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A column by Janet M. Six
September 24, 2018

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our experts discuss the newest discipline within User Experience: DesignOps, which covers the operational aspects of design. Most DesignOps practices have been standard operational practices within software companies for many years—they just weren’t called DesignOps until a couple of years ago, and they did not yet constitute an integrated set of practices.

DesignOps is such a new discipline that the term is still somewhat ill-defined—even though there’s already a conference that focuses on this discipline, the DesignOps Summit, for which 2018 will be its second year, and InVision has just released an ebook on this topic, The DesignOps Handbook. It’s unclear who originally coined the term DesignOps, but there is universal agreement that it was inspired by the term DevOps. This is just the second piece that UXmatters has published about DesignOps. The first was Jeff Sussna’s article “What DesignOps Can Learn from DevOps.”

In this column, our expert panel defines DesignOps, discusses what dimensions the discipline comprehends, and describes DesignOps roles and practices at several leading companies.

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In my monthly column Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers our readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Jennifer Fabrizi—UX Director, Strategy Planning and Execution, Business Insurance, at Travelers
  • Leo Frishberg—Senior Manager, User Experience, at Home Depot Quote Center
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Principal Consultant at Strategic UX; Publisher, Editor in Chief, and columnist at UXmatters; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA)
  • Tobias Komischke—Director of User Experience at Honeywell

Q: How does your UX team handle the operational aspects of UX design? Is there a specific role that is dedicated to this function? Are there any best practices that you would recommend for DesignOps?—from a UXmatters reader

DesignOps: Inspired by DevOps

“Before answering our reader’s question, I think it’s important to provide a little background on what DesignOps means,” suggests Pabini. “Since DevOps has inspired the discipline of DesignOps, let’s first look at one of the better definitions of DevOps. According to AWS (Amazon Web Services):

DevOps is the combination of cultural philosophies, practices, and tools that increases an organization’s ability to deliver applications and services at high velocity—evolving and improving products at a faster pace than organizations using traditional software-development and infrastructure-management processes. This speed enables organizations to better serve their customers and compete more effectively in the market.’

“When I went looking for a clear, concise definition of DesignOps on the Web, I wasn’t able to find one—it’s not even on Wikipedia yet—so I’ve written one, using AWS’s definition of DevOps as a template,” volunteers Pabini.

DesignOps is the combination of cultural philosophies, practices, and tools that increases an organization’s ability to deliver well-designed, high-quality applications and services that meet people’s needs, while working at high velocity. More efficient UX teams enable organizations to evolve and improve product and service designs at a faster pace than organizations using traditional UX design and research processes, without sacrificing quality; better serve their customers, and compete more effectively in the market.”—Pabini Gabriel-Petit

DesignOps at Airbnb

Airbnb was one of the first enterprises to fully embrace DesignOps,” says Pabini. “As for most companies, their goals were to effectively manage design at scale, amplify the effectiveness of design, and facilitate collaboration. Adrian Cleave joined Airbnb as their first Director of DesignOps, in July 2015, and built a DesignOps group comprising ‘five distinct teams:

  • Design Program Management—Driving our operational strategy and owning and evolving a holistic design process.
  • Design Tools—Building tools to empower and amplify designers as well as bridging disciplines.
  • Localization—Making sure Airbnb’s language is truly international and radically local.
  • Production Design—Ensuring our design is executed to the highest quality across Product and Marketing initiatives.
  • Team Coordinators—Keeping teams healthy and happy and leadership sane.’

“By the time Cleave joined Airbnb, the company had already developed its Design Language System, which enhanced quality and accelerated their design and development process.”

Dimensions of DesignOps

Pabini suggests recasting Cleve’s list of teams as “the dimensions of DesignOps, by revising the list as follows:

  • Design Program Management—Planning, organizing, and balancing disciplines on teams; resource allocation, portfolio optimization, setting project milestones, aligning schedules, and facilitating cross-team communication, ensuring the UX team’s effectiveness.
  • Design Tools—Setting standards for design tools and building design systems and components in code that allow designers to work more efficiently, focus primarily on more creative work, and work in close collaboration with developers.
  • Localization—Optimizing products for an international audience.
  • Design Process—Devising a design process that fosters the deep understanding of users’ needs and ensures high-quality experience outcomes, while working in collaboration with multidisciplinary agile or Lean product teams.
  • Accessibility—Ensuring that designs are in compliance with international accessibility standards.

“DesignOps should constitute a highly integrated set of programs and practices.”

