What is DesignOps and why is it important?

By UserTesting | September 8, 2023
A team in a meeting discussing business and design.

In today's business landscape, exceptional user experiences are an expectation for organizations looking to stay competitive in the marketplace. It’s the responsibility of designers to craft these experiences. To do that, design teams must be well-organized and efficient. However, design leaders and their teams don’t always have the time or bandwidth to focus on optimizing their processes and workflows. And that’s where DesignOps comes into play.

By instituting a design center of excellence (CoE) and implementing thoughtful DesignOps, you can boost collaboration, streamline workflows, ensure design consistency, and ultimately craft superior products.

Understanding DesignOps

DesignOps is an emerging discipline that brings efficiency and effectiveness to design teams. But what is it, exactly, and what does it mean for your organization?

What is DesignOps?

DesignOps is the orchestration and operation management of design teams, workflows, systems, and resources. It's a practice that involves planning, implementing, measuring, and improving design activities across an organization. Specifically, DesignOps focuses on:

  • Facilitating collaboration between design team members and other departments
  • Establishing and managing design systems and libraries
  • Optimizing design operations and processes
  • Tracking design metrics and collecting user feedback
  • Supporting design tools and technologies
  • Hiring, training, and advancing design talent

At its core, DesignOps enables design consistency, efficiency, and improvement over time.

The evolution and history of DesignOps

In the early days of product development, design was often an afterthought. Designers were part of the product teams without much structure or focus on design processes. However, as design became more of a discipline, the need for more systematic management of design teams emerged. With the increasing complexity of design work and the growing influence of design on product outcomes, better operations within design teams became essential.

The term "DesignOps" first appeared around 2014 as a reference to "DevOps," emerging from the growing need for design teams to adopt the kind of dedicated operations strategies already widespread in software development teams. 

DesignOps evolved from a vague concept into a defined approach to streamline and enhance design processes. The field continues to evolve as organizations recognize the value of iterating and improving the management of their design teams and workflows. 

The role of DesignOps

Instead of focusing on what’s delivered, DesignOps is focused on how. It looks holistically at the systems, staff, and workflows that allow design teams to succeed. It allows designers to focus on creative, strategic work rather than getting bogged down in operational minutiae. Some of the key responsibilities of DesignOps include:

Facilitating collaboration and communication

Design teams don't operate in a silo. Effective collaboration and communication with engineering, product management, and other groups is essential. DesignOps fosters alignment, shared understanding, and partnerships between design and other departments by

  • Ensuring the design aspect gets priority in project initiatives
  • Creating mechanisms for sharing context and feedback between teams
  • Building relationships and processes for aligned road mapping
  • Educating other departments on the design process
  • Resolving conflicts and obstacles between groups

Smooth cross-functional teamwork is crucial for design success and positive dynamics. With intentional collaboration enablement, DesignOps connects design to the broader organization.

Managing design systems and libraries

A core DesignOps responsibility is maintaining design systems and libraries. These tools enable version control and consistency for designers.

DesignOps professionals build and iterate on comprehensive design systems for the organization. They also govern centralized libraries' patterns, components, templates, and guidelines. Other key aspects of managing design systems and libraries include:

  • Ensuring organizational adoption and adherence to the design system
  • Tracking changes to the system and communicating updates across teams
  • Version controlling everything in the design system and libraries

Robust design systems and diligent version control are fundamental for product design consistency, allowing for better product outcomes.

Streamlining design workflows

Another critical DesignOps task is analyzing, optimizing, and documenting design workflows at each product lifecycle stage. DesignOps drives design workflow efficiencies by

  • Mapping and improving creative workflows
  • Identifying pain points in design processes
  • Standardizing workflows where beneficial
  • Creating guides and templates to enhance consistency
  • Supporting clear design documentation and handoff

Thoughtful design workflows propagate efficiencies across teams and projects. DesignOps oversight keeps workflows effective as creative needs evolve.

Managing programs, resources, and staffing

DesignOps plays a broad role in managing design teams' programs, resources, and staffing. Some of the key responsibilities include:

  • Budgeting and forecasting for design headcount, tools, and activities
  • Hiring designers and growing the team
  • Onboarding new team members
  • Facilitating professional development and training
  • Defining processes for giving feedback and performance management
  • Tracking design team capacity and staffing assignments
  • Procuring and administering design technologies and tools

Keeping design talent, resources, tools, and programs running smoothly allows designers to thrive.

