A guest column by Fabricio Teixeira about another trend in digital product design (courtesy our friends at AirBnB): DESIGN OPS. What exactly is it? Does my company need it? And where do I fit in?
As design teams scale within organizations, our industry starts to turn the spotlight to DesignOps, a new nomenclature for an old profession that is becoming increasingly important to create great, consistent, and efficient work. But what does DesignOps mean for startups and small design teams?
Before we start… what is DesignOps?
It is the department that plans, defines, and manages the design process within an organization. Their goal is to ensure the design team becomes a well-oiled machine, functioning at high efficiency, low friction, and generating high-quality design outputs.
The term DesignOps (or DesOps) has been around for at least a few years, and is clearly a spin on DevOps (the discipline who does the same for developers). Even before the term DesignOps came about, the role itself already existed. Back in the day, it was the title given to PMs that were more focused on processes than projects.
The focus of DesignOps is to keep the design team healthy, running smoothly and efficiently. To achieve that, they take care of a few different aspects of a team:
- Workflow: how the design workflows within the company
- Tools: what they need to get the job done
- Governance: who needs to see the work, and when
- Infrastructure: what the team needs to work more efficiently
- Budget: how much running that team costs, and why
- Headcount: how many people are needed, with which skills
- Pipeline: projects coming up and how well staffed the team is
- Retention: how to make people want to stay
- Education: what skills are missing and how to learn them
- Evangelization: help the org understand the value of design
They can operate at company-level and project-level. The former is about looking at design staffing holistically; the latter is about understanding each project’s specific needs and challenges, to adapt all the aforementioned pieces accordingly.
Why are people talking about DesignOps now?
Because design teams are growing. Because the role of design within organizations is growing. The number of teams designers serve is growing. Multi-office work, remote work, and distributed teams are growing. Design solutions and products are growing in complexity. Nothing has changed in terms of what DesignOps is and what it does. You’re just going to start hearing about it more often the more companies grow.
What does that mean for my startup? Do I need to hire a DesignOps person?
Let me start with an important distinction here.
There’s DesignOps-the-mindset, and there’s DesignOps-the-role.
Every design team with more than 1 person needs some form of DesignOps thinking, simply because you want to make sure designers are not working in silos. If you’re looking for higher quality and efficiency in your design process, it’s important that your designers share the same tools, templates, and workflow, for example. Making sure there is a clear naming structure for files and folders, for example, will end up saving you time when you need to go back and find an old file in your servers.
Having a “DesignOps mindset” in your team is important, no matter how big your company is. It creates efficiencies in the long run, and generates more consistent work.
Now, whether you need to hire a dedicated DesignOps person? Well, that’s a different question.
- You’ll probably only need to hire someone when your design team headcount surpasses 40–50 designers;
- That might happen earlier in case your team structure is too fragmented, or if you have distributed teams;
- That might happen later if your design managers already take that responsibility on;
Making sense of the ever-increasing complexity of product design
The products we build are becoming increasingly complex; our internal methodologies more sophisticated; our teams bigger and more diverse in terms of skillset and technical expertise.
For that reason, companies like Airbnb have been perfecting the science of DesignOps in the last couple of years, and pioneering the use of new technologies to enable a more efficient process.
“Working daily across so many disciplines, from Engineering to Product Management, Research, Content Strategy and an array of Design specialties, every little overhead in the transfer of information compounds. Inversely, every optimization significantly lowers friction for everyone. This is why we’ve created DesignOps, to ease collaboration and amplify effectiveness, not only across product disciplines, but also between the increasingly complex world of Product Design.” — Adrian Cleave, Airbnb
Airbnb’s most famous example of an integrated and seamless process is their AI-assisted design tool that turns hand sketches into code in a matter of seconds. The vision that drove the creation of the tool is that the time required to test an idea should be zero, and it is a perfect example of some of efficiency and integration DesignOps can bring to an organization in the long run.
Generating code from low fidelity wireframes The time required to test an idea should be zero. This was the very first…airbnb.design
The answers that a DesignOps mindset is always pushing for:
- How can you equip your team with the right tools, infrastructure, training, and governance they need to create high-quality work more efficiently?
- How do you integrate Design with your other teams and make it a central piece of the puzzle? How do you facilitate communication and documentation between different groups, without creating extra work?
- How do you create efficiencies across every step of your workflow? How do you reduce time? How do you eliminate unnecessary steps? How can automation technology support that?
So, while your company is still a small startup, you probably don’t need to hirea dedicated DesignOps person right now.
But you should definitely start incorporating a DesignOps mindset into everything you do. The earlier, the better.