The digitization of products, businesses, and consumer experiences has required software developers and designers to adopt new ways of working to deliver performant, user-centered products at a new pace of demand.
The size of software development teams, volume of output, and speed to market have increased exponentially, forcing design teams to not just have more people working faster, but to create better systems and frameworks that scale. There is also more demand for every department, including design, to align with and drive business impact.
Design Operations (DesignOps) is emerging to meet these needs by “operationalizing” human-centered design to support business growth.
DesignOps can be best understood by looking at it from two different angles: inward and outward.
Inward: Evaluates the tools, systems, and practices of a design team to optimize and operationalize every step of the design process. This helps teams scale without sacrificing product quality or user experience.
Outward: Integrates design strategy into business strategy so that product development and user experiences drive, and even influence, business goals.
Depending on your dev team and business, DesignOps may have different characteristics. Large organizations may have a formal design operations manager or even team, while smaller orgs may have a mixture of frameworks and tools that act as its operational hub.
Whatever your team and organizational makeup, the need for design operations is only getting more important.
New demands make DesignOps essential for overcoming design challenges
Quick background–DesignOps was preceded by design thinking and design systems. Design thinking puts the human using a product at the center of design. This requires research, collaboration, and testing to get a finger on the pulse of user behavior and needs. A design system collects all the reusable components and standards that have been approved for user-centered design into a framework that makes development repeatable and consistent.
Both are essential to creating beautiful software, however, both also create challenges when implementing at scale, across teams, and in direct support of overarching business goals.
Here are some of the challenges DesignOps is emerging to solve:
Inability to measure design’s impact on business goals
Design teams and leaders can agree on key business goals, like growing revenue and retaining customers. However, as companies focus on getting leaner, it’s important that every department, including design, is able to communicate how their work impacts these key goals.
If software design teams can't explain their work's impact, they run into issues like:
Clashes with other teams: If other teams don’t understand the strategic work required for design, there’s rarely appropriate time given to do good work.
Lack of strategic involvement: If no one understands the design’s value, the team is left out of product strategy planning and decisions.
Smaller budgets: Design teams need advocates that explain their worth to secure the resources required to do their jobs properly.
Lack of collaboration between teams
Designers traditionally work on their own but need to collaborate effectively to share learnings and ensure a cohesive product experience. When designers are siloed off from each other and other teams, common challenges occur.
Disconnected features or experiences: Without effective team collaboration, design teams can focus on a point solution instead of designing for the complete user experience.
KPIs focused only on time: Optimizing lead time is obviously crucial, but the metric alone doesn’t reflect more important product goals—like a strong UI and UX that require research and testing.
Lack of visibility: Without a clear line of sight to a shared product roadmap and company-wide OKRs, it’s impossible for the team to know what other designers are working on, let alone the engineering or product teams.
Difficulty in scaling design processes
As a company grows and work scales up, the casual systems that once worked for a small team of designers can become overwhelmed.
Even teams that survived the growth-at-all-cost era, where "more" was the only mandate, may struggle with a new emphasis on efficiency. Teams now need to learn how to do more with less while still maintaining quality standards.
Here are just a couple of common problems that only get worse as design teams grow and struggle to adapt to an efficiency mindset:
Disorganized digital assets: Design teams are expected to put out more designs more quickly. Without a formal organization system for digital assets, designers are unable to match the quality and speed they need.
Lack of workflow management: Without clear workflows for development, design, QA, and iteration, process breakdowns can delay shipping or final products are subpar.
Burnout: When systems and processes don’t scale, people have to. This leads to designers working longer hours and burning out.
How DesignOps solves emerging demands
What DesignOps looks like at your company will depend on the size and needs of your design team. In a small company with a handful of designers, you may only need a set of codified processes and resources that help software designers work more efficiently. On the other hand, larger companies typically have an entire team of dedicated professionals tasked with managing and improving their organization's design processes.
However, whether you have a design team of two or two hundred, these are the three areas where DesignOps will be most helpful.
1. Team management
With efficiency being so important these days, design teams will need effective management that keeps the team working like a well-oiled machine.
The most important team management tasks that DesignOps takes on include:
Hiring: Ensuring your design team has the right talent to meet the diverse needs of your product.
