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InfoQ Homepage Articles Why DesignOps Matters: How to Improve Your Design Processes

Why DesignOps Matters: How to Improve Your Design Processes

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Key Takeaways

  • DesignOps cultivates cross-functionality, welcome tools, and rely on data
  • There are four critical blocks (4 Ps) in constructing DesignOps: Product, Process, People, Program
  • Adopt a single source of operational truth as part of DesignOps
  • Assign a dedicated DesignOps person
  • Facilitate deep communication as part of a successful design process

In a landscape where design teams grow in size and projects evolve led by the latest UI and UX trends, their success becomes dependent not only on skills but on key operational and UX metrics as well.

And where design processes are sometimes more complex, dispersed and chaotic than they should be, the need for DesignOps as a strategic function is a must.

But the concept of DesignOps has changed significantly and its practical use now goes far beyond how you optimize your own design workflows. The design operations of today require a common cultural shift and a different mindset that:

  • Cultivates cross-functionality which involves everyone from designers and developers, through PMs, stakeholders and marketers to better channel ideas and results, improve the quality of the final product, and increase the impact teams generate together. 
  • Welcomes tools, systems, and services around already established UI and UX practices to polish roadmaps, eliminate silos, reduce repetitive tasks, help establish a single source of truth, and enhance velocity and quality of digital product design and development. 
  • Understands that data is a goldmine and every decision and step forward in the design process must be based on measurable statistics collected from surveys, user and usability testing, and user evaluations.

Using these three concepts -- cross-functional teams, tooling, and the use of data, you can build better working design operations and use them as a strategic function that results in better products, faster time to market, and even increased revenue.

Even though utilizing Design Operations is not a new practice, not many companies understood its value until recently. One of the first global companies that created and established DesignOps strategies as part of their modern product development cycle was Airbnb. Their goal was to deliver “agility to the whole product organization through centralized tools, systems and services that enhance speed and quality of execution.”

To establish an even more effective process, Airbnb expanded its DesignOps to 5 different components, each focusing on specific aspects of their digital product design and development. Their Director of Design, Growth & Traffic Adrian Cleave explains, “Our functions include Design Program Management, Design Tools, Localization, Production Design and Team Coordinators. We work closely with Marketing, Product, Design and Engineering to create the best user experiences possible.”

The Importance and Challenges of Integration

Initially, the Airbnb case may sound like they only had to align teams and tasks together, but to apply a similar strategic function to successful DesignOps, first you need to address the following challenges:

  • Ad hoc tools and processes that UX creators implement which result in design-development inconsistencies and operational dysfunctionalities that are channeled down to the entire digital product chain.
  • The misconception that there is a one-size-fits-all solution to processes, while in fact every project needs to be explored on a micro level and depending on its specifics, design operations must be tweaked and changed.
  • Lack of deep communication and regular multidisciplinary meetings where UX and UI design, development, product management teams and marketing teams act together to clearly communicate design ideas, prototypes, vision, goals, and specifics.
  • Overlooking the importance of digital product design and development tools that serve as single source of operational truth.
  • Not exploring and testing new ideas, new design methods and as a result lag behind new trends in UI and UX design which is a turn-off for the extremely new age tech-savvy digital consumers.
  • Understanding the 4 PS of DesignOps

There are four critical components or building blocks when it comes to DesignOps. I call them the 4 Ps: Product, Process, People, and Program. Each segment brings its own benefits to designers and digital product development teams.

The Product-focused component of DesignOps is led by the idea to organize. It works towards:

  • Discovering and removing bottlenecks.
  • Clarifying the purpose of the digital product, understanding what the client wants, and envisioning the value it will bring to end-users.
  • Carrying out user and usability testing for better UX.
  • Creating a focused roadmap to deliver high-level design projects from initiation through testing to delivery.
  • Outlining a work breakdown structure for a given product so team members know where to start and end.
  • Defining common criteria and principles for good and bad user-centric design, specifically for the product you are working on.
  • Defining, selecting, and aligning design quality metrics which can be shared among anyone in the team working on a given project.
  • Building situational and project awareness so everyone involved stays on the same page and can more easily keep track of where the project is going.

“P” for Processes revolves around the premise that DesignOps are focused on prioritizing and functioning with the organization in mind. This brings together the business and the specific design project and focuses on:

  • Formulating better workflows among cross-functional teams.
  • Keeping track of everything going on through regular meetings with team members from different departments (PMs, developers, etc.)
  • Retaining information about strategic business goals, scope of work, and documentation to serve as guidance. This way you can more easily keep up with branding requirements and business objectives.
  • Identifying deadlines, organizing tasks, and prioritizing on projects if there are several on the table. This will help you map out and prioritize on certain features, for instance.

