Design Operations

Or how design can have a positive impact on the coherence & performance of the organisation.

// This is a transcript of a talk I gave in A Design Systems Conference in Helsinki March 14, 2018. This was the first time I spoke on an international stage and I would like to thank everyone who came and made the event an amazing experience. The design systems community is strong! Join the conversation at: PS. There’s a video coming from this talk by the event organization so if tl;dr is your thing, you could wait for it. :)

Hello everyone. Thank you for that lovely introduction. That was a first for me! Awesome to be here at the Design Systems Conference!

As a systems thinker this event is pretty close to my heart and I’ve been privileged enough to be a part of this from the get-go as an event partner. An exciting day indeed.

My topic for today: Design Operations. But before we dive into it, quickly about myself and a little bit of reasoning for being here.

Kauri on Twitter

I’m first and foremost a systems thinker but more importantly, an advocate of overall rational, relevant, target-centric thinking, with in-depth understanding of applicability in design and tech contexts.

Quite analytical and a little detail-oriented without losing sight of the big picture. I’m very passionate about a few things: Design & Usability of services and products, and User Experience & Best Practices overall. I’m also apparently a “how can we do this better” attitude enthusiast.

Coming from a 10+ year background of design, business development and product management, I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in projects that have rolled to production several different digital transformation initiatives, impacting the lives of hundreds of thousands of consumers and thousands of employees. A lot of findings and insights have came from these projects.

And since I started at Eficode, a bit over a year and a half ago, I’ve absorbed a lot of understanding when it comes to software development, best practices and overall about the continuous delivery, and the Devops-ideology. As a company that has a background in these aforementioned disciplines, and now with the true cross-functional competencies in house, the subject of design systems and operations around them feel and seem quite natural to us.

As a company, we’ve done hundreds of software development operations maturity evaluations, or Devops audits as we call them and since the last year’s acquisition of Adage (ex. user-centric design and research agency), we’ve been working with defining design and brand guidelines, creating pattern libraries and lately design systems for our clients. As well as case-specific consultation, in many cases cooperation with the client organisation for years. And we have decades of experience in this.

So for us, broadening our scopes to the design part of the digital product building process as well is obviously a perfect fit. From discovery to building. From release to the future. Now, let’s dive into today’s topic. To do that, I would enjoy it if you could view today’s points through two different lenses as I have done while coming up with these thoughts:

The Brand Experience and Design Thinking.

So thinking about the Customer, User and Employee Experience. At least for me these are the different aspects that a Brand Experience is a combination of. And the desirability, viability and feasibility of solutions.

Design. And Operations. Though my title says it: I would like to talk just about Operations. That design can have a positive impact on, when enabling coherence & higher performance within an organisation.

What are we talking about?

Design Operations are a way of mapping design work against the mindset and goals of developer operations and the needs of business. So when you think about this basic structure that:

Distilling How We Think About Design Systems
What I’m hoping you can take away from this talk are three things.

So right now, most of the time, when we’re talking about design systems, we’re usually talking about this kind of a structure, more a technical level discussion about the three main things that are included in a “definition” of a design system:

Graph source: UXPin

Instead of thinking in terms of the delivery date, design system teams (typically called Design Operations teams) help organisations gradually improve the inner consistency of the interface and deliver great projects to the market faster, which in turn creates increased levels of efficiency and employee satisfaction.

So the question (and after reading Dave Malouf’s thoughts on design leadership, I know I’m not alone with this) I’m trying to at least partly answer here today is:

How to help leaders in organisations to facilitate cultural change, develop teams, and how the teams operate and work with partners?

I’m not here to talk about the ”technical side of things”. But that with any culturally transformative project, the key ingredient isn’t tools or integrations.

So when we’re talking about an initiative such as a design system:

To be able to succeed with purpose in this, you need a dedicated person that will be paving the way for the new kind of thinking and doing.

Design Coach: A person with a holistic viewpoint to the task at and and a clear standpoint for motivation. Someone who understands the importance of this cultural shift, and it’s positive impact on the performance of the organisation.

A diplomat like character and an advocate of the ideology.

Someone who is a coach, rather than a senior designer. Just as all leaders need to be servants as well.

