), while others think of those in DesignOps roles as unicorns who participate in all possible activities related to design. In this article, we’ll find out what DesignOps really means.

A few common problems design teams face

Before trying to describe the role of DesignOps in organizations, it’s vital to say a few words about the problems designers face:

  • Designers work in a silo. Quite often the design department is isolated from other departments, such as engineering and marketing. A design process where design team works independently is not very effective.
  • The rise of the complexity of design tools and solutions. The tools used for design become more complex. Designers need to spend extra time to learn how to use them.
  • No clear career paths for design. Very few organizations have mature career paths for design. Quite often, designer career paths are mapped to developers career paths.
  • Design is often considered as a step in the product creation process. Designers have a production role (create tangible artifacts for developers) rather than strategic role (define a direction for product design).
  • Speed of delivery is still the most important measurement of success. Product design is measured by whether a product is shipped on time (meeting deadlines).
  • There’s no clear specialization. Many organizations still expect their designers to wear many hats—they believe that designers shouldn’t only design, but should also be project managers, creative leaders, and design evangelists. However, these additional roles reduce the time a designer can devote to their primary activity—designing.

All those problems introduce friction in the design process and increase the time required to move from the initial product requirements to the final solution.

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Understanding the concept of DesignOps

As the name implies, DesignOps is an attempt to operationalize design. DesignOps is a dedicated team (depending on the size of a company, it might be a single person or a department) that manages the design process within an organization.

The primary goal of DesignOps is to establish a highly efficient design process that generates high-quality design outputs. DesignOps create benefits for all people who are involved in the design process, not necessarily just the designers.

designops: canvas
DesignOps canvas by Dave Gray from XPLANE.

DesignOps focus on four pillars:

  1. Design process
  2. Team coordination
  3. Design tools
  4. Design culture

Let’s look at what each of these means in depth.

1. Design process

DesignOps teams have a goal to streamline workflows. When a DesignOps department starts to rework the process, they usually do the following things:

  • Identify the critical gaps and weaknesses of an existing process.
  • Build a process that would optimize designers’ day-to-day workflow—maximize engagement and reduce duplicated efforts.
  • Define clear metrics of success and ensure designers align with them. Metrics are selected according to the business’s goals. DesignOps might introduce a practice of design review to ensure that designs are executed to the highest quality.
  • Unify design language across platforms. Unified language helps designers achieve consistency across all platforms.
  • Enforce good meeting etiquette. Reduce the total number of meetings by trimming all unnecessary meetings, and make those that remain more productive (i.e., introduce a mandatory requirement for clear agendas before meetings and action items after the meeting).
  • Establish a clear scheme of design delivery. Decide who needs to see the work, and when.

2. Team coordination

The DesignOps role is also responsible for focusing on the business aspects of the design. They are involved in the following activities:

  • Budgeting. How much running a design team costs, and why. The goal is to achieve transparency for resource allocation.
  • Human resources. DesignOps are responsible for both headcount and recruitment. DesignOps teams help to forecast work and manage resourcing. They know how many people are needed for a particular design process and with what skills, helping to set recruiting standards.

DesignOps free up designers so they can concentrate on design work, instead of details like budgeting and hiring.

3. Design tools

DesignOps also determine what tools design teams need to work efficiently. They standardize the tooling and systems used, as well as introduce new tools and make sure designers adopt them.

4. Design culture

Design culture is a key element that keeps design teams happy and healthy. That’s why one of the goals DesignOps teams have is to invest in creating a design culture and promote the culture within a company. The process of building a design culture includes the following areas:

  • Education. DesignOps figure out what skills are missing in a design team and how to gain them. They are also responsible for onboarding new team members.
  • Retention. DesignOps protect designer resources from turnover by creating an environment in which people want to stay for longer periods of time.
  • Accountability. They are responsible for holding the designer accountable.
  • Knowledge sharing. They create a culture where team members share the knowledge generously with others.

