DesignOps: What Is It And Why It’s Important — Exclusive Interview With Victor Corral
DesignOps, in simple terms, is the act of operationalizing the design practice within organizations to help deliver effective, scalable, and user-centered experiences. DesignOps has been around for a long time, but the term “Design Operations” has just recently become more prevalent as we continue to experience a shift in customer expectations. Organizations must scale to meet customers where they expect to be. The aim is to put the right processes and practices in place to successfully deliver design at scale. So how do organizations scale their design practice?
We interviewed Victor Corral, DesignOps Manager at Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) to give us an insider scoop on his earlier experience from working at nonprofits to practicing DesignOps in a U.S.-based high-tech commercial bank.
Interviewer: How did you get to this role?
Victor: After I graduated college, I entered the nonprofit space and did research, public policy advocacy and program management for about 8 years. Given the nature of non-profits, you often end up becoming a jack-of-all-trades. In my last nonprofit, I led the planning and implementation of a multi-year $30M federal education grant in San Francisco’s Mission District. President Obama wanted to replicate the success of the Harlem Children’s Zone and create Promise Neighborhoods — a strategy of providing wrap-around services for kids and their families to help them succeed. In my role, I was responsible for a lot of the program and project leadership and management.
During my time, I became interested in design thinking and in an effort to pivot careers, I decided to apply to an MBA in Design Strategy at the California College of the Arts. This is where I learned about design and how to practice design (learning about how design process intertwines with business and product development). This led me into an internship in Design Management at Adaptive Path, which had just been acquired by Capital One. I got lucky as they were just starting to formalize the Design Management practice (their term for DesignOps) under Kristin Skinner, a thought leader in design operations and design program management. As a Design Manager at Adaptive Path, I worked with small teams of designers on Service Design projects across Capital One. I really enjoyed getting to know the business, the products, and serving as the connective tissue between business and design. After a few months, I moved over to the Capital One site design team, responsible for the capitalone.com experience. Here I was more focused on the day-to-day project management, working with designers, researchers, content strategists, PMs, and engineers to design and implement a homepage and navigation redesign and a new design system. After a few years at Capital One, I moved to Uber Eats, where for a brief time, I served as the Design Program Manager for a few of the design teams there before being laid off with many others as part of COVID-19 related layoffs. Fortunately for me, I found a home at SVB where I could work on design operations at the practice level and impact our full design team.
Interviewer: I am interested in what lead you to go from a nonprofit world to an MBA program focused on design strategy?
Victor: In some ways, a lot of people in the nonprofit sector have strong values and are mission-driven. We care a lot about the communities and issues we work with, which can make the work emotionally draining. It is often frustrating, even though we had all this money, we’re still under resourced because we were trying to tackle systemic inequities that had been building for decades.
Living in the Bay Area, I was interested in tech and the various opportunities available, so I looked for program manager roles in startups and other companies. This can be hard when you have no connections or corporate experience. That’s when I said to myself, ‘OK, maybe I’ll go to business school and that might help me make the transition.’
It worked out.
DesignOps in practice
Interviewer: In your own terms, how do you define or think about “DesignOps”?
I approach design ops from the perspective of, how can I make a design team “go”, what needs to be done to ensure designers have what they need to do their work and do it well.
Interviewer: What kind of background or personality do you look for in a DesignOps person?
Victor: This person needs to understand how design works and have some experience working with design teams. I think it can help being a former designer. This person needs to enable things to happen by removing obstacles, putting processes and systems in place to make things easier and more efficient, documenting how things are done, project managing, and creating roadmaps. You want somebody that is that jack-of-all-trades, and someone who won’t say ‘that’s not my job.’
It is more of a characteristic and personality trait. Someone who is passionate about this job, like a servant leader to facilitate and enable great design work. It is a skill set that can be learned, but you need to want to be the kind of person that wants to get stuff done. You know how to work with people. You know how to push them to get you things that you need. You are not afraid to go ask somebody for help, and you are not afraid to introduce yourself like ‘Hey, I’m doing this, and I need your help to do XYZ.’ We are enablers.
Interviewer: What advice would you give to designers wanting to make a career pathway in DesignOps?
