Aside from being an excellent conference where learning from peers was the first priority, it also established in my mind what DesignOps is. I saw this conference as announcing DesignOps beyond simply a collection of activities, but rather an acknowledgment of an emerging discipline that encompasses established design practices such as UX and Service design, and places them in the context of digital business operations.
Scale, talent retention, recruitment management and the creation of design activities and systems all combine to create strategic impact at a corporate level. The singular projects combine as a programme of multiple activities across teams who produce and maintain digital products and services.
Dave Malouf has probably done more work in the definition of DesignOps than most and also co-authored the book on the subject published by InVision. This was a good compendium of all the facets of the subject and generally how to deliver value as designers and his cascading metrics to measure value is such a useful framework - Valuing Design, DesignOps Practices
What we could have heard a little more about was the assessment of digital maturity of a company and the readiness and willingness to adopt DesignOps practices. Also how to work with companies who are too design immature to implement effectively. In the US and UK there is a considerable amount of trade and commerce online with many successful digital businesses whilst in Denmark we have a lot of giants who have been established in the last century.
This has a huge impact on the legacy software, mindset (regards to how things get done - and always have been) and size to be able to adapt and synchronise activities. Denmark is a place where digital transformation is imperative but also where impact is difficult to measure and feel. The past five years of my work has been helping companies try to attain this transformation. But what was striking at this conference was that digital product companies (IBM, Airbnb, Google) can relate to DesignOps and adapt much easier than others.
Design consultants as catalysts
That’s not to say DesignOps is only for digital product companies. Both BT and Virgin trains were showing how legacy systems were being modified by design thinking and advanced design practices. All were helped by external consultants as it was simply too difficult a task to manage the flexibility needed and levels of skill required to get an organisation to unlearn and then relearn at speed and scale.
Marcela Ospina has a good overview of how DesignOps looks both inside and outside of the organisation to enable transformation to occur - What you do you become.
Andy Ingle (Invicta) and Jess Brennan (Virgin Trains) shared good insights how consultants can add value to a client’s pipeline and improve the organisation’s design maturity - How to make client/agency collaboration work
Mary Cook explained how she is creating a culture of design at Essex county council: - Practices and behaviours for transforming public services.
Tim Loo explained the challenges of ideating as a group and the importance of sponsor buy-in being critical to the success of an innovation project in his entertaining talk about autonomous mobility - Turning ideas into business at speed.
The importance of studio culture
Andrew Nott and Tom Bradley from the BBC took this further by drilling down into studio culture - what makes design operations work and it is the practices of groups of designers that is particularly interesting here. The documentary is a good way to explore these dimensions, and at 13 minutes it is a good length for design leaders to consume and learn from quickly. https://www.bbc.co.uk/gel/articles/what-is-studio-culture
The importance of culture was further exemplified by Karoline Kwon who showed what the embodiment of the Lean Startup philosophy looks like with her Oatz project. It was a fun and fascinating way to see how one personality and focus gives an outcome felt throughout a design studio.
Have the courage to do what you love and you will never stop learning - Karoline Kwon
Her lament as a consultant is one I can identify with. It’s very rare we see implementations through to the end. Her impressions as a consultant of being at the start and middle of projects was a nice point to think further on. How groups respond to an external person coming to help them with their design task could fill a book in itself. Defensiveness and blame are an all too apparent trait of innovation teams who have failed without any psychological safety or experienced team members to help them out.
Lean UX and Agile
Agile in all its shades (and plenty of scorn was poured on SAFe) was repeatedly mentioned. But not the processes, but the mindset and that was refreshing. Lean and the Lean canvas approach was presented by Daphne Bourne (from Capital One bank) and she gave an entertaining, practical and useful way to navigate the thorny areas of desirability, feasibility and viability. It’s a great way to look at a project and I recommend using it - Crafting a three legged stool for effective collaboration.
