Ever feel like your design process is a tangled mess of deadlines, lost files, and frustrated stakeholders? Introducing design operations (design ops): the solution for optimizing design workflows, amplifying impact, and fueling product success.

In this article, you’ll learn about design ops, a strategic approach to optimizing your design team for maximum impact. 

I’ll explain how design ops can streamline your design process, remove friction, and ultimately lead to better products. I also share specific suggestions on how to incorporate design ops into your team.

What is design ops?

Design operations, aka design ops, refers to the orchestration and optimization of people, processes, and tools within a design team. But it's not just about managing tasks or budgets; it's about amplifying design's impact and value at scale by creating a frictionless environment for creativity to flourish.

Imagine a design landscape without inefficiencies and miscommunication. Design ops paves the way for this reality by harmonizing elements of the design ecosystem. 

Roles and responsibilities are clearly defined, streamlined workflows maximize efficiency, and intuitive tools empower designers to focus on their core strengths. 

Brief history and evolution of design ops

While the term “design ops” gained traction in the early 2010s, its roots can be traced back to earlier movements like user-centered design and lean methodologies. As design teams grew and projects became more complex, it became clear there was a need for operational frameworks to streamline workflows and boost collaboration. 

Design ops emerged as a structured approach to address these challenges and unlock the full potential of design as a strategic asset.

Why design ops is important in design workflows

If you’re following an agile workflow and working cross-functionally with other teams, it’s important to have good design operations for a few reasons: 

  • Efficiency: Streamlined processes, clear tools, and standardized communication channels remove roadblocks and wasted time, allowing designers to focus on high-impact work.

  • Improved collaboration and communication: Design ops fosters strong connections between designers, product managers, engineers, and other stakeholders, providing alignment and shared goals.

  • Consistent design deliverables: By establishing design systems and best practices, design operations helps maintain brand consistency and quality across all touchpoints.

Design ops benefits infographic

Benefits of design ops

A good design ops strategy has many advantages for individuals, teams, and the whole organization. Here’s a roundup of some of the biggest benefits.

Individual benefits

  • Increased productivity and job satisfaction: Design ops facilitates smoother workflows, empowering designers to do what they do best – design.

  • Enhanced skill development: Through training and knowledge sharing initiatives, design ops supports continuous learning and skill development.

  • Stronger sense of belonging and community: Fostering a collaborative environment creates camaraderie and improves team morale.

Team benefits

  • Optimized project management: Clear roles, responsibilities, and communication channels create a more efficient and predictable design process.

  • Reduced rework and errors: Standardized practices and design systems minimize inconsistencies and costly reworks.

  • Improved cross-functional collaboration: Design ops bridges the gap between design and other departments, leading to better teamwork and shared ownership.

Organizational benefits

  • Enhanced brand consistency and recognition: Standardized design systems provide a unified brand experience across all platforms.

  • Increased design ROI: Design ops enables teams to work smarter and faster, driving greater value from design investments.

  • Improved product quality and user experience: Streamlined workflows and consistent designs leads to a better user experience and ultimately, increased customer satisfaction.

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Key components of design ops

Think of your design team as a highly motivated, yet slightly chaotic, startup. They have the talent, the ideas, and the passion – but without organization, things can get messy. That's where design ops steps in, providing the structure and support to transform this creative engine into a well-oiled machine. 

Just like any successful startup, effective design ops relies on a few key components.

Design ops roles and responsibilities infographic

Roles and responsibilities

Design ops teams encompass various roles and responsibilities depending on the organization's needs. Some common roles include:

  • Design ops manager: Oversees the design ops function, setting strategy and driving adoption. They analyze the design landscape, identify pain points, and champion initiatives that unlock the team's true potential.

  • Design program manager: This role coordinates and manages design projects and acts as a liaison between design teams and other departments. They make sure that projects are delivered on time and within budget, and that they meet the brief.

  • Design tooling specialist: Takes care of design tools and software licenses and provides tech support for design tools. They keep up with new technology and evaluate and implement new tools to improve efficiency and productivity. 

  • Design researcher: Conducts UX research and usability testing to gather user feedback and data, and translates user needs into actionable design decisions. They make sure the design process is user-centric, every step of the way.

  • Process designer: Streamlines design workflows and implements best practices. They identify bottlenecks and optimize design processes. Think of them as the Lean Six Sigma expert for the design world, making every step count.

  • Design systems manager: Develops and maintains the design system as a single source of truth for all design elements, components, and guidelines.

  • Training and development lead: This role designs and delivers training programs for the design team, including developing learning resources, running workshops, and supporting professional development.

  • Design evangelist: A design evangelist promotes the importance of design within the organization and advocates for the needs of designers. They also facilitate cross-functional collaboration and knowledge sharing.

Optimizing workflows

Design ops isn't just about building the right team; it's about optimizing the entire design workflow, putting the right systems in place to fuel growth. 

Think of it as:

  • Standardization of tools and processes: Defining consistent workflows and implementing the right tools for the job helps remove inefficiencies.