Victor: It depends on where you’re at now. I’ve met and known designers that want to transition into this role. For people that do not have a project management or ops background but want to get into this field I suggest you find what you can do in your current job that allows you to take on more of those kinds of task or projects where you can help your manager or Director of Design manage the team’s operations. For example, if you know they are struggling with managing a budget, jump in and try to do that. Get your feet wet and establish something. See if you like it and see if you are good at it. If you want to keep learning, and you’re not in design, look into project management, then see if you can get closer to your company’s design team and see if you can support them somehow. A lot of people run business operations and then they may end up working at a company that is very design focused. They can end up transitioning over. I think DesignOps as a field is very open and inclusive. The folks that I worked with in the past, especially at Capital One, all came from diverse backgrounds, some came from design, others were project managers at design agencies, and others were new to both fields. It’s just a matter of getting your foot in the door somewhere, taking initiative and doing what you can to support design teams. It’s a good role for someone who wants to be in the design field, but may not be a designer, or at least not yet.
DesignOps in companies
Interviewer: Can you tell us a little bit about your current role?
At SVB, we’re a brand-new team as of last year, so there wasn’t much in place in terms of systems and processes, besides what a few of our on-the-ground designers like Clara and Tiffany, who have been here for a while pieced together. Now, part of my work is understanding the various needs and gaps our team has, formalizing structures, processes and systems for the teams to run smoothly. From defining and documenting our hiring and onboarding practices, to onboarding vendors and software. I’m now working with the design leadership team to put the norms in place for our design practice, with finance to manage our budget and forecast our growth, and other folks on the team to bring in trainers to build our skills.
Interviewer: I never really thought about it as just project management. Do you see a difference between Design Operations and Project Management, and if so, what is that difference?
Victor: I do not know if there is necessarily a difference, at least within the field of Design. It is more about the level of zoom that you operate at. Some places call it DesignOps. Uber Eats calls it Design Program Management, Capital One calls it Design Management, and we call it Design Operations at SVB. At the heart of Design Operations is Program/Project Management. What’s unique about design program managers, is the way we approach program or project management. We approach the work as designers, we try to understand the problems, we often conduct some level of research, think about ways to solve, prototype solutions or methods, iterate and put in place. This could be for a new onboarding process or for a QA process, it doesn’t matter.
Interviewer: Do you think it is important for companies to have a DesignOps person? And if so, what size of the company or size of the design team, do you think it is important to have one?
Victor: I am strong advocate for it. I think most people would say after 8–10 designers on the team, you need someone to help run the operational side. Otherwise, all the work is put on the backs of the designers themselves. You might get lucky and have a designer who really likes project management and can take on some of those responsibilities. You also need a design leader that is strong. The design leader can do some of that as well just by the nature of their position. But a design leader needs to set the design vision and if they have to deal with the minutiae of submitting purchase orders, dealing with vendors and legal, provisioning access to tools, then they won’t be focused on the most important thing. It’s too much noise.
Ideally, when you structure the DesignOps team, you want someone at the practice or portfolio level working across the entire design team. At the program level, you’d have someone overseeing specific groups of teams that are related, partnering closely with those design and product managers. Lastly, you want to have folks at the pod level helping to coordinate small team work and roadmaps, facilitating convos with cross-functional partners, and scoping work. Right now at SVB, we only have me at the practice level, and we do not have yet the various lower level of zoom that are more of the day-to-day interaction with design work. Hoping that we can get there in 2022.
Let’s wrap up
Interviewer: What do you like the most about your design operation role/job? What do you like the least?
Victor: I like being able to help designers do their work better. I like bringing people together and engage in problem-solving about the larger picture. I have been going on listening tours, and it has been difficult for me because I just want to jump in and say, ‘what do you need? what problems are you experiencing?’ how can I fix it right now. I love helping teams solve problems, but also put in practice processes that will prevent those issues going forward.
One challenge of the DesignOps role is that it exposes you to different parts of larger company (e.g., HR, Vendor Management, Finance, Legal team). While it’s cool to interact with all parts of the organization, it can also be frustrating. Many teams can move slowly, and may not understand design, especially at a financial institution, but you have to persevere, build relationships, and push for what your team needs.
The other challenge is communicating the value of DesignOps. In general, we tend to underestimate how long and how much effort things take. People want things changed right away or not at all. They are expecting to see tangible results at the leadership level, but it can be hard to quantify and share what you have done or accomplished in a way that will resonate with people. The outcome of DesignOps is not always super clear, it can be hard to communicate and can take time to manifest. But it’s a great feeling when you can solve the little problems that let designers get back to doing their work, and when you put in place practices that make the experience of being a designer on the team better. Now we just have to remember to make sure we capture and communicate the power of that!
Interviewer: Thomas Wendt, Clara Wang
Article written by: Tiffany Chin