The Future of DesignOps

Why marketing, creative and design teams need to rethink how good design gets done at scale

INTRODUCTION

Scaling creativity

Design has never been more in demand.

The primary consumer touchpoint for most businesses, it’s literally everywhere, from the homepage on your favourite website to the box your new sneakers arrived in. But with that demand for design comes the inevitable tactical question: How can any company produce it at the pace and quality that’s needed to succeed?

In recent years, design operations teams—aka DesignOps—have been embraced by businesses looking to scale their design production. They help grow and evolve design teams by operationalizing workflows and managing projects, budgets and hiring. But most importantly, they help improve the quality of the designs being produced by allowing designers to do what they do best: design.

Embraced by major brands such as Airbnb, Twitter, Lyft and LinkedIn among many others, in-house DesignOps teams have helped deliver amazing design at the scale the market demands. But not every company or overstretched creative department is ready for the financial and organizational commitments DesignOps teams require.

In an increasingly distributed working world the future of DesignOps may be unwritten, but one thing’s for sure: it won’t be bound by location.

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CHAPTER ONE

Design to Win

The business value of good design isn’t a revelation, it’s a reality.

For decades design luminaries such as Raymond Loewy, Thomas J. Watson, Jr. and Steve Jobs have championed the notion that quality design has a direct impact on a company’s bottom line.

Raymond Loewy, well-known industrial designer

Loewy, an industrial designer responsible for the Coca-Cola bottle and logos for Shell Oil, Greyhound and the United States Postal Service, wrote in 1951 that success finally came when he was “able to convince some creative men [that] good appearance was a salable commodity, that it often cut costs, enhanced a product’s prestige, raised corporate profits, benefited the customer and increased employment.”

companies that foster creativity enjoy 1.5x more market share

In 1956, Watson, Jr., IBM’s second president, hired Eliot Noyes, a respected architect and curator of industrial design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, to create a first-of-its-kind corporate design program for IBM. That decision helped transform IBM’s now-iconic brand. Years later Watson, Jr. summed up the effects of that decision during a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania in 1973: “good design is good business,” he told the crowd.

Thomas J. Watson, Jr., second president of IBM

And Jobs, the late Apple CEO whose obsession with product kickstarted a revolution in tech design, espoused the design mantra that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” a maxim that informed Apple’s clean overall aesthetic and led to the brand’s cult-like following.

In 2015, The Design Management Institute’s Design Value Index analyzed portfolios of 16 publicly traded stocks from design-centric companies and found that they delivered, on average, 211 percent over the S&P 500. [1] Those high-performers included brands like Nike, Apple, IBM and Starbucks, among others. In 2018, a McKinsey report “The Business Value of Design” put the impact of design on the corporate bottom line in context: Over a five-year period, companies who invested in good design had 32% more revenue and 56% more total returns to shareholders. [2]

Then, in early 2019, InVision released “The New Design Frontier: The widest-ranging report to date examining design’s impact on business.” The study found that 92 percent of companies with the most mature design functions—roughly five percent of the 2,200 companies surveyed across 24 industries—could draw a straight line between their design teams' work and their company's revenue. Eighty-four percent of those same companies said design had improved their ability to get products to market, while 85 percent said they'd been able to deliver cost savings through design. [3]

Steve Jobs, former CEO, Apple

Simply put, companies that invest in great design get great financial results. They also develop a deeper understanding of their customers and make better decisions for the business as a result of the continuous feedback loop that the design process enables.

How much better, on average, that design-led companies performed over the S&P 500

Design Management Institute: Design Value Index (DVI)

2005-2015

Design-centric companies: Apple, Coca-Cola, Ford, Herman-Miller, IBM, Intuit, Nike, Procter & Gamble, SAP, Starbucks, Starwood, Stanley Black & Decker, Steelcase, Target, Walt Disney, Whirlpool

But great design doesn’t come easily, especially when it needs to be delivered at scale. That’s why many of the world’s most recognizable brands—from Facebook to Airbnb, Wells Fargo to Pinterest—have instituted in-house design operations teams to manage the creative process effectively and efficiently.

Purvi Shah, Design Operations at Visa

Without them, there would be no way to measurably scale up design production at the speed that the market demands. And no self-respecting business wants to be left behind because they couldn’t keep pace, do they?

The value of design at scale
CHAPTER TWO

Break the Bottleneck

Emails. Meetings. Soul-crushing administrative tasks. According to the 2019 State of Work survey, the average American knowledge worker spends 60 percent of their workday on tasks that aren’t a core part of their job responsibilities. [4] That’s a lot of time spent not doing what they’re being paid to do.

