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What is Design Ops? by Kevin Hoffman

Jul 30, 2019 | An Event Apart 2019

July 30, 2019 | Day 2 Session 4

A LOT goes into what a word means to us and the world.

If I say Batman who do you think of? Could be lots of different people!

The way we think about the environment is only as bold as we think about batman. We use it to refer to this massive complex series of interactions that affect us as humans. Before a specific event we thought about the word environment differently.

It was in response to the devastation caused by the atomic bomb that conversations began around the glove connecting the concept of thinking globally to the concept of the relationships between the health of the natural world and the choices we make as a species.

In 1948 France organized the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. In the same year Stalin became an environmentalist by changing the way they used water.

In 1970 we had our first Earth Day. A developer named Jay Forest tried to write a computer model to capture the way the environment works with 120 lines of code.

You can see how hard it is to mean the same thing when we mean the same thing and how historical events can have an effect on the meaning we carry with words, and it guides what we do with our work, how we decide to structure our teams and our companies, and how we can measure if the work is making a difference. That’s all words!

Word of the hour:

This has become an overused appendix to a lot of words.

Design Ops is very sparkly right now. It keeps popping up on Twitter and conversations.

Little design teams of 1 person all the way up to the biggest design teams of 501 people they’re all putting a lot of time and even money into design ops.

DesignOps Global Conference is in its 3rd year. Most large companies especially those that claim to be technology companies have a Design Ops position which is usually an executive-level position.

There is a free monthly zoom call via Rosenfeld every month.

Answer: It literally doesn’t matter. In the grander scheme of things, design ops isn’t really that important because the meaning of words are ephemeral. We use them to evolve how we’re working together. Design ops is in a state of growth where we keep adding things to it, it’s collection gall these diagrams and models. It’s a visual organization of time.

Without the consideration of context it’s hard for him to understand the things that are coming out of design ops. The context lets him look at where it’s come from, where it is now, and where he can point it to help the most in our work.

def: Operations – normalizing stuff to achieve a goal. It’s making something routine in service of something else.

Where did the earliest use of operations as a practice come from? In Sumeria 5000 years ago Sumerian priests developed bookkeeping for taxes.

In 4000 BC Egyptians used control management in the process of building pyramids.

In 370 BC Greeks realized they could divide making shoes up into different jobs and make more shoes.

In 476 AD brought about a government structure and socio-economic classes were developed based on how much land someone owned.

These are all interesting examples of normalizing things to achieve some kind of goal.

The atomic bomb that changed the meaning of the word operations really happened as part of the industrial revolution. He cannot understate the impact this revolution had not only on operations but on how we do the work that we do to this day. Two things came out of this revolution that have changed how we think about work.

They are 1) the division of labor which they started to figure out in Greece in 370 BC but was formalized during the industrial revolution and 2) the interoperability of parts in a machine.

He remembers when he started in the web he was a webmaster and there was only one of him, and then there were designers and developers, and now we have design research and separate UI and UX design, and all we’re really doing is iterating on the division of labor.

A few years ago there was this debate about whether a good designer should know how to code, or vice versa. His answer was ‘it doesn’t matter, it just matters how they communicate with each other.’

If you are a designer and a developer, the communication process is instantaneous. The reason we can’t all be designers and developers because one designer is not scalable. So the division of labor is inevitable. What matters is how you divide the labor and define how those divisions work with each other.

Interoperability of parts is about making digital machinery that works together and has swap-ability of parts. This swap-ability is what makes it more efficient rather than building it or coding it from scratch.

So let’s take a more recent look at operations in management:

He likes to think about his 13 year old son, and when he asks his son to do something, he’ll say ‘I need you to put away the clean dishes’ and he’ll always say ‘do you though?’

He thinks Dev Ops is basically chocolate and peanut butter. It’s the process of where chocolate (software development) connects to peanut butter (traditional IT processes) to make reaching a goal more efficient. This could be shipping a product or automating something like load testing of a web application.

One possible goal is moving towards a state of continuous integration and continuous deployment (CICD).

Sidebar: Acronyms create more problems than they solve right now.

If I’m a designer, what does CICD mean to me? It means I have to continuously design things and that they are developed in a way that meets the design quality we’ve set forth in our integration. If I don’t do this, design either becomes a bottleneck in the process where it slows the shipping process, or the design quality is devalued against the importance of shipping. So then important design things go into the backlog.

That’s what design ops is – it’s whatever you need it to be to address design quality in the context of these new structures that are dev ops that work in particular frameworks of how we build code.

In his past few years of managing designers and researching this topic, he asked a lot of people what Design Ops means to them.

  1. Three things: things related to project management, process management, and people – how we work with other people. – David Bigness
  2. its where you take traditional business op patterns and use them as a lens of how design is being done to help you figure out what you need to change – Jacqui Frey
  3. implementing business ops as that lens allows teams to work on things that matter – Brennan Hartich.
  4. There’s no one right way to do design ops. Software and tools at one company could be fantastic and at other they could suck. And communications process at one company could be great but awful at another. Design ops is the process of constantly evaluating what’s working and what isn’t. – Kristin
  5. Design ops is literally everything about design work that isn’t actually making design (all the meetings you attend, the documentation you make, the communication required to get the designs done, etc). – Peter Merholz

Book: Org Design for Design Orgs by Peter Merholz & Kristin Skinner

1. People
2. Process
3. Portfolio / Projects

How do we find and hire the right people?
How are they trained to be successful in the culture of this company?
How do we know if the designers are happy doing the work they’re doing?

