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DesignOps 101 (and How to Introduce It to Your Organization)

Elizabeth McDonald Design

Is your design team scaling in size, or experiencing an evolving culture? Are your team’s priorities unclear, and people are asking for a process? A design team faced with any of these challenges might be looking to solve how to best support their team in the future and in current phases of work. Introducing DesignOps in your organization can help streamline the processes of your product or project team.

The Nielsen Norman Group, a leader in user experience, defines DesignOps as “the value operations can provide for their team or organization. Most practitioners think of DesignOps as a way to standardize and optimize processes, enable and support designers, and to scale design.” To put it another way, it is the orchestration and optimization of people, processes, and craft in order to amplify design’s value and impact at scale.

So why would an organization invest in a DesignOps practice? DesignOps can aid in reducing inefficiencies, while enabling designers with the tools they need to do their job. Ultimately, the introduction of DesignOps in an organization creates better work outcomes and allows designers to spend the majority of their time doing what they are best at: designing.

NNG came up with six main intents of DesignOps as an outcome of a 2019 research initiative. These intents have formed the DesignOps mental model that many practitioners follow:

  1. Standardize: Standardizing tools and methods across teams. This can look like defining, documenting, and optimizing processes for delivering design.
  2. Support: Finding opportunities to support designers to focus on design.
  3. Scale: Scaling design’s reach and impact, by growing the design discipline within an organization.
  4. Productivity: Increase productivity by improving the workflow, which delivers faster and better quality work through aligned processes and methodologies.
  5. Collaboration: Enable alignment and collaboration by formalizing the process of planning for, executing, and incorporating design into product development.
  6. Quality: Delivering better quality work through shared responsibility.

Your team may only dip into one or two of these areas to start. Remember that no mental model is right, and no mental model is wrong: it’s all about what best enables your team to meet their goals. DesignOps is intended to meet your team where their needs are as they shift over time.

Ultimately, individuals or teams who are responsible for DesignOps within their organization may be focused on process and tools, collaboration within design and across disciplines, building and establishing culture through events, meetings and shared language, and the hiring, onboarding, and upskilling of people.

When is your team ready for DesignOps?

The application of DesignOps is never one-size-fits-all; it is dependent on where your organization is in its maturity and priorities. After evaluating your team’s pain points and strengths, you can start to make recommendations that fit your team’s work and culture. This practice looks different for each organization; prioritize, create a roadmap, and remember you can start small!

There are a few considerations to get a DesignOps initiative up and running.

  • Timing: First, it needs to be an organic fruition, this can be a healthy sign that your organization is growing and maturing.
  • Support: In this effort you’ll need team advocates and buy-in from stakeholders, those that support and celebrate these initiatives.
  • Collaboration: Consideration of your product and project teams. Consider the touchpoints and process of your cross-functional teams; product managers, engineers, design system managers, researchers, and copywriters.
  • Accountability: You’ll need individuals that are responsible and accountable for carrying out and delivering these initiatives.

How to Get Started with DesignOps

When introducing DesignOps into your organization, evaluate the priorities of your team. First, talk to your people; designers, product managers, engineers, researchers, etc. Start to identify pain points: What small annoyances do they deal with every day? What bottlenecks hold up their design process, leaving them with too much idle time? What type of work do they spend a majority of their time on? Through these conversations you’ll begin to evaluate your processes and identify strengths and areas for improvements for your team.

From your conversations, start by identifying small opportunities to streamline processes and documentation. Even though they seem small, these can be big wins and relievers to your team’s day-to-day project work — and by relieving a process  bottleneck, you can quickly earn more buy-in from your stakeholders. For example, establish naming conventions for how your product teams approach exploration, interaction and delivery of feature work from sprint to sprint. Adopting these practices within your team takes time and resources, but over time, you can tackle bigger DesignOps challenges.

The role and responsibility of DesignOps look different in every organization. In a smaller organization it may look like a single design team with a DesignOps advocate, embracing these principles and adopting intuitive processes across multiple projects. For a larger company, a designated DesignOps team can streamline the processes of multiple product teams across an organization. Regardless of team structure, these teams and individuals should be focused on creating cohesion in tools and process, unity in culture, amplifying voices, and enabling collaboration.

As consultants, Tandem is focused on shipping quality work, opening the door, and focusing on client success. Empowering our team and clients to take ownership over our process and work (from research to delivery of the product’s design system), we collaboratively share knowledge and resources during the span of an engagement. This means our clients walk away with more than just an updated UI or new user insights — we like to leave our client teams with DesignOps principles that will benefit their team’s work even once our engagement is complete.

Could your design team benefit from DesignOps practices? Not sure where to start? Contact us!

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