DesignOps at Honeywell

“My team’s mission is to establish and grow a Design Thinking practice within in our IT organization,” answers Tobias. “There are many things we do toward that end, but in answering the reader’s question, I want to focus on one organizational aspect within my team. We have a role that we call the Delivery Specialist, which manages both operations and project management to ensure that my team can carry out our function.

“When the team and practice were new, the focus of this dual role was more on operations—that is, all issues revolving around the physical and IT infrastructure that our team needs. These issues include figuring out the best-possible seating arrangement for the team, working with procurement to purchase new software licenses, and managing our existing licenses.

“Now that the team is more mature and we have established our basic system of operations, the focus of this role has shifted more toward project management. The role manages our project-intake process, works with team leadership across our locations to allocate design resources, and tracks project delivery. A Delivery Specialist collaborates with our design resources to help ensure high-quality delivery on time and orchestrates project checkpoints and wrap-ups, including getting customer-satisfaction feedback and conducting post mortems. The role also plays an important part in our long-term planning: How do our projects change over time? What new skills do we need to acquire to continue to be effective? In what locations do we need resources versus balancing how we can most effectively support other project teams remotely?

“Regarding qualifications and background for a Delivery Specialist, we specifically try to find people who have experience in design or project-managing creative people,” said Tobias. “We initially interviewed a lot of candidates who had a technical project–management background, but didn’t feel that they had sufficient understanding of or enough empathy for UX designers. How designers work, how we live, and what we believe. Therefore, we concluded that the ideal candidate is one who has a track record of at least five to seven years in project management, who has earned a PMP (Project Management Professional) certification, and who has experience working with creative people. Our current Delivery Specialist has a degree in graphic design, which has proved to be very beneficial because he’s been able to connect very well with the design staff and understands the nuances of the design process.

“In terms of our operations requirements, we’re looking for candidates who have a talent for operations and the tenacity to get infrastructure done right, as well as quickly. In a large company such as Honeywell, that translates to being able to find the right people, the processes, and the tools that we need.”

DesignOps at Travelers

“After spending a year as Director of User Research and Design Strategy, working on a Design team at Travelers, I recently moved to a UX Director position that reports to the Strategy Planning and Execution team in one of our lines of business,” responds Jennifer. “So I’ll organize my answer to the reader’s question in terms of the team’s business model, enabling the work through platforms and tools, and community development.”

The Team’s Business Model

“Historically, UX designers and user researchers at Travelers worked with project teams on an as-needed basis—that is, the team’s business model was service based, similar to an internal consultancy,” says Jennifer. “However, by the time I joined the team, the organization was shifting from project-based to product-based engagements and had adopted a scaled version of agile—specifically, Scaled Agile Framework, or SAFe, from Scaled Agile, Inc. Therefore, the design leadership team was moving to a different business model, in which UX designers were embedded on product teams.

“The main difference between these two models is how resources are managed. In a service-model, the resource manager tracks the work of UX designers by the hour and assigns designers to different projects—which reminds me of a game of Tetris. However, this won’t work at all in an agile framework, where teams need to bond around the product and user insights over a longer period of time.

“Therefore, we embedded UX designers on product teams and shifted our business model to managing teams by estimating capacity per product portfolio. Our rule of thumb is one design lead per product portfolio, with at least one UX designer for every two Scrum teams in the portfolio. We don’t always achieve that goal, but we try. In an embedded model, resource managers no longer count tasks and widgets per person. Instead, they look at the desired outcomes of the portfolio team and the impact on customers. Thus, they determine the number of UX designers per portfolio and Scrum team according to the team’s overall potential capacity.

“One of our current problems is that, even though UX designers are embedded on teams, neither the designers nor the product teams know how to include the work the designers do in team estimations and acceptance criteria. The mental-model shift we need to make is to move from horizontal tracks of work—that is, UX stories, architecture stories, and developer stories—to considering a full slice, or stack, of functionality and writing user stories that comprehend all of these layers.”

Enabling Platforms and Tools

“We recently brought a person on board who is in a purely operational role,” continues Jennifer. “She’ll manage all of the licenses and contracts for tools, work on platform rollouts and adoption planning for design and research tools, and help with team communications to our organization’s leadership. This role is really critical, and we’re so lucky to have this person!!!

“A colleague of mine on the Design team is the product owner for the Design System and Design Platform. He leads a small team of developers and designers in creating coded, accessible user-interface (UI) components for the use of designers and developers across the enterprise. This effort is in its infancy, and we’re just beginning to feel its long-term implications for efficiency, knowledge sharing, and tighter collaboration between Design and Development. He has borrowed much from DevOps in beginning to enable a DesignOps counterpart. This is not just about making sure that UX resources are available. Design leadership also needs to consider how enablers such as a Design System can lead to greater efficiencies, allowing the team to spend more time gathering and interpreting user insights rather than perpetuating the overemphasis on design production that we see in many companies today.

