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DesignOps – strengthening the impact of design

Boris Divjak, June 3, 2019

Design and design thinking are becoming recognised as key drivers for growth in technology companies, with major players like IBM and AirBnB leading the way. With an increasing number of designers employed by these companies, a new practice is emerging, called DesignOps. I have recently had the chance to dive deep and reflect on this new practice, joining as one of the speakers at the DesignOps Global Conference in Manchester. I wanted to write down a few post-conference thoughts while they are still fresh in my mind.

Theory of change My talk at the DesignOps Global Conference was about designing for impact with theories of change

DesignOps is a thing and is here to stay

When I first heard of the term DesignOps (or Design Operations), my initial thought was that it is just another buzzword. It all sounded very similar to what I would have called ‘design management’, so why do we need a new word for it? After hearing an amazing lineup of speakers more familiar with this territory, my understanding is that DesignOps is a distinct function that addresses:

  • scale – the number of designers and others who are actively participating in design processes across big organisations today is unprecedented;
  • integration – design no longer works in isolation and we need new approaches to integrate it seamlessly throughout an organisation;
  • continuous innovation – design teams can now iterate more often and learn continuously through rapid experimentation (similarly to how DevOps enabled continuous delivery);
  • automation – repetitive and labour intensive aspects of the design process, such as prototyping and testing, are increasingly becoming streamlined with better and better tools and platforms.

In the eloquent words of Dave Malouf, Design Operations is about “amplifying the value of design” in an organisation. The importance of this is clearly recognised by organisations that have started employing dedicated DesignOps teams.

It’s about people as much as (or more than) it is about processes

While some talks focussed on technical aspects of DesignOps, such as creating and maintaining design systems, many speakers clearly emphasised the need to consider its human aspects. Transformation programmes that ignore the cultural element are more likely to fail and good DesignOps practices help to address this by:

  • providing a clear vision through an aligned strategy;
  • promoting flatter structures and collaboration;
  • encouraging trust and transparency, and fostering psychological safety;
  • supporting multi-disciplinary learning and development;
  • embracing adaptability to change and an experimentation mindset.

Walls and silos work against the goals of DesignOps, which is why creating a thriving ‘studio culture’ and fostering collaborative working practices is really important. I really liked a quote by Hayley Hughes which emphasised this point: “Your design system is only as strong as your relationships with the teams who use it.”

In line with the above, a key role of DesignOps is to keep an eye on the ‘health’ of the design practice and the people involved.

Design is relationships Hayley Hughes from AirBnB talks about the importance of designers nurturing relationships across the organisation

Do you speak my language?

For all its efforts to reach across silos, designers still seems to find it difficult to communicate the value of design. Adopting a language full of jargon with words like DesignOps, design thinking or agile doesn’t help this cause any further. During a panel discussion, Doug Powell suggested that designers should look beyond design and become better business people if they wish to be on an equal footing with stakeholders at the highest level.

While design has certainly made huge steps in the last decade towards being considered an essential aspect of any big organisation, we could perhaps achieve even more by really listening and understanding the point of view of other people we work with within our own businesses. And if tweaking some of the words that we use will make it easier for people to hear what we have to say, then that’s not really such a high price to pay.

Thanks to Peter Fossick and David Iball for the invitation and for organising everything so well. Hope to see you again next year!

Here are the slides from my presentation for anyone that might want to dig deeper: