Having DesignOps in place is crucial because it enables your design teams to focus on doing their best work. There is a growing need for DesignOps teams as design and product organizations scale. Within our network, we’ve seen a lot of questions about what areas of DesignOps teams prioritize and how they execute them.
So, we decided to dive into Underbelly’s DesignOps playbook by asking our Director of Creative Operations, Tony D'Amico, questions regarding Underbelly's team organization, operational standards, collaboration, people development, and workflows. Before we dive in, let's review what DesignOps is from the Nielson Norman Group.
DesignOps refers to the orchestration and optimization of people, processes, and craft in order to amplify design’s value and impact at scale.
Q: How do we structure teams and build the right team?
How you structure your team is the blueprint for making it all happen. Hearing, “we just signed a new contract!” is music to the team’s ears until we look at resourcing, and the project requires the expertise of a team member currently on a project.
We build teams at Underbelly around a service or product. This structure doesn’t mean there can’t be a shifting of talents, but we’ve found the more we build our teams around the specifics, the better they will get at their craft and deliver quality work.
For example, we have a full-stack team that includes a designer and three devs–this team serves end-to-end product builds. We have a “talent” team with product designers we use to service augmented design projects.
One other component here is team size. The rule of thumb we follow is that a leader should have at most 5-7 direct reports on their team to adequately give the time needed to the individuals for growth and technical and/or creative support.
In addition to the production team members, we support each project with a Project Manager to help with the day-to-day activities, monitor the team’s throughput, and help maintain proper budgets. This support has been a win for us and has received high praise for our project management support.
Q: How do you define the role of individual designers and the role of the design department/team as a whole?
This answer piggybacks off of how we set up teams. Each team member has one or multiple skills to help move a project forward. We define each role with, this sounds scary, but it’s not, a scorecard and how they will contribute to the team as a whole. This scorecard gives them an objective to continually work towards and provides parameters to their role.
We then take all the individual info, combine it into a team and look for the areas of strength and weakness. An example of this would be if we focus on adding quality motion to our work, we need to identify the capabilities at the individual and team levels. If we find we have strength there, we can leverage that to teach the rest of the team. If we find we are simply lacking, we need to hire for that role. Spider charts are a great tool I use to visualize this for both individuals and teams.
Creatives will sometimes not operate in their area of genius because they are afraid to fail, and don’t think they can contribute in an out-of-the-box way, or don’t want to step on team members’ toes. I’m always keeping an eye out for areas of talent on the team. There is no specific answer here as to what you are looking for, except for what hidden and not hidden talents your people have.
Teams are living, breathing groups that need more than a simple org chart to function— teams need to be nurtured and have the ability to pivot.
Q: How do you document and optimize high-level design processes at Underbelly? From initiation through testing to delivery.
For every integral process, we start with process mapping. We get key stakeholders in a room and work through our thoughts by jamming in real life on a whiteboard or virtually on FigJam. We identify the timing of each step, where the waste or wait time is, which areas we can cut, and which we should keep.
From there, we write out the process and create any visuals that can help us understand it quickly. These visuals can be images, a recorded presentation, or an explainer video. The key here is we consistently review to identify waste, find areas of improvement and document it so that the next person stepping in can gather an understanding of the process.
We also want everyone to have a voice in areas that others might not see when it comes to process. Leadership’s perspective is very top-down, so once a quarter, we host a Process Open Forum where we invite anyone to come and give feedback on what’s working and not working and to give a platform for new ideas. This forum gives a bottom-up feedback loop that’s healthy for everyone. Many great changes have come from these meetings.
Regarding how we document, we have found that Notion is a great Wiki option because it’s easy to edit in real-time and Loom for video sharing.
Q: Do you audit and enforce using the same design tools for efficient collaboration?
It depends; we have found that if someone picks up on a tool and finds value in it, the rest of the team will naturally move toward it. This scenario was the case for our team moving from Sketch to Figma. We don’t let everyone run wild and use whatever they want; that could get expensive and inconsistent. However, we let people play, and exploration drives which tools we use. If there is a good case, we will use one and kill another.
I audit our tools frequently; we have someone looking at active tools during a monthly expense reporting meeting to ensure we get the most out of what we spend on software. This category is in our top five expenses, so we monitor it closely and have open conversations around the benefits. If it’s not, we cut it pretty quickly.
Q: How do we communicate design processes/practices to outside teams and partners?