Gradually helping to improve the inner consistency of operations, hence enabling the teams to deliver projects to the market faster and with greater quality.

As Katja Forbes, the CEO of syfte recently pointed out during her speech ”You’re not a designer, you’re a coach” at IxDA18:

”Coaching is a conversation, a dialogue, whereby the coach and the individual interact in a dynamic exchange to achieve goals, enhance performance and move the individual forward to greater success.”

And as George Halas said it: ”What makes a good coach? — Complete dedication.”

Which brings to the other aspect of this person: Being a dedicated lead.

As with any system, the degeneration just speeds up with a digital product, unless it’s managed with a strong standard. Every new piece of the puzzle, feature or a new team member, or an interaction model adds to the possibility degeneration.

Marcin Treder, the CEO of UXPin phrased this well.

In other words: Design operations stay in a constant state of being a “minimum viable product” — that’s why they need accountable ownership just as any sustainably evolving process.

Will Self who is an an English novelist and journalist, once said:

And ”silent notes” are immensely important to any kind of development. Might it be operational, business, product or service. They can provide a crucial layer of information for others.

A little harshly put: Businesses are ran from cubicles and developed in the hallways.

So what the Design Coach should do to kick a new initiative off is to start a Journal for the organisation.

Later on scale this to reflect growth & development work of:

  1. Processes
  2. Roles & responsibilities
  3. Team structures
  4. Workflows
  5. Tools
  6. and organisational support opportunities.

Leave it internal, don’t aim for publicity — aim for transparency. Be true to yourself.

Create a place for interaction:

1. Welcome feedback and comments

2. Make it easy to share everything within the organisation.

Do this because stories and narratives are easier to buy into than documentation, policies and change management methods.
Nathan on Medium

It would be maybe a bit tacky to quote someone who also took the stage here today, but not in this case as the topic is relatively fresh and Nathan really has said it well. And as with any well-functioning product portfolio, it’s inventory is continuously up-to-date. There’s no exception here.

So the second step the Design Coach needs to take is to find out exactly what kind of a playing field are you to take charge of.

Brad Frost wrote a great piece about Interface Inventory that we’ve been drawing up from for our clients, for how to get going with your UI Audit.

Compare, List & Note the Building Blocks, UI Patterns & Rules and map out their relations to better understand what you have and what you need.

Use the Inventory as a tool for evangelising the new way of working to create transparency and meaning between stakeholders. It’s also the perfect tool to kickstart your journey.

Do this across the playing field: UX, UI, Visual, Writing, ToV, Motion & Gesture–have it all.

When increasing the functioning and value of communications within an organisation, building trust and purpose is essential. The inventory provides concrete evidence of the current state of the situation, making the problems undeniable for the team and other stakeholders.

And so, my suggestion from the brand experience standpoint is: always build for trust.

UXPin recently did an survey about:

Almost all of them relate to communication, definition and documentation issues.

As I earlier pointed out, we’ve done a lot of auditing and our devops maturity model has become somewhat of an industry standard.

This is from our latest Devops Maturity Model, to give you a little more detailed understanding.

Combine that with the various maturity model’s for UX, usability and accessibility evaluation that are out there, having in-house research expertise always at hand, and you can have a pretty good information gathering toolkit to investigate, evaluate and score the maturity of an organisation.

We’re actually creating a Digital Product Building Toolkit (more on this soon) and a conversational design game for exactly this.

In the case of a design system, the themes and topics an audit should look into are the:

  1. Principles
  2. Languages
  3. Guidelines
  4. Patterns
  5. and examples

At the same time reflecting and referencing from public benchmarks, such as IBM (Hayley’s, Mike’s & Petri’s talk was awesome!), Salesforce (so was Jina’s :)) and AirBnb (and Karri’s! So insightful!).

Some of the activities that should happen during an audit:

  1. The evaluation of:

a. Culture
b. Processes, team structures & organisation model(s)
c. Toolchain strategy & orchestration
d. and the capability of the technical infrastructure.

2. Stakeholder & partner network mapping

These are done through user interviews and by analysing huge amounts of documentation and technical specifications.

After you have a clear view on the playing field, and resources you have and lack, it’s time to set the so called long-term goal for your project. Enter: Strategy & Roadmap.

