Scoot over DevOps, make room for DesignOps

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed June 25, 2017
Heard enough about DevOps? Fancy some DesignOps? The term doesn't matter - but operationalizing design does. Here's what I learned from Capital One's Kristin Skinner.

Readers know that I love me some enterprise buzzwords. So you can imagine my unmitigated joy hearing the phrase "DesignOps" for the first time at Enterprise UX 2017 in San Francisco. In truth, the term has been around for a while - there is even a web site, so I guess I'm playing catchup.

Whether the term ever catches on, the meaning behind the term echoes what I heard at Enterprise UX 2017. Companies are trying to "operationalize" design, taking what they've learned in smaller teams and push it across the company. (Check my writeup on Peter Merholz's talk, Design for strategy, not features - structuring UX design teams around customer experiences, for more on how design structures are maturing).

During their day-long pre-conference workshop, "Design your Design Organization," Merholz and Kristin Skinner shared their hard-won methods. I was in flight that day, but at the end of the show, I had an informal chat with Skinner in the San Francisco sun.

Getting acquired - and putting DesignOps to the test

Skinner has seen design operations put to the test. As the Managing Director of Adaptive Path, she was part of the design team acquired by Capital One. Serving as Head of Design Management at Capital One, she faced the challenge of integrating Adaptive Path designers with Capital One's internal teams. Skinner plans to speak at the upcoming DesignOps Summit in November in New York City - put on by Rosenfeld Media, the same group that spearheaded Enterprise UX 2017.

When Capital One acquired Adaptive Path in 2015, Skinner found herself responsible for operationalizing about 100 designers (60 or so from Adaptive Path, the rest from Capital One. Some of the challenges were basic, such as the need for visibility across design projects. But others ran deeper. Skinner's job? Bring design management into an enterprise context:

I had a pretty hefty design toolkit. I brought that on board and tried to adapt it for the enterprise. I really went into learning mode, to figure out what a design management practice might look like.

Skinner described her initial task as "roadmap detective," navigating the intricacies of all the lines of business the design team served. Capital One's team was welcoming, but that didn't relieve her from culture clash and change management:

In many ways, it was just something we needed to get through. We needed to make sure we were being respectful of each other's backgrounds and perspectives.

Skinner began building her design management team in earnest in 2015, quickly growing the team from four to twenty two. The team's job: support the designers embedded across the lines of business. So what has Skinner learned that other teams can use?

Having just left Enterprise UX, there were a lot of themes that resonated with me around servant leadership - making sure we as a design organization understand who we're in service to. That has many concentric circles. It starts obviously with my team, and how to apply those principles and how to measure them. Then it's a matter of aligning the design organization in service to what Capital One wants to do for its customers and its business.

Team-building must cross lines of business - and geography

Skinner at Enterprise UX 2017

Alignment with organizational values is crucial:

Capital One has such a great perspective on being a values-driven organization. There's about twenty different values that we use in our recruiting and hiring... I try to think of the values that are most applicable to my team, around informed decision-making, collaboration, integrity.

Since her team is spread out across locations like New York City, San Francisco, and Richmond, how does Skinner get those values across? Short answer: concerted effort. Longer answer: lots of face, video and phone time.

Because we're a relatively new practice and team - especially to Capital One - we spend a lot of time team building, taking what's happening in our industry and applying it. It's not a hard sell to get the team to come to San Francisco, but I try not to get the team bogged down in over-traveling. I'm spending most of my time in one-on-ones, either on video conferences on phone calls or in person. There's a cadence I really try to adhere to.

That cadence includes weekly team meetings called "dropping knowledge." A big part of it is serving the lines of business:

If I have someone working in commercial banking, they're going to be sitting with the commercial bank design team - the same with consumer banking.

Bringing that knowledge back to the design org group is vital:

One of my expectations is to make sure that they're sending back the requirements and needs from the lines of business, so that our team can serve them back out.

Skinner used the example of a reporting requirement. She wants the central team to hash out the best reporting options, determining the frequency, audience, and categories together:

We try to centralize those decisions with a framework, and then share them back out with the rest of the team. There's a real benefit in making sure we're building the foundations of our practice and serving that back out.

On working with customers - and design ROI

But has the design team been able to work directly with customers? Skinner cited the example of Capital One cafes, where they've been able to give customers test runs:

We have a service design team of folks thinking about the customer journey, and then delivering a product or experience over time. So for example, we have cafes across the United States, such as Austin and San Francisco... The Capital One cafes are a space where people come together to get their work done and be social and learn about products, but it's not a traditional bank.

Skinner's team used that space to test a new money management service directly with customers, in a natural environment where they can explore the service comfortably. That comfort matters when you're talking about delicate topics like money management. Skinner's team also ventures into design thinking territory, working with internal teams, from legal to audit, to "help them think about how they can reimagine or deliver their services. So yeah - it's kind of a 360 degree view."

We talked about the other hot button issue at Enterprise UX 2017: measuring design ROI. Skinner has more she wants to do with measurement, but she has some metrics in place:

We know we're doing our jobs well when we can measure things like customer satisfaction or team health... It helps when the work has measurable outcomes, and the team understands the requirements they need to answer to.

Skinner can see the trend line "moving in the right direction." Right now, the team is tracking their own metrics, but she hopes to build it out with input from partners.

The wrap - DesignOps is trendy, but change is the constant

So is this a viable preview of what Skinner plans to talk about at the DesignOps Summit? Skinner says yes - and the DesignOps Summit is not just for designers.

There's a lot to unpack, so I just want to take into account the broad audience we expect to have for the DesignOps Summit - not just from design, but from business operations to HR and all the other functions.

As for that DesignOps buzzword, the parallels to DevOps are logical to Skinner:

It does make sense, because that's been the natural transition, when we start to think about all of these activities that are like DevOps, but for design.

She points out that DevOps itself is still a pretty disputed definition. She cautions we shouldn't get too obsessed with automation and efficiency. It's about being effective:

We need to make sure we're asking the right questions. What are we all trying to achieve, and what is design's role in that? How can design organize itself in such a way to get to those results? That's why we're calling it a summit, and not a conference. We want to get a community together and establish the best ways of working together.

Skinner's final lesson from the EUX 17 conference is adaptability. In today's economy, change is the only constant:

The biggest takeaway from me is around organizational change - and that being the constant. Budgets can change; technologies can change; priorities can change - you have to be prepared.

Building a sustainable design team amidst all that is the goal. And that, in essence, is what people mean when they utter that splashy phrase "DesignOps."

End note – this article is part of my ongoing diginomica Enteprise UX series. You can check out a number of the speaker slide decks on the Enterprise UX 2017 web site.

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