My path to DesignOps, from consultancies to in-house

I knew design was being taken seriously when the firm where I worked, Hot Studio, was acquired by Facebook, joining a wave of design acquihires. Around the same time, Accenture acquired Fjord, Capital One acquired Adaptive Path, and Nurun acquired Odopod. Large organizations realized that one way to quickly scale teams was by acquiring design firms.

One thing all of these design firms had in common was a staff who knew how to work with creatives and clients, and who could manage projects efficiently. Through these acquisitions, the role of DesignOps was introduced into larger organizations, which demonstrated just how valuable design operations can be when strengthening product teams.

Margaret Stewart, VP of product design at Facebook, embraced this opportunity by ensuring there were several DesignOps members on her team—including me, during the Hot Studio acquisition and transition. Today, there’s a growing DesignOps team of more than 40 design program managers at Facebook.

Jasmine Friedl, formerly a product designer at Facebook, is now the director of design at Udacity. Here’s how she recalls the integration of the role of DesignOps at Facebook:

After some time at Facebook, Pinterest called me. Bob Baxley was head of design, and he wanted someone to help steer the design ship and run operations for a small team. While it was very much a to-be-defined position, we both knew the DesignOps role could make the design team operate more efficiently, and allow the designers to focus solely on design. After four years in this role, I’m excited to share what I’ve learned about what DesignOps can look like in an organization.

Getting buy-in for DesignOps

Adrienne Allnutt and Kalee Dankner discuss how LinkedIn approaches Design Ops, from sharing work out to other teams to building cross-functional relationships.

Because not everyone is familiar with the role of DesignOps, introducing it into your organization can be a challenge. You’ll want to prepare an explanation of the role and how it benefits your organization.

DesignOps makes teams run more effectively by letting designers focus on design while leaving everything else to the operations team. Many organizations expect their designers to wear many hats—project manager, cross-functional partner, creative leader, and logistical coordinator. However, these additional roles reduce the time your designer can devote to your product and users.

While it may take some convincing to hire for this role, the ROI will appear quickly. Teams will be better organized, leadership will gain a better understanding of what makes their teams tick, and cross-functional teams will have more visibility into—and a better understanding of—the design process. This creates better organizational awareness of design, and mitigates misconceptions that “designers design in a black hole” or that design projects take too long.

Some tips for DesignOps buy-in:

Do the research

Talk to your heads of design, product, and engineering (and any senior leadership within your org you have access to) to assess opportunities available in the current product teams.

Here are some possible conversation starters:

  • Do you have visibility into what the design team is working on?
  • Do you know if the team is working well cross-functionally with product and engineering colleagues?
  • Does the team have clear and actionable goals they are driving toward, and are they meeting them?
  • Are there regular design critiques or feedback sessions?
  • Are the product manager, engineer, and designer aligned with what’s shipping?
  • Is the team meeting deadlines?

Propose a plan

Propose a set of essential tasks that DesignOps could help contribute to.

For example, DesignOps can help a product manager operationalize a roadmap, make sure that the team has proper kick-offs on projects, and ensure a design QA is scheduled prior to a major product launch.

Recommend the role

Recommend to your leadership team that you would like to hire someone into this DesignOps role to tackle the opportunities surfaced in your research—someone who will develop a long-term plan to scale operations on the team.

Keep leadership involved

Invite your stakeholders to interviews, and keep them involved throughout the interview process.

Spread the good news

Update your stakeholders on successes and the impact this hire is making in this role. You want to make sure leadership sees the positive outcomes this role creates.

Staffing for DesignOps

Staffing for DesignOps will depend on both the makeup of the design team and the culture within your organization. Some design teams might appreciate tenacious and driven people running projects, while other organizations might require a lighter touch.

Regardless of the situation, there are some universal qualities and skills to look for in a DesignOps candidate:

  1. You want someone who can build cross-functional relationships while representing design, and who understands the design process. These relationships will necessitate understanding the product development process and product engineering principles.
  2. The role calls for excellent project, time, budget, and resource management, and an understanding of different project management ideologies (like waterfall and agile, among others)
  3. Finally, this role calls for calm in ambiguous and changing environments

One size doesn’t fit all. It’s okay to take the qualities above and get creative, which is something I did when I hired two candidates from an organization outside the typical design path—the United States Navy. Both had experience navigating a large organization with different types of people and multiple missions and goals. In my case, the qualities and experiences perfectly aligned with our team’s needs.

How do you screen for these qualities?

Most hiring processes begin with a recruiter or hiring manager initiating a phone screen with the candidate. I usually ask that the phone screen include a few ops-specific questions, like “What are your strengths when it comes to operations?”

Another way I determine organizational fit is to ask the candidate to describe whether they enjoy variety and change, or a more regimented day with clearly defined daily tasks. If the phone screen goes well, set the candidate up to speak to future collaborators—designers, of course, but also consider representatives from engineering, research, writing, and product management.

Each interviewer should take careful notes, as you’ll all want to debrief after the last chat. Compare notes and determine if the candidate aligns with your team, your project management needs, and demonstrates the skills to work both cross-functionally and closely with the design group. And be sure the entire team is excited about working with this potential colleague!

A yearlong plan for integrating DesignOps

Day one

Now that you’ve hired this person, you want to set them up for success. On day one, welcome your new hire onto the team, perhaps with a special event. At Pinterest, we used a weekly Wednesday coffee event called “Fika,” where a colleague would bring in a treat they discovered from Pinterest, to create a calm and welcoming environment.

Week one

With day one out of the way, the rest of the week should allow your new DesignOps hire to build relationships within and beyond the design team. Set up 1:1 meetings with the right people for your new hire, and encourage them to learn how design works in your org, what designers need help with, and what opportunities there are for this new hire to help.