“We’ve purchased InVision and Sketch—our platform for creating design artifacts. As Director of User Research, I negotiated a new contract with the user research–platform vendor UserZoom, enabling

  • more potential automation of participant recruiting
  • turn-key usability testing, supporting a cadence of two-week sprints
  • our freeing up more time for contextual observation and inquiry
  • our expanding the types of UX research we’re doing beyond simple usability testing
  • a future state in which we have knowledge management for research insights and can support longitudinal research over long periods of time”

Community Development

“We’ve established a UX Community of Practice for all designers and user researchers across the enterprise,” says Jennifer. “We’re piloting multiple types of community-building activities such as

  • a new design-critique format that allows safe, designer-only, peer-led conversations about our craft, pertaining to work in flight
  • a UX book club for discussions and to encourage peer-to-peer learning”

Looking at DesignOps Holistically

In summing up what DesignOps comprehends at Travelers, Jennifer said, “All of these efforts are important aspects of design operations, which is not just about tools and design systems. DesignOps is really more about people and their attitudes and behaviors. So, with this in mind, we’re viewing DesignOps from a more holistic view: what it takes to create a successful design practice within an enterprise setting.”

DevOps and Design Operations at Intel

“A couple of years back, when I was Head of UX for Sales and Marketing IT (SMIT) at Intel, SMIT was in the midst of a DevOps transformation,” answers Pabini. “I was part of a multidisciplinary team collaborating on an agile / DevOps maturity assessment model that included the following dimensions:

  • agile practices—team structure and behaviors, planning, and requirements
  • continuous integration—continuous testing, automation, and build management
  • continuous delivery—automated deployment, monitoring, and analytics
  • infrastructure management—version and environment management
  • continuous improvement—culture and metrics

“Building on this work, I brought together a team of UX professionals from various IT UX teams to define a maturity model for User Experience. This maturity model included operational dimensions such as process, project scope and UX staffing; organizational support for UX, including budgeting; analytics, and performance. Although we didn’t use the term DesignOps, our goal was to successfully integrate UX practices into an agile development context, which is the driving force behind DesignOps.

“In companies with smaller UX teams, as well as for smaller UX teams within large enterprises, people in UX-management roles often handle, or at least lead, most of the operational aspects of User Experience,” acknowledges Pabini. “That was certainly true at Intel, so we didn’t have anyone assigned to a Design Program Management or DesignOps role.”

Managing Operations at the Home Depot Quote Center

Leo told us about how things work at the Home Depot Quote Center, where he is responsible for the operational aspects of design. “We have ten people on our UX staff, with various levels of experience in the field—from three years to 30—and a variety of special talents and focus areas, including visual design, interaction design, and research,” said Leo. “We don’t separate those functions out. Instead, team members work together whenever a specific skill is needed. I assign team members to projects, with one designer working as the point person, handling as much of the work as he or she can and bringing in others as necessary.

“I manage the team from the standpoint of human resources (HR)—writing performance reviews and handling personal issues, career development, and coaching—as well as managing team operations. In the latter context, I am responsible for assigning individuals to squads, identifying capacity, and working with my Product Management peers to identify areas of strategic importance.

“We have a centrally located visualization board that displays team members’ projects, the current phase of their projects, and whether they have capacity. All team members manage their own status updates. So team members can see who has capacity and ask other team members to participate in their project if they need help.”

A Potential Dark Side of DesignOps

“The risk exists that, in the interest of achieving ever greater efficiencies through DesignOps, overly prescriptive design methods and tools requirements might make UX designers feel like indistinguishable cogs in a wheel—especially designers who are doing tactical, or production, design work,” warned Pabini. “Designers need scope for their creativity for their work to be meaningful to them. Fostering engagement and creativity requires that, while UX leaders assign projects to UX designers and, thus, set their goals, they should not dictate exactly how designers should achieve those goals.

“On the other hand, the use of design systems can both provide consistency across the work of many UX designers and free up individual designers to work on solving more strategic, domain-specific design problems. Even junior designers should have the opportunity to work on such design problems, under the tutelage of experienced senior or lead designers. Working on challenging design problems that require unique solutions is the only way for designers to learn and advance in their discipline, so ensure that UX designers have creative scope.” 

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research.  Read More

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