When Brennan Hartich, director of DesignOps at Slack, previously DesignOps Leader working at Intuit, started to wonder about his own design team’s productivity, he ran a short survey to better understand their output.

Brennan Hartich, director of DesignOps at Slack, previously a DesignOps leader at Intuit

“I asked them a simple question,” he told the audience at the 2018 DesignOps Summit. “How much time do you spend designing every day?”

“The answer was three hours. Which is scary. We hire these people full-time to be designers or content writers and they’re only spending three hours per day [roughly 37 percent of their week] doing actual content work that was going toward our product.”

The rest of their time was being spent in cross-functional meetings, doing project planning, responding to emails, managing budgets and staff and on and on.

That’s a common experience in large companies where designers are often expected to wear many hats—creative genius, talent manager, cross-functional collaborator, culture maven and project manager to name but a few. And it’s a recipe for failure.

As Meredith Black, former head of design operations at Pinterest, asked the audience at the 2019 Leading Design conference, “At the end of the day, would you rather have your designer spending their time working on email communications, project plans, budgets, team development or do you want them designing?”

Meredith Black, former head of design operations at Pinterest

The answer is obvious, because when your designers aren’t designing, they create a production bottleneck that can be detrimental in myriad ways. Employee morale plummets. Customer satisfaction slumps. Cross-functional teams stop trusting one another. And the business suffers, no matter what field you work in.

For example, on a marketing team trying to keep pace with the seemingly endless number of support requests coming in from across the company, design work is almost always a point of contention: It takes too long to deliver, the end result is never exactly right, and when they have to execute it themselves, it’s time-consuming and never really up to snuff. Similarly, designated creative and design teams, whether at an agency or in-house, often find themselves unable to keep pace with a deluge of teeny-tiny design requests that cause them to lose sight of the big picture. The workflow becomes erratic and unfocused, resulting in sub-par work that leaves clients underwhelmed.

In both cases, design becomes a bad word. It becomes a roadblock for businesses that need to move fast and be responsive to customer needs.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

how much time Intuit designers were actually designing

By implementing design operations teams—a.k.a. DesignOps—design can be scaled across the entire organization, consistency of process can be established and efficiencies can be found that help expedite both design and development.

Six months after Hartich ran his first survey at Intuit, he went back and asked his designers the same question: “How much time do you spend designing every day?”

The answer, after having had a design project manager added to the team, was now four hours per day, up from three. On a team of 14, that meant a net increase of 70 design hours added per week, simply by adding one DPM into the mix.

“It showed us that adding a DesignOps headcount was even more important than adding another designer,” says Hartich, “because you actually increase the number of hours in which you’re actually designing.”

For Intuit, the numbers added up to one thing: A way forward.

CHAPTER THREE

The Rise and Role of DesignOps

Design has a long history of streamlined project management—agencies and consultancies had that figured out years ago. As Meredith Black pointed out: Operations roles are vital to the success of those businesses. Black would know—her own agency roots stretch back to Ideo and Hot Studio, design companies where she worked until Hot Studio was acquired by Facebook in 2013.

“[At an agency,] producers run a project from beginning to end, overseeing every aspect until the project has shipped. Literally, no exceptions. That’s their job.”

But in the last decade, as the demand for designers and design services continued to spike (in 2017, Adobe reported that 73 percent of managers expected to double the number of UX designers on their teams within five years time [5]) and as large companies like Facebook, Capital One and Accenture started to acquire small design agencies, many organizations realized they didn’t have any way to operationalize their design teams. For agency veterans like Black, that kind of operations role was nothing new—it had just never been defined or put into practice in organizations unaccustomed to focusing on timely delivery of high-quality design.

Enter DesignOps.

“DesignOps is focused on everything but design,” says Black. Like producers from the agency world, “the role of DesignOps teams is to allow designers to design, while ops people handle everything else.”

So, what exactly does a DesignOps team do?

As Collin Whitehead, Dropbox’s Head of Brand Studio, described it in The DesignOps Handbook, “the job of the DesignOps team is to protect the time and headspace of everyone within the design organization—the designers, writers, researchers, and so on—which allows everyone to focus on their respective craft. That focus benefits managers, who are able to pull themselves above the fray of the day-to-day to set a longer-term vision, as well as individual contributors who gain more time to hone and develop their skills.” [6]

What kind of things does a DesignOps team typically take care of?

DesignOps teams help to manage resourcing, employee and vendor onboarding, they oversee budgets and drive day-to-day project workflows—they’re doing everything they can to enable creative teams to focus on doing their best work.