Monitoring design metrics and performance

Increasingly, DesignOps focuses on measuring and demonstrating the design organization’s impact over time. Key responsibilities include:

  • Determining useful design metrics and KPIs to track
  • Setting up methods for measuring KPIs across projects
  • Analyzing metrics and reporting insights to leadership
  • Communicating metrics internally to justify the design’s value further
  • Tying measurable design results to outcomes

With DesignOps overseeing design performance monitoring, teams get crucial data-driven insights to improve over time.

Establishing a design center of excellence

DesignOps involves operational strategies and practices that facilitate the efficient and effective functioning of design teams within an organization. A design center of excellence (CoE) is a hub or team repository of the expertise and best practices identified by DesignOps processes. It centralizes and standardizes design practices across the organization to enhance quality and coherence.

To fully harness the potential of DesignOps, establish a design CoE within your organization. This centralized hub provides shared tools, workflows, leadership, and staffing. By embracing this consolidated structure, organizations can unlock numerous benefits and drive impactful outcomes, including:

More consistent brand experiences 
Central design systems and libraries make User Interface (UI) consistent across products, delivering a reliable, on-brand experience for customers across touchpoints—including designing for mobile

Increased design efficiency 
Shared design operations resources like workflows, documentation, and staff foster reuse and reduce redundant design efforts. Designers spend less time reinventing and more time ideating.

Enhanced collaboration, communication, and handoffs
Design CoE facilitates coordinated interactions, enabling product teams to incorporate design and streamline handoffs effectively. It cultivates a sense of mutual understanding.

Improved design team productivity 
By handling hiring, staffing, onboarding, tools, systems, and professional growth, CoE allows designers to focus on their craft.

Better design scaling
Maintaining excellence gets tougher as design teams grow. Design CoE provides the scaffolding for consistent design at scale.

Clarified design responsibilities 
Well-defined design operation functions reduce ambiguity between design, product, and engineering roles, fostering smooth collaboration.

Design maturity benchmarks 
Centralized design operations provide processes and systems to emulate for less design-mature units. New design teams benefit from established tools and workflows.

In today's digital landscape, user experience is everything. You gain strategic advantages through smarter design by implementing a thoughtful design center of excellence.

DesignOps best practices

An effective DesignOps approach requires attention to people, processes, and tools. Here are some best practices to bake into your design center of excellence:

Create designs with the user in mind 
Always place the user at the center of your design processes. User-centric designs tend to resonate better and deliver higher user satisfaction.

Select and utilize appropriate design tools 
Provide designers with tools matched to team needs across ideation, prototyping, collaboration, and workflow management. Adoption and governance of design tools are key.

Stay agile and adaptable with your DesignOps management 
The design landscape is ever-evolving, and staying too rigid can hinder innovation. Stay flexible and adapt to new tools, processes, and methodologies as needed. 

Ensure your DesignOps team is well-coordinated and effective 
A team that communicates and collaborates well can surmount even the most challenging hurdles. Regular check-ins, clear communication channels, and a culture of continuous learning can drive your DesignOps team to excellence.

Collect and act on user feedback 
Design is never static. Post-launch feedback is invaluable for iterative improvements. Tools like UserTesting can be instrumental in gathering genuine user feedback so your designs remain relevant and user-friendly.

Frequently asked questions

What does a DesignOps team look like?

A DesignOps team typically comprises dedicated operations professionals like design producers, project managers, and design systems leads. More mature teams may also include managers overseeing design strategy, metrics, and talent development.

Is DesignOps only for large teams?

No. DesignOps can benefit teams of all sizes by bringing structure, efficiency, and clarity to design processes.

Where does DesignOps report into?

Most often, DesignOps reports to a head of design or VP of design. However, it may also report to product, engineering, or directly to the C-suite at smaller organizations. Regardless, DesignOps should maintain close ties with design leadership.

How does UserTesting fit into the DesignOps framework?

UserTesting is a platform that facilitates genuine user feedback, allowing designers to make informed decisions while providing user-centric and effective designs. 

What's next

The UX design process is a journey to understand your user's needs, brainstorm ideas, and create a functional, usable product with a delightful experience. Without a process, organizations can spend significant time and resources putting out design fires one at a time. Learn more about how to master a design process. 

About the author(s)

With UserTesting’s on-demand platform, you uncover ‘the why’ behind customer interactions. In just a few hours, you can capture the critical human insights you need to confidently deliver what your customers want and expect.