DesignOps: What’s the Point? How Practitioners Define DesignOps Value

DesignOps: What’s the Point? How Practitioners Define DesignOps Value

Design Operations (DesignOps) is a relatively recent topic of conversation, and practitioners are still actively defining what it means and how it takes shape within organizations. In an attempt to understand the mental models of DesignOps that exist today within the UX and design community, we collected and analyzed 341 definitions of Design Operations (DesignOps) from design and UX practitioners and managers.

How Were DesignOps Definitions Collected?

Definition collection took place throughout 2019, across three efforts:

NN/g UX Conference Crowdsourcing

Before launching our DesignOps course, we set up unmoderated stations at several NN/g UX Conferences in an attempt to better understand people’s awareness and understanding of Design Operations. Crowdsourcing stations invited attendees to answer three questions:

  1. What does your team need in order to optimize, scale and operationalize UX?
  2. Are you familiar with the term “Design Operations?”
  3. How would you define Design Operations?
Crowdsourcing station at an NN/g conference with a place to post up sticky note responses
Unmoderated crowdsourcing stations like the one above were set up at NN/g UX Conferences to understand attendees’ awareness and understanding of DesignOps.

We stopped this collection method after the launch of the course and publication of our own DesignOps definition (because, of course, we did not want people who had taken the course to simply submit our own definition).

Cognitive-Mapping Sessions

We also conducted cognitive-mapping sessions to understand practitioners’ mental models of Design Operations. While the primary focus of the sessions was understanding the components (e.g., tools, team structures, activities) that people associate with Design Operations, we also collected definitions from participants.

sticky note maps
In cognitive-mapping sessions, participants produced artifacts like the ones above that helped us understand the components they associate with Design Operations.

Digital Survey

The bulk of definitions came from a digital survey that ran for two months and had 557 respondents. (Not all respondents provided a definition of Design Operations.) The survey included two optional open-ended questions:

  1. In your own words, what is Design Operations?
  2. What are the biggest operational challenges you have experienced with design and user research?

How Were DesignOps Definitions Analyzed?

Of the 341 definitions collected, 31 were not included in analysis due to being:

  • Admissions of unfamiliarity (n=20):
    • Honestly? It’s not clear to me.
    • Not a term I’ve used or encountered before in my design career.
  • Nonsensical or overly vague (n=8):
    • The stuff I do on a daily basis
    • A way to solve problems
  • Replications of our own DesignOps definition (n=3):
    • I have adopted Kate Kaplan’s definition: “DesignOps refers to the orchestration and optimization of people, processes, and craft in order to amplify design’s value and impact at scale.”

The remaining 310 definitions were assigned codes to identify and compare themes within the responses.

printed and cut out definitions being sorted into groups on the floor
Individual, cut-out DesignOps definitions being coded and grouped as part of early analysis.

While the initial hypothesis was that the DesignOps definitions would span a range of conceptual yet concrete metaphors — such as DesignOps as a role or DesignOps as a set of activities — analysis revealed that respondents defined Design Operations by referring to the goal that DesignOps had in their organization. In other words, most definitions described DesignOps as a means to a specific end.

So, what’s the point of Design Operations? Around 80% of definitions fell into 6 categories. According to practitioners, the primary intent of DesignOps is to:

  1. Standardize (27%)
  2. Enable and support designers (22%)
  3. Scale design’s reach and impact (12%)
  4. Increase productivity (8%)
  5. Enable alignment and collaboration (6%)
  6. Produce better quality work (5%)

Though there is admittedly potential overlap in these categories (e.g., a team may wish to standardize processes in order to scale, or to support designers in order to produce better quality work), the primarily referenced end goal of each definition was used for assigning one category to each definition.

DesignOps: Intents and Mental Models

This section provides example definitions coded for each of the 6 main intents of DesignOps.

1. Standardize (27%)

The most frequently cited goal of DesignOps was to provide overall consistency, standardization or governance. The definitions within this category described DesignOps as a means to:

  • Define, document, and optimize processes for delivering design
    • Design Ops focuses on building sustaining design processes for products/services
    • Design activities governed by established methods and processes [that are] well documented
  • Provide governance, rules, or oversight to the design process
    • DesignOps for me are the set of rules that govern what we do and how we conduct design projects.
    • The definition and management of rules…If a research project or program execution starts going in the wrong direction, applying rules set by DesignOps can save it from failing.
  • Standardize tools and methods across teams
    • The coordination of tools and methodology across the org
    • The implementation of standardized processes and tools to guide design activities across crossfunctional teams

2. Enable and Support Designers (22%)

These definitions pointed to DesignOps’ role in supporting and enabling designers, specifically, removing operational or administrative tasks from designers’ workloads in order to enable them to focus on higher-value design tasks. Definitions in this category described DesignOps’ intent to:

  • Enable designers to focus on design
    • Helping UX designers and Service Designers to do their jobs without getting stuck in admin
    • A formal structure to lighten the load of low-value tasks for researchers
    • It reduces friction in all aspects of design work so designers can focus on their craft.
  • Provide managerial guidance and support
    • overseeing the work and growth of the design team
    • Managing requirements, resources, staff and…so that the designer[s] are able to do their best design
    • Taking care of the design team, finding projects and assigning design resources to projects and managing.
    • How design teams are organized and how they grow and operate.
  • Manage administrative tasks, tools, and systems
    • A team that handles the “administrative” side of things (managing/maintaining software/product licenses, contracts/agreements, budgets) for creative and design teams
    • Someone who manage[s] the design system or provide[s] the best tools, framework or environment to enable designers to work effectively 
    • Creating and maintaining the literal toolset for designers to work fast and within the design system (e.g., sketch licenses + libraries + updates)
    • Administrative tasks relevant to design: asset management, system and process management, etc.

