Counter Arts
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Counter Arts

So What Is Design Operations?

And why do you need it?

Pipeline on a metal framework
Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

Working in the media, and especially the creative industry, new job titles are made up almost every week. It is getting harder and harder to describe what you do at your job as a Designer because the definitions shift with every new tool available.

Starting in print design, I soon entered the digital world and fell in love with UX almost - if not more - than Design. For me, User Experience Design is building the foundation and framework for a digital product whilst keeping open communication with all team members involved in the process.

UX Design is common sense made visible and comprehensible through a proper presentation.

UX should be applied to the products we create as well as the process of creation itself. A lack of communication and proper documentation throughout the team, especially the design department usually leads to a poor outcome and a bad team spirit in general.

In another article, I talked about the difference between an artist and a designer. Working as a service designer you always walk the tightrope between creativity and usability. Without a process you’ll quickly fall off the rope, diving into endless feedback loops from hell and more often than not a massive burnout.

The line between development and design gets thinner every day through the rise of new technologies and design tools. It unlocked exciting new ways of working together as a team.

It also brought with it the inevitable culture clash of two fundamentally different work modes.

Always being interested in the functional side of design and able to code on a (very) basic level I had the advantage of simply being able to talk with the developers. Nowadays, it’s quite normal to expect a rudimental understanding of common code basis from a UX designer but until a couple of years ago it seemed like a rather novel idea.

Naturally, my job shifted from just “being the designer” to a more complex position. I started to help setting up processes in the design team, automating tedious tasks, introducing systematic design thinking where it wasn’t already used, and bridging the gap between UX, UI, and Development. A common vocabulary and appreciation for the other department help to reduce arguments, fosters open communication, and eventually a better team spirit.

I could generally explain what I did to potential clients or colleagues but never really knew what to call it until I stumbled upon a Handbook from InVision. Apparently for the most part I slowly transitioned into the role of DesignOps or Design Operations.

What is Design Operations?

Originally instated to combat some of the downsides of agile work processes for designers, DesignOps is (or should be) the backbone of every team of creatives. As you might have guessed, it’s the creative counterpart of DevOps.

As Dave Malouf puts it in the DesignOps Handbook:

DevOps is the practice of aligning software development, system operations, automation, and more to allow for continuous integration and deployment for the purpose of continuous learning.

He goes on to point out that operations generally include the tools and infrastructure required to complete an activity while reducing friction and increasing the quality.

DesignOps gives designers a means to define a workflow, tools, team members, and the overarching culture they want to work in.

How does it work?

According to Malouf, DesignOps is made up of three main areas of focus:

  1. Business Operations, which focuses on getting the team the needed tools, budget, and political leverage to improve their work capabilities.
  2. People Operations, which focuses on individually defined career paths, goals, and rituals for the design team.
  3. Workflow Operations, which focuses on building a flow where designers can work together and with other departments with a minimum amount of friction.

He rightfully points out that this usually isn’t a job for one person alone, but needs dedicated employees for each operation.

As a freelancer, I usually dip my toes into people operations and always try to be an integral part of the workflow operations because this is where I can achieve the most impact as an external capacity. While business- and people operations are important, defining and optimizing the workflow in a design team has a more visible and measurable impact.

Man standing in front of a beautiful sunrise
Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

Conclusion

Splitting DesignOps into three dedicated vacancies can hardly be achieved in small Startups because there is simply no budget or enough people for such an elaborate setup. I have yet to see a setup as they have at Pinterest or Dropbox in real life (which is demonstrated in the practical part of the book). However, I do believe it’s possible to take on the underlying DesignOps principles as a team and build a culture around them.

While I oftentimes find job titles on LinkedIn somewhat ridiculous, DesignOps is a valid addition to the common job descriptions in the creative industry. It wasn’t made up out of thin air to give some existing job a more fancy spin but makes a valid addition to modern creative processes more tangible.

Abbreviating the name from an existing development position highlights the shift in digital product design quite brilliantly. The role of a designer is a far cry from simply “making things pretty”, but involves a ton of research and a solid knowledge of all technical implications concerning the end product.

With the advent of agile, the importance of design got pushed to the fringes in favor of fast results and solutions, oftentimes neglecting to understand the underlying problems.

DesignOps gives a creative team the tools to better integrate itself into the process of product development. The job title emphasizes the arrival of a new way of designing in a modern, mostly digital environment.

The principles of Design Operations need to become common practice in every team of designers to keep the relevance and importance of design as a practice in plain sight.

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David Kippels

David Kippels

Freelance UI/UX Designer | Random thoughts on Design, Finance, and other things | www.davidkippels.de