Product Management: Design Ops

What is design ops, and why should you make it a part of your product team’s culture? This page will walk you through the basics of design ops and give you suggestions for incorporating it into your team.

What Is Design Ops?

Design ops (sometimes written as the single-word DesignOps) refers to the practice of integrating the design team’s workflow into the company’s larger development context.

In practical terms, this means the design ops role is responsible for planning and managing the design team’s work and making sure that design is collaborating effectively with product and engineering throughout the development process.

Why Is It Important for Product Managers?

In product organizations where the teams are growing and product suites are becoming more complex, one common consequence is that the development and design teams begin to operate in information silos. Developers focus on the back-end details of the product, while the product design team focuses on the product’s user experience and aesthetics. This can result in the two departments outputting work that is fundamentally incompatible, leading to additional work and even delays in product releases.

Here is another way to understand this risk. Without design ops, a product organization can in essence create a waterfall development pattern, where the development team has to wait to begin until the designers have completed their work. For most organizations, an agile development approach would be more efficient, where designers and developers worked together and in a more iterative, collaborative way.

Design ops seeks to address these risks by coordinating the design team’s work and increasing collaboration among the designers, product managers, and engineers — to ensure everyone is working with the same strategic product goals in mind.

The design ops function can be valuable for product managers for several reasons:

1. It can help product managers make sure that the designers on their cross-functional product team are working in close communication with the product’s development team.

2. It can help product managers ensure that design and engineering have coordinated their schedules such that design is able to release its work back to development at regular intervals and in a timely manner. In other words, it can reduce bottlenecks and delays as one team has to wait for the other to finish its work.

3. It can help product managers better allocate resources, because a design ops professional (or department) will be able to more accurately estimate how many designers a project will need, and will be able to help schedule additional design resource mid-project when necessary.

How to Incorporate Design Ops into Your Team

There are two broad approaches to incorporating design ops into your product organization. One requires assigning specific roles or even hiring new people. The other requires only a shift in thinking.

1. Build a design ops culture.

With this approach, you will need to adjust your team’s thinking to make design a more integrated part of your product’s development plans and schedule.

This means estimating design team resources and hours needed for development cycles, building those schedules into your broader development timeframes, and determining when development will pass its work off to design and when design will pass its work back to development.

With a design ops culture, anyone on your team can serve as the lead: a product manager, design team member, or another stakeholder. This will not necessarily require assigning design ops as a designated role or hiring a new person (although it could). But it will require a shift in thinking, and buy-in across the cross-functional product team that design will not work independently but rather in close partnership with the product and development teams.

2. Create a stand alone role (or even a department).

Although it is still a relatively new term, the design ops approach has quickly gained traction within larger and more sophisticated product organizations.

Coordinating design’s work within the broader context of the cross-functional product team has proven successful enough in many of these organizations that design ops professionals and even entire teams are becoming more common.

If your company’s product development work is becoming complex and demanding enough to warrant a standalone role just to coordinate design, you can also create a full-time position.

This person will need both a strong understanding of how to create outstanding design work as well as strong organizational and process-management skills.

A design ops professional can come from a design background, a product background, or a project management background.

Design Ops Is Quickly Becoming a Must-Have Mindset for Any Product Team

Whether or not your company can afford a design ops role, it is important to integrate design ops thinking into your product team’s planning, scheduling, and collaboration strategies.

Without a strategy for keeping your designers fully dialed in to the work and objectives of everyone else on your cross-functional product team, you risk allowing product-development silos to build up, which can keep your team from doing its best work.