DesignOps for Agile Delivery

Rebecca Holland
Jun 15 · 7 min read

By Myron Parks, Rebecca Holland and Victor Xavier

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Companies with strong design practices outperform their competitors by as much as 2.5 to 1.

McKinsey, The Business Value of Design, 2018

DesignOps is more than the latest buzzword in design thinking circles — and it isn’t meant to begin and end with design practices. DesignOps encompasses processes, work, tooling, and the people and teams that support the creation of quality and consistent designs. It aims to remove anything that interferes with the cross-functional delivery team, creating the best solution for the business and the customer.

For many organizations, DesignOps begins organically. Often, the design system team, having tackled many process and tooling questions while creating their product, end up with the foundational questions answered along the way.

These foundational questions that address the people, their teams, documented processes, and enabling technologies support delivery by ensuring that organizations build structures and cultures that enable cross-functional collaboration. In other words, DesignOps is a function in the organization, like accounting, product management or marketing.

What do we mean by a function? ITIL defines a function as “an organizational entity, typically characterized by a special area of knowledge or experience, such as accounting, technology, etc. [ITIL Functions, 2020]. In other words, these are the parts of your organization that are structured and funded to manage the key capabilities that help the organization accomplish its goals. DesignOps, therefore, is as critical to a company as any other department.

The importance of DesignOps is in the ability to create design at scale: It’s how you adapt your practices as your unique organization grows and changes. DesignOps allows teams to scale and integrate design with their enterprise, and promote the practices that make it successful. This is important because as you scale, the design practices and processes that emerged organically will not necessarily scale with you. Your teams need operational support to enable successful design output and allow for productive growth. Effective cross-functional collaboration is essential for organizations to ship, compete and lead the market. An organization that’s growing is better able to pivot as scaling forces them to compete in larger markets when there are strong partnerships between functions.

DesignOps in Brief

As the considerations for people, processes and tools, DesignOps covers the whole spectrum of choices and decisioning for your design department (and can easily expand to inform the running of other areas of your business). Here’s a simplified breakdown of what this Ops practice touches.

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Source: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/design-operations-101/

As you can see from this table of considerations, DesignOps is not a point of arrival — it’s meant to be used as a function within your organization that helps you grow your practice within a larger, scaling enterprise or business. These considerations will change as teams change, and as your company goals change.

DesignOps puts the focus on quality and efficiency improvements for your growing design teams and practice, and then for your growing organization as a whole. As we noted in the introduction, design-led organizations are more successful and create new methods for success. DesignOps addresses challenges like:

  • Scaling and wayfinding for design teams
  • Finding, hiring and retaining designers with the right skills and culture fit
  • Creating efficient workflows
  • Improving design outputs in quality and organizational impact

How DesignOps Supports Agile Delivery

As a function in the organization, design and DesignOps must be supported by the culture and the things organizations do. When you create a product for the market, your design team is responsible for one of the most important aspects: how the product “feels” in a customer’s hands. To create a strong and compelling product, your enterprise may be undergoing a digital transformation. Placing design and DesignOps at the centre of that transformation (by making it a function) strengthens your organization’s ability to deliver. Design must be more than an afterthought — the right headcount, capacity, and contribution to the plan and product roadmap from the very beginning allows design to be an equal consideration in the end-to-end delivery pipeline.

What the design team gets is an opportunity to create professional content and creative work they believe in, including the ability to be confident in their design decisions through user research and testing that may otherwise be considered out of scope or budget. What you get is a growth-oriented function that can share the wayfinding for the future of your business. After all, when products are invested to meet a particular organizational goal, the return on the investment can be very compelling indeed. The McKinsey report found that the top performing design companies created “32 percentage points higher revenue growth and 56 percentage points higher TRS growth” for their shareholders [The Business Value of Design, 2018]

Agile delivery is building an end-to-end delivery pipeline that uses agile strategies to organize teams that can identify and solve the problems which block an organization’s ability to change. DesignOps supports this pipeline by ensuring design is established at stakeholder level, making it one of the things the organization does, rather than a checkbox before getting products out the door. It’s integral to the way you provide value to the customer as an overall company. Instead of code being the key product of the capacity the teams are granted (including team size, funding, etc.), design is built into the roadmap as a key capability that is bringing value to market.

How to Grow DesignOps Organically

The good news is, if you’re a business leader reading this blog, your design team members likely have ideas already in place for creating DesignOps at your organization, and proving the ROI on your investment in them. What they need is a sponsor to champion their work — and you can provide that.

To roll out DesignOps, you will need both designers and design strategists to evaluate the workflow and processes. DesignOps is a tool for making your company more mature — and growing up is hard. The communication feedback loop is extremely important: what’s working, what isn’t, and how you share learning across the organization. Prioritizing DesignOps as a function helps to legitimize this feedback cycle.

DesignOps often starts within a single team, or as a pet project of a larger department. Nurtured organically, it usually works best this way. Reverse engineering the process can lead to resistance from teams and even poor choices in tooling and procedure, as what was working for the team in these areas originally is stripped away and replaced by the new. We advocate for what we call organic or Emergent DesignOps for this reason: Take what’s already working for your design team and see if it can work at scale, getting feedback on it and really using that feedback to make it better. If the processes are not informed by reality, you’re not going to get anywhere. This isn’t just about tools, it’s also about what you value as an organization. Start small, then scale.

Assess Your Design Maturity

For organizations with DesignOps practices in place, you may be feeling pretty pleased with yourselves. If you’re still building, here’s a list of questions to ask yourself and your team to get started on maturity assessment and ensure you’re doing everything possible to support your team, plus driving ROI benefits.

This assessment can also act as the baseline information for organizations looking to engage an outside consultant to strengthen your DesignOps practice and point you where you want to go. Using these questions as a framework will help you control the narrative and pathways to improvement.

Considerations for design maturity

  • How do we know when we’ve built the right team for the project?
  • Are our hiring practices optimized to attract the right talent?
  • Do we have a clear and clearly-communicated organizational structure, with role descriptions for each designer, career pathways, and documented processes for how they work together and cross-functionally?
  • What do we do to create environments that enable effective cross-functional communication?
  • Do our rituals, meetings and learning groups provide enough opportunities for collaboration and skills improvement?
  • How do we audit our tools and ensure designers can use them?
  • How do we build quality into our processes, including up-to-date documentation?
  • How do we systematically prioritize design activity?
  • How do we share knowledge through: 1) research, 2) workshops, 3) formal education, 4) documentation?
  • How do we measure design activity and create metrics that prove ROI
  • How do we share success stories and communicate the value of design across the organization, including teaching the value of design thinking?

Conclusion

DesignOps brings design to the table in equal measure to other functions, recognizing that great design isn’t “extra” — it’s integral to the way your organization works, especially as the market shifts to digital-first channels. Right now, design in most organizations is halfway there. Many design departments are not as formalized as other delivery functions like development or product management. Design is still legitimizing itself, and DesignOps is a way to foster that legitimacy, establishing the function and backing it up with real processes to ensure its stability. That way, your organization can build capability and consider design as a part of your toolkit to bring value to the market. That’s powerful, and it’s also possible.

Practical Delivery

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