DesignOps: A Meaningless Buzzword or a Must-Have Strategy? | by | UX Planet


No matter what industry or company you work in, there will always be certain bottlenecks that hinder productivity. Whether it’s poor cross-team communication or having to go through ten different people to reach a single decision, every team has its own Achilles heel of sorts.

Design is no different. However, as more and more businesses recognize and embrace the value of design, reducing these bottlenecks is a top priority.

We often read about the hiring surge within the design industry. In early 2017, Adobe reported that 73% of managers plan to double the number of UX designers in their organization over the next five years.

Hiring the right design talent is just the first step. In order for this investment to really pay off, it’s important that businesses are equipped to handle these larger teams. This means having strategies in place to ensure smooth collaboration and maximum efficiency. In other words, design needs to be scalable across the entire organization.

Cue DesignOps — an emerging practice aimed at just that: making design scalable and equipping larger design teams for success.

What is DesignOps?

DesignOps — or DesOps — is not just a trendy buzzword. It’s a carefully thought-out approach which, when implemented properly, has the power to put design and user experience at the core of the business.

There are many challenges that designers face, and the larger the organization, the harder it can be to make an impact. There’s plenty of negotiation and collaboration required; not only within the design team itself, but also between stakeholders, the product team, engineers and developers.

DesignOps seeks to break down the barriers between the design team and other departments. Not only does this streamline day-to-day operations; it also puts the emphasis on quality output. DesignOps can be a way of thinking, a mindset that the company adopts, or it can be a dedicated job title. In some cases, DesignOps might be an entire team.

DesignOps in Action: Atlassian and Airbnb

As the name suggests, DesignOps focuses on organizational and operational matters. As Dave Malouf, founding member of the Interaction Design Association, puts it: DesignOps is “the connective tissue, lubrication, and rails that amplify the value of a design team.”

This can mean different things for different companies. One company who has been quick to build and implement a DesignOps strategy is Atlassian, who define DesignOps as “putting the appropriate tools, instrumentation and processes in place” so that they can learn as quickly as possible. So far, this has meant re-evaluating the processes for how designers work with developers, writers and product managers. Atlassian established a set of guiding principles, such as “we should be transparent in the way we plan work and roadmap”, then spent some time talking to people in order to identify key challenges associated with working with the design studio. They then used this information to develop new workflows for different situations.

Another early advocate of DesignOps is Airbnb who, in their own words, have created DesignOps to “ease collaboration and amplify effectiveness, not only across product disciplines, but also between the increasingly complex world of Product Design.”

For Airbnb, DesignOps is not just a strategy — it’s a dedicated team. As the original design team grew, working closely together without defined processes and structures became increasingly difficult. Recognizing an operational gap, Airbnb decided to build the DesOps team.

Today, DesignOps at Airbnb consists of five distinct teams. Together, these teams are focused on ensuring a holistic design process, building tools, and ensuring that the values of the design team are carried right through to product and marketing. According to Adrian Cleave, Director of DesignOps at Airbnb, there’s still some way to go — but they’re on the right track, and he’s optimistic about the impact that DesignOps can have: “My hope is to reach a stage where the process and tools fade into the background, and we live in a world where information is easy to find, people are easy to locate, prototypes are quick to create and work is easy to share.”

As we can see from these two case studies alone, DesignOps means different things in different contexts. With that said, the end goal is always the same: to enhance collaboration, to streamline and remove barriers, and to spread the value of design throughout the entire company.

Who Needs DesignOps?

Everyone needs DesignOps in one way or another. Of course, the way in which DesignOps is integrated depends on the nature and size of the company.

For a small design team, a DesignOps mindset should be enough to keep things running smoothly. It can be as simple as providing shared tools and platforms, establishing common workflows and taking steps to facilitate communication.

In larger teams, keeping everyone aligned and on the same page is a much greater challenge. Just like Airbnb, it’s important to be alert to any operational gaps emerging as your team grows — and to jump in with a DesignOps strategy.

This doesn’t necessarily mean hiring an entire team. For most companies, this is not a realistic approach. Instead, you can focus on creating a DesignOps culture.

How to Cultivate a DesignOps Culture (Without Necessarily Hiring Someone)

To set the DesignOps wheels in motion, you first need to assess the current situation as it stands. How does the design team currently work — within the design team itself, with other internal teams, and with external teams and stakeholders? Spend some time locating the most cumbersome bottlenecks and biggest productivity-killers.

Your DesignOps strategy will then be based on finding solutions to these challenges. You can break down your DesignOps strategy into three broader goal areas: quality, efficiency and design value.

Quality is all about ensuring your design team has everything they need to produce high-quality work. This includes having the right tools, training and organizational set-up to do their job to the best of their ability.

Efficiency is a matter of reducing time and wastage while enhancing collaboration. This could be cutting out unnecessary steps and introducing automation in order to streamline workflows. At the same time, you might need to establish new workflows and introduce universal tools to ease teamwork and communication.

In addition to making your design team more efficient, DesignOps is also focused on maximizing the value of design on a company-wide scale. Communication and cross-team collaboration are absolutely key here, as are streamlining documentation and establishing a universal design ethos that everyone can relate to.

Of course, there’s plenty of overlap between these areas, and a good DesignOps strategy will help to achieve all three. As it stands, DesignOps is a fairly new and constantly evolving practice, leaving it open to interpretation. What propels one company forward may hold another company back, so it’s crucial to evaluate the unique needs of your team and develop your strategy accordingly. Even the most minute changes can have a huge impact; anything that helps your designers to deliver high-quality work at scale can be considered DesignOps.

Wrap-Up: The Value of DesignOps

You can hire the best designers in the industry, but if you neglect the organizational and operational side of design, the value they can bring to your business is limited. Whether you’ve got two designers or twenty, DesignOps provides structure and consistency while removing unnecessary hurdles — leaving designers to focus on what they do best. To learn more about DesignOps and what it can mean for both startups and established brands, take a look at some of the videos from the first ever DesignOps Summit last year.

About the author:


Emily Stevens. Originally from England, Emily moved to Berlin after studying French and German at university. When she’s not writing for CareerFoundry, she can be found travelling, hula-hooping or reading a good book.