In the past I’ve spoken about the value of design and the whole premise of this publication is that design’s value can be amplified if we put the same intentionality into the operations of design as we do into the process, methods, and craft of design. The honest truth is that for your organization, where you need to concentrate your operational activities may be different than your competitors let alone other design organizations. DesignOps does not happen in isolation and all those dynamic variables have impotant ramifications to strategy and tactics.
What is even the value we are trying to increase?
I have thrown out there these 4 values that design can bring to every organization, suggesting that without design practice, these items get lost at worst, or are just done poorly at best.
Understanding & empathy,
clarity & behavioral fit,
Anyone can do any of these 4 things, and more importantly your organization may have a different set of values that you rely on your design team for. Regardless of where you aim your design organization they can all benefit from an intentional design of their operating model.
How do I increase value in my design team?
For this article lets assume that your processes and methods are top notch. You’ve read every book and gone to every workshop.
Also, while your staff may have different levels of expertise in the core crafts of design, their ability to do those crafts smay not be top tier all around, or orchestrated as well as they could be.
So one of the first orders of value that can be increased by your team is quality of design execution. There are so many ways that operations can help increase design quality. This is meant to be a tease of examples and can’t obviously be a comprehensive list of everythng you should be doing to help your team execute better.
Staff: Getting, Retaining, Developing amazing people
Starting here because it is probably the most obvious thing you can do. That is, make sure you are hiring, keeping, and developing the best people you can with the resources you have for your specific needs.
Hiring may not necessarily mean hiring the most talented rock stars. While we can’t complain with having great talent, we also need to make sure the people we hire fit together like a complex puzzle. Each piece has its special qualities which is why you broguht then (hopefully), so new additions need to fit w/ those whom you already have on board.
Hiring is expensive, too. Hiring the best is even more so. It might even be a better play to invest in development more than in recruitment, by finding not the best talent, but the highest potential, with the strongest leadership.
Other operational aspects of “people operations” also come into play to making your team perform better:
- Onboarding: How quickly and at what level of quality do new people become highly functioning?
- Reward & recognition: Everyone has different needs for how they want to be rewarded &/or recognized. How does your organization do r&r and is there enough flexibility to be inclusive of diverse needs for r&r?
- Developing people: This is most obvious because it is so easy to see that training and generally raising the skills of people makes them better, right? But this can be highly strategic and can be operationalized through governance decisions such as giving everyone a stipend, or having quarterly or otherwise periodic offsites where training is included. But developing people also includes creating opportunities for leadership and other types of growth.
- Career Ladders: tell team members what is expected of them in their current roles and how they can move into whatever is next. It helps set expectations on how evaluations are done and even informs hiring criteria for future team members.
Infrastructure & Tools
When you think about craft you probably picture someone like this:
Hands on tools working on materials with close precision and artistry. Tools matter, but any good craftsperson will tell you they own their own tools. Old school industrial designers would bring their dremels and other tools with them to the workshop to make sure they always had what was important to them.
In the age of digital, often tools for designers are chosen for them and there are just so many tools and no single tool really owns the market, or could. There are so many constraints and consequences to tool choices that go well beyond the individual designer’s ability to choose for themselves.
Tools in the physical world include the spaces they will be used in. The workshop’s design impacts the craftsperson’s ability to use their tools properly. Similarly, in the digital world there is a stack of tools digital and analog that impact the use of their tools at the point of contact of craft. These more infrastructural tools are usually even more constrained than or are the constraint for the craft tools themselves.
Let’s make this tangible. What goes into the choice of a craft tool? What are just some of the questions outside of the designer’s personal choice that make that choice for them? At what point does a DesignOps or any design leader decide to change the constraints in order to support their design team’s choice of a specific tool over the ones “allowed” by the supporting system?
I start with questions like these. They are not interdependent so they are good to ask in the beginning:
- What platform(s) do you support?
- Are SaaS tools allowed? If so what are the rules around their use?
- Who needs to collaborate &/or consume the output from this tool?
- Where do we plan on storing working and output files?
- What other systems does the tool need to work with?
- Do we support accessibility requirements? (This should always be yes, but you have to ask yourselves to make sure it happens.)
- What do we design for?
- What is our budget?
- What is our scale? Our plan for scale?
- What about our process creates requirements? What are those items? What requirements do they create?
- Are we managing a design system or similar type library? At what level of the stack do our tools need to work?
I’m sure you can start imaging more similar type questions and even start seeing how the answers lead you to filtering out options. But let’s jump here. How do your tool choices at any level of the stack help a design team to be more valuable?
Collaborative tools that are highly integrated can increase the following qualities for a team:
- Speed hand-offs and increase their quality
- Increase creativity through group involvement
- Increase consistency
- Make quality control smoother
Tools that have the right combination of features for your team can allow the following:
- Focus on answering the right questions
- Concentrate on the right level of fidelity
More infrastructural tools help in the following ways:
- Disaster recovery through version control and centralized backups
- Increase easy of sharing, and increase engagement in asynchronous sharing processes.
- Make usability testing easier/quicker to stand up.
- Allow better remote real-time collaboration and knowledge sharing.
- Maintains tribal memory
- Bumping into each other more
- Balancing spaces for focused work, and collaborative work
- You can never underestimate the importance of a high quality monitor to a designer.
- Ergonomic concerns
- Ability to externalize ongoing work lets everyone engage the work continuously
- Allow a mix of squads (focus on product) and guilds (focus on practice) to take shape easily as the organization requires.
Things that let you allow your teams to collide into each other more often, and more fluidly, but also in a way that lets them easily capture the energy and insights of those collisions is key towards tooling a space that allows for what I call “Serendipity by Design”. Accidents are associations, and associations are the key to designed creativity through synthesis. And that’s the second set of tools: synthesizing tools.
Governance & Workflow
How much do your current workflow processes, risk mitigation systems, and general decision making culture keep your team from their full potential?
- Are you protecting and encouraging the right balance of flow & interruption?
- Are your IT and procurement teams set up to be value centers that empower your team(s) or are they set up to default to “no”. This includes security and compliance, travel policies, purchasing methods and policies, vendor setup, etc.
- How much autonomy are you allowing in your teams? Are they problem solvers or task takers? How do you allow for the empowerment and autonomy your team want while still ensuring quality and controls over cost, schedule, etc.?
- Does your workflow limit hand-offs and the delays and lack of alignment that go with them, or is your workflow collaborative where everyone is in sync about goals and vision, and designs and who they are far are aligned?
How you answer the above questions and how you set up your operations in response to the answers will determine the quality and pace of your team. You have outcomes you want your team to achieve, that the business wants your team to achieve. How you make decisions, who makes them, and culture that they are made in will greatly impact your team’s ability to hit those goals.
This is just a small taste of how DesignOps thinking can improve the value output of your design team and even create a more satisfying and engaging environment to work in, for you as well. The first steps are to understand where your current operations stand. Then you can prioritize based on an understanding of the impact of the different components of your operations systems. Priorities help you strategically plan for how you move forward.
There’s more to do here around articulating how you want your team to be valued, and then getting collaborators your team that way. And also setting a vision with those collaborators about what a new model of collaboration might look like that is as much about design value as about engineering value creating a new value system that is focused on the business, the customer, and each other.