DesignOps also evangelize design, by helping everybody in the organization understand the value of good design. The DesignOps team will act as diplomats who translate the language of design to other departments by:

  • Socializing the design process to other teams. They amplify the value of design and build awareness by introducing design to different parts of the organization.
  • Establishing strong cross-functional partnerships. The DesignOps team breaks down team and discipline silos and fosters strong relationships across teams.

Why do we need a separate DesignOps role?

If you read this list of activities carefully, you might think, “These look pretty similar to what many design teams do. Why do we need a separate role for that?”

And you’re absolutely right—the activities listed above are not new, and many organizations practice them, often describing them as ‘design strategy.’

But there’s also an important difference—DesignOps is a dedicated team that is responsible for all these activities. And there are a few factors that influence this specialization:

  • Organizations grow. Companies are opening new offices and teams are growing larger. As businesses scale, design teams might realize that they need different types of specialists—UX designers, UX researchers, motion designers, visual designers, etc. And the processes that were once effective might no longer fit the changing organization. Without having a clear strategy for hiring and adopting the new team members, it’s relatively easy to introduce chaos into design teams.
  • Higher expectations. Beyond headcount growth, companies tend to expand their product lines and functionality. The technical sophistication of product teams is also growing. For example, with the rise of platforms to design for, delivery of a consistent experience across the platforms become a hard task.
  • Cross-functional team collaboration. It becomes critical to manage communications and coordination across all teams involved in the design process.

DesignOps is a role that focuses on scaling and amplifying design processes. Introducing a DesignOps role is not only a structural change, but it’s also a cultural shift. Our understanding of the design process matures, and we no longer want to segregate different teams. Instead, we want designers, developers, researchers, and other team members working together during the design process, and the DesignOps team is the one who makes this happen. They create highly integrated and effective design organizations.

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Do I need to hire a DesignOps team?

Of course, not every company needs a design operations team to succeed. But certain systematic problems might indicate that it’s time to hire at least a single dedicated DesignOps person. This necessity can be indicated by:

  • Fragmented structure within a design team. Not all team members are aligned with the same overall objective.
  • Designers constantly face trouble coordinating and communicating their work.
  • Lack of recruiting standards and hiring plans for designers. No clear onboarding and ongoing education for design team members.
  • Weak design culture. Low level of engagement in design departments; low level of understanding of the value of design within a company.

How to introduce a DesignOps role into your organization

Introducing a DesignOps role can mean a bit of a cultural shift. Luckily, there are some steps you can take to make the process easier.

  • Evaluate the existing design process. You need to gauge your design culture and identify how aligned it is. Talk to the members of the design, engineering, and marketing teams to identify what problems they face. Think about how a dedicated DesignOps role could help solve these problems.
  • Create a shared vision about the role of DesignOps within your organization. When a design team has a shared understanding of why they need something, they will be more motivated to accept this change.
  • Start with one particular project. DesignOps can operate at company-level and project-level. If you are just starting to implement DesignOps in your organization, you shouldn’t try to revolutionize the whole design culture. Instead, start with a single project. Whoever is in the DesignOps role can be responsible for understanding a project’s specific needs and challenges, and introducing the required changes. This gives you the opportunity to test and iterate a reworked design process.

Learn more about DesignOps

If you’re interested in learning more about DesignOps, I recommend checking the following resources:

  • The DesignOps Handbook is an in-depth guide that will help you understand how DesignOps help design teams scale.
  • Amplify Design is a blog created by Dave Malouf. Dave Malouf is the person who popularized the term DesignOps, and Amplify Design is dedicated to this topic.
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Evolve your design teams

DesignOps are not a revolution in the design industry; they’re evolution. As the design process becomes more and more complex, it requires a shift in the way design teams work. DesignOps represent this shift. The people who work in DesignOps roles are business partners who help enhance a design infrastructure and create benefits for all people involved in the design process.

Have you explored adding a DesignOps role to your team? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

About the Author

Nick Babich is a developer, tech enthusiast, and UX lover. He's spent the last 10 years working in the software industry, with a specialized focus on development. He counts advertising, psychology, and cinema among his myriad interests.

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