Design operations through the human lens

by | Nov 11, 2020 | Featured

While most people look at DesignOps as an essential part of the design organization to keep projects running smoothly, tracking team budgets, and developing systems to help the design team as a whole run more efficiently, etc… there’s an aspect of DesignOps that is often overlooked and more challenging to measure. It’s the human aspect. The connection that a designops person has to their designers. The unseen attributions that can make a large difference on the team.

I like to say that DesignOps is 20% tactical and 80% relationships. While these percentages will vary at times, if you don’t take care of the people within your design organization, you are going to have nothing to operationalize. Given that COVID is changing up how most organizations are working these days, now is  a good time to step back and assess what’s working and what isn’t on your design team. I’ll address a few topics below that can help put a more human touch on the operations, even if they aren’t metrics driven.

Recruiting/Hiring

I personally believe that while a designer can be the most amazing designer on the planet, if they’re not a values fit with your existing team it’s going to be a problem. Some people  may have the mentality “let’s just hire this person and if it doesn’t work out, we can just let them go later”…. But, what is most important is hiring the right people out of the gate that can both bring good design into your organization as well as amplify the values of your company and what it stands for in a positive way. Enter DesignOps.

If there’s anyone who knows the workings of the entire team, it’s the DesignOps person. They have an unbiased opinion on where a new designer should be placed within the team, as they are thinking about the team as a whole and how this person is going to culturally fit in. They also know what qualities are required to get work done because they are deeply embedded and are hyper cross functional.

Make sure the DesignOps person is on the interview loop and is in charge of evaluating for company values with the candidate and also explaining the culture to the candidate. The interview goes both ways and the more information provided to the candidate, the more informed decision they can make about whether or not they want to join the team, and vice versa for the employer.

Onboarding  

Once the person is hired, onboarding is essential, especially with the transition to the remote work environment. There’s a ton of value in having DesignOps own or create the onboarding program. DesignOps can put the tools, reference guides and resources in place. It will allow the design team to scale themselves as the team grows and create a consistent experience for every new hire. DesignOps can also represent the design team and talk with the new designer about the team, how they work, and what success looks like not only with the design team as a whole, but also cross functional partners. 

It is also essential during the onboarding process that the new designer feels like they have a go-to person. That should be a DesignOps person. They know the ins and outs of the organization and can play an important role in ramping up. 

Team Health

Once recruiting and onboarding is done, the designer switches to the actual part of the job when then starts to become fun and challenging. With that can come conflict, cross-functional issues, and a myriad of situations that the designer might need help with. While the Design Manager is ultimately responsible for the success and growth of their designer, DesignOps can also be there to support development of the design team as a whole by keeping the team sane and also providing a lot of actionable feedback. 

One thing I would do with a new hire was to set up regular 1:1 check-ins to see how their project was going and understand their relationships were with cross functional teams. Although, most of the time the conversations pivoted to career advice, how to work well with certain people on the team, and or even how to have a conversation with their manager about feedback, career development or solving a problem. It was important to build that bond with designers and help them navigate issues and understand what they were going through. 

Other examples of how DesignOps can aid with team help are: 

  • Work with the designer to help them set up proper 1:1’s with their team and cross-functional partners. 
  • Provide the designer with some coaching questions to use in their 1:1’s
  • Guide designers on how to manage up
  • Guide designers on how to share information in a way that is understandable to folks that aren’t in design. 

As you are probably beginning to see, the most valuable asset of DesignOps is their EQ, or what some call emotional intelligence. The ability to focus in and get a deep understanding of designers and how they work in order to help the team run more smoothly. There’s a mix of understanding people,  helping them work together well,  AND knowing what they want to develop. When you combine these, you can create opportunities for your designers. The information can be relayed to their managers or project owners and help make for better decisions such as “Jenny is super passionate about check-out flows, maybe we should add her to this team since Bobby is going to be on vacation.”

Overall Insight

While I’ve given you a few examples of the human impact that DesignOps can make on a team, you’ll see that not a lot of these actions can be driven by stats or metrics.This can be a challenge for DesignOps to be recognized for their contributions and is something the DesignOps community is working on. Keep in mind that just because there aren’t hard numbers  or data on this type of work, doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. Focusing on the human aspect of your design team is an essential part of making the team successful and with that, your product will be successful. It also allows Design Leadership to focus on the overall health of the team and the design quality of the product, which in turn will be beneficial for the entire company.

Meredith Black
Written by Meredith Black

Meredith Black is the co-founder of DesignOps Assembly and now a consultant working with companies worldwide to implement DesignOps within their organizations.

Prior, Meredith spent five years at Pinterest, where she started and grew the DesignOps team into an internationally renowned team while also being instrumental in growing and building the Pinterest Product Design Team.

You can listen to her discuss DesignOps on the DesignBetter podcast or check out “The DesignOps Handbook”.