5 Keys to Scaling DesignOps

Photo by Diana Polekhina on Unsplash

There’s a design operations (DesignOps) great awakening happening right now.

More and more companies are hiring operational specialists to perfect their design department’s way of working. Design executives at major brands are praising DesignOps, since so many are experiencing the first-hand benefits of having a team of in-house experts dedicated to optimizing the efficiency and efficacy of their design department. Particularly those at scale.

For DesignOps advocates, this is a huge success. So many DesignOps practitioners have been on a mission to prove their worth. And now, many of these folks are so successful that they are asked to do more. So, their responsibilities expand.

Here lies the current challenge facing the entire industry: there isn’t enough talent in DesignOps to support the current market demand of DesignOps.

According to the 2021 State of DesignOps report, more companies are investing in DesignOps, but 70% of these teams are DesignOps teams of one.

This is a problem since what’s being asked of DesignOps has evolved and grown in complexity. Just a few years ago, the standard DesignOps job post would read as if it were all about design production or delivery speed.

Now, there’s a wide range of DesignOps needs.

Enterprise DesignOps, then v. now

This is why it’s so critical for DesignOps teams to learn how to scale.

At DocuSign, we went from a team of two DesignOps practitioners supporting 30 designers, to a DesignOps team of five supporting 70 designers, and we have a significant influence on broader product design and research practices.

We had to figure out how to do more with less as we grew. It sounds like many other teams are figuring out the same thing. So, the DocuSign DesignOps team came together to share their keys to scaling. Here are the 5 things that work for us.

5 keys to scaling DesignOps

Let’s break them down.

Key 01: Say yes to…

Part of scaling is knowing when to say yes and no to things. DesignOps addresses challenges & pain points that the business and leadership identify.

This would cover anything from focusing on team culture and events, to enabling how the designers work with product teams to deliver products and services out the door, improving the quality and impact of design outputs

We prioritized what we say yes to based on the following:

  • It needs to have a clear business problem
  • It must have a significant business impact
  • It’s measurable
  • Leadership must be bought in

Key 02: Say no to…

A trap for many orgs is to throw the kitchen sink at the DesignOps team. However, DesignOps teams can rarely do everything.

It’s important to say yes to the critical tasks, and even more important to say no to everything else. Particularly, anything that does not align with business & leadership needs.

To help us figure out what we say yes and no to, we workshop our roadmap once a year to create Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), then we do quarterly planning sessions to create more granular roadmaps.

What’s the risk of not “saying no?”

  • burnout
  • not delivering on previously prioritized tasks, which will lower the impact of the team and maybe even result in budget cuts

Once you figure out what you can say yes to, and what you’re saying no to, you can wrap it up in a well-packaged menu.

Key 03: Create a DesignOps business menu

The DesignOps menu is a living artifact that shows stakeholders what the DesignOps team offers. It brings clarity to everyone to say: “this is the type of team we are and here’s what we’re currently supporting.”

An example of a DesignOps menu

Here’s an example menu. This is what we use at DocuSign PX DesignOps. This diagram represents the common DesignOps activities in the broader industry, too.

This menu matters. It allows our team to plan our DesignOps headcount and subsequent budget requests, prioritize mid/long term goals, and align with stakeholders during major planning cycles. It also allows us to socialize our team’s offering to the rest of the design department we support.

But we can’t do all of this alone. It’s just too much for our DesignOps team of five to take on by ourselves.

The menu also allows us to flag DesignOps components that are important but perhaps shouldn’t be solely owned by the DesignOps team. Some things are much better when co-created with the design department. And for those things, we tap into the power of communities of practice (CoP), which leads us to our fourth key to scale.

Key 04: Leverage Communities of Practice/Guilds

We call our communities of practice programs guilds, and they have been a huge advantage to our DesignOps team. Thanks to Guilds, we can collectively say yes to more things and have more organizational impact over a year’s time.

But how do we figure out what to work with Guilds on, versus what to focus on by ourselves?

This isn’t a perfect science, by any means, but here’s what we do. If a guild is interested in working on an initiative that should be owned by DesignOps, they just ask us. There’s no formal intake process.

But there is a guiding principle we follow to help figure out how to split the work. Generally, the more that a DesignOps menu component impacts culture, the more likely it is that a guild should be co-leading the component or the initiatives therein.

For the DesignOps programs that have high-impact on culture, we brought these to guilds to ask if they would co-lead the initiatives therein, together. And because of this partnership, we have done so much more than you’d expect out of a 5 person DesignOps team.

Examples of guilds + DesignOps collaborations are the DocuSign Indigo conference, our org-wide tooling audit, the PX onboarding experience, even this blog — it’s a guild initiative!

As ops practitioners, we’ve realized, ops programs that help us scale culture is not just easier by guilds, it’s made possible because of guilds. The DesignOps team is only a few people large, but we’re able to do so much because of the guilds program and all of the smart energy coming from our passionate colleagues in these guilds.

The DesignOps practice is one best made with co-creators. Guilds, or any other communities-of-practice programs are critical to scaling your Design Operations potential.

Key 05: Prove impact, scale, repeat

What’s measured is managed, so the saying goes.

This last key is all about measuring the impact we’re having on the design team, and figuring out how to do better. This is one of the hardest but most important things we need to do. To be blunt, our team is just now getting to this stage to prepare for scale. While we’ve measured the programmatic success of bespoke DesignOps workstreams, we’re just now getting to a place where we have a single dashboard to measure the entire department’s impact, and ours.

While having a single source of truth is helpful, it can be heavy to build. Perhaps you, like us, haven’t been in a position to build such a useful artifact. After all, you’ll need the right tools, access to data, and permission from leadership to build it.

Your operations work should empower the design team to enter flow-state faster. Is your work leading to situations where your designers and design leaders can trust one another more often and more frequently?

To simplify this last key to scale, ask yourself and your team a simple question: Are we enabling an environment of high trust and flow? What’s the simplest way to measure this?

If trust and flow are the supersets of how you’re measuring impact, then you can break it down into dimensions to create measures for your team.

Here are four dimensions of how to understand our progress at DocuSign. This will ultimately convert into our dashboard.

4 areas to measure our impact

We’re just starting to put together our org dashboard that helps us understand how we’re tracking in each of these areas. We’ll share it publicly, when the time is right.

Can’t figure out where to start?
Our recommendation is that you focus on the most measurable metrics that best tie to business outcomes — the stuff that you know the business cares about. If you can prove your impact in an area important to your stakeholders, that’s a great place to start.

That’s a wrap for the 5 keys to scaling DesignOps!

If you want to see what it looks like from the inside, come work with us at DocuSign PX! We’re hiring.

Authors
This article was written by Adam Fry-Pierce and Diane Gregorio, with input from our broader DesignOps team: Cami Reyes Camacho, Andrew Thompson, and Brian Duchek.

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Adam Fry-Pierce

Adam Fry-Pierce

Empowering design and product leaders with connections + products. Creator of http://designleadership.com. DesignOps + product ethics is on my mind. Doodler.

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