Scaling the Craft of Design

An evolving perspective on Design Operations

Design Operations (DesignOps) is an emerging function/methodology uniquely aligned to help solve certain classes of problems for evolving and scaling design organizations. In practice, it’s adaptable yet focused on a common goal — enable designers to do their best work. While this sounds transformational, it’s difficult to articulate and grasp what concepts may look like in practice.

So, how might we solve the DesignOps puzzle?

Piece by piece. Decoding DesignOps does pose a challenge. Like with every jigsaw puzzle, it takes time and patience to collect and combine the individual pieces to form a clear, complete picture. My personal understanding of DesignOps is continually evolving as I mentally interlock an array of oddly shaped multi-colored pieces gathered from various sources.

In this article, I’ll share my approach to decoding this for myself through conducting my own research and engaging with a community of leaders in the space. With many inputs, it’s important to be mindful that every design organization is different — with its unique variables and challenges — as is how DesignOps takes shape.

In November, I attended the 2018 DesignOps Summit with a group of Google design leaders to explore this very topic. The Summit was created for designers, program managers, and practitioners who want to define, scale, and manage Design Operations. Since then, my team has been examining the canvas of DesignOps in industry.

Here are some of my key takeaways:

Scaling “the craft” of design

As Dave Malouf illustrates in the DesignOps Handbook: “The classic ‘four Ds of design’ is an example of a process: discover, define, design, and deliver. DesignOps, then, is everything that supports high-quality crafts, methods, and processes.” Malouf uses metaphors to help readers understand that these concepts don’t just ensure that processes are more scalable; but adaptable, human-centric, and inclusive with development. Allowing design teams to focus on craft without compromising quality or culture.

Quantifying DesignOps is critical

Measuring effectiveness can be an initial challenge for organizations. Setting subjective and/or quantifiable goals for your initiatives are essential to building influence and conveying the value of DesignOps. As your organization’s paradigm shifts, so will the prioritization of programs and what/how you measure impact. There are many common frameworks used by program management, business operations, and even people-operations which you may consider adopting as a starting point.

DesignOps has many lenses

As more companies leverage the value of design, UX teams are increasing in their size and complexity. As I mentioned above, every design organization is different. Product, processes, core competencies, personality archetypes, and team sizes are just a few variables. Assessing the current and future state of your organization is critical to defining the scope and structure of your practice. DesignOps leaders look through various lenses to diagnose organizations including program management, tools/systems, community/people, talent (recruiting and retention), and communication strategy. These are clearly defined throughout the content I share later in this post.

So that being said, what exactly is DesignOps?

The following definition from Kristin Skinner, co-author of Org Design for Design Orgs, is succinct and captures her holistic point of view:

“Design Operations focuses on the health of the practice, the people, and the projects.”

To expand on this, I constructed the following narrative which I feel encompasses many of the work methods and practices I’ve learned:

Our role is to provide design organizations with the necessary tools, resources, and collective focus. We create channels for communicating to each other, influence cultural change and ensure organizational structure, health, inclusiveness, and a sense of common purpose. We amplify design’s impact and bolster a culture of continuous improvement.

We enable juicy, creative, human-centered innovation and make it succeed out there in the real world by using research, strategy, planning, analysis, and storytelling as generative design tools. We help designers turn their biggest, wildest ideas into experiences and businesses with long-term viability.

So where am I landing in all this?

¯\_(ツ)_/¯ …

My perspective — and mental DesignOps puzzle — is still forming, as it should be. The reality is these concepts already exist in modern design teams. My understanding has shifted toward DesignOps representing a mental framework for organizations to solve common challenges which have become more apparent as the industry has evolved. This shift is an indicator that design is maturing, has become more mission-critical, and moved closer to the center of organizational value, which requires deeper and more thoughtful infrastructure to manage at scale effectively.

Now it’s your turn to build your own DesignOps perspective. Below is a collection of materials — that I’ve personally found insightful — to inform and develop your own point of view. I also recommend researching job postings which provide valuable insight into the scope and influence of DesignOps in other organizations.

DesignOps or UX Strategy or Design Management or Design Leadership?

By Yury Vetrov

I’ve found the community — especially the authors above — to be extremely supportive and willing to make time to meaningfully connect. Let’s continue to collaborate and mould the DesignOps vernacular together. I’m constantly on the lookout for the next missing piece to evolve my DesignOps perspective.

Special thanks to Anja Laubscher, Gordon Fraser, Joscelin, Josh Silverman, and Google Design for your support & UX wizardry.