Have a listen to this episode on the Ncommon Podcast by DesignOps leaders, Alison Rand and Jacqui Frey, where they talk all about the role of design operations.

Alison Rand, InVision, DesignOps quote

From a practical point of view, DesignOps teams help drive business efficiencies at scale but, perhaps more importantly, they also help improve employee focus and morale, reposition design as a part of a company’s DNA and smooth cross-functional relationships across departments.

For those very practical and holistic reasons, a raft of major companies have piloted DesignOps role in the past few years, from tech businesses like Mailchimp, Airbnb, Twitter, Lyft, Dropbox and LinkedIn to more traditional finance-based companies including Wells Fargo, Capital One, JP Morgan and Visa.

Everyone, it seems, is taking some moves out of the DesignOps playbook. Heck, there's even a design ops conference, also know as the DesignOps Summit, for people to learn more about this critical function.

DesignOps models

According to Collin Whitehead, there are generally two models for DesignOps teams: Operations Support and Product Support. Here's how they differ.

Operations Support

The DesignOps function in this model is responsible for setting standards and refining process for the entire design team

In this model, the executive producer and the design managers take a 30,000-foot view of project planning, helping to smooth production by taking care of things like communications, team development, recruiting, design tools and systems, and budgets.

Project Support

The DesignOps function in this model is baked into specific project workflows to elevate and drive the design process in tandem with design leaders.

Here, the executive producer and the design managers attend to the high-level planning, but also get involved in the nitty gritty, driving the day-to-day creative workflows.

CHAPTER FOUR

Are you really ready for your own DesignOps team?

So, the big brands are all over DesignOps. There are at least two annual international conferences dedicated entirely to the subject. A Google search for “designops” turns up 119,000 results, leading to reams of opinions on the efficacy, practice and implementation of the function. The mantra, it seems, is almost universal: If you want to deliver design at scale, you better have a DesignOps team onboard to help.

The question then, is when to implement one? Jason Henrickson, a creative operations manager at Amazon, has spent years at the online retail giant helping to streamline complicated creative projects and solving issues that allow design teams to scale.

“I think a company is ready for DesignOps when they start realizing that they're having trouble scaling their design team or they're having trouble staying on budget,” he says. “If you're constantly spending too much on creative and having trouble scaling your creative team—or both of those things at the same time—then it's time for DesignOps, in my opinion.”

Now, hold up. Before anyone starts advocating for headcount, consider some of the most common problems that come with creating DesignOps teams.

The most common problems that precipitate the creation of a DesignOps team:

  1. Design teams can’t keep pace with the volume of work requests coming in
  2. The work being produced is not best-in-class, a direct result of disengagement and burnout within overstretched design teams
  3. Design teams are fragmented, and not everyone is aligned with the company’s overall objective
  4. There’s no clear path to scaling the design team to meet corporate objectives

What does your current creative design team look like? Even with all of those commonplace conditions in existence, most companies don’t need to rush out and formalize a DesignOps function—it can be implemented piecemeal, says Henrickson. In fact, many are already solving for these kind of problems by making the most of freelancers or agencies to complement their overstretched in-house design team during peak periods, when they temporarily need specialized skills or need to save on costs. Managing those relationships is essentially a DesignOps function that can even be managed by third-party services, like Superside.

But as Dave Malouf, a consultant, coach and educator who is also a speaker and part of the programming committee the Design Ops Summit, sees it, most companies already have design operations in place whether they know it or not. We actually did a whole interview with Malouf, which you can read here.

“DesignOps is really similar to the concept of user experience in so far as, if you don't do anything about it, you still have it, right? If I don't design user experience, I still have an experience. It’s the same thing with DesignOps. If I don't do anything about it, I still have it. So for me, the question is less about, what's the right moment? But really how do you scale?”

So how do you scale DesignOps?

“It usually starts a bit more organically,” says Malouf. “I've worked for companies or clients where some outside force, some asteroid lands on them, and that's how they figured out they needed DesignOps. But it best starts organically.”

Dave Malouf, Sr. director of strategy and operations at Northwestern Mutual

Consider this: Even a design team of one is still doing DesignOps.

They’re picking the tools they want to use, they’re deciding how to prioritize, defining what quality means in the context of workflow. And suddenly that team has grown to five, and there’s a manager responsible for hiring, developing and growing talent, providing designers with the air cover they need to be productive while also starting to think about strategic growth. By the time the team’s up to 25, there are multiple managers working on various portfolios outside of their daily duties, from workflow management to business operations. That’s when the managers begin to rebel ("No, no, no, we also need to have a program manager and three more producers and...") and the team realizes it needs more people handling more specialized functions to truly succeed.