Employee retention and experience: Addressing key designer needs like burnout and career progression, so they stay with your team.
Business Ops: Managing team and project budgets, so the design team has all the necessary resources to do their jobs.
Workload planning: Planning each team member's workload so week-to-week capacity is not a swinging pendulum.
2. Strategy alignment
Great design should be an extension of the larger strategic goals of a company. DesignOps ensures the design team's work is always laddering up towards larger company goals by:
Collaborating with other departments: DesignOps represents the design team, making sure other departments understand how designers can help the larger company achieve its goals.
Analytics: Quantifying the design team’s output and strategy to translate how it contributes to larger company goals.
Educating designers: Through meetings, documentation, and briefs, DesignOps can make sure designers understand each project’s role within the larger strategic framework.
3. Tools and systems management
DesignOps identifies process gaps, finds tools, and develops systems that help design teams improve efficiency by:
Managing the team’s design system: Includes keeping team style guides, component libraries, and pattern libraries organized and up-to-date and accurate.
Automating tasks: Modern tools can save time by automating repetitive tasks, like applying a design brief template, sending messages, or assigning tasks in a backlog.
Creating space for collaboration: Interactive whiteboards allow for brainstorming and ideation sessions, even when teams are remote and working asynchronously.
Making organization easier: Tools with premade templates help teams of all sizes quickly create searchable documentation, best practices, and asset libraries.
The benefits of DesignOps
The greatest benefit of DesignOps is that it allows designers to do what they do best: Design amazing products and experiences. It takes the administrative work out of their day-to-day workflows, minimizes roadblocks, and enables them to find their flow in creating their best work.
But the effects of implementing DesignOps goes far beyond that.
Here are a few benefits you can expect from implementing Design Operations in your organization.
Expanded collaboration across software development teams
DesignOps teams “speak the language” of designers and developers to help unite both departments.
The DesignOps team often participates in weekly or monthly meetings with the development team to find solutions that work for everyone. For instance, these meetings could allow teams to present timelines, priorities, and needed budgets for a new sprint.
The end result? Plans that maximize the talent and resources of every team.
Enhanced user experience and customer satisfaction
With greater collaboration also comes better products. When designers have greater access to information about your users’ needs and wants, they can better create a UI that those users love.
Let’s say a product design team was tasked with redesigning their product’s upsell workflow. Upselling is tricky because you want to make people aware of the benefits of upgrading their subscription without annoying them. The design needs to strike a balance that drives revenue without sacrificing UX because as many as 17% of consumers churn after a single bad experience.
DesignOps can help designers balance UX and revenue by collecting data from the product team. This way, designers understand specifically how people are currently reacting to the workflow and will be able to design a solution that improves the experience.
Processes built for efficiency
DesignOps works with designers to find tools, workflows, and personnel that help them do their jobs better and faster.
Say a company has a widely adopted ride-sharing app, but now leadership wants to build an app for food delivery. The DesignOps team could help the company’s designers prepare for this shift by:
Building more delivery app UX research time into their workflows.
Reconfiguring teams and adding new talent if needed.
Creating and assigning tasks to kick off a new design sprint.
Organizing new assets so work on the app can begin right away.
Better alignment of design with business goals
Better design is a core component of better business outcomes. However, if there’s no one there to spot and take advantage of high-value design opportunities, then your company could miss out on these benefits.
DesignOps teams can fill this role by surfacing or initiating research to determine where design can make the biggest impact on a business. They can do this by connecting the dots between UX developers and product teams to find those perfect opportunities. DesignOps can also ensure there's a performance-tracking methodology in place to show how these efforts support the company.
For instance, members of your DesignOps could make an impact by collecting data from the product team and finding underperforming features that could be improved through low-lift redesigns. The designers could then redesign these underperforming features to increase revenue for the business.
How to implement DesignOps in 4 steps
Here’s what you need to do to get your DesignOps up and running.
1. Create a unified design system
Your unified design system is the core of your DesignOps processes and team. It is essentially a knowledge base that is the single source of truth for all things design, from the language you use to the components you need.
Most importantly, your design system will help you scale up with consistency. It does this by standardizing common design patterns and decisions so that your team can reuse components and ideas to increase the speed and consistency of their work.
