WoW! DesignOps? ResearchOps? Scaling the organization via Nudge

Akemi Tazaki
Oct 26 · 10 min read
A man translating a message into the telegram machine
A man translating a message into the telegram machine
New technology New skills New work process

I felt compelled to write my account on this topic because I got alerted by the rampant misconception in my office. “I want to increase my skills in DesignOps” -One of my mentees tells me on the bi-annual performance review. For some people, it sounds very sexy, DesignOps. Especially for people who are still exploring how to do design works.

There is too much mystification on the term that broadly designates all the daily grinds of essential management tasks. In the history of artistic trades (films, advertisements), a person or group of persons were there to smoothen the design operations. Because setting up the right process is a necessity to optimize investment. DesignOps is for the digital industry. Design management is essential, and I am glad that the UX/CX design takes it seriously by branding as DesignOps.

Administration and management of workflow = DesignOps

OPS comes from “operation.” The most concise description is given by the Nielsen Norman Group (DesignOps 101)

“The practice of Design Operations focuses on processes and measures that support designers in creating consistent, quality designs.”

If you want to know what is ResearchOps, replace the above sentence by “user research.”

OPS designate the set of operational process that helps to answer the following questions:

  1. How do we collaborate with other expertise?
  2. How do we get work done?
  3. How our work creates impact?

The task of setting OPS is internal facing, and it is the domain of project/product/program management. Not just a product owner, but how we work together is a topic for the whole team.

Nielsen Norman Group DesignOps 101 table
Nielsen Norman Group DesignOps 101 table

The waves of design discipline integration

Female acrobats
Female acrobats
Switching skills and collaborating with other

The buzzword DesignOps shows how multidisciplinarity is slowly setting outside digital-native industries. The organization has, for a long time, took Design or IT as a supporting role in Marketing and the core business. Now they are challenged to incorporate design to the strategic level for decision making. The development team was the first one to be integrated, aka DevOps was popular to re-organize the companies. Now it is the turn for the Design team.

The first wave in the internalization of design practice started with marketing and IT. These business units manage the design or research practice. I observed that the marketing person shifts their titles to the UX lead or CX lead over the past years in France. They manage a team whose ways of working could be a bit of mystery. They are not sure what kind of environment best suited to grow these talents. The collaboration and coordination of the new roles at a scale of large corporations are not optimized.

The second wave is when designers become managers. They are not sure how to elevate the design culture within a big corporation. Designers never started their job to be an expert in people’s or money management — henceforth many hesitations about taking the role of a master in (Design) business administration. They need to work on the business and politics as much as keeping up with the latest progress of the design discipline. The second wave is what happened among important banks, mostly in Anglo-Saxon countries (CitiGroup, BBVA, Lloyds, HSBC…). The second wave went to set the design on the strategic level; there are VPs of Design working on DesignOps’ effort.

The head of the design department is learning fast and creating a support group by gathering at DesignOps Summits, for instance, to share success stories. There is another one called DesignOps Network Global.


The consequences of rapid workplace change

19th Century prints depicting people arguing
19th Century prints depicting people arguing

Whichever stage of maturity you are in the design practice integration, people are facing the same types of issues.

When the user researchers and designers are not well integrated within the corporate operations, these are the issues you observe:

  1. The roles are ill-defined. The hiring person does not have the expertise to describe or set the required skills for the team.
  2. The manager cannot improve the skill set of designers or researchers. People in the first wave of integration have never done the works themselves to lead them on operational know-how.
  3. There is a lack of nurturing the practice by a higher standard. The quality of work stays average. For example, even with the process in place, the creation of a design system remains mediocre.
  4. When you come as a manager in a newly minted design department, you notice whole operations boil down to the deadlines vs. competitive design quality.
  5. People feel under-utilized and not having any upward mobility. So talents leave the company
  6. Designers and researchers are at the production tactical purpose instead of integrating within the product or portfolio strategy.

The companies are doing everything at the same time. Integrate the Agile process for development, hire designers and researchers. They are setting a very challenging environment. Such a context is bound to confusion and frustration. The above points are frustrating to all parties involved in the process.

The frustration becomes more significant when the results are not visible immediately, which is often the case of change management. The negative emotion hinders the desire to feel good about any little positive steps you make. So, it is time to create a role whose responsibility is to remove the cause of frustrations. The head of design deals with DesignOps.

I recommend that, within the change process, the organization first adopts a real Agile process to embrace design and research expertise step by step. What I mean by Agile is that the organization has taken the Agile philosophy. Not just the rituals.

At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly. [12 principles behind Agile Manifesto]

There will be less discussion on DesignOps if Agile philosophy is applied to create a culture of bottom-up, transparency, and pro-activity. During the change management, people’s first response is often being self-interested, ambiguous, and intolerant to errors. It is indeed a tricky circumstance to set up a design culture. So speaking out to signal the importance of tendering to the design operations is a natural result of people behind the craft of research and design.


How to start in DesignOps in Agile culture: nudging into a collaborative organization by creating visual cues

Print shows the Duke of Bedford, the Earl of Bute, and Lord Holland portrayed as a fox, with the Devil behind him, seated at
Print shows the Duke of Bedford, the Earl of Bute, and Lord Holland portrayed as a fox, with the Devil behind him, seated at
Putting workflow for collaboration and peacemaking

WoW stands for Ways of Working. At each release and before the beginning of a new cycle, you revise the whole workflow between design, research, and tech. You collaborate with product owners, tech leads, QA leads to create the best collaboration environment.

