Design operations teams form for many reasons, and grow and morph in many ways to fit the needs of an organization. I joined Fitbit to help build out the DesignOps team within the larger industrial design (ID) organization, transitioning from my former design program management role.

My design program management role was defined by discrete programs with a clear project brief, defined milestones, and desired outcomes, but my DesignOps role focuses on building an effective design team through established processes, partnerships, and initiatives.

Our initial tasks as a DesignOps team at Fitbit were to help the industrial design teams get up and running as quickly and effectively as possible, and to integrate the ID team processes with those of the greater product development team.

We achieved both of these tasks by:

  • Identifying the critical gaps and weaknesses where design could provide the most value
  • Establishing and fostering strong cross-functional partnerships
  • Socializing our process proposals to other teams and make our case for change

As with most young companies, things change quickly—and so too did what was being asked of us. Within a year of being at Fitbit, my role—and my team’s role—expanded to include supporting the entire design organization: ID, user experience, and user experience research.

With the expanded territory and responsibility came new teams, new people, and new challenges. Taking a similar approach to where we started with the ID organization, we now needed to solve for the different types of challenges across each design group; we needed to figure out how to work together collectively to elevate design process and culture within the company; and we needed to bring everyone together under a unified design organization. This was no small task, but in partnership with strong design leaders, this became one of my most exciting career opportunities.

Jonah Becker is the VP of Design at Fitbit. Here’s how he recalls the opportunities and challenges we faced with the transition to a unified design organization, and how he foresaw the DesignOps team helping:

When unifying the design disciplines at Fitbit into a single organization, we faced challenges spanning from the tactical to the cultural. The design operations team was central to this transition, establishing processes for communication and project management both within design and with other functions; leading space planning to foster sharing and a stronger sense of team; and creating a culture team to coordinate events, learning opportunities, and workshops to define organizational values. The work of the design operations team has contributed to a team that is central to the development of the Fitbit’s strategy; ranks at the top in company engagement metrics; and is creative, open, and fun.

To describe how this unified design organization got started, I’ll start by discussing the day-to-day aspects of design operations management that run and coordinate the Fitbit design organization.

Listen to all levels

Once you understand the high-level ask from your manager and have the nuts and bolts of your DesignOps team in place (team structure, resources, roles and responsibilities, tools, etc.), what steps should you take to help effectively run a design organization? Start by listening to all levels.

The most effective tool for solving any problem starts with listening. Give yourself and your team an ample amount of time to meet the people who help get the work done. It’s critical that you don’t stop with the people directly within your particular organization—talk to everyone who contributes to the successful delivery of great design work.

This includes design leaders and individual designers; cross-functional partners like engineering, product management, marketing, legal, purchasing, and customer service; and anyone else with a hand in the process. By talking to an extended group of stakeholders, you should be able to gauge where the organization stands and determine the strengths, weaknesses, biggest problems, and biggest opportunities.

I recommend using Post-it notes for these exercises, with one idea per Post-it—this way you can easily move things around. These two groupings should help you get the lay of the land, help you better understand the spectrum of work needed, and identify the most urgent and/or valuable problems that you and your team can start to tackle.

Once you have a clearer picture of what’s in front of you, set up some time with design leadership to discuss where you and your team should focus. My general rule of thumb is to mix quick wins against long-term strategic efforts with meaty problems to solve over time. This provides a balance of short and long-term progress for the team.

Communicate often

Once you have your priorities and approach in place, it’s very important to communicate progress often. These internal initiatives should be as revered as any other product program. If you have a weekly status meeting with design leadership, be sure to speak to progress, blockers, etc., to make sure your team has what it needs to be successful.

It’s often time that’s required to solve process problems, so communicating what is needed and expected of your design leadership team is crucial. In addition, make sure to have ongoing dialogue at the cross-functional leadership level (if necessary). Not only does this elevate the DesignOps team within the design org and the company at large, it helps to create awareness of the value of DesignOps, and presents you and your team with the opportunity to present your work to a broad group of stakeholders.

