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Design Ops: How to Build a High-Functioning Design Team

Build your strongest design team using a design ops approach: Learn how to increase the value of design at your organization through design operations.

8 min read

October 19, 2022

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Many companies have an organizational structure that creates silos, or groups of experts separated by their knowledge and skills. In this type of organization, designers don't have much interaction with members of other departments, making it difficult to demonstrate the value of their design work. Additionally, silos tend to reduce efficiency and limit collaboration.

To avoid these problems, many organizations are turning to the design ops approach, which gives design professionals more of a strategic role. This approach includes visual designers, product managers, design leaders, UX designers, and anyone else involved in delivering a positive user experience.

In this article, you'll learn more about design ops and find out how it can benefit your organization.

What is Design Ops?

Design operations, also known as design ops, is a strategic approach to creating value with design. The main purpose of design ops is to make design more impactful at the organizational level. To achieve this goal, a design ops team handles the following:

  • Hiring talented designers and giving them opportunities to refine their skills
  • Making sure the organization's design process is as efficient as possible
  • Increasing the efficiency of each workflow
  • Ensuring the team's activities align with the organization's goals

Design Ops vs. DevOps:

Although they sound similar, design ops and devops aren't the same thing. Design ops focuses on design, while devops brings together software development and IT operations.

The main purpose of design ops is to make design more impactful at the organizational level.

What are the benefits of design ops?

The main benefit of design ops is that it helps team members overcome the challenges that make it difficult to create impactful designs. In organizations that use the design ops approach, design team members have the opportunity to refine the way they collaborate, complete design projects, and develop their careers. As a result, design ops has these additional benefits:

Increased value

Many stakeholders struggle to understand the value of design. They look at completed design projects and have difficulty seeing past the color scheme or typography. Design ops makes it easier for non-design personnel to understand exactly how design projects affect the organization.

Balanced workload

One of the key components of design ops is the opportunity to define how the design team completes each project. That means standardizing as much of the work as possible and learning how to prioritize each assignment. This makes it easier for design managers to delegate tasks, resulting in a more balanced workload for the entire team.

Increased motivation

It's difficult to stay motivated when other people don't understand the value of your work. If your company decides to use the design ops approach, you'll be able to measure your impact using a variety of metrics. Design ops also prioritizes recognition and rewards for members of the design team. As a result, it's easier for team members to stay motivated.

Improved collaboration

One of the main goals of design ops is to determine how to work together to create maximum value. This involves making sure the team has the right people with the right skills, giving team members opportunities to learn new skills and creating a culture where everyone can thrive. Design ops makes it easier for design teams to collaborate, increasing their impact.

Increased efficiency

Design ops relies heavily on design systems, which standardize many aspects of the design process, making it easier to complete a project. Team members have access to templates, frameworks, and reusable design elements, eliminating the need to start every task from scratch. This increases efficiency and gives team members more time to focus on adding value to the organization.

How to get started with design ops

Design ops isn't something you implement overnight. It takes careful planning to transition smoothly from what your company is doing now to what you want to do in the future. The first step is to interview members of the design team to find out what challenges they're facing, from inefficient processes to bottlenecks that slow down production.

✔️ Involve key stakeholders

The next step is to interview other stakeholders to find out how your design team affects other departments. You may discover that some of the challenges identified in the first step are affecting more than just a few people on the design team.

For example, if designers don't have the tools they need to finish work quickly, employees in the marketing department may have to wait longer than they'd like for brochures, print advertisements, and other designs. This can prevent the marketing department from launching new campaigns on time. If the product design team misses deadlines, the company may not have the digital products it needs to remain competitive.

✔️ Onboard new team members

Once you identify the design team's challenges, you may need to hire new personnel to address them. For example, if a majority of team members report that a lack of leadership is affecting their ability to produce value for the organization, you may need to hire a design ops manager or design team lead.

Building your design ops team

To implement design ops successfully, you must have the right people on your team. You may need to add some of the following positions.

