How To Integrate Design Into Your Business Processes

If you are working on digital transformation or innovation, chances are that you are working in iterations (Agile) with teams that aim to integrate development and operations (DevOps). On top of that you are trying to formulate and implement a strategy. You have probably experimented with some form of Design Thinking. Maybe you’ve done a Design Sprint, participated in a Design Thinking workshop or used a tool from the Service Design toolkit. You can see the strategic value design can bring to your organization. But you are having problems fully integrating design into the innovation process you have in place. Design is adding value at some points in your process, but you haven’t tapped into its full potential. Integrating design into your DevOps, Agile and strategic business processes is one of your challenges right now.

Forget about Design Thinking, get into DesOps

People that are thinking about this challenge do this under the term DesOps (short for Design Operations). Analogue to DevOps, DesOps seeks to create a culture in which design is integrated into the other processes that go into new service development. Without getting into the whole semantics discussion, DesOps might bring us in a more productive mindset for amplifying the value of design than the term Design Thinking does. Design Thinking sounds like “thinking like a designer”. Anyone can do that and everyone should. But if you don’t have a lot of the skills and experiences of a designer, it might not add the amount if value that you might expect. And for designers this might sound like “doing the design trick” now and then to spark some ideas. To really tap into the value the design tool-, mind- and skill-set can bring, experienced designers need to be integrated into the other processes going on in a business or project. And this is exactly how DesOps sounds to me: as an integration of design with the operations of a business or project.

The service development process

To understand how to do this, you have to understand how design can add value in all parts of a service development process. Let walk trough the phases of a service development project quickly:

  1. [submersion] You start with interviewing stakeholders to get an idea of the service that is needed.
  2. [definition] Then you define the service you want to develop.
  3. [design] After that you make a design for the service and
  4. [testing] hopefully you check that with the stakeholders.
  5. [delivery] Then you develop the service in an Agile manner and
  6. [strategic alignment] see if the service meets the strategic goals you had.

Design in a more central role

To see if we can give design a more central role, we have to replace the term design with prototyping. Then it’s no longer just about making a solution that people came up with more beautiful. It’s more like trying things out, making things to learn, not just to make them pretty. This mind-shift allows us to use design in all phases of the service development process. Because then we can use the prototype to:

  • Gather insights by making things concrete. This focuses the conversation, creates a platform for people from different backgrounds to communicate and facilitates idea development. By making things concrete with design, you get deeper and more relevant insights.
  • Find the right questions. If you start making solutions before you know everything, you can use those solutions to see if you are answering the right questions. Visualizing and making things concrete greatly helps defining the problem. By asking: “Would this design solve the problem?”, you usually find that the design solves the problem, but the wrong one. This helps you find the real, deeper lying problem.
  • Quickly and cheaply create testable concepts. To maximize learning and reduce risk, you want to test as early as possible if the direction you are taking is the right one. By making quick prototypes you can quickly and cheaply test with real users if your solution works. It’s far better to know this as soon as possible and not after the whole service is implemented. With the results of this test, you might have to return to the stakeholders with new questions.
  • Provide proven and detailed designs to the development team. If you made several iterations of prototypes, you can use the final version as the design that needs to be developed. If you already worked with real material (html prototypes in the case of digital services), the development team can build on top of what you’ve already built. In the case of digital services it will not be production code, but if the designs are built with real code, the design will be more realistic and easier to build.
  • Add additional designs if you run into blind spots in the design. During the development you might run into parts that haven’t been totally designed. You can refine of add extra features to the prototype you have so it becomes a living document that can also be used in the development phase to test out different options.
  • Guard the strategic goals. During the process of researching and designing you developed design principles and a strategy for the service. You checked it with strategic management so you know their objectives. It’s all coded into the prototype, but not everybody on the team might be able to read the strategy from the design. You can use the prototype to validate the service that is developed against the strategic goals. You can use the prototype to make decisions like what belongs to the Minimal Viable Product. If you check the actual service against the design prototype, you have a measuring stick to measure if the value you set out to create is delivered by the service.

If you add this to the diagram, you see some feedback loops emerge and what each phase delivers to the next if design plays a more central role:

Everything becomes more Agile

With this everything becomes more Agile. Not only the delivery process now has an extra element in its iterations with the design as support for missing pieces and new decisions. Also the understanding and the discovery part become more Agile. And everything becomes connected to each other through the hinge the design prototype creates. You can loop back to talking to stakeholders for more understanding or refine the design during delivery. We arrive at a triple Agile system in which design can add value to all parts of the process:

With this, design becomes connected to all the other moving parts of the operations of a project: DesOps and strategy. Practically this means making prototypes as soon as possible to support the understanding process, iterating and testing different solutions in a prototype to lead the discovery process and using the prototype to make decisions, refine the solution and guard the strategic principles during delivery.

No more phases

This also means that we don’t work in discrete phases and that you can’t do any defining once you are in testing. The whole idea is that once you gather new insights, you can redefine the problem, go back to the users and make a new prototype. That is the whole idea of Agile that I’m trying to put in this model. Typical models of design and design thinking split the process up into discrete phases. In my experience a design process is far more fluid and holistic than that. I think those models are oversimplifications. But the problem is that if more and more people start to get into design and design thinking, they take these models as a starting point, as the truth while they are just oversimplifications. Any model is a simplification, but my attempt here is to show the complexity, the iterations, the feedback loops, the fluidity and the overall circular process that design is.

Implementing DesOps

If you want to go ahead with DesOps, you need to start working on people, workflow, tools & infrastructure and governance. There is a great handbook published by InVision on their designbetter.co platform. It’s a bit of a long read, but it’s packed with insights and practical tips.

Source: https://www.designbetter.co/designops-handbook/introducing-designops

I especially like the first chapter of the handbook by Dave Malouf.

“DesignOps is everything that supports high quality crafts, methods, and processes.” — Dave Malouf

Just like Design Thinking, for me, DesOps is all about raising the bar on projects, decision making and collaboration.


Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. I will dive deeper into subjects around Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn or Twitter.