Finally, depending on the frequency at which your design organization meets, consider regular team meetings to proactively communicate what everyone is working on. It’s likely that a lot of the ongoing initiatives you discuss in these meetings will be those that were inspired and informed by the designers themselves. Not only will this make the designers feel heard, it will make them feel like they had a hand in making things better.

Don’t forget to ask for feedback

Communication is often half the battle when trying to effect change within an organization. The second—and often forgotten—half is taking the time to gather feedback. Getting feedback on a project or initiative you’re leading can feel scary and personal, which can give feedback a negative connotation.

However, feedback helps us understand what went well (positives!) and where things can improve (opportunities!). Nothing is ever going to be perfect the first time (or often even the second or third times), so it’s important to continually ask for feedback to help improve the final outcome of your project.

Depending on the scope of the work and the number of people involved, there are many ways to gather feedback: one-on-one discussions, surveys, and retrospectives are some of my go-to methods. Regardless of how you gather the feedback, doing so early and often does two important things. First, it allows people to be heard and feel valued. Second, it helps inform you and your team about how to make things better going forward.

Make sure to also communicate that you’re open to feedback at all times. If something doesn’t feel right or isn’t going in the right direction, it’s best to know as soon as possible versus down the road when you have missed your opportunity to effect change.

Managing through chaos is your super power; flexibility is your most valuable asset

Change is inevitable and happens on all levels at all scales. When working in DesignOps, your team is on the frontlines, helping everyone do outstanding work amid the chaos and rapid change. DesignOps keeps design teams focused on the work, not the processes. As everything is subject to change—from the company level down to the individual pixel—it’s important for DesignOps to remain calm and collected.

I often refer to this chaos-to-calm relationship when I describe my day-to-day to those who want to better understand what I do or my role as a design operations manager. I say, “It’s like I’m a duck on water during a storm, trying to get from point A to point B. Above the water, it might look like I’m gliding along with little effort, but below the surface, I’m paddling like crazy to get out of the darn rain.”

I also try to be very transparent with my team about things outside of our control, and how it’s important to adopt a “wait and see” approach.

DesignOps must keep moving despite what the universe throws at us, and our flexibility in all conditions makes us such a valuable resource for design teams. We don’t give up, and we get everyone to the finish line—even when the finish line has moved more than a few times.

How to keep the team happy and leadership sane

You can’t keep everyone happy all the time. I recommend you say that a few times, and maybe write it down. It’s one of the hardest lessons to learn when managing stakeholders, clients, teams, and individuals.

That said, there are some steps you can take toward building a solid foundation, which will enable you and your design organization to grow, evolve, and manage through good times and bad—and hopefully be happy and healthy most of the time.

  1. Align and articulate team mission or vision
  2. Align on roles and responsibilities
  3. Define success for your team and your individuals
  4. Define your culture and prioritize it

1. Align and articulate team mission, vision, and values

Well-written mission, vision, and value statements can unify and inspire design teams. Think of these as the glue that brings and holds teams together. As all companies are different, so too are their statements. Here’s how I think about them:

  • Vision statement: An ambitious framing of the future that you want to achieve—a North Star toward which your teams should be working
  • Mission statement: A breakdown of how you’re going to achieve your vision
  • Values statement: A guide for the day-to-day decisions about how you conduct yourself

These statements are great resources to be used within the design organization during onboarding and recruiting, and during those times when designers need guidance to tackle a tricky problem or scenario. These statements should also be shared with cross-functional teams as a reference to better understand how the design organization aspires to operate, solve problems, and define success.

Make these statements visible—print them out, or place them where your designers often go (wiki, design home page, etc.). Keep in mind that these statements aren’t just for departments—you can write them at the team level too.

