A Pocket Guide to Design Operations

I created this 101 level guide for my mentees through UX Coffee Hours. It answers eight of the most common questions I get from folks interested in or new to Design Operations.

1. What is DesignOps?

“If we want to make great experiences in our products, we have to feel great about the experience of making.” — Miles Orkin

Design Operations focuses on the how so that design can focus on the what. It is the design discipline that owns the intentional operationalizing, optimizing and scaling of design.

Designers and design teams are our “users” and we design the design team’s experiences, systems, processes, tools and frameworks to enable better, happier and more effective teams. We amplify the impact and effectiveness of the design organization at scale through expert orchestration of people, projects and processes. We are the intermediary between wider business functions and act as a crucial bridge between partner groups like HR, legal, procurement, and finance. And, we are respected peers of design leaders, thought partners and trusted experts.

“We are the scaling engine behind the UX org that enables teams to deliver customer and business success while they achieve personal and professional growth.” — Jason Kriese, VP and COO UXOps @ Salesforce

2. Why is DesignOps important?

“How teams work is just as important as what they make.” — Kristin Skinner, CoAuthor of Org Design for Design Orgs

Design Operations, UX Operations, Design Program Management; it has a lot of names but one thing’s for sure, DesignOps is crucial to the success of a design organization.

In Kristin Skinner’s Keynote at the Design Ops Summit in 2017, Kristin explains the stages of a design team’s growth and how Design Operations evolves. She points out that initially, on a team of a few designers, one designer may take point on operations, creating early processes and standards. As the team scales and moves from a design team to a design org, the Head of Design is faced with the operational challenges of managing 20+ people. This level of coordination is a complex task. If operations and management processes and systems aren’t adequate, the design team can’t focus on their craft. This, she explains, is when and why a dedicated DesignOps person is required.

“UX Operations is one of the most strategic things we do, yet it’s invisible. It’s our secret sauce.” — Justin Maguire, Chief Design Officer, Salesforce

Design organizations cannot effectively scale without strategic operational leaders experienced at solving ambiguous problems, anticipating evolving needs, navigating the changing tides of complex organizations and creating solutions that adapt to changing technology, culture and pace. Designers also design better products when they are happy, energized, fulfilled, supported and inspired. Design Operations creates the environment for designers to do their best work. We are the secret sauce of design organizations.

3. What are common DesignOps skills and superpowers?

DesignOps practitioners are unicorns; a magical blend of thinkers, solvers and doers.

“DesignOps’ superpowers are creating the conditions an individual needs in order to achieve breakthrough work (be that confronting DEI, leadership style, team programming, relationship to self, relationship to others, etc” — Lauren Peters, Senior Director Salesforce Design

We are designers. We design systems, processes, organizations, and services for our design team.

We are dot connectors: We love building relationships and thrive at collaborating in cross-functional environments, across multiple teams and disciplines.

We “get” design and how it gets done. We speak the language and understand what happens when and why, what natural dependencies exist and how to mitigate risks. We zoom in and out on the daily. We have the ability to flex between big-picture strategic thinking and detail-oriented tactical thinking.

We are good communicators. We understand the intricacies of advocating and gaining followership for a project or program and know how to tailor communications to different audiences. We are natural problem solvers. We know how to navigate complex organizations and processes and we act like detectives, finding solutions or creating them if they don’t exist.

We turn ideas into action. We are able to bring ambiguous ideas to life by creating actionable steps and carving out a clear path to delivery. We mobilize and operationalize.

We are always listening. We are plugged into the pulses of our organization. We hear what design teams need and what teams need from design. We are tapped into the trends shaping our industry.

We are leaders. We step in to manage projects and programs and help execute strategic priorities for our design leadership.

We help teams navigate. We steer teams through the design process, connect people to the right answers, and help them get the most out of the organization’s resources.

4. What do you do exactly?

“We drive design quality, improve delivery and make people feel better. Our work looks like whatever the work is that needs to get done” — Dianne Que, Design Ops Leader @ Zendesk

What we do is very dependent on the needs and maturity of the design team that we are part of. Below is an example of the broad and varied responsibilities of Design Operations roles.

