Getting Started with Core Models for DesignOps
Winning in workflow by choosing the right operations strategy
As the practice of design has grown and matured in recent years, the importance of DesignOps has emerged.
Collin Whitehead, head of brand at Dropbox, writes in the DesignOps Handbook there are essentially three signals it’s time to introduce DesignOps at your organization:
- Craft specialization — UX designers no longer wear numerous hats. Instead, there are dedicated roles for design researchers, UX writers, motion designers, illustrators and brand designers.
- Difficulty scaling — Once a design team reaches a certain size, it’s inevitably harder to keep everyone on the same page while efficiently producing top-quality work.
- Overburdened designers — Once an organization embraces the value of design, the requests start coming in fast. In order to do their best creative work, designers need buffering from the grind and thrash of the business.
So for the organization that’s at (or maybe beyond) these thresholds, where should they start? First let’s clarify what DesignOps is.
The Designers’ Best Friend
Dropbox hired Collin to initiate DesignOps in 2015, and their origin story is pretty typical.
Dropbox’s design team was expanding rapidly and experiencing some growing pains. Collin’s job was to help them collaborate better amongst themselves, as well as with cross-functional teams and external creative partners.
As he explains, there’s a point at which managing the requests for design work becomes a job in itself. This is when a producer or program manager can have a big impact by stepping in to manage the communications, coordination and budgets required to consistently produce quality design work at scale. This is typically done by defining, socializing and maintaining work processes for the team.
“The job of the DesignOps team is to protect the time and headspace of everyone within the design organization — the designers, writers, researchers, and so on — which allows everyone to focus on their respective craft,” Collin writes. “That focus benefits managers, who are able to pull themselves above the fray of the day-to-day to set a longer-term vision, as well as individual contributors who gain more time to hone and develop their skills.”
Collin notes that DesignOps isn’t the cure for every ill. But when done well, it manages the workflow, maintains morale and makes sure creative talents have the space and support to do the work they were hired to do.
Operations Support vs. Project Support
Depending on the needs and size of a particular design team, DesignOps typically function in one of two models:
- Operations support: An executive producer (sometimes called chief of staff) works to set standards and refine processes for the entire design team. USAA took this approach.
- Project support: A producer or program manager embeds into each specific project to manage workflow and facilitate the creative process in partnership with design leadership. Pinterest took this approach.
In an operations support model, the ops function builds systems that impact the work of the entire design team. Often this is the defacto model when the first ops hire is brought onboard. In those instances, the producer becomes the design director’s right-hand person— identifying areas in need of triage and determining how design can create the most value for product managers and lead engineers.
Typical areas of focus include:
- Standardizing the tooling and systems used to scope, resource, track and archive projects
- Setting meeting cadence and documenting clear meeting agendas and action items
- Managing team development through recruiting, onboarding new hires and establishing curriculum for continuing education
- Managing contracts for external providers by setting the scope of work, negotiating terms and coordinating with the finance department
- Forecasting and tracking budgets across projects, vendors, agencies and freelancers
- Organizing special projects, recognition ceremonies or other priorities with no natural owner.
In the project support model, a producer or program manager would typically manage a subset of the above-listed tasks within the context of a specific project team. This is typically the defacto model as the ops function grows within an organization and new hires are assigned to project teams.
However, some organizations also choose to establish the ops role with this model, instead of with an executive producer heading up broad-based operations support. Usually, when this is the case, it’s because a design director has already done a lot of the heavy lifting establishing processes, or there’s a specific project that’s especially large or critical and needs immediate dedicated support.
Characteristics of A Good DesignOps Hire
Regardless of the model your organization establishes for DesignOps, Collin writes it’s important that the person who steps into the role be a “servant leader.”
The producer or program manager or chief of staff becomes a respected peer to design leadership by helping to drive work forward and provide creative teams with the time and space to do their best work.
That sentiment was echoed by Meredith Black, former head of design operations at Pinterest, who initiated ops at the social media company after working in the role at Facebook. She was a guest on the Design Better Podcast and talked about how tenacity and flexibility are essential traits for the job. She likes to hire people with agency experience, because she says they know how to hustle and make tight deadlines and budgets work.
She also recommended that organizations start slowly with DesignOps — just a single person. That person’s job should be to continually ask the design director and product manager: “How can I help you?” In doing so (s)he will uncover the most pressing needs and gradually establish the value of DesignOps to the organization.