“Once you start poking a hole into the operations wall,” says Malouf, “the hole keeps getting bigger. And it never collapses back. It only keeps widening. It just has to get the right person's attention.”

How do you get buy in?

When you’ve reached a point of no return—when that operations hole that Malouf spoke about is the size of the Kool-Aid Man—formalizing a DesignOps function at your organization can still be an uphill battle. But it usually starts with proving the ROI of DesignOps for your business.

“The easiest things to start talking about are the numbers that matter to the business,” says Malouf. “The one that I like the most, depending on the scale of your organization, is attrition because it's a huge engagement indicator for your team. And it's a big cost. Every time you lose a person that's like $50,000 thrown away just on the recruitment and the loss of knowledge by the time you find and onboard somebody.”

If DesignOps can make your team happier and more fulfilled by the work they’re doing, the more likely they’re going to stay. So that’s a win.

Next are the ideas that you can evangelize most easily with: The kinds of things that impact your collaborators are going to be the things that they think about all the time, like improved responsiveness, optimization, efficiency, philosophy, etc.

At Amazon, Henrickson’s team was able to come in at 44 percent under budget last year. “I'd definitely say that's due to CreativeOps, because I just looked for ways to cut money the whole way throughout the year and keep the quality high.”

But at the end of the day, Malouf says, DesignOps is really about improving design quality. To quantify that argument, be ready to demonstrate how better design work impacts customer satisfaction numbers like promotion or referral or churn rate.

Merideth Black's advice? "Start by identifying what the top needs are for running your design team at a higher level of efficiency."

Getting started

It’s vital to get all stakeholders—especially those in leadership positions—onboard. But even once you’ve demonstrated how a formalized DesignOps function can help your company achieve its goals and you’ve got the go-ahead to make a hire, stay calm.

“Go slowly, and carefully,” reiterates Meredith Black. “Start by identifying what the top needs are for running your design team at a higher level of efficiency. Then, hire somebody who is going to embrace ambiguity. You need someone who is willing to just jump in and do everything.”

It’s a slow road to success, so have that first hire start by tabulating the little wins that help demonstrate the value of DesignOps across the organization. Take meeting notes with action items. Host a weekly visual status update to show the ongoing work of designers. Reach out across functions to get a better understanding of competing needs and demonstrate how DesignOps have helped to improve the ways in which staff work together.

Herlency Munoz, DesignOps leader

You want to create a demand for this role so that, six months after it’s been implemented, you can prove its ROI in a heartbeat. You’re winning, says Black, if you can spit out positive answers to each of the following five questions:

  • Are our teams resourced properly?
  • Is money being tracked effectively?
  • Is cross-functional collaboration happening?
  • Is design no longer a blocker?
  • Are our designers thriving?

Sounds simple, right?

CHAPTER FIVE

Do I really have to create a DesignOps function in-house?

Truth be told, it’s not easy for every business that needs rigor in their design project management to simply plug a DesignOps team into their organization. Sure, it’s been working well for Facebook and Nike, but what about that small marketing team that can’t even keep pace with its internal design requests? Or that innovative creative agency that can’t focus on growing its client list because it simply can’t handle the volume that scaling up would require? Is it possible to implement a DesignOps function for your business without having to do it in-house?

“You can do it in pieces,” says Malouf. “I still think you need to have someone who is considered on the inside who has skin in the game, like real accountability. But you can outsource program management. You can outsource procurement and some of the business ops relationships pieces. People do already, right? They're already outsourcing their recruitment or their other operational pieces through the COO's office.”

The reality is that, right now, working with a distributed team is the norm in most design circles, whether that means someone’s working from home three days a week or mocking up wireframes from Kathmandu. New collaboration tools like Slack, Zoom, and Google software are helping to empower this shift while automated staffing platforms have now advanced to a point where it’s easy to assemble experienced design teams on demand—turning what used to take weeks, if not months of talent sourcing, into something that can now be delivered within minutes.

From a DesignOps perspective, it’s now possible to successfully run team meetings, decide on effective collaboration tools, maintain consistent documentation and onboarding practices and still promote a healthy team culture in a distributed environment.

“A lot of it is communication and tracking,” says Amazon’s Henrickson. “So those are all things that we have technology to help us do remotely. We can work globally now. I think DesignOps is one of those roles that could very easily be migrated into a remote function.”