We also had a very quick overview from Greg Nudelman of how design should play an active part in Agile processes, from how to organise to just being in stand-ups and backlog grooming. Really valuable insights and again a very pragmatic way to see how a design mindset deliver value in the agile process (the upshot being you need a designer in your team - every day).
Design systems go next level
Design system management was shown in various guises from the ambitious (Samir Dash) to the impressive (Hayley Hughes of Airbnb) and the very practical (Tim Schoch).
An appreciation of the global nature of this endeavour was how Airbnb hires native designers to ensure all cultures and languages are covered and that those with disabilities are designed for inclusion.
From languages used, to the way they didn’t think of components but patterns of meaning, it felt ground breaking. Hayley’s observation that designers were creating journey systems was a really interesting take, more than components of a front-end, the system was truly the experience design of the product. The journeys having a direct strategic business impact and delivering real value.
‘Journey systems can transform businesses, to invest in human needs instead of product features.’ - Hayley Hughes
It also was repeated by several speakers the need to use design systems to allow designers time and space to ‘sandbox’ and be creative. Not a constraint but a way for them to concentrate on value and adding meaning to the product design work.
It’s always best to start work with this approach and to observe the team, consider existing tools and workflows then join the dots to allow it all to function and be inclusive at all times to ensure adoption occurs.
As Schoch says ‘a design system is after all a contract between designers and developers’. It is developer led and we need to design with this in mind
Design for the C-Suite
Zooming out again at a system level the concept of system design was heard throughout and indeed it’s the strategy to tactical level that DesignOps covers. The opening keynote from Doug Powell (VP of Design at IBM) reminded us that if we want to get design on the agenda we need to start designing for the stakeholders. My takeaway from his talk was the fascinating insight about how you gain influence in corporations filled with execs - Scaling and embedding enterprise design thinking at IBM gives a few persona traits we need to design for.
Adoption comes from both bottom up and top down and this was echoed by Google’s talk ‘minding the gap’. The task is to meet the middle - between the c-level strategy and the design team tactics, the gap needs to be met and that is what DesignOps represents from their perspective.
Culture though is of course specific to each company and context. At the heart of it all are people and humans who we need to design for - the inside of the organisation and the outside. But as Marcela Ospina says we need to do both and that is what DesignOps does. Allowing us to zoom in and out and getting wise to managing this complexity.
Strategic goals of DesignOps
Matt Gottschalk and Ben Franck from Centrica spoke about the four pillars of their work to ensure the company coped with scaling design (people), adopting practices and tools (collaboration and toolkit) and getting the company to adopt a different mindset and realise the value of design. Their approach looked a great one for companies to learn from - Shaping and Implementing a DesignOps Function
Address the wicked problems
This wicked problem was encapsulated by Marcus Kirsch’s closing keynote and his awareness of us entering an age where learning is getting back in fashion. I loved this perspective and to get his book in the conference swag-bag underlined this. A paper book he crowd-funded to get published is a lovely expression of the passion that there is to make a difference. Kirsch’s view is that people will not be replaced by AI but we need to find space to ensure we tackle what is really wicked and not tame problems. This deserves a post for itself but this is why DesignOps is so important, that when advances in technology propel us forwards, it is even more necessary to learn and understand how to organise and solve the right problems.
There were 24 countries represented here with over 200 delegates and such a high quality of presentations, you sense a global need to use design to transform businesses meaningfully. The interest is certainly here and it’s necessary. With design and customer experience firmly top of the agenda it’s now essential to adopt this perspective for any business to succeed in the future.
Finally a mention to Pete Fossick and Dave Iball. Without their idea to hold this conference, their commitment and family’s help, this would not have happened. Their network and humour ensured this was a conference to remember and felt like the start of something that will likely end up being far bigger in the future and what our industry has needed - to unite the tribes and start solving the really big issues in society that design thinking and design practice will enable.
I will add to this post the speakers who I missed when the slides are live but they will include, Martin Dowson, Hammad Kahn, Tammy Lister and Miroslav Azis.