Examples of the breadth of focus areas for Design Operations practitioners.

5. Who does DesignOps?

If there isn’t a dedicated person to do Design Operations, then it falls onto the shoulders of the design team. Much of the work needs to be done whether or not the role exists.

We can think about Design Operations in two ways:

  1. DesignOps as a practice
  2. DesignOps as a role

DesignOps as a Practice

You can and may already be doing Design Operations in your current role even if you don’t have the title. Maybe you created a new process for the design team to give better feedback, or maybe you’ve rolled out a new tool for the design team to use. That’s great, and it means you can see the value of improving the way your team operates. Design Operations as a practice can and should be embraced by everyone on the team. Think about things like scale, standardization, collaboration and efficiencies when approaching your work and you will have adopted DesignOps as a practice.

DesignOps as a Role

The DesignOps function may be a single person or an entire team. The dedicated person(s) may be working on all of the things described in the map above, or just a few. Depending on the maturity, strategy and scale of the business, they may have a very broad or more focused scope. Design Operations may look very different from one practitioner to the next, but the thread that connects us all is our dedication to operationalizing and optimizing the practice of design in order to scale good user experience and enable high-functioning teams.

“The power of Design Ops folks is their ability to land in teams and deeply listen, survey, detect to get to the heart of what’s impeding progress — is it process? people? tools? Design Ops practitioners then lean on their vast set of skills to pair challenges with an easeful way forward.” - Alana Washington, Design and Ops Leader @ Uber Freight

6. What are the different DesignOps roles?

Our roles may look very different day to day if compared side to side. The reason is that our job is to solve the unique problems and adapt to the specific needs of our teams. To do that we may also operate at different levels of zoom.

“Whatever you adopt (program, process, etc.) has to adapt. We as DesignOps leaders are experts at adapting to a changing org’s needs.”- Anel Muller, UXOps Leader @ Paypal

Design and DesignOps partnerships at three levels.

7. How does DesignOps fit within the org?

The answer is different at each organization since it’s highly contextual, but more often that not, Design Ops sits within the Design Organization. Here are two organizational structures I’ve experienced in my own career in Design Operations.

Centralized: In this model, all DesignOps practitioners roll up to a single Design Operations leader.

De-Centralized & Embedded: In this model, DesignOps practitioners are tightly aligned to a product design team and report directly to design leadership within that team.

8. Where can I learn more?

These are some great resources on Design Operations:

📚 Reading:

🎧 Listening/Watching:

🤝 Connecting:

📋 More Design Ops Resource Lists:

Have more questions about Design Operations? Reach out!

About Rachel

I am a Design Operations leader that is passionate about understanding people and designing and building human-centered organizations, experiences, products and services. I have a background in business and design. Believing that you can’t have one without the other, I made it a goal to understand both worlds and speak both languages. I am a service, systems and experience designer for Design teams.

I spent the first half of my career as a professional ballet dancer before taking a 180 degree pivot to business school. I graduated from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and received an MBA in Design Strategy from California College of the Arts. I currently lead UX Team Operations for Salesforce’s 300+ person design organization. Prior to this, I ran Design and Research Operations at UberEats, and was a Design Program Management leader for the Service and Experience Design teams at Capital One, Adaptive Path, and more. Outside of work, you’ll find me renovating old houses, playing with my toddler and watching weird documentaries.

I love Design Operations because I get to flex my service and systems design skills, solve big messy problems, and I get to think strategically while also getting dirty in the details when I want. Most importantly, I get to help people. My work makes it easier for designers to focus on designing great products that improve our customer’s lives. I love creating the best working environments for people to grow, connect, and thrive as humans.

🙏 Thank you to the following people who have contributed either directly or indirectly to the content in this article and to my own personal growth in Design Ops: Kristin Skinner, Dianne Que, Alana Washington, Diane Gregorio, Jen Bolduc, Anel Muller, Jason Kriese, John Calhoun and Isaac Heyveld.

Director of UX Operations @Salesforce

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