3. Scale Design’s Reach and Impact (12%)

The definitions within this category described the goal of DesignOps as a way to scale, specifically to:

  • Grow the design practice or discipline within the organization:
    • Scaling design and nurturing design discipline
    • Operation of growing and nurturing design inside a business
    • The mission is [to] scale design culture at the company
  • Increase and systematize the measurable influence of design:
    • Frameworks for extending design processes/influences throughout the organization
    • How to systematically ensure that design is a part of the growing business and that value created is measured and accounted for appropriately.
    • Streamlining processes and being able to measure impact of solutions so that designers prove the value of customer-centric design

4. Increase Productivity (8%)

These definitions described DesignOps as a means to enable designers to do more work faster. They referenced speed, productivity, and creating efficiencies in order to deliver more:

  • Improving the flow of work to improve efficiency and deliver faster
  • Enabling the company and their designers to achieve more efficient and faster output through optimized software, aligned processes and methodologies. 
  • Arranging design teams to be more productive to amplify design output
  • Making sure anything design related [is] fast and efficient, ready; patterns, ux patterns, discovery procedures, etc.
  • The goal is to ensure that a design team is the most efficient possible in its design process and outputs.

5. Enable Alignment and Collaboration (6%)

Definitions within this category framed DesignOps as a way of aligning teams and integrating design into business processes:

  • The formalized process of planning for, executing, and incorporating design into process/product/service development.
  • How design teams work as individuals, with one another and within the greater organization
  • Coordinating the work of teams relating to UX across functions, including interaction/UI specs, user research and marketing, product management, program management, support, etc.

Some definitions within this category mentioned alignment between specific roles or groups, primarily either design and development, or design and operations:

  • Keeping the design process aligned with development
  • Persons who ensure that designs get incorporated to operations; or persons who facilitate design team with operations team

6. Better Quality Work (5%)

These responses pointed to better quality work as the main intent of DesignOps, often referencing activities or processes to enable serving end users or increasing the usability of products:

  • The functions required to design an aesthetically pleasing, user-friendly web page and the processes that are following to do so
  • The design of your software and making it better for your users
  • Shared responsibility for creating and maintaining highly usable products
  • Usability across web and email assets

Which Mental Model of DesignOps Is Correct?

All of the Mental Models Are Correct

As we’ve previously written, the shape of a DesignOps practice can and should look very different from one organization to the next. There are a lot of components within DesignOps, and what an organization chooses to select — or to pass on — should depend on the current needs and most poignant pain points of that organization. It follows, then, that there are many perceived values of DesignOps, depending on what problems a design team or organization is focused on solving, as reflected in the research.

None of the Mental Models Are Correct

That being said, it’s risky to narrow the value of DesignOps to one single mental model. Team needs will shift over time, and so should the DesignOps practice. Rather than thinking of DesignOps solely as a way to manage a design team, handle administrative tasks, or worse, get designers to produce more work faster, it’s better to think of DesignOps as a holistic, flexible practice whose goals and activities shift over time to meet the needs of the business and its employees.

Notably, very few definitions seemed to regard DesignOps in a holistic, flexible way (n=16). Those that did, however, framed DesignOps as a comprehensive method for improving and supporting design across many layers:

  • Design Operations is the blueprint that drives design at organizations.
  • The culture, tools and processes to make design efficient, consistent, valued and fun.
  • Design operations is the capability to improve the design tasks, people, deliveries and make the team works in a healthier way.
  • Design Operations [is the] hub of processes, resources and practices shared across a company.

Many Designers Still Aren’t Aware of DesignOps

It’s worth noting that there still seems to be a relatively low level of awareness of DesignOps, even among UXers and designers.

As evidence, only 314 of 557 survey respondents answered the question, “In your own words, what is Design Operations?” As previously mentioned, 31 of those responses were not included in analysis due to being admissions of unfamiliarity, overly vague, or nonsensical.

We might conclude, then, that only a little over half of survey respondents (51%, or 283 of 557) had enough awareness and understanding of DesignOps to be able to give an appropriate response. This fact seems to suggest that, despite the growing focus on DesignOps within our community, it is still not a concrete concept to many people, and it remains an emerging field.

Conclusion

This research revealed that practitioners commonly think about DesignOps in terms of the value they perceive that it delivers. The top three perceived values of DesignOps are:

  1. Standardizing and optimizing processes
  2. Enabling and supporting designers
  3. Scaling design

If you are a practitioner leading DesignOps conversations or efforts at your organization, take care to strategically frame DesignOps as a holistic, flexible practice that can shift to meet the needs of your team over time. This positioning may be more effective at setting your efforts up for longer-term success, ensuring the longevity of DesignOps as a practice or set of roles that endure beyond the solving of one particular problem your team is facing.