How we approach DesignOps at athenahealth

Jennifer Cardello
Draft · 3 min read

We use a “systems-first” approach to scale design and research to support 200+ scrum teams in researching, designing, building, and testing user experiences.

In mid 2016, athenahealth’s R&D organization began an agile transformation. In the new working model, scrum teams have a prescriptive composition: 1 product owner, 3–5 developers, 1 scrum master, 1 designer. We have 230 scrum teams — but we don’t have designers on all of them. We currently only staff designers on less than 20% of scrum teams — those with the most user-facing impact.

Product designers on scrum teams (we call them “scrum designers”) are representatives of design and they partner with other team’s scrum designers to account for all the various design skills needed to fulfill the needs of the teams (e.g., interaction design, visual design, research, etc.). For more details on this, please read our article on how we embed design in our agile org.

Being a generalist-type designer on a scrum team means you need to make time for researching, concepting, prototyping, testing, and listening to users. This is, obviously, a lot to ask of any design human! So, our job in DesignOps is to enable designers to do this work by providing systems that eliminate or reduce friction and can be universally applied across the product organization. We do a lot of other things in DesignOps (e.g., onboarding, design tool stack acquisition/oversight, etc.), but systems for scrum teams are our priority.

Our DesignOps charter

We learned in our first year that much of what we’re doing serves more than just designers — it serves the product teams. Our latest charter revision reflects that reality: Increase return on R&D investment and accelerate customer value delivery by providing systems that prevent unnecessary reinvention.

DesignOps systems

Our systems are used throughout the Product Development Lifecycle and we help teams learn and adopt these tools via consultative services such as office hours.

Experience Definition Framework

Objective: Identify/quantify/validate unmet user needs to help teams build the right things

Offering: Aggregated/curated user insights and self-serve tools

Customers: Product Managers, Designers

Experience Measurement Framework

Objective: Empirically and consistently measure concepts, prototypes, and systems to help teams build the right things and build the things right.

Offering: Standardized research instruments & behavioral analytics

Customers: Product Managers, Designers, Product Operations, Product Analytics

The standard tools and research instruments we provide to scrum teams to ensure we build the right things and build the things right.

Research Council

Objective: Increase early user involvement/feedback in product development

Offering: A panel of 3,000 athenaNet and epocrates users

Customers: Product Managers, Designers, Product Operations

Forge Design System

Objective: Accelerate prototyping, designing, and coding of user interfaces.

Offering: Documented UI component library implemented with a new visual design language including design and development guidance

Customers: Designers, Engineers

The team

Our DesignOps team represents 25% of athena’s larger Design organization. The team is comprised of designers (visual and interaction), design researchers (qual and quant), research coordinators, and product managers. We have product managers on our team because our systems are really products — just internally facing.

There’s so much more to do!

There are many, many more ways we could be helping our teams. Our intention is to free them up to focus on the work that really matters: Innovating, executing, and delivering value to our over 250,000 healthcare users. We love talking about Ops and, particularly, our approach, so please reach out. Stay tuned for follow up articles detailing our Research Council (user panels) and the Forge Design System.