After my team and I built the Shutterstock Design System (SDS), we needed a design function that would enable hundreds of people across four time zones to leverage the SDS and maintain cohesive customer experiences. With DesignOps, I was able to develop, implement, and scale a Design Operations framework to deliver incredible UX (productizing insights from ResearchOps) to help grow our business.
Reading time: 7 minutes Product Design Manager, Product Manager - Shutterstock 2016 - Present
Illustration by GoodStudio, a Shutterstock contributor
To understand what DesignOps is and how it empowers design teams to support continuous delivery for product development, we’ll cover a brief history of software development process and methods, to explain how DesignOps came into existence and enables design teams to be more agile.
Before and during the ’90s (and even today), companies followed the waterfall process, a heavily documented and slow-moving method of product development for hardware and software which led to the “software development crisis.” With this method, it took too long to develop software in the time needed for businesses to be competitive.
A small group of programmers, including Jon Kern, got together and developed the agile manifesto in 2001, a new iterative process that favors customer feedback over verbose documentation to improve and deliver new product features sooner.
In 1993, “User Experience” was popularized by Don Norman, the well-known author of The Design of Everyday Things, and similar to the history of agile, User Experience has since evolved from the waterfall method into a Lean UX process to help design teams quickly identify and address user needs.
Fast forward to 2009 and Patrick Debois named a conference devopsdays. Primarily, DevOps aims to shorten the application development life cycle by optimizing the tools (toolchains), process, and services of a business. DesignOps carries the same function but for design.
Thanks to pioneers like Brad Frost, Meridith Black, Jake Knapp, Dave Malouf, Nathan Curtis, Jina Anne, Dan Mall, Hayley Hughes, and many more, Product Design has experienced a renaissance in the last decade. Design Sprints, Design Systems, Atomic Design, and DesignOps have emerged to streamline the creative process, proving that Design can be modular and agile.
Combined, these tools, process, and services work to empower design teams to move at a high velocity and deliver quality experiences.
DesignOps is a compound of Product Design and Operations. It seeks to optimize the relationship between Product Design (UI/UX) and the tools, process methods, and services (Operations), to deliver products faster and at a higher quality.
Ordinary people focus on the outcome. Extraordinary people focus on the process. - Anthony Moore
The process and methods are broken down into four categories, which are Product Design, operations, teams, and people.
As a Design Project Manager of Design Operations, your job is to amplify the output of designers and work to bridge the gap between product, design, and engineering disciplines. Optimizing the product development life cycle can be a force multiplier for business, delivering products and new features to customers in a lean and repeatable way.
You can optimize the product development life cycle by breaking it down into three stages. In other words, by streamlining the processes that take place before, during, and after a product is built and released to customers.
Before: Planning is vitally important to define the goal or outcome of work and how it relates to the team or business objectives and KPI’s. Leverage existing data, support and sales team insights, and Lean UX or Design Sprint methods to inform design decisions and product requirements so a team can form a hypothesis and assumptions to test and validate.
Ian Armstrong coined the phrase Dual Track Design. It combines Jeff Gothelf’s Lean UX and Jake Knapp’s Design Sprint methodologies to address the two modalities of product design in an agile environment and is the best way for design teams to operate.
During: The objective of design production & QA is to empower designers with autonomy while maintaining cohesive, high-quality experiences. With Design Systems, toolchains, and operational meetings, product and customer experiences will see a marked improvement. At this time, it’s essential to establish the right times for design teams, design leadership, and stakeholders to be informed and consulted throughout the process.
After: Measure to learn. Eric Ries, the author of The Lean Startup, states “The fundamental activity of a startup (or any sized business) is to turn ideas into products, measure how customers respond, and then learn whether to pivot or persevere.” Complementary to this philosophy, DesignOps and Design Systems are the lean mechanisms that can optimize design process or processes so teams can mobilize and conduct rapid experimentation, to fail faster and build sustainable products.
By optimizing the before, during, and after stages of the product development life cycle, you are on your way to reaching the goal of having a more agile design team. The next question to ask is how all of these pieces operate in unison? What are the connective tissues that ensure multiple activities occurring at the same time go according to plan?
In effect, toolchains, services, and operational meetings are the connective tissue enabling cross-functional design collaboration, alignment, and coordination across teams.
Toolchains: A DesignOps team defines toolchains as the process and tools that are used to plan, design, collaborate, document, review, and maintain products throughout their life cycle. A toolchain, or the design applications a design team chooses to use, should help them consistently create and deliver better products. In concert, design applications like Abstract, Sketch, InVision, Principle, User Testing, Jira, and GitHub are used to complete the actions and steps of the product development process.
Services: A DesignOps team works closely with an organization to keep designers designing, engineers engineering, and product owners, well, owning. Intangible by nature, services are human activities that make the day-to-day activities of others, more productive. For example, connecting two teams that are working on two very similar front-end projects, so they can pool resources, reuse UI patterns, and align on product requirements. The net effect is operational efficiency and a more cohesive User Experience. Each service activity is unique and relies heavily on the skills, expertise, and experience of a DesignOps team.
Pro tip: It’s vital that a DesignOps team includes subject matter experts (SME) of their companies products so they can raise awareness of opportunities that will drive efficiency and enable better outcomes.
Operational meetings: Meetings for meeting's sake leads to inefficiency and contributes to a loss in productivity. They can also be extremely productive if you have the right people at the right time to align the Product, Marketing, Engineering, and Design teams.
DesignOps operational meetings work alongside sprint events to help the people of a design team lead themselves and feel empowered to improve the overall experience of their products. I group these meetings into three timeframes.
Taking the time to think about your current meetings and evaluating how they work together will go a long way to making a design team more productive, accountable, and respected.
A company Hackathon event - A glimpse into the UX Platform process applied to business objectives
The primary goal of Design Platform and Design Operations teams is to scale design so product, marketing, and sales teams can focus more on growing a business and less on the tools and process that enables it to happen.
Airbnb, Google, and Pinterest’s Design Platform and Design Operations teams provide design as a service, to support cross-platform and cross-channel experiences, on a global scale.
Design Platform: The Design Platform group is a centralized team that operates like a product team, with product owners, designers, and engineers providing a product as a service to other teams.
A Design System is a collection of UI components and patterns with standards and guidelines that allows an organization to design at scale by promoting reusability across multiple products and teams. The Design Platform team maintains the scalability and reusability of a Design System.
As a company’s design system is adopted and matures over time, a federated team model emerges and the system and the product inform each other. Nathan Curtis has an excellent write up on team models, and Jina Anne shares how Salesforce uses a mix of centralized and federated team models.
Design Operations: A DesignOps group is a function of project management, to ensure a design team achieves the Product and UX requirements under the constraints of a particular project, by coordinating the design work that needs to get done across multiple groups.
Two design functions are working in concert, providing the systems (design systems), delivery of those systems (toolchains), and the people (producers) to carry out the work.
Research Operations: There is a third function that is critical to the success of scaling design; the tools and process of ResearchOps, which funnels customer insights into the above groups. It enables teams to scale and operationalize Lean UX activities.
No matter the size of your organization, these functions can be scaled up or down to operate as other high performing companies do.
Having the right mix of people and culture is essential to creating a collaborative and safe environment at work, where everyone can share their ideas, be heard, and feel they are growing as an individual.
A simple framework focused on the hiring, coaching, training, and culture of a team will build talent, promote happiness, and advance design maturity. More to come on this soon.
Improving the design, operations, teams, and people processes will build a happier, healthier, and more productive Design team. To begin a DesignOps initiative at your company, start small and focus on pain points within the product development life cycle to bring value to design functions process and systems.