And remember, Henry Ford was really smart about this:

This is UXPin’s EXAMPLE of a design system roadmap. Apparently it has been great for them.

Now, forget you saw that.

Don’t set strategies if you don’t understand your options.

And when you do, stream your thinking from the best known practices that exist: Think about the brand experience (the customer, user & employee), have those design thinking lenses on and draw from the Devops ideology.

Make the progress visible and have a well communicated responsible person, your Design Coach available for arising questions throughout the process. This is one of the key factors to creating buy-in within the organisation.

Make sure you clearly communicate the common goals. This really helps the organisation to better understand ”what should we be doing?”.

An initiative such as a design system is as bespoke as it gets, so remember: there’s no One Size Fits All solutions here. The culture has it’s impacts, existing tools & licenses might create restrictions (at least for a while), you need time to find the right, dedicated people and you need to be able to find budget / other resourcing allocation.

And then, the most importantly, Coaching. Obviously the Design Coach’s key contribution. So, Four things to do on the coaching side:

1. Arrange targeted, employee group relevant trainings. These are for example your hands-on, very in-depth trainings and inspirational lectures from speakers usually from outside your firm.

2. Provide the tools & ability to continuously learn new. Inspire your people: Help pinpoint valuable educational material — And really motivate them by: using existing channels & relevant timing to communicate new material(s).

3. Find balance between leadership, mentoring and seniority. Find the right people for the bus. — Scale the advocacy by engaging with the influencers, gurus and community actives. Create trustworthy relationships with them and find moments to just brainstorm freely.

4. And lastly, most importantly: Be available. This is one of the Design Coach’s main responsibilities. This can really create great amounts of confidence in your people, especially with innovation.

I love this strip in the context of transformation within companies. Because in my opinion one of the most tricky parts of cultural transformation and the last thing I want to talk to you about is:

Cross-Team Building. Because:

And it’s not that easy to be around people that you might not relate so much with.

So, in order to start bridging the gap between the necessary people, in the quest of high performance and coherent brand experiences. What you want to do is:

1. Find common activities. Enable the creation of new interactions. Board game and movie nights, sports and culture. So many possibilities!

2. Benefit from the diversity. Help create bonds through new interfaces: Organize and host non-professional events. At Eficode, the kitchen is an important place for our culture, and it’s also where many of the bridging moments have happened, as colleagues have introduced their traditional cuisines from back home to each other.

3. Lead by example. Motivate different teams to present their work in an understandable, meaningful way. Host teamwork exercises with analogies, or without work context. We once workshopped super hero cards of other colleagues for our clients teams.

4. And whatever it takes. Find possibilities for your people to work together.

These are the seven steps I’m suggesting you take in order to further increase the performance and coherence of your organisation. To recap:

And as I can’t just come and say we’ve solved the mystery of ineffective collaboration and that the problem is communication.

But that I’ve boiled it down to these three main themes and based on that, created this conversation framework to better understand the Purposes of your future operations.

So when we talk about what makes a high performing organisation tick, I believe it’s the Confidence, Motivation & Accountability of Your People.

The Understanding of the: vision, mission, strategy, roles & responsibilities. That these are well known.

The Expertise: that the know how, tools & environments are solid.

And the Ability: to grow; to experiment, to challenge, to teach yourself and others.

The Meaning: to one’s self and others. “What’s in it for me and for others?”.

Unison: as in the true understanding of the meaning and purpose.

And then Interest should: grow organically and naturally.

What you then need to be “able to deliver” is to have:

The true feeling of Responsibility: of one’s actions towards own and others contribution understood and felt as something important.

The Dedication, as in having: dedicated individual(s) and the whole organisation.

And lastly the Support: to one’s self and from others.

When these are clear to everyone involved, this in turn creates a Purposeful Operations model that will continuously deliver new value to the ecosystem while everybody is feeling valued, satisfied and enjoying in contributing to the vision.

So the Clue and the Glue the continuously successful operations: Confidence, Motivation and Accountability of Your People.

Looking forward to seeing some of these things in action, enabling higher performance and greater brand experiences in and from your organisations. It has been an honor and a privilege to share my some of my thoughts and insights on this matter here today. Thank you.

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