  • Automating tasks and removing repetitive processes: Automating mundane tasks frees up designers' time for creative endeavors.

  • Gathering metrics and making data-driven decisions: Tracking key metrics helps identify areas for improvement and measures the impact of design ops initiatives.

Standardizing design systems

Design systems serve as a single source of truth for design elements, components, and guidelines. By establishing a cohesive design system, design ops provides:

  • Brand consistency: A unified design language across all platforms strengthens brand identity and recognition.

  • Faster design execution: Designers can easily locate and reuse pre-built components, improving efficiency.

  • Reduced design ambiguity: Clear guidelines and documentation minimize misinterpretations and errors.

Design ops toolkit essentials

Just like any well-equipped startup needs the right tools to thrive, so too does a successful design ops strategy. Beyond team structures and workflows, powerful tools can further amplify impact and streamline processes.

Here are our top recommendations for tools to use in your design ops toolkit. 

Collaboration and communication tools

  • Project management: Asana, Trello, Jira

  • Design hand-off: Zeplin, Avocode, Figma Mirror

  • Real-time communication: Slack, Microsoft Teams

Design systems and component libraries

  • UI/UX design: Sketch, Figma, Adobe XD

  • Design system platforms: Zeplin, UXPin Merge, Framer

  • Prototyping: InVision, Proto.io, Figma

Research and user insights:

  • User research: Lyssna, UserTesting, Dovetail

  • Data analytics: Google Analytics, Hotjar, Mixpanel

Workflow automation and optimization:

  • Version control: Git, GitHub

  • Design asset management: Abstract, Cloudinary, Dropbox Business

  • Automation: Make, Zapier

Design ops

How to implement design ops

Starting the process of design ops involves creating a plan that fits your organization’s specific needs. Here are the important steps to begin your design ops implementation.

1. Assess your current design processes and identify pain points and inefficiencies

The first step toward successfully implementing design ops is understanding your existing design landscape. Conduct a thorough assessment of your design processes, tools, and team dynamics. Look for areas experiencing friction, wasted effort, or communication breakdowns. Here are some common pain points to consider:

  • Repetitive manual tasks: Are designers bogged down with repetitive tasks that could be automated?

  • Inconsistent communication: Do miscommunications with other teams lead to rework and delays?

  • Lack of standardized tools and processes: Do designers use a hodgepodge of tools and follow inconsistent workflows?

  • Unclear roles and responsibilities: Are roles within the design team ambiguous, leading to confusion and overlap?

  • Unwieldy design systems: Is the existing design system outdated, incomplete, or difficult to access and use?

Think of this as the design team's annual checkup. Scrutinize for areas causing friction, wasted effort, or communication breakdowns. By identifying these pain points, you can prioritize areas for improvement and tailor your design ops strategy accordingly.

2. Plan and implement

Once you have a clear understanding of your current state, it's time to develop a roadmap for implementing design ops. This roadmap should include:

  • Your strategic goals: What do you hope to achieve with design ops? Increased efficiency, improved user experience, stronger brand consistency? Having clear goals will guide your efforts and measure success. 

  • Your initiatives: Focus on the most impactful pain points first. Don't try to overhaul everything at once. Start with small, achievable wins to build momentum and demonstrate the value of design ops.

  • The tools you’ll use: Invest in tools that empower your team and streamline workflows. Choose tools that integrate seamlessly with each other and are user-friendly for all stakeholders. Remember, the best tools aren't just functional, but also foster collaboration and transparency.

  • Your processes and best practices: Document your workflows, establish design standards, and create training materials to make sure everyone understands their roles and responsibilities.

  • How you’ll communicate and collaborate: Identify how you’ll keep stakeholders informed throughout the implementation process, gather feedback, and address concerns. Design ops thrives on buy-in and active participation. Train your design team and other departments on the benefits of design ops and how they can contribute. Foster a culture of open communication where feedback is encouraged and roadblocks are tackled proactively. 

Remember, don't try to conquer Mount Everest in one leap. Start by prioritizing the most impactful pain points, aiming for quick wins that build momentum and showcase the value of design ops.

3. Training and adoption

Successful design ops requires buy-in from all stakeholders. Invest in training for your design team and other departments to make sure everyone understands the benefits and how they can contribute to its success.

Continuous improvement and iteration

Design ops isn't a one-time project, but rather an ongoing process. Regularly evaluate the effectiveness of your design ops strategy, adapt to changing needs, and iterate your processes based on new data and feedback. Embrace a growth mindset and be willing to experiment to find the best approach for your team and organization.

By following these steps and adopting a strategic approach, you can unlock the potential of design ops to empower your design team, streamline workflows, and ultimately drive business success. 

Remember, design ops is about creating an environment where design can flourish, bringing innovation and user-centric solutions to life. So, unleash your team’s creativity and see their design skills (and productivity) improve! 

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Roxanne Rosewood is passionate about empowering teams through design sprints. As a design researcher and facilitator, she guides companies in crafting user-centric experiences. Read her blog at TheRoxannePerspective.com.

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