“P” for People emphasizes socialization, which is not merely sharing updates. The focus of Design Operations here is to enable better methods for communicating needs, skills, purposes and design-team capacity. The main priorities include:

  • Eliminating communication dysfunctionalities and silos.
  • Gaining a clear idea of the roles of everyone in the UI/UX design department.
  • Identifying specific needs of designers and identifying skill gaps if possible.
  • Communicating shared vision and common purpose to build a successful product and/or service.
  • Taking part in design sprints to improve how you and your team see and understand the scope, features, goals, and direction of a given design project, and avoid design deviations.
  • Understanding design team capacity and workload to avoid burnout. 

The fourth DesignOps segment is focused on Programs and it works towards standardizing automation DesignOps tools and technologies. It requires:

  • Relying on the same DesignOps tools, digital-asset managers (DAMS) or other digital product development platforms to simplify and support digital product design workflows.
  • Developing user-research data repositories that can be easily accessed by everyone involved in the product design and development process.
  • Establishing cross-functional collaboration between team members and departments through all-inclusive design and communication tools.
  • Empowering design ideation, evaluation, and constructive feedback from anyone involved in the design project.
  • Overcoming miscommunication gaps and resolving simple day-to-day dysfunctionalities such as having a developer who doesn’t know which designer is tasked with the creation of a certain feature, for instance.

Tips To Improve Your Design Workflow and Operations, Incorporating the 4 PS

  1. Adopt a single source of operational truth.

This will help you and the entire digital product team (including marketers, PMs and developers) manage estimations, planning and tracking silos, keep track of tasks and progress, and clearly understand design and dev specifications. Gartner suggests using a common enterprise agile planning (EAP) tool and agile practices to help along the way.

In their “DesignOps: Organize, Collaborate and Innovate Product UX at Speed” , the authors point out that:

“A foundational aspect of DesignOps is the adoption of agile work breakdown structures (WBSs) to organize UX work from alignment with broad strategic objectives to screen-level details in a single EAP tool. While this feels foreign to most UX practitioners at first, agile WBS maps quite well to UX work. The business and operational benefits of this approach are profound, including more accurate plans, estimates, tracking and reporting.”

With a single working environment for managers, designers, developers, and even stakeholders as part of the DesignOps strategy, everyone can easily align their work and tasks, test and comment on prototypes in real time, eliminate design handoffs, reduce costly iterations, keep track of progress and identify bottlenecks. What is more, the whole digital product team will benefit from an instant situational awareness about end-users, project timeframes, design specifics, features and functionalities.

But depending on the company and the automation DesignOps tool for EAP, the structure can be different.

  1. Nurture deep communication among cross-functional teams and make stakeholders part of it.

You may ask “why stakeholders?” When a prototype is discarded and everything has to begin from scratch, this results in wasted time, efforts, money and a prolonged process. To avoid this and build much more efficient DesignOps, make sure to engage in a collaborative creativity that everyone participates in – including stakeholders. This helps facilitate the design process and design-development time is drastically shortened. 

Generally, the team can work in sprints that include designers and stakeholders early in the process to explore and test diverse ideas. This way designers benefit from direct insights as to how design elements would likely translate to a web, mobile, or desktop app, while developers can communicate potential issues with the code based on designs and stakeholders can act as agents who test how usable the product is, delivering a fresh and independent perspective.

  1. Know all that must be known about the company, current design processes, project management and end-users.

This will help you and your team evaluate the advantageous areas that generate ROI, eliminate the biggest setbacks, address the pain points in the design process and start the optimization from there. Holding company and team meetings can equip you with this valuable information. 

  1. There must be a dedicated DesignOps person. 

There’s no such thing as a designer who can handle every process and task because in the end, they do everything but the actual design. Digital product design is a multi-layered job that requires different experienced units in particular fields. Just as there is a need for a separation between UX and UI design with two distinct experts handling each, there is a need for a dedicated DesignOps person. 

It will be his or her responsibility to:

  • forecast and manage work and resources
  • help in the hiring process of designers with the right skillset
  • communicate design standards
  • allocate proper DesignOps tools
  • formulate agile work breakdown structures to optimize designers’ day-to-day workflow
  • identify critical gaps between established processes and tactics for improvement
  • help build a more productive design culture

Bear in mind that the role of the DesignOps expert depends on the needs, strengths, and weaknesses of a given company and the digital product/service that the team is currently working on.

  1. Use and master data to measure design standards, distinguish good from bad practices and designs and establish what best resonates with end-users.

There’s no bigger value-optimizer and quality-booster than working with actionable data that translates to how you ideate and design your next digital product. In this sense, then, making data analytics part of the DesignOps is something that will trigger better designs and greater UX, and will even help you stay relevant with current design trends like Data Visualization and Data Storytelling.

In summary, DesignOps is a combination of practices and a mindset that builds a prospering culture, improves design workflow, facilitates multi-department processes like designer-developer handoffs, enhances the way products and services are crafted, and enables projects to evolve at a faster pace. But to achieve all of this and establish well-functioning DesignOps, you must innovate and design through data, foster deep communication and creative collaboration, adapt to the digital transformation by adopting DesignOps tools, know your company and its business practices, research and explore end-users, and work with a dedicated DesignOps person.

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