How do people inside of design with with each other across various positions?
Where is design positioned in the organization? Does it report to Marketing? To Product? To IT?
What are all the software tools that we use? Do all the designers use the same tool? Or do they work in whatever they want and how does that help us make better design?
And how do we communicate? Do we communicate internally in Slack and then when we need to communicate with a client we go back into email?

How does design work with product development?
How do we as designers work with the rest of our organizations? Leadership?
How do we communicate? What meetings do we have and why?

If you think about these as lenses, when Jacqui talked about using the lens of business ops, each of these is a lens you can use to look at your design operations.

How mature is your design organization? Like how is design built into the org?

The New Design Frontier – a report from DesignBetter by InVision

They came up with a model for how mature design is in a company that frames how you might address design in a certain way.

Between Levels 2 and 3 (Connectors and Architects) design ops becomes an indispensable practice.

Design maturity and the size of the design team are not related. Design ops is a function of what role design plays in the organization. The more design is central to your organization, the more you need to be very intentional with design operations at your company.

You have to make a process up (even if you make it as you go along) and you have to prioritize a portfolio.


Example: AGILE
He thinks this is the worst thing that has ever happened to being a designer or any employee of any kind.

There have been all of these things that have happened that forced him to ask if working in Agile a human-centered way of working?

We champion human-centered design…

We want to design things that are usable or if we’re lucky delightful.

If you’re a designer, think about the way agility has manifested in the workplace? Does your job feel more usable or more delightful as a result of Agile?

And we’ve gotten to the point of the revolution of the word Agile where we’ve put words like Impact and Outcomes over words like Craft and Meaning. And he thinks this happened because we took a model that was meant to be very human-centered but by being reapplied and twisted, the original meaning of the manifesto has been implemented in ways that contradict the manifesto.

Words that do NOT appear in the agile manifesto from 2001: Sprint, Scrum, Velocity, Safe.
Words that are in the manifesto: Shorter Timescale (not 2 weeks, but shorter than the 2 year timeline it used to take), Face-To-Face Conversation (in place of documentation but not SCRUM), Good Design.

Look at everything you do around design that isn’t the act of design, and look through the lenses of people, process, and portfolio, and ask how you can create processes where designers at work can really love what they do.

This concept of being loving – are we working in ways that are loving to ourselves, to our teams, and to our customers?

The way that we can use design ops in our companies is by starting with VALUES. Don’t ask by how to do design ops, just ask why do we need design ops, and what are the values that drive the ways we make decisions?


*Give people more time and they will do better work. You can implement processes focused on giving people more time to do their work and improve the quality of work being done.

Sometimes design ops is about removing things.

Example 1: A growing agency went from 3 teams and 30 people to tons of teams and 500 people and instead of requiring design reviews weekly they made design review a thing you request. So they trusted their teams to do good work and it gave everyone more time.

Example 2: Another company was a design team of 100 people and every week all of these teams would document what progress they’d made in a bunch of ways (some people would send emails, others would make a dec) and they wanted to eliminate the time people were making decs and reporting work. They wanted to normalize how and when people reported progress so you could go to one place and see what was happening.

They created a simple form with 12 inputs (in Airtable) and they had people fill it out once a week per project, with the goal of having 85% of the team fill out that form weekly.

We have people who are designers, those designers are in teams, those teams have projects, and once a eek we want a report on that project.

They then wrote a python script that would scrub the spreadsheet and output it into a deck.

Kevin made a version of this in Airtable for US! 
Click ‘Copy base’ button

Trust designers to do good work
Normalize and simplify self-reporting behavior
Use time-tracking behavior you have to prove if designers are spending more time designing


People do better work when they are happy

Where do we need to focus our design process effort? What is the work people tolerate but don’t like doing? How do we operationalize those things so people have more changes to

Examine emotional acuity (EQ) as well as job performance
Use an emotional acuity rang to assess how people are affected by their work
Finding should guide design operations efforts in people, processes, and project


Make sure the best work gets to your users.

The Spotify squad framework grew out of the very problem he’s been describing – where the application of agile became too rigid and get back to being agile as a principle.

The division of labor became about how we structure our companies.
Marketing happens in the marketing department, and Design happens in the design department…
But we don’t have to organize the company based on the division of labor. Structuring a company in an alternative way has had some good results.
Think about what combination of roles will make a small and independent team
And then organize the company in the way that creates the best connection each role.

Do we need more structure roles structure to operationalize something?
* Policies
* steps in a process
* roles/job descriptions and where you sit
* desired behaviors

Don’t start with What is Design Ops but Why is Design Ops?

What do we want to do? What values are we working toward? What is the love we’re trying to create?
* Give people more time?
* Make work more fulfilling?
* Increase quality?
* Make more money?

What sense are we looking through? Examine your own team through those 3 processes.
* people (hiring, org. structure)
* process (intake, internal collaboration)
* portfolio (projects, priorities)

How to change the structure? Measure whether you need more or less structure in how something is being approached.
* do we need more of it or less of it?
* orient yourself to the situation first before getting to work or looking at examples of other companies
* there is some to be learned from government because it’s the biggest structure we have now.

What matters here?
If he looks back at his career in the last 25 years he’s not looking back and saying ‘wow, I shipped code every week!’ because he doesn’t care. What he cares about is how his design has gotten better, how his relationships have improved, and how work has become a better place to do design.

What matters is that the design gets better, and sparkles.

Book: Meeting Design by Kevin Hoffman (discount AEAHoffman)

1 Comment

  1. Casey Josephs

    Awesome thought processes – its’ important to keep perspective with design so that we don’t lose meaning with symbols. Keeping design ops as a state of organic flow is crucial – and will lead to better outcomes all round.


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