More Design Problems, More Designers (and More Need for Design Ops)

When I first started working in design, I was at a small firm. We were about half a dozen designers who sat together, grabbed lunch or coffee together, talked through our work together, and helped mentor one another to build skills and try new approaches to solve challenges. I enjoyed collaborating with the thoughtful designers I saw every day.

Fast-forward to today. I’m working with a team of 300-plus designers, researchers, and content strategists across a broad swath of many product teams that all roll into Facebook’s Ads and Business Platform org. It’s much harder to find a lunch table for 300, but my team is doing many of the same things I did many years ago.

The team behind our design teams

I’m not a designer these days. In fact, I started a Design Program Management (DPM) team at Facebook in 2013 to assist our Ads and Business Platform team, which solves increasingly complicated design problems as we strive to ship products that are easy to understand.

In addition to prioritizing ease-of-use, we prioritize moving fast. This requires more design expertise, better research, and solid content strategy partners. Our Ads and Business Platform Design team has grown exponentially, going from a pair of designers working out of one office in 2013 to a team of more than 300 located in four offices around the globe.

A team that big presents many challenges, naturally. Team communication, logistics, and initiatives, among other things, need oversight — someone who can ensure we are working quickly as a coordinated team delivering on aggressive timelines.

That’s where design operations and program management teams come into play.

Our Program Management team ensures each product group in our Ads team has the support needed to allow Designers (including product designers, researchers, and content strategists) to focus on what they’re best at and enjoy doing — creating smart, engaging product solutions for our 2.1 billion users and 6 million advertisers all over the world.

Program Managers are tasked with surfing the chaos required of a fast-moving environment and making the right connections with the right people at the right time. We aren’t project managers. We aren’t product managers. So what do we do?

Here are the ways we’ve built out a Design Program Management team that enables our Ads Design team to operate at its very best.

1. Design Operations and Onboarding

First things first, we need to make sure we’re tracking the talent we need on products, and that our new hires start strong.

Helping our Ads Design org run smoothly 
More than simply maintaining a headcount, we manage big-picture understanding and identify trends, making sure to call out and avoid bumps along the way. We’re able not only to track our progress toward hiring goals, but also to predict when coworkers are most likely to transfer from other teams, and at what distribution. Forecasting helps us make sure teams have the right balance of talent.

Facilitating onboarding
We’ve established onboarding processes to make sure new team members get up to speed quickly and have a safe place to ask questions they may not want to bring to their manager.

Each new Facebook Design team hire attends a two-week onboarding that enables them to hit the ground running and quickly make a positive impact on teams. Orienting new hires to product challenges, team members, and roles, and sharing how each group is organized, goes a long way to helping them feel welcome and prepared.

2. Product Team Support

Once onboarded onto individual product teams, we continue to support teams in a few different ways.

Spearheading key initiatives
Each product team spins up initiatives to better understand our customers, nurture our talent, and help implement changes in the ecosystem when things are out of balance. These are initiatives that come out of key focus areas Facebook has chosen to prioritize each six months, but the DPM team actually drives programs to make change happen, taking responsibility for the nitty-gritty details and steps necessary to make decisions and rapid progress. When we want our designers to better understand our customers, we dig in to find the best ways to make that happen.

Fostering talent
While teams are heads down working on product design, managers want to make sure talented Design team members are growing their professional skills and bolstering areas to improve individual growth and performance. After all, being able to tackle the right challenges in your role with the proper resources and support is very satisfying. Our team members need to be set up to become our future leaders. We can support that growth by working with managers to understand what trainings or experiences will be most impactful in rounding out the team culture. That may be a Diversity and Inclusion training, mentorship programs, or specific skill building in order to use our tools more effectively.

3. Maintaining Order in a Quickly Changing World

Our world changes quickly. We offer clear communication, team gatherings, and wayfinding systems that help individuals stay up to speed.

Large-scale communications across teams
Design ideas need to be shared among our global collaborators no matter where they might be working. In addition to facilitating communication across teams, departments, and locations, we help all teams come together to meet, learn, and work together on the biggest issues they’re facing. We plan large internal conferences, team summits, and all-hands meetings with insightful speakers, relevant content, and focused agendas.

Re-orgs and other changes
Lastly, re-orgs are necessary for a quickly growing company. We help communicate organizational changes and stabilize in the aftermath with communication plans, wayfinding such as updated team maps, and team support. And when there’s a change on the team due to leadership, new objectives, or an influx of new talent, we work with team members to keep projects moving forward steadily.

Better programming company-wide
Why limit ourselves to the Design team? We extend our learnings, programs, and techniques across disciplines and cross-functional Initiatives as well.

The Future of DPM

In November 2017, I attended the DesignOps Summit in New York, the first conference dedicated to Design Operations. A few hundred design leaders came together for two days of presentations, panels, and networking. There was a palpable excitement as attendees recognized they had found their tribe and could geek out on the topics that we all struggle with day-to-day in building world-class design cultures. The conference validated something we already knew: that as large companies build robust UX and Design teams, Design Operations is a field that is gaining velocity.

Facebook was one of the first to invest in DPM, our version of Design Operations Management. Our team is small but mighty, which means prioritization and measuring our impact are always a consideration in how we manage our time and what challenges we’re able to take on. The DPM group now consists of close to 40 program managers — operations specialists who enable the efforts of our amazing design teams.

Do I miss the old days at the design lunch table? Not really. I’m working with such talented people everyday. I’ve built a team I am very proud of. I’m eternally grateful for their talents in bringing an idea to life. Everyday they are helping designers create strong bonds while also providing them opportunities to grow and to become an integral part of product teams at a larger scale.