To establish a design system, you'll need to:
Define your design language: Codify how your designers talk about common design elements they need to work with. For instance, “What term should we use to describe this shade of gray?” and “How do we use this shade in a design?” This saves you time by ensuring that everyone uses the same language when discussing designs.
Organize libraries: Take all of your existing design components and patterns and organize them into accessible libraries. This way, your design team can easily access all of their design assets efficiently.
Document guidelines: Outline exactly how and when to use design elements. For instance, what user actions trigger a pop-up module versus a new page versus a dropdown?
2. Optimize your design workflow
Chances are you already have some sort of design workflow in place. Now you need to take a hard look at it and determine where you can make it more efficient and user-friendly.
To create a better workflow, you should:
Outline your tasks: Understand what needs to be done for your design team to succeed. For instance, you’ll want to explicitly lay out your design team's process to complete a project, from researching to getting user feedback.
Line up tools and personnel: Take account of all your resources. Pay particular attention to the personnel on your team and their specific skills so you can fill any gaps through training or onboarding new talent.
Map out the workflow: Begin by sketching a workflow diagram that includes all the tasks and personnel you need to organize. Don’t forget to consult with design team members to ensure you don’t miss anything.
Automate processes where needed: Routine jobs like moving a task from wireframing to prototyping can be automated with the right automation tools.
Train on the new workflow system: Everyone needs to know the role they’ll play for your new workflow to move smoothly.
Launch the new workflow on a single project: Consider this a test run to work out all the wrinkles before it goes team-wide.
Analyze and test the workflow you created: No one gets it right the first time. Measure the results of your new workflow and be open to adjustments as needed.
3. Measure impact and communicate it to stakeholders
Measuring a design team’s performance is tough, but imperative. Without measuring performance, key stakeholders might miss just how impactful good design is to the company’s bottom line.
Creating a shareable KPI report is the best way to show the design team’s value. Some metrics to consider are:
Time spent on rework: The amount of time a team spends redoing parts of a project after it’s been delivered. Optimized workflows and outlined design systems can help reduce this number if set up correctly.
Estimated vs. actual project costs: Measures how well your company is accounting for design work in estimates. It can also help tell you whether you need to dive deeper into the numbers to find out what is driving up actual costs to see if something can be done to fix it.
Estimated vs. actual project time: Good teams need to get design projects done on time. When actual project times far outpace estimated times, you know there’s a problem. DesignOps can help you understand where the problem originated and make the team more efficient moving forward.
4. Understand what DesignOps will look like for you
Based on the three steps above, you’ll have a better understanding of what type of additional DesignOps support, if any, you need.
To determine what you need, you should:
Understand existing design pain points: If your design team has minor collaboration with other departments, consider starting by just building DesignOps processes. But if your designers need help in multiple areas—like managing approvals and optimizing workflows—consider scoping a formal DesignOp role.
Gauge the scope of work: What types of projects is your team doing? If they’re mostly focused on large-scale overhauls that involve multiple stakeholders and approvals, then they’ll need a full DesignOps manager or team to keep that process moving efficiently. However, if they’re mostly involved in getting quick wins for new features, then a set of policies should be sufficient.
Consider your resources: Your budget will also be a large determinant of whether you’re going to hire a team or dedicate a couple of design leads to manage the overall process. It’s not just about hiring but also what it’ll cost you in terms of time and money to build and maintain the systems required for your DesignOps to run effectively.
If you’re unsure, start small and build from there. Devote some work hours every week to building up key DesignOps resources, and if you need more, continue to invest as needed.
Set up DesignOps today with ClickUp
DesignOps can be slow to take root without the right tools. For DesignOps to flourish at your business, you’ll need a way of making it easy to create, update, and find relevant resources. Tools like ClickUp can help make creating and maintaining your DesignOps resources so much easier.
ClickUp offers new and existing DesignOps initiatives a convenient way to track tasks, build style guides, optimize workflows, and more. Plus, with thousands of templates, it’s easier than ever to build DesignOps processes, even when starting from scratch.
See how ClickUp can help your company launch its own DesignOps to start better supporting your design team.