Making Sense of DesignOps

Group Activity: Making Sense of DesignOps
Dave Gray

From the Design Operations Summit website:
We’ll identify the big challenges that DesignOps people face—and begin working on addressing them together in this collaborative activity. We’ll work together in small teams to design the ultimate Design Operations organization, capture learnings, and share them with each other. Facilitated by Dave Gray and the XPLANE team.

Lou has been there – is no EUX, no UX, no Information Architecture.  But things change!  We have some work to do together in the next couple of hours.  We weren’t quite ready for an XPLANATiON for Design Operations, but we thought the Canvas would be a good start.

design ops canvas beta.png

We’ll come back from the exercise and do sense-making together.  The team that put the canvas together is here, we are already seeing ways that this needs to change. He has already gotten some feedback that there aren’t enough questions about culture, for example.  But this is a beta, and we do intend to iterate and share it as it improves.

Alex Osterwalder’s book Business Model Canvas has sold over a million copies.  One of Alex’s frustrations is that there are a lot of badly designed canvasses out there.  So if the question or category is unclear (and creates churn), then it needs to be changed.  If you see that, flag it and let the facilitators know.

One of the things that Dave likes is that these tools almost self-facilitate; it makes it a lot easier for a giant group like this, because you don’t have to have too much knowledge to use it.  This canvas helps to enable the conversation, it creates some structure for discussion.

For the exercise, you will pair up with someone that you don’t know well, or you don’t know much about your organization.  Think about an organization whose Design Ops organization you like to explore, or imagine a perfect one.  Make sure you have decided whether you want to work through current state, or ideal state.  You will also have to think about the lens – UX, Design Ops, or even the broader organization.

One of you will be the consultant, one will be the client.  You are going to ask questions and work through the canvas.  The consultant would begin to ask questions, and at the end of 20-30 minutes, give the deliverable to the client.  Then switch roles.  Stay with the same person for the whole exercise, but not someone (or an organization) who you know well.  And please make sure it’s information you can share openly.  When we come back, we will ask a few pairs to share their experiences.


The tool doesn’t feel scary the way another tool might.  It forces some synthesis.  And it can be printed large, and used for a collaborative sense-making exercise with post-its, too.

Lynn works for a small internal agency at USC, which supports other departments at the university.  She learned that our Communications are all over the map.  They use many different tools.  She is conferencing above her pay grade.  🙂  It seemed to her that on the People front, it is pretty robust – recruitment follows a lot of Russ’ practices from this morning.  They didn’t even get around to Methods.  They have a process, but clients have different levels of expertise and needs, so it’s very flexible.  She didn’t even bother to write those down.  Most of her tools are paper and pencil based, Google Docs.  Customers like playing with stuff in meetings – they do card-sorting for prioritizing, identifying tasks.  It makes it a more engaging business meeting.  They have 18K people, two hospitals, a few museums, a fire department and a childcare facility.  She could do design for a whole city now.  In terms of Constraints, they have a highly federated model – there is another internal agency that they compete with.  The university is a community of political alliances and legacy linked backend systems.  Anything they do – admissions system, scheduling systems, CRM, MailChimp – it’s a nightmare.  

Her consultant had a lot of empathy for her.  She say a lot of what Lynn was explaining in her own work world.  There is not a lot of coordination between systems, so you are left to muddle through it.  She works for American Airlines, and they have similar challenges.  They are huge, they just went through a merger.

For Culture and Communication, they have LOTS of meetings, so they are struggling with making them super productive.  We are all still getting to know each other approaches and cultures are very different.  They need to find better ways to build trust.  We talked a lot about People.  She needs people that can communicate verbally, effectively about how UX can be evangelize.  There were three of them, they are eight now in just a year and a half, and there are a lot of growing pains.  Good benefits packages are important.  The PMO is helping them to prioritize initiatives, they are facilitating the work and make sure we are all doing what we are supposed to be doing.  This is current state.  There is a lot of talking amongst ourselves, and thinking about how we can make things better.  You can seed a future canvas with the best / most aspirational ideas.  They have nicknamed Fragile.  They use Sprint 0 to get ahead of the developers, they are working with the IT guys to figure it out.  As she started to talk about it, there were lots of eye opening ideas about recommendations for things we could do better.  

Two new folks from the audience.

The process was really great.  They both come from very risk aware organizations, so it was really cathartic.  His group has been split into three teams, dotted line to three different product teams.  Product Owners are telling his teams what to do – giving them slides to draw.  We often do what he asks.  Do we have an agency model where you break up with your client?  Other teams want them to do interesting work, and they don’t have the resources today.  They don’t own the Agile process, but they built their own processes within it.  But the businesses don’t all use it.  

If you feel like you’re having the same conversation over and over, this kind of tool helps you move the conversation forward.  Something like this can be an anchor.  What is your intention for work when you go back this week>

Immediately helpful to talk with the team – not show them this one first.  They may be so into the business, or too nice to bring them out.  In the People part we need a defined role to help do this, because right now each person is doing it on their own.  And they are not senior enough to drive the necessary changes.  They have leaders in the organization, but they can’t be involved in everything.

Catherine works for a government agency that does software for Medicaid and Medicare.  She is an external contractor because there was a hiring freeze.  She shared this Canvas with a guy who signs $20-40M contracts.  She is focused on Blue Sky in this canvas.  She would like to have people lining up but the talent pool in Baltimore is small.  They had already started talking about how to measure contractors – they wanted everyone to use the same process.  But she had realized that it’s actually the government needs to be measured, not the contractors.  The baseline measure was so bad, but she told them it was because they aren’t granting access to users, and they are driving change as a result.  

Dave and Holly will share a little bit about what they heard while they were floating.  Dave was a strategy consultant, not a designer.  There is a lot of love for tools – that came across throughout the discussions. The canvas seems to have a bias to look inwards.  But as it continues to mature, or larger organizations with more process are starting to think more about the rest of the org chart.  The Business Model Canvas would be a good companion as the capability grows, and you change your focus on how it integrates

Holly agrees, and she says it’s important to focus on the people in the middle.  Much like what Michael described this morning.  Everything from nascent practices to more mature organizations.  Wherever you are on that spectrum, you have to keep progressing.  So having people to wedge in that space, and continuing to develop those relationships.  Getting the people part right – engage, bring them into your culture, you will be more successful.  Regarding tools, they are a blessing and curse – they are not the relationships you need to build to get the work right.

One of Lou’s takeaways, design ops itself is a practice of sense-making – understanding the unknown and how it impacts people in an organization.


There is now a new Facebook group called DesignOps, so hopefully we can keep the conversation going between conferences.  We need people developing ideas, there are no wrong answers at this point.

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