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You already have a Design System — how to roll out DesignOps?

I’ve recently spoken with several designers and executives about how to improve the design function or design operations in their organization. Most of these companies have already realized that design is strategic enough so they have established an internal design shop, or at least a lone designer has been hired in the company. Yet something seems to be prohibiting the internal design function from fulfilling its potential. The importance of design is being gradually understood and the role of Design Operations or DesignOps is slowly gaining momentum. However, quite a many organizations are struggling with how to make it happen.

Many of these organizations already have a Design System of some kind in place, so could that be used as a springboard for DesignOps?

What is a Design System

A Design System is a set of interconnected patterns and shared practices coherently organized, wrote Alla Kholmatova in 2017. Sometimes the so-called design system may not be much more than a collection of UI design components, but it still manages to deliver at least some benefits of design systems.

Having a well-built design system can increase your product development efficiency and effectiveness by 25%:

  • Reuse of components and patterns makes it faster to design and develop new products. Saving time means saving money.
  • It becomes easier for users to transfer between products as newer products share design conventions with earlier ones. As a result, new products can be launched more quickly.
  • Increased maintenance and scalability reduces resources and time requirements
  • Designers have more time to focus on solving the business or user problems instead of designing lower-level building blocks. In turn, this results in a better customer experience.
  • Company products retain a more cohesive look and feel than they did before the company adopted a design system, which results in a higher level of customer loyalty.

DesignOps combines systems and humans

DesignOps refers to the orchestration and optimization of people, processes, and craft in order to amplify design’s value and impact at scale. (Nielsen and Norman)

Despite design systems being an essential step towards reusing design components and patterns for greater efficiency and a better user experience, they still lack that orchestration and optimization of people, processes, and craft. This is where DesignOps steps in. 

Kudos to Nielsen and Norman for their DesignOps definition seen above, but being more a people person myself, my definition of DesignOps incorporates both the human and the business side:

DesignOps refers to the orchestration and optimization of people, processes, and craft in order to amplify design’s value and impact at scale — while positively influencing the working lives of designers.

DesignOps as designer support function

Amplifying design’s value and impact at scale is quite obviously highly desirable from the company business perspective but I feel it’s our responsibility to also encourage the development of enablers for meaningful and desirable work, and establish motivational growth paths for designers. The goal of DesignOps is to enable designers to focus on what they do best: designing. This will impact positively both the company bottom line and the designers’ working day.

DesignOps practitioners help to 

  • Optimize workflows within the design team and with design’s stakeholders
  • Try out new design tools and roll relevant ones out in the organization
  • Shape the collaborative design work practices
  • Find and hire new designers to the organization
  • Shape the structures and steer the culture of the design organization
  • Outline meaningful development paths for designers. 

In a design team with no responsible DesignOps practitioners these tasks are usually divided between the design manager and the design system owner, if one exists — and in a small company this may well mean the one-person design team! Thus it is quite natural evolution if the design manager or design system owner proactively starts to take a more holistic grip over DesignOps areas like design workflows and work practices, designer career ladder, and design team structuring. 

“DesignOps is designer support like Design System is, only on a bigger scale and impact.”


How to get top management buy-in?

Sometimes the urge to develop and improve the design function may come from above. A senior executive may feel the company design team is not supporting the company’s strategic objectives adequately, not delivering high-quality design work or just not being productive enough. Simply hiring more design practitioners is rarely enough to address these issues.

Sometimes there is no top-level sponsor but the urge to move to the next level of design maturity is initiated bottom-up, from within the design function itself. At the same time, DesignOps as a term or framework may not be familiar within the company outside the design team. 

For these kinds of situations I’ve collected some pretty widely-established arguments for DesignOps.

The causes and results of not having a DesignOps approach in an organization

  • Poor collaboration between functions and ineffective end-to-end workflows
  • Inconsistent design tool and template usage 
  • Lack of processes and poor engagement models
  • Long working hours and lots of delays resulting in employee dissatisfaction
  • High rate of rework and poor outcome quality
  • The organization is not learning from previous design efforts

Similarly, where can we see the benefits of DesignOps to be realized:

  • Rapid testing and prototyping lead time
  • Velocity of designing new products or features 
  • Team productivity and implementation efficiency
  • Amount of usability or technical errors to be fixed
  • Customer or end user satisfaction
  • Perceived value of design teams by cross-functional partners
  • Employee satisfaction and retention

Let's elevate your design function to the next level too

Our core team has built and led in-house design teams in product and service companies, from Fortune 500 companies to startups and scaleups. At Alpha Design Partners we help companies to improve their design maturity and scale the value of design. We’ve seen design practices that are failing and that are scaling, and we’d be happy to elevate your design function to the next level with our DesignOps toolbox.

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Harri Kiljander
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