DesignOps Manager

Design ops managers oversee members of the design team and manage team workflows. They're typically responsible for improving design processes, coordinating with other departments, communicating the value of the design team to other stakeholders, and making sure members of the design team are contributing to the organization's overall goals. Their design leadership helps the team succeed and ensures that other members of the organization understand the importance of design initiatives.

Program Manager

In a design org, the design program manager looks for ways to improve the team's output and ability to contribute to organizational success. Their duties may include setting objectives, tracking key performance indicators (KPIs), identifying best practices in design, documenting effective design methodologies, and managing the design team's collaboration with other departments. 

Producer

Unlike the program manager, who provides support at the organizational level, a producer provides support at the project level. Your producer may act as a liaison between the design team and other departments, gather design requirements from stakeholders, lead team meetings, set project timelines, develop design standards, and eliminate barriers to the team's success. A producer also focuses on optimizing design activities to increase efficiency and maximize output.

Design Lead

Design leads are individual contributors who take responsibility for the overall quality of the team's work. This role is ideal for an experienced UX designer, UI designer, UX research associate, graphic designer, or product development professional who has strong leadership skills. In addition to completing their own tasks, design leaders provide support to their team members and look for ways to make the design process more efficient.

Design Manager

Design managers and design ops managers have some of the same responsibilities. For example, the design manager oversees team members and monitors workflows. Sharing these responsibilities prevents any one person from being solely responsible for the success of company design initiatives.

Research Ops Lead

Research ops lead is one of the most important design ops roles because the success of the design team hinges on the ability to deliver a positive customer experience. UX researchers identify user pain points, giving product teams the information they need to develop user-friendly designs. The research ops lead recruits participants for focus groups, administers surveys, selects appropriate research tools, and performs other duties related to UX research.

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Putting design ops into practice

If you're ready to put design ops into practice, you'll need support from company executives and other high-level employees. For example, an operations manager can help your new approach succeed by making sure the design operations team has the tools and resources it needs to make the transition. Operations managers typically oversee human resources, purchasing, information technology, and other key departments, all of which can help your team complete design projects and demonstrate the value of design to the organization.

Successful design organizations use functional teams instead of silos to ensure employees have plenty of opportunities to collaborate.

Successful design organizations also use functional teams instead of silos to ensure employees have plenty of opportunities to collaborate. To create functional teams, identify the skills your organization needs to succeed. After you identify team members with those skills, make sure each person's role is as clear as possible. It's also important to establish open lines of communication to ensure team members feel comfortable sharing ideas with the head of design and stakeholders in other departments.

✏️ Case Study: Design Ops at Airbnb

Airbnb implemented the design operations approach to create more value for the business.

Like many other startups, the company has grown rapidly, making it critical for the design team to collaborate effectively and create value for Airbnb. Adrian Cleave was responsible for creating a design operations team to help the company achieve its goals.

Before Cleave created this team, there was a gap between the design team's capabilities and its output. Now that Airbnb is using design ops, it has five separate teams, increasing collaboration and making it easier for design personnel to demonstrate their value:

  1. Design tools
  2. Production design
  3. Localization
  4. Design program management
  5. Team coordinators

Before creating these teams, Cleave and his colleagues determined how they would define new roles, how to avoid organizational silos, and how to measure the success of the design ops program. Making the transition has helped Airbnb increase efficiency.

Scaling Your Design Operations

When you're ready to scale your design operations, it's important to be clear about what your team can accomplish. You can't always say yes or else team members are likely to burn out, causing the quality of their work to suffer. For best results, don't agree to a new project unless it clearly adds value to the organization.

Creating a menu of services can also help key stakeholders better understand what your team can and can't do. Once you come up with a service menu, post it to your company's intranet or email a copy to all stakeholders who use your design team's services. If you take the time to set reasonable expectations, you can cut down on the number of irrelevant requests you receive.

Build a high-functioning team

The design ops approach has several benefits for companies of all sizes, including increased efficiency and higher levels of motivation among members of the design team. If you need additional personnel to make design ops a reality for your organization, search for experienced design professionals to add to your team. Once you have the right team members, you can create more value for your company.

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