Not sure where to start when writing your design organization’s statements? Here’s a simple template for starting a mission statement:

  • Who we are
  • How we work
  • The outcomes we aim for

For reference, this is the Fitbit design operations mission statement:

We are agents who facilitate change, strengthen connections, and drive better process within the design organization and across the company. We partner with design leadership, design teams, and cross-functional partners to to build and grow best in class teams, processes, and culture. Our initiatives and collaboration help launch amazing products and experiences.

2. Align on roles and responsibilities

Once you have a North Star toward which your teams are working, it’s also ideal to have clearly articulated roles and responsibilities within the organization. This way, individuals know where they stand and how they can progress in their careers. Roles and responsibilities are likely in place if you’re working at a mature company, but for the new company or newly formed design org, these will have to be defined.

Work closely with your human resources business partner, if available, to ensure roles and responsibilities match (or are within industry standards), and that they’re equally leveled across the company if similar roles exist within separate organizations.

3. Define success for your teams and your individuals

As most companies have long-term (looking several years out) strategic and annual planning, so too should design organizations. DesignOps can facilitate conversations at the design leadership level to ensure success is being defined based on the company’s goals. At Fitbit, we meet quarterly as a design organization to reflect on the previous three to six months, talk through any urgent priorities, and set goals for the coming months.

With your team goals established, take time to get feedback. Goals that are shared and agreed upon are goals that can be met. Write your team goals down and place them where the team can easily access them.

Many companies have tools that help teams and individuals document their goals. Make sure to agree on these tools—and set the expectation that everyone should use them to ensure you’re working toward the same outcome.

4. Define your design culture and prioritize it

Culture is often the unsung hero that keeps design teams happy and healthy, yet too often it’s not prioritized. Similar to how it’s important to frequently elevate and discuss design operations initiatives, culture is also something that must be addressed.

Building a design culture can be done in many ways and at different scales. Find out what works for you and your organization by having stakeholder conversations with design leadership. Ask them to describe their ideal design culture, and to define what is most important to them. From there, approach it like you would any other design problem: set up desired outcomes and deliverables, set milestones, and create teams to get things done.

Design cannot be successful in a silo: building cross-functional relationships for optimal design outcomes

Relationships are so crucial to successful outcomes for both design and DesignOps. When tackling any design challenge, whether it’s designing a new product experience or designing a new process, identify key cross-functional partnerships and stakeholders who can spot the opportunities for design to provide the most value.

By establishing and fostering strong cross-functional partnerships, you’re also ensuring that all possible solutions are surfaced by balancing the user experience with business needs and company goals.

Identify your cross-functional partners and stakeholders early to make sure they clearly understand the problem and are aligned on the desired outcome. From there, establish a meeting cadence that will keep everyone looped in. If you’re solving for stronger collaboration in general, consider a bi-weekly meeting cadence to ensure close and frequent communication.

Some of the meeting topics I recommend include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Aligning on priorities across teams
  • Problem solving key/hot issues across programs
  • Sharing work that’s in progress
  • Process problem-solving

No one likes a lot of meetings, so revisit the meeting cadence often to ensure it’s a good use of everyone’s time. In addition, promote collaboration at every level—but start at the top. Having leadership aligned will make things less chaotic for everyone.

Finally, don’t be afraid to solve for areas of friction. Often, I hear collaboration with cross-functional groups described as a major frustration among our teams. Address this head on to deliver better outcomes sooner!

Final thoughts

As companies grow and build design organizations, the need for and value of DesignOps will continue to rise. Whether your implementation of DesignOps is a single contributor or a small army, team coordination—whether within the design organization or across the entire company—is paramount. Coordination is job number one, as it’s required to get DesignOps off the ground in the first place.

Throughout this handbook, you’ve learned how DesignOps came to be, when and why it should be implemented, and how it can be put in play. You’ll also learn how DesignOps overlaps with research operations. The common thread across these chapters is the need for clear and constant communication and coordination—listen, share, ask for help, and keep your team aligned.

DesignOps is a complicated discipline, but sometimes getting started is as simple as coordinating.