This leveled approach starts with marketing, runs through sales, moves to account management and project management, and our weekly calls with our clients. No one wants to read through a bunch of documentation, so we tend to speak about how we do things through all points of contact.
Q: What are Underbelly’s definitions of done and quality for designs?
Well, we are never done. Designers can tinker until they die on the same design, haha! On a serious note, we have parameters set up from the beginning of the project to help determine what success looks like. These parameters include an agreed-upon scope of work to be done and deadlines or restraints to ensure we move past the finish line.
In terms of quality, we have a set of Design Values & Principles we follow to ensure we are hitting the mark. We believe great design is Intentional, Ethical, Clear, Consistent, Useful, Beautiful, Delightful, and Measurable. These guide us through crits, how we deliver to our clients, and how we speak to the designs.
Q: How do you ensure that hiring, onboarding, and professional-development practices treat employees like humans first?
The big idea here is people-driven processes. I hear many people say, “it’s people over process”, well that’s nice in sentiment, but it’s not healthy. Sometimes the process has to stay in place to help guide people; sometimes, those processes need to change to work better for the team. It’s a blend of the two.
We are a business first, so we need to ensure we are profitable. Yes, some people will hear that and cringe, but without a business model, there are no people. With that said, every time we define a process, we ask how it will affect the team, whether it hinders or inspires, and how it delights along the way.
Within hiring, we try to put ourselves in the shoes of those we are applying and interviewing. We ask, how we would want to be treated? A big step is replying to every applicant, even if they are not the right fit, from the application to the last interview.
Once a team member signs an offer, we start the onboarding process. Depending on the timing, we send a welcome package to their home, give them instructions about the first day, set up a welcome lunch with the entire team, and make sure their lead gives them a 30 / 60 / 90-day plan to get plugged into our processes. Our goal is to make everyone feel as embedded into the team as they can as soon as they can.
So for those three topics, we have built processes around them to treat everyone fairly and provide the same experience from the first phone call to their last day.
Q: Do you have team-specific hiring processes for the needs of that team?
Yes, we use the A-Method and do “real world” assessments. This blend helps us understand how they communicate and see them in action. Sometimes we can get lost in the sentiment of how someone answered a question or their personality— it can only reveal so much. The real-world assessment gives us that insight into the action. I have seen this play out in crazy ways. One person can interview and get all praise but poorly execute the assessment. Then you see the opposite, where they interview OK but then prove their skills in the assessment. Some personalities tend not to interview well. I would rather see how someone does the work over how they answer questions.
Q: How do you communicate career pathways for both management and non-management roles?
Yes, we have an IC and Management track. These are made public to the teams and are used from the first day a team member starts.
Q: How does your team decide what project to work on, who works on them, etc.?
We typically decide within the sales cycle. When speaking to potential clients, we pull the subject matter experts into the room, and almost every time, those in the initial meetings will be the team working on the project. Doing this helps potential clients get face time with the team they will potentially be working with. In addition, once a week we have a strategy meeting and review resourcing.
Q: What metrics and tools do you use to understand your team’s capacity to accurately estimate and allocate for projects?
We focus a good deal on throughput. Tracking throughput helps us identify how long a task should take. Knowing this tells us how much a team can handle based on the size of the team. We don’t time track in a traditional sense. We use an app called Nave that plugs into Asana and tells us how long a task takes to complete. We use this data to help create better estimates and identify bottlenecks.
Q: What is the best way you’ve found to uncover and expose bottlenecks in the design workflow at Underbelly? How do you handle bottlenecks when they arise?
We have found that within Nave, monitoring throughput and watching the aging chart helps expose bottlenecks quickly. If we see throughput increasing or decreasing, we need to ask questions to figure out why. Then, the Aging Chart tracks how long a particular task is sitting in its current column (we use Asana Kanban Boards). Between the two, it helps us make decisions about how to approach the issue. Is the task too big? Has it deviated from the original scope? Did someone take a vacation? Do we need to add extra resources?
When it comes to delivering great design at scale, there are a lot of moving parts. To put the right pieces in place, you need to understand how they’ll interact with each other and how they will fit into your workflow. At Underbelly, we’ve been building and refining our DesignOps program over time to create better results for our team and clients. We know we’re moving in the right direction, as we’ve seen our small efficiencies compound overtime and reap benefits for our team.
If you’re looking for a design team to supplement and support your own, we can help. Or, if you have specific questions about building your own DesignOps team, we’d love to chat.