As a design team starts to grow, organizations need to deal with a new challenge: how to manage design at scale, while minimizing technical and UX debt? To help organizations solve this problem, a new discipline has emerged: DesignOps.

But what is DesignOps, what is the right time to implement it, and how can it help you establish a healthy UX practice aligned to your business needs? Let’s start with the basics.

What Is DesignOps?

To put it very simply, DesignOps is a discipline born to support a design team’s growth and scale while preserving an efficient and frictionless way of working and a consistent and impactful product outcome.

It’s defined as the orchestration of everything within a design team’s ecosystem. And by “everything” I mean people, team dynamics, processes, and tools to promote a healthy UX practice and ensure every designer is moving towards the same outcome.

Why Is DesignOps Important And What’s The Right Time To Implement It?

Organizations typically know they need DesignOps when the design team grows and it gets harder and harder to have consistent and coherent experiences with the applications the different teams are working on.

Picture a small design team: you have a team lead and three designers that do the whole work, from research to visual design and even copy. Because it’s a small team, the lead can easily stay on top of the work of the three designers on the team and has a lot of face-to-face time with each one of them. So it’s fairly easy to keep consistency amongst the products each designer is working on.

Now, think of a large banking and insurance organization; let’s call it A. A has about 150 software developers, organized in 15 teams, each one with an assigned designer. All teams are working on the same project, a home banking app, but focusing on different functionalities of the app. So, you have a designer working on the transfer flow, another on the payments flow, another on insurance subscription, another on the simulation flow, and so on.

Even though they all work in the same space, each designer is individually working on a specific functionality; they’re all designers of the same company, but they are all part of different product teams. There’s no communication between them nor awareness of what other designers are working on.

Because of that lack of communication, when the different functionalities go live in the app, here’s what you’ll get:

  • Product inconsistencies because there weren’t guidelines or a design system in place;
  • Technical debt because you’ll eventually have to fix those inconsistencies;
  • UX debt because those inconsistencies will impact the user experience, so you’ll have to fix them;
  • Increased employee churn because it’s each designer by him/herself, and there isn’t a path for them to grow and evolve and, eventually, they get tired and leave.

All these problems can be solved with DesignOps. It’s the glue that holds the different parts of the design organization together, promoting collaboration across the different teams and ensuring consistency of the product’s outcome from the first delivery.

As a result, technical and UX debt are minimized, and you create room for designers to work and grow together and, thus, stay motivated.

How to Implement DesignOps

From my experience, there are five aspects that are key to a successful UX organization:

1. Strong Leadership

 

Finding the right leader is the first step for a successful UX Practice. And who is the right leader? This is highly subjective, but from my experience, this person needs to inspire action and lead by example.

The leader’s priority needs to be the team’s success and not their personal branding and should have a good balance between hard and soft skills. This means the leader should be an experienced designer, preferably someone who has worked with different companies and industries. And also have good people skills. Someone that is focused on helping each person on the team grow and that has a strong ethical sense (strong ethics is good for business and great for teams!).

2. A Well-Thought Recruitment Process

 

It’s very important to define the right profile you need for each role so that you can do the right screening. And that varies from company to company or project to project. The right profile for a banking company might not be the right fit for a food and beverage organization.

Finding the right person for the role is the only way to set your team and people up for success. It’s easier for everyone if the people have a good skill set to start with, and as a leader, your job is to support them and nurture the skills they already have to help them grow.

If you’re wondering what roles are typically part of a mature design organization, we’re usually talking about seven roles:

  • Visual Designer that focuses on the look-and-feel.
  • UX Researcher that’s responsible for doing the research and testing to inform the different products.
  • UX Writer responsible for creating all the copy to help users navigate the product, from a button to an error message.
  • Design System Curators that are responsible for creating, maintaining, and evolving the Design System (that contains the different Lego pieces that all designers will use in their designs to ensure consistency).
  • Interaction Designers that define the structure, interaction, and flow of a given app.
  • And finally, a Lead for each area and a Head of UX to help support and coordinate all the different teams.

The people that have these roles will be working on different products or parts of a product and, given they’re part of a wider community, they’ll be able to have checkpoints to keep experiences consistent.

3. A Well-Thought Onboarding

 

Did you know that 20 percent of employee turnover occurs in the first 45 days of a new job? Those first few weeks/months are crucial for employee retention, which is why a good onboarding experience is so critical.

To create a complete onboarding journey, you can use a cheatsheet to make sure you don’t forget any details, you can assign a “buddy” to help new employees get familiar with the company’s culture and processes, and make sure they have access to all documentation and tools they’ll need. If you’re not sure where to start you can use this onboarding cheatsheet for inspiration.

 

You’ll keep improving your onboarding process over time (like all processes, really!). Always keep an open mind to new ideas and feedback.

4. The Right Processes And The Right Tools To Support Them

Tools should support your processes. So, before selecting which tools your team will use, you need to define how your UX/UI processes will be. If you always start your process with research, then maybe you’ll need a whiteboarding tool where your team can add their insights and brainstorm.

Only then should you select the tools your team will need. This is very important so that you don’t have team members using tools that don’t serve them well.

You can use comparison websites like UXTools that show you the different tools available for different design categories, and relevant information like subscription costs, features, and user adoption rate.

By using these comparison tools, you’ll also be able to reduce your tool ecosystem and save a few bucks on subscriptions, since you can check which tools cover more than one category.

 

5. You Are What You Measure, So Make Sure You’re Measuring What Matters

To know if your UX organization is being successful, you need to start by defining what success looks like. If you have poor metrics in place (eg.: the number of screens a designer creates - which is a terrible metric, because it doesn’t account for quality or consider the complexity of the screen), you won’t contribute to the company’s success.

You need to start by understanding what your company’s products are about and how UX can impact the business. Are you building an enterprise application for employees? Make sure you’re measuring the productivity gains the users get as a result of your team’s design. Are you designing a B2C product catalog? The best metric might be conversion. So, understanding how UX will contribute to your company’s bottomline will help you define your team’s success metrics.

Ready to Embrace Design at Scale?

As your team grows and design processes get more complex, managing scalability while keeping your UX debt under control may seem like an (almost) impossible mission. But there are ways to minimize it, and establishing a solid UX Practice with DesignOps is a great way to set your people and your product up for success.

If you want to learn more about how to tackle UX debt and other good practices for a healthy UX team, join me at the OutSystems Developer Conference (OSDC) in November, where we’ll have a dedicated track just for UX/UI topics to help organizations manage design at scale. See the full agenda and save your spot right here.