Discussing DesignOps

DesignOps is all the rage but it's a complex field. Here's an intro into this topic including some useful definitions.

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If you work anywhere within or close to the world of user experience, there’s a high chance that you’ve encountered or heard of DesignOps.

When addressing a developing discipline, it is important to set definitions of the terms. Before discussing DesignOps, let’s start with each word and its definition.


Mention ‘design’ in a conversation and it adds value without offering a precise meaning. If you hear “that’s great design” do you know exactly what was meant by that? Aesthetics? Form? Function? All of the above? There are a multitude of interpretations of what design does and does not incorporate. In this article, I will use the following definition: Design is the practice of understanding and challenging assumptions about problems to create innovative solutions.


The practice of planning, organising, coordinating and controlling the resources needed to produce a company’s products and services to create the highest level of efficiency possible.

Why does design now need its own operations?   

Humans have always solved problems with design and business operations have been a staple since the industrial revolution. So why does design now need its own specific operational companion? What is so exclusive about design today? Or is DesignOps simply a construction to create new consultancy specialisms and keep the conference circuits fresh?

As societies and technologies develop, the complexity of human interaction increases. The one-size-fits-all Fordist production line fails in a world where interactions across touchpoints need to encapsulate an organisation's brand whilst creating a personalised experience for customers; 

Show me who you are, whilst understanding me and my likes and dislikes

A tall order when you consider in how many places and contexts your customers now interact with your organisation. The only way you can answer this challenge is with design. 

A handful of design and technology led organisations have demonstrated the ‘possible’. As they have grown, their operational thinking has naturally extended to their core functions: design, technology and how best to facilitate each. However, encapsulating this success within organisations whose origins lie in more traditional industries has proven challenging. Large investments in design education have often yielded lower returns than desired.

It has been well documented by commentators, that four out of five large digital transformation projects fail to deliver the results required to justify the investment in them. IDC predict that digital transformation global spend will reach a staggering $2trillion by 2020, if only a fifth of those produce a positive return, an eye-watering $1.6 trillion is set to be written off at some point in the near future.

Why the low return?   

Design looks to deconstruct and disrupt, challenging what is understood about a problem today and reshaping it for the future. Business operations aims to create the highest level of efficiency possible within an organisation. Whilst one ensures nothing is broken, the other seeks to change things.

Disruption and efficiency are clearly not natural companions especially when disruption to a global organisation could cost millions. The adoption of Agile working methodologies by organisations, although laden with benefits, has placed designers into an engineering, efficiency, focused way of working. Often, the integration of design into day-to-day business operations either nullifies its potential to ‘disrupt’ or leads to unsustainable friction.

As organisations wrestle with how to bring design in-house the gap is bridged by outsourced design - it is a multi-billion-dollar industry. There is of course value in this outcost; an outside-in perspective that challenges the status quo and disrupts.

However, even here, the needs of operational efficiency are at play. Budget holding clients must explain their investment to operationally-minded colleagues. Meanwhile, agencies and consultancies need to protect their revenue streams which usually entails fitting into a client’s operational model and not rocking the boat. Both sides claim to champion ‘design thinking’ but neither wants the disruption that could slow their ‘efficiency’.

So, how do you operationalise disruption?

A shift in thinking 

DesignOps is the first step in approaching the challenge of operationalising deconstructive thinking. Parallels are often drawn between the evolution of DevOps and DesignOps but they are not the same. Both seek to operationalise emerging practices that are key to organisational success, but one looks to, where necessary, sacrifice the quality of the output over production and velocity, the other ensures that the quality of the outcome is not sacrificed. 

DevOps - is the combination of cultural philosophies, practices, and tools that combines two areas, development/engineering and IT infrastructure, to boost an organisation’s ability to deliver applications and services at high velocity. This speed enables organisations to better serve their customers and compete more effectively in the market. The need for quality outputs can be intentionally compromised in the pursuit of rapid development and deployment.

DesignOps - is the combination of cultural philosophies, practices, and tools that increases an organisation’s ability to deliver well-designed, high-quality applications and services that meet people’s needs, while working at high velocity. More efficiently structured design teams enable organisations to evolve and improve product and service design at a faster pace than traditional UX design and research processes without compromising on quality.

Rather than augmenting designers into an engineering process with a focus on velocity, DesignOps seeks to create the structures and tools that nurture designers and design methodologies within an organisation. By working in this way when a problem is first addressed it ensures that instead of efficiency dictating the approach to a solution, deconstructive and disruptive thinking is allowed to thrive and generate value.

Designing for quality output rather than efficiency is clearly beneficial for the customer, but it is also key for business success. Delivering experiences that get to the core of what customers truly value means that they will identify more deeply with the brand. Improved brand loyalty and advocacy drives deeper engagement with products. Rather than brief, functional interactions with a product or brand, interactions will be deeper, longer lasting and more frequent.

A growing challenge   

As organisations integrate more and varying design practices into their operations the need to protect these practices, approaches and methodologies from an engineering mindset is growing. Teams are becoming larger and are increasingly distributed as demands for ‘design’ increase across organisations. Design solutions are also growing in complexity. The tools used for design are becoming more complex in proportion to the problems they’re trying to solve. Today, great designers are a rare commodity, and they know it.

DesignOps explores how disruptive and deconstructive thinking can be facilitated and grown within large organisations by understanding when and where to apply the right thinking and approaches to generate the best possible outcomes. It protects designers and the processes required to let their thinking flourish.

Furthermore, it explores how organisations should develop, advance, promote, reward and recognise a resource that is often not entirely understood to enable the growth of in-house capabilities. It is a broad and multi-faceted topic that will continue to grow and gain momentum. In the interest of maintaining competitive edge, it is a subject organisations must explore today.

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