I Was Wrong About DesignOps

When I first encountered “DesignOps”, I was critical of its attempt to use DevOps as an inspiration. I felt the DesignOps community was operating under some basic misunderstandings. DevOps is not about “operationalizing development”; nor is it about getting rid of system administrators. It is about approaching development and operations as unified parts of a larger whole.

After further reflection, though, I’ve come to believe that DevOps does in fact have much to offer DesignOps. DevOps is a response to two interrelated phenomena: the emergence of digital service, and the complex nature of that service. At the heart of DevOps is a shift from machine-oriented reductionism to systems thinking, adaptation, and resilience. Development and operations go from arms-length adversaries to empathetic mutual service providers.

Complexity can’t be controlled or even predicted the way we’re used to managing systems and organizations. Management becomes the art of adapting to one’s environment through continuous learning. Design and operations become interleaved partners in a continuous feedback loop.

Central to service is the inseparability of what you make and how you make it. Adaptive service requires changing yourself, not just your product. System and organizational design become inseparable.

Complex service systems require autonomy and agility to learn and grow. At the same time, they also need coherency in order to create things that are useful. Coherency emerges from autonomy though mutual service. DevOps’ key insight is the understanding that high-quality software services emerge when development and infrastructure and security and networking and database management all see their job as being to help each other serve customers.

A responsive service organization is thus one with the capacity to continuously redesign itself based on internal and external empathy. “Changing existing situations into preferred ones” becomes part of everyone’s job. Design thinking shifts from being a specialized practice to being the heart of operations.

This shift doesn’t do away with the need for a centralized design practice, or standardized “products” like design systems. It does mean that design becomes deeper and more interconnected. Its focus shifts outwards, from “this is what I do” to “this is how I help”. Helping the entire organization weave design thinking into the fabric of its work becomes DesignOps’ deepest purpose.

This larger mission reflects the understanding that designing for user experience is no longer sufficient. The complex, co-creative nature of digital service requires a much more integrated understanding of what it means to “operationalize design”. It requires thinking about users, and employees, and the dynamic relationships between them all, as part of a unified and continuous design problem.