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Standardizing Design Through DesignOps

April 24, 2024
Written By:
Ceara Crawshaw

In our work at P&P, we need to adapt to different external teams and work within a wide variety of contexts and design maturity stages. This means we’ve got to have a robust system for selling and providing UX value, no matter the situation.

That’s why DesignOps is so important for us. And we bet it’s important for you too—especially if your design team is growing and you need to build more efficient workflows and maintain high-quality design work as you scale. 

Now, DesignOps covers a lot of bases and we don’t claim to have all the answers, but we’re excited to share our rationale as we explore the topic ourselves and refine our processes and culture along the way.

What is DesignOps?

Design operations (aka DesignOps) refers to the behind-the-scenes stuff that make product teams run smoothly. It’s the engine that keeps the design process humming along so that designers can focus on what they do best (you know, designing).

DesignOps is about having a way to flex the standard design process into a format that works for the actual humans and surrounding processes of your context. The goal is to support designers in their work, not shove some processes down their throats just for the sake of it. 🙅

DesignOps will look different for different cultures and organization sizes, but there are consistent themes across the board, like how your team uses the tools in your UX design toolbox, how you create and share design deliverables with the team, and how you run inter-team collaboration. It’s about your overall culture and practices: how people present and discuss designs, ideas, and possibilities, as well as how they pragmatically speak about the technical details. 

📖 Storytime: A team lacking DesignOps
Once upon a time, a sole contributor of a product team had A LOT of work to do. Producing high-fidelity stuff all the time simply wasn’t doable. 😵💫

So, they started to componentize some patterns and write documentation here and there for the most often asked-about things, like “How should a form behave and be laid out?” This as-needed documentation served to appease the devs and keep them on the right track. 🛤

However, with such an intense workload, things were still missed and inconsistent UX and UI continued to enter the system. So the organization decided they needed another designer—hoots were hollered and bottles were popped. 🥳🍾

As the second designer came on, the workload for the sole contributor went down a bit. But inconsistency still entered the system because a lot of the “design rules” were just in the sole contributor’s head. 💭

The organization now plans to bring in MORE designers. How will the sole contributor prevent every dev and product manager from having to learn a unique style of collaboration, read unique documentation formats, and shift their expectations and velocity per designer on the team? 🤷

Yup, you know how this one ends DesignOps enters the groupchat* 🦸…

Why focus on DesignOps?

For one, standardizing your design practice keeps your sanity in check. It allows your team to focus on the work itself rather than reinventing the wheel or “how” to get the work done every time. Ensuring good practices don’t get forgotten is especially important as your design firepower grows—whether with new designers, devs, or product peeps. DesignOps doesn’t just benefit designers, but everyone involved in creating a great user experience. 

As we saw from the story above, DesignOps gives all stakeholders and collaborators a smooth experience—regardless of the unique styles that peeps have adopted from other contexts. Designers have a lot of diverse backgrounds and are expected to flex their brains in a lot of directions. DesignOps help you create a more concrete onboarding process for new people and establish a common language around things. Plus, it allows the design team to be seen as a serious and profesh crew. 💼

DesignOps also ensures the same quality of interaction across all designers and products, and provides structure for knowledge sharing, which is an important part of how design works. For example, a dev crew won’t have to adapt to a unique workflow just because a different designer is working on a project. 

Remember, establishing DesinOps should add direction to your organization without reducing creativity. Creativity is a disciplined process as well, not a free-for-all. We’re aiming to add guardrails that support creative energy, not restrict it.

How to get started with DesignOps

So, how do you get started to standardize your design practice and implement designops? We recommend following these key steps:

Create an inventory of your current processes

First off, take stock of how you’re currently running things internally. Prioritize which processes to document according to what’s most needed. Then outline each part of the process based on your current understanding. You’re not changing anything at this stage, but simply mapping out what you’re already doing.

Find efficiency opportunities

As you map out your current processes, look for areas where you’re losing a lot of time. What manual tasks can be automated? For example, transcribing videos is not necessary anymore, thanks to the great live transcription tools that have come out in recent years.

Whether it’s setting up integration scripts or adopting new time-saving tools, automation is a big part of DesignOps, and key to scaling efficiently. 

Prioritize work and pace yourself

To tackle the feeling of overwhelm, prioritize the most critical processes first. Ask yourself: What’s most essential for people to understand? What processes lack formality? Which ones need more development? 

Once you’ve covered those critical processes, you can expand from there and further build upon them.

Build a design handbook

A design handbook is a central resource that will get your whole organization on the same page with your UX culture, principles, and philosophy. It’ll break down your design system, design process, and design standards to ensure your team creates consistent, high-quality designs. Your design handbook can also include collaboration structures, templates, and instructions for how to use software tools at your company.

Onboard your crew to the design handbook

Decide where and how you want to deliver your design handbook. Should your documentation fit with what your team already uses, or do you need a new platform? What low-fidelity version of documentation can you experiment with? For example, you can start with Whimsical and Loom to map out your processes.

Integrate even initial versions of your design handbook into your existing onboarding for new team members. Set the tone for your crew’s contributions to the handbook. Are people expected to expand upon it? How should they do so? You’ll also want to clarify when people should reference this handbook.

Test and iterate with your design handbook

As you’re working IN and ON design, you have a unique opportunity to actually create and experiment with processes and frameworks at the same time. 

For example, at P&P, we refine our client onboarding process by testing out new approaches with new clients. While we used to address technical details with our clients on the fly, we’ve now added a dedicated technical session during onboarding to prevent larger gotchas down the line. This session covered the stuff we had already been doing for years, but we made it a bit more formal. 

And after designing so many data tables and dashboards for clients over the years, we’re also now adding a new data mapping session in our onboarding process. The aim is to capture core information about our client’s data structure, quirks in the quality, and variability in the data sets. This more formalized process speeds up our clients’ progress through the design process.

Adopt a growth mindset

Discipline and documentation are the key elements required to build DesignOps. As you externalize things, iterate as needed. Don’t aim for perfection off the bat—you’re kicking off a whole body of work, and you don’t need to complete it in absolute terms. 

Treat your design handbook a bit like a product: it’s an epic of an epic, so how can you deliver that most “user value” with the most reasonable amount of effort? 

Test things out for yourself, and take advantage of relevant available resources for useful advice. 

Wrapping up

To wrap it up, DesignOps is a game-changer for scaling your product team while delivering top-notch UX. By standardizing your design processes, you set the stage for clear workflows, smooth collaboration, and consistent quality in your design work. Remember, it’s not about having the perfect processes and workflows, but about evolving and refining practices to fit your team’s needs.

So, let's keep building stronger operations that elevate our design game and create high-impact user experiences. 💪

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