Month one

Now that your hire has made it through week one intact, for the next couple weeks, they can start exploring how to make the design team operationally efficient.

Year one

What follows are a few initiatives for your new hire to focus on based on the needs of your organization. Covering all of the recommended areas will take at least 6–12 months to implement, and will most likely take the work of more than one person.

Throughout this first year, make sure you’re tracking the performance of this role and communicating it—this will allow colleagues across your organization to see the value of the role, and will allow you to build a case for even more DesignOps hires.

A menu of DesignOps initiatives

Resourcing

Align your headcount to your roadmap by thinking about resourcing: who should be doing what and when?

  • Develop a template or guide to help identify the strengths of each designer on your team and how they can best contribute to different types of projects
  • Audit whether the design team is set up for success—are designers on projects that suit their skills and strengths?
  • Meet with design leadership each week to ensure that company priorities are being suitably staffed

Program management

Begin to shape the design process by instituting communication and collaboration protocols.

  • Create a short (30 minutes should be enough), weekly visual status review with your design leadership team. This will allow everyone to quickly go through each design, spot any overlaps on projects, ensure the product design is up to design spec, and ultimately solicit approval before launch.
  • Carve out weekly dedicated studio time for designers to catch up with other designers. For designers embedded on cross-functional teams, this is an opportunity to talk about projects, share designs with someone outside their usual cohort, and contribute to developing a strong design culture.
  • Schedule weekly design critiques for each design team. These critiques are an opportunity for peers and design leadership to review work, provide feedback, and maintain high design standards. As the DesignOps program manager, your responsibility doesn’t end with scheduling the crit, but includes set-up, ensuring designers are ready to present, and following up with clear and actionable next steps for each designer.
  • Deliver weekly status updates to and beyond your team. At Pinterest, we send out a visual status document every Monday morning that lists what everyone is working on and shows design comps from each team. This keeps our design org of 60 people up to date on what other designers are working on, and also serves as a guide for our cross-functional teams to understand what everyone is working on.
  • Establish credibility and become the source of truth for your team. Once in place, the preceding items will lead to this happening. Courtney Kaplan, head of design program management at Facebook, describes herself as “the human Yelp. People come to me when they need answers.”

Team onboarding

If you’re putting DesignOps in play, you’re likely increasing headcount. Demystify the onboarding process for everyone by creating documentation and protocols.

  • Develop an onboarding doc for new designers and design team members. Make this a team effort—this doc should include everything you and your colleagues wish you knew when you first started. Think about things like file saving and naming protocols, master calendars, email aliases—even where to grab a bite to eat.
  • Pair up new designers for training and meeting other members of the organization, when you have two or more new design team members starting at the same time. This shared experience can be the foundation for building tight bonds and a strong culture on your team.
  • For a larger organization, consider scheduling design-specific onboarding in addition to company onboarding. Work with your hiring team to build a curriculum that sets your new hire up for team and org success.

Team morale and education

A design team requires inspiration, collaboration, and continuing education. Establish how you can facilitate both individual and group growth.

  • Plan team offsites to get your designers together at least once per quarter as a team. This doesn’t have to be anything more than ordering (a lot of) pizza, stocking up on LaCroix water, and procuring a soccer ball. The important part is that everyone gets together and teammates have a chance to bond.
  • Provide educational opportunities for the team by hosting experts who can level up everyone’s skills. This could be a class on how to use a complicated bit of software more effectively or a presentation of a case study by a respected peer outside the organization. If possible, extend an invitation to the local design community by hosting events like Creative Mornings or AIGA Design Week.
  • Schedule regular design speakers for lunch brown bags or coffee hours.
  • Make time to take your designers on inspirational field trips. If your team is distributed, signal that this is an acceptable use of company time and encourage your designers to find nearby inspiration.
  • Hold a monthly all-hands meeting for the design team. Curate this to include a mix of education, presentations of work in progress from designers, any updates you might have for the team, and some time for folks to get to know each other.

Budgeting for design

To advocate for the design organization, you’ll want to understand how design fits into your organization’s larger financial picture.

  • Meet with your finance team to understand how the company operates. You’ll want to know about accounting systems, the fiscal calendar, team budgets, and how headcount is allocated.
  • Share this information with your design leadership team—everyone should understand the financial constraints and opportunities.
  • Track all design team expenses, and establish approval processes for expense requests. For a large team, you might even provide each designer with a discretionary budget for the tools they need to perform their work.

Supercharging your DesignOps program

Let’s jump forward in time. The team is running smoothly, and you have a good sense of everyone’s needs. Now it’s time to think beyond design critiques and budgeting.

Though a heavy lift, a product design system is a worthwhile investment of time and resources. A design system enforces standards and gives everyone a common language and starting point.

Shifting from digital to physical, a workshop program offers designers a dedicated space to perform special activities. At Pinterest, we have one design program manager dedicated solely to running our workshop—a room that teams can book to run design sprints, kick off projects, or work through a tricky problem.

The workshop provides an opportunity for designers to move into a new environment and run an IDEO-style workshop to generate new ideas, work through problems, and return to their project teams with clear and actionable next steps.

Final thoughts

Establishing DesignOps is just the start of this work. You’re going to need to make sure this role remains top of mind within your organization by keeping the lines of communication open within and outside the design org.

It takes work, but share team and individual wins with stakeholders, and gather the stories that demonstrate the value of DesignOps. If a project would have fallen through the cracks, or a product launch went off without a hitch, or the team has gotten better at communicating design feedback, it’s on you to share this high and low.

Champion this role. DesignOps doesn’t just help the design team—it benefits all parts of the product organization. Be deliberate and thoughtful as you put DesignOps into play, and keep in mind that there is no right or wrong way to do this—it’s all about what’s best for your design org.