What’s a Design Program Manager and How Can My Team Get One?

Courtney Kaplan
Oct 30, 2018 · 6 min read

This article is part of a series about Design Program Management. Read More Design Problems, More Designers (and More Need for Design Ops) and 4 Traits Shared By the Best Design Program Managers.

You are a design director or design lead. Your team is growing quickly, and the complexity of managing people, partner teams, and process is putting huge amounts of stress on you and your team. Meetings are starting to break. A fragmented sense of culture is beginning to take hold. Too many people in critique mean fewer meaningful exchanges or work being shared when it is in the early stages. You’d like to invest time in new designers by giving them solid onboarding and product context, but you’re too busy catching up on your own backlog of work.

Meanwhile, headcount planning begins and you need to gather quantitative data about how your team spends time. You need to build roadmaps for your team and collaborate with partner teams, and you really should be spending time doing leadership planning as well.

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s time to think about hiring a Design Program Manager.

The DPM Tipping Point
Design Program Management, also known as Design Operations, is an emerging discipline that refers to people who support complicated design environments in technology companies or on digital product teams. Outstanding user experience is the key to success as digital products become more complex, so tech companies are increasingly dependent on designers, researchers, and content strategists to ship standout products.

Design product team growth can mean that a design director or design lead spends undue amounts of time completing tasks that take focus away from their core talents, including building the expertise of younger designers, meeting with cross-functional partners, tracking their team’s progress, and actually shipping high-quality products.

Enter the Design Program Manager. Simply put, bringing on a DPM can offer design teams a level of specialization that can drive them to the next level of performance.

Designers can design. DPMs, meanwhile, can suss out problems when they’re small and ensure they are handled and corrected before they become crises. They can gather baseline quantitative figures, track them over time, measure improvement, tweak existing tools and processes in response, and flag when it’s time to bring on the right resources. They can recommend how to structure critiques that have more impact. They can let you know when the team is getting burned out and help lend support or set up a team movie date.

What gets short shrift when designers focus their time on these tasks? When designer to-dos get shortcut to tackle broader process and organization questions, how does that impact the team in the long-term?

DPMs are specialists, problem solvers, and solution finders. They make design teams function seamlessly by building in better communication and tighter operations, which allows team members to focus on their best and highest skillsets. Then the entire team — and the design products they ship — will succeed.

Bringing On Your First DPM
Once you’re convinced that bringing on a DPM will help create process and progress for your team, it’s time to build support for the role and find skilled DPMs.

Having a talented, organized person onboard would almost always be helpful, but DPMs can sometimes be perceived as a “nice to have” compared with other pressing hiring needs. Here’s how I recommend making a stronger case for bringing DPMs onto design teams:

  • Find the gaps that aren’t being addressed because they have no ownership. Capture the projects or tasks that are breaking. Could this have been prevented if there were clear ownership? In my experience, when things start breaking, they generally do have an owner, or multiple owners, who don’t have the bandwidth to follow through. It’s easy enough to fix temporarily by reallocating resources, but as design teams and companies grow, sometimes the tasks are too large for anyone to take on outside their day-to-day priorities, and frequently the complexity or size of the problem increases far beyond where it started. DPMs track the gaps and follow through.
  • Do a quick time audit of how your design managers are spending their days. It can be a clarifying exercise to calculate the percentage of time that each team member spends on and outside their core job description. Design is always a scarce resource, so design team members should spend their time designing. DPMs track progress, velocity, and impact which frees designers to do what they do best.
  • Determine team objectives by capturing what your organization wants to have happen in the next 6, 12, or 18 months, and what support is going to be needed to achieve these objectives. DPMs thrive when they are helping their team drive toward future goals. They do the prep work and roadmapping on initiatives before these initiatives become urgent.
  • Define what this role isn’t by being specific about what the DPM role is not intended to do. This helps leadership see that you aren’t asking to inequitably bolster someone else’s weak areas, add unnecessary support, or help out in an area that should already be owned by someone else. This also helps clarify that the DPM isn’t an admin, a technical program manager, or any other similar role.
  • Think about culture and values as they affect building the skills of designers. Are you creating a culture based on values you espouse? Do designers feel you’re invested in their growth? Is there a plan to build the team’s skills and leadership? Do the team members have a shoulder to lean on when necessary? A DPM can conduct research, set up programming, track success, and be the embodiment of culture and values.

Writing the Job Description
The first step in putting together a DPM job description is to get buy-in from the people who will be working with your new DPM. Gather ideas, assumptions, and expectations about what a DPM could take on across your team. Keep in mind that the DPM job description can’t be a list of stuff everyone else doesn’t want to do (although that would be nice, it would be a difficult role to hire for or keep anyone engaged in doing).

Next, group and prioritize requests that align with the DPM role. The list will, and should, be longer than what you expect one person would be able to do — and that’s a good thing because it helps validate that there is enough work for a full-time DPM. Additionally, this list can spark conversations about other support that might be needed but is not necessarily under the DPM umbrella. But in the end, do be realistic about how much one person will be expected to cover successfully.

Next, map out the qualities that will be most important in a potential candidate’s success. “Let’s find someone organized!” is a great start, but articulating the qualities that will allow your DPM to thrive will help you find a perfect match. Someone who is an empathetic team builder? Someone who is amazing at driving complex stakeholders and initiatives? Someone who is a strategic collaborator? Be clear about the technical chops you expect from candidates.

Read 4 Traits Shared By the Best Design Program Managers

Along with some key qualities, think about the growth path and experience required — and be realistic. You might be able to hire someone junior who will learn and become a larger contributor as they build their skills and relationships in the company. However, they may require more oversight and training, and they may outgrow the role in 18 to 24 months if they are given routine tasks that are unlikely to change. By the same token, if you intend to bring on a senior contributor, they will need to have access to leadership, fulfilling ownership, and a seat at the table to allow them to leverage their experience and have impact.

Not only will doing these exercises help develop the job description, but you’ll also come to the interview with a clear set of expectations and an understanding of the qualities that will help candidates succeed.

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