Jillanna Wilson is the Director, Design & Research Operations at Zendesk, a 3,500-employee B2B customer service software company headquartered in San Francisco. With 16 offices around the globe—from Australia to Europe to South America—Zendesk’s seven-member DesignOps team manages 85 team members spread across eight countries.

Dave Malouf, Sr. director of strategy and operations at Northwestern Mutual, design operations leader

In a 2019 webchat with Lou Rosenfeld, an information architect consultant and co-founder of the DesignOps Summit, Wilson described how the DesignOps team at Zendesk dealt with a distributed team. [7] From loneliness to mentorship, camaraderie to documentation and design tools, there were plenty of issues to contend with. But all were surmountable.

“One big job of the ops team is to always have their finger on the pulse, if you will, of the temperature of the team. Oftentimes, you feel, I think in this type of a role that you’re a counselor to your team and that's great.”

To combat loneliness, Wilson instituted a cameras-on policy for Zoom calls to encourage participation. (“There's something really powerful in just that small act.”)  They tackle camaraderie and mentorship issues by overcommunicating and maintaining a positive team culture: Team members send care packages around the world to their fellow designers; onboarding buddies from different countries get to know one another’s different perspectives. To make the team’s worklife simpler, they prioritize and invest in solid virtual tools.

Tactically, having a distributed DesignOps function can have an even greater impact on efficiency and productivity if that team spans time zones, allowing for work to continue while other teams are sleeping. For smaller companies, or ones that aren’t ready/willing to dive headlong into an in-house DesignOps function, creating a bespoke team that’s available to complement workflows when they’re really needed can be a gamechanger.

CONCLUSION

Design isn’t bound by borders. DesignOps teams shouldn’t be either

From Loewy to Watson, Jr. to Jobs, it’s been established that good design is good for business. And it’s never been in more demand than it is today. With smartphones, tablets, and digital interfaces at every turn, design is literally everywhere. It’s the primary consumer touchpoint for most businesses.

But as demand for design services continues to spike across every industry, it’s become clear that many businesses just aren’t equipped to deliver high-quality design at scale. DesignOps has provided a solution for many, but it’s not the cure-all. In the next two to three years, says Dave Malouf, most businesses will have already caught up to the early adopters. In the next ten, he says, DesignOps will disappear: It’ll just be the way things get done.

In the meantime, companies wrestling with their ability to provide design at scale will continue to seek systems that help them improve their workflows. For those with the resources and wherewithal to do so that might mean an organizational overhaul, from culture to staffing. But for most, getting design right will continue to be a piecemeal project.

And that’s fine—after all, great design can be created anywhere, under the most unexpected conditions. Design isn’t bound by borders, and the teams that work together to create it don’t have to be either.

REFERENCES

References

REFERENCES

1. Rae, Jeneanne. “2015 dmi: Design Value Index Results and Commentary.” Design Management Institute. Retrieved Sept. 18, 2019 from: https://www.dmi.org/page/2015DVIandOTW

2. Sheppard, Benedict and Hugo Sarrazin, Garen Kouyoumjian, Fabricio Dore. “The Business Value of Design.” McKinsey Quarterly. October 2018. Retrieved Sept. 18, 2019 from:  https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/mckinsey-design/our-insights/the-business-value-of-design

3. Buley, Leah and Chris Avore, Stephen Gates, Stephanie Gonzalez, Rob Goodman, Aarron Walter. “The New Design Frontier: The widest-ranging report to date examining design’s impact on business.” Design Better. February 2019. Retrieved Sept. 11, 2019 from: https://www.invisionapp.com/design-better/design-maturity-model/

4.  Workfront. “The 2019 State of Work Survey.” Workfront.  June 2019. Retrieved Sept. 26, 2019 from: https://www.workfront.com/sites/default/files/files/2019-01/2019%20US%20State%20of%20Work.pdf

5. Faller, Patrick. “DesignOps: A Meaningless Buzzword or a Must-Have Strategy?” Adobe (blog). Feb. 3, 2017. Retrieved on Sept. 18, 2019 from: https://theblog.adobe.com/hiring-trends-in-ux-design-the-6-things-you-need-to-know-about-techs-fastest-growing-field/

6. Battles, Kate and Meredith Black, Dave Malouf, Collin Whitehead, and Gregg Bernstein (editor). “The DesignOps Handbook.” Design Better. June 2018. Retrieved Sept. 6, 2019 from: https://www.designbetter.co/designops-handbook

7. “Distributed DesignOps Management.” (Video conference.) Rosenfeld Media. March 28, 2019. Retrieved Sept. 26, 2019 from: https://rosenfeldmedia.com/designops-community/archive/distributed-designops-management/