There are often these rituals of “experience retrospective” to show and tell others to promote how good you are. That is not a retrospective spirit.

The agile retrospective can refine the RACI by an honest discussion on the collaboration. The exchange on the level of “emotion” is essential because group work is about a relationship. The RACI is transferred to the JIRA workflow so that design or research is on similar dependency as to developers. You need to integrate into the Definition of Done, the design team’s contributions. The dependency flow in JIRA reflects the collaboration logic of one person with another. When the design workflow is reflected at all levels, from the operational user story to a strategic epic, you have a visible start of the DesignOps effort.

Nudge part comes in via JIRA. When your efforts are visible, people have a visual reminder to work differently. UX issues are present in the burn’s charts, and bugs report because their jobs are in the workflow by the Definition of Done. If there are design bugs added to overall bugs reporting, it sends a signal to the business. The visualization draws designers’ attentions to collaborate with the team and vice versa.

So who is going to manage these rectangles created in JIRA? In a large scale organization, backlog management can be a full-time task. So, now, the roles of the design program manager come in. If the scale is small, an active collaboration between design lead and the product owner is desirable. Such (healthy) co-dependency between design lead and product owner can accomplish to put the design at the forefront of product strategy.


How to start in DesignOps in general: Nurturing empathy and humility

Learning to dance is a practice. Design is a practice.

Whether you are within the agile culture or not, here is a straightforward thing you can do to help your organization ready for their integration. You need to increase empathy toward design and research practices. Empathy to fight against all the worst of humanity: ill-intended gossip for self-interest, lying by omission, creating ambiguity to avoid accountability, etc. Of course, there is always a chance that empathy does not create a culture of trust. But it is a start.

  1. For the design empathy track, you take a typography course. The exercise will be creating your original digital typography and a magazine layout.
  2. For the research track, you take a specific class, such as interview techniques. In the course, you need to render three days, 8 hours per day, user interviews after the interviews are analyzed to produce a research report within four days.
  3. In both tracks, you need to have professionals who will critique your work. A critique session by a seasoned professional gives you the mindset of the practice.

Why do I put practicing exercises with crit sessions as the aide to develop empathy? When you “see” the design comp, you “think” the creation is a child play. Easy. When you “see” user researcher interviewing users, you “think” it can be done by anyone who can speak. So, again, the task you “see” is easy, so easy to execute in a short time. It is our brain’s automatic response to the familiarity of what they do.

When you see programming codes, you do not understand at a glance because it is unfamiliar. Yes, at school, we do not read a novel written in Swift language (or other programming languages). Unfamiliarity makes you respect a bit more the work of developers, don’t’ you? Unfamiliarity makes you use your reflective mode to consider their perspective. You probably do not jump into conclusion?

My hypothesis on people’s behavior is the following: making you understand the technicalities of how designers or researchers do their job by doing their job may kick your reflective mode and develop empathy for other disciplines’ ways of working.

Above all, to create a common culture for better collaboration, learn typography, and contextual interview techniques with as many colleagues as possible. You cannot be the only empathic person to instigate the multi-disciplinary culture.

Next, I recommend you to align the vocabularies among your stakeholders what it means UX, CX, design. There are also tons of MOOC nowadays available on the user-centered design process. They explain to you the most typical multi-disciplinary workflow.

On the path to continuous operational improvement

A man in 17th century copying a bible
A man in 17th century copying a bible
Creating glossary and standard like the dictionary is a vital tool for aligning the understanding of the workflow. Design System is a standard for organizational alignment.

You developed your empathy towards your colleagues. You can now organize the collaboration for each discipline. So, let’s start. Creating glossary and references is an essential tool for aligning the collaboration method. A design system is also a tool for organizational alignment.

The reference documents are continuously updated to fit in the mix of the organization’s maturity, brand positioning, UX/CX feedbacks.

We are in a long-haul effort to disseminate shared vocabulary to create a standard of practice across the organization. The continuous endeavor is the DesignOps. The art of DesignOps is by setting means to “nudge” people in a good collaboration. Real nudge action is challenging to find. We often use positive reinforcement methods (social belonging, food, laughing together, metrics) by rewarding the right ways of working: the adjustment of people to the new design guidelines, the participation in the pattern library settings, points for being on time in the meeting, etc.

Top management needs to stop rewarding managers for just respecting deadlines (“release or die”) because it will hinder the process of change and long term success of the company. They need to reward the efforts of operational improvement. The frame of the rewarding system is critical to feel relaxed, use empathy for people to create your multi-disciplinary design performance setup.

Conclusion

I stressed on the vocabulary as a tool because terms reflect the culture, and words are means to change the mindset.

Incorporating other disciplines on a strategic level means being humble and respecting the differences while promoting collaboration. The change for setting “DesignOps” starts with a continuous nudging of behavior by using the right words daily with a shared understanding of these words.

Last but not least, thank you for reading my account of this topic of DesignOps. I am always learning new ways of designing with every new people I work with, not just relying on my +15 years of interface design practice. It is incredible to keep on working in this industry! Thank you.

Akemi Tazaki

Written by

Designer, researcher and facilitator

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