For the past 5 years I have been ramping up Design Operations in large orgs and scaling design teams (out of 15 years working as a Designer)
DesignOps became for me a "natural calling" at some point while working in Elisa. I worked as a service designer, but I didn't have much time for actual design work because I was always in meetings. At the same time, there was a lack of proper onboarding for new designers into the team, designers were treated like feature factories putting all of their effort into producing the next big thing, they frequently worked alone and were unable to support one another, and research was disconnected from the design process. As a result, there was an unnoticed layer of work that neither Design Leadership at that time did something about nor a conventional leader should spend their time fixing anyway. Nevertheless, the design team's success depended on that work.
It was at that time that I learned about the term "design operations" and what it entails. It had been proliferated by people like Meredith Black and Dave Malouf. For me, DesignOps was a eureka moment. Not only did it seem to address the possibility that these issues could be solved through a new kind of design profession, but it also made it clear to me that designers, like me, were engaged in this work whether they wanted to or not. I was so inspired by this work that I felt it was my next big thing. I even brought Dave Malouf to Finland to conduct 2 workshops (1 internal and 1 public) on Design Operations. I began ramping up Design Operations at Elisa during that time. We also held the first-ever DesignOps event at that time in Helsinki, which prompted a wider discussion on the subject among the design community as a whole.
At first, I decided to start the work with one team to see whether I could be effective in solving their problems and if I can justify the need for having DesignOps. The team that I chose to work with was a team that consisted of five persons. I felt that this was a manageable quantity. Me and another service designer, who assisted with facilitation and planning, led the scheduled workshops.
DesignOps workshop pilot activities:
- Defining our team’s vision
- Defining our roles, responsibilities, and tasks
- Mapping out our skills
- Mapping different tools we use and their effectiveness
- Visualizing our current and dream-state design process
Furthermore, I began investigating where designers had issues with their cross-functional collaborators and what we might do to fix them. Additionally, conversations on designer career levels and progression trajectories were sparked. I organized workshops on mapping designer skills for the larger design community. In parallel, I was discussing with HR about the need to redefine what a designer is and how they contributed to the business. Before, for instance, all designers were considered to be service designers even though Elisa actually had product designers, service designers, and business designers. We needed a role diversification to make sure that business perceived design as a multilateral and complex org, not just like something that comes in to “make things pretty”.
On the learning trajectory of designers, depending on their current knowledge and future learning goals, I have suggested that designers attend conferences and workshops and had curated a list of recommended programmes. Every designer had a sizable budget for professional development, so I wanted to make sure that they were proactive about it while also aware of the many quality alternatives. In addition, I've assembled a small design library full of well-known design books that anyone can "borrow" by signing up for a list.
Understanding our tooling and whether we have the appropriate tools for the job was also part of the job. For instance, many designers had observed that synchronizing projects using Sketch and Abstract took a lot of time, and the process was especially onerous when files contain a lot of drawings. I collaborated with another designer to create a small design system in Figma in order to evaluate the experience on a different tool. I then asked designers to work on certain experiences with those components to check whether their working flow had improved. A strategy was soon developed to switch our design tooling from Sketch to Figma since designers loved how responsive Figma was and how they could communicate in real time (at the time, this functionality was available solely from Figma).
On doing advocacy towards design, I was planning conferences and workshops. A conference about design systems that I helped organize in 2018 was DSCONF, and in 2019 I was the founder of Joint Futures where I oversaw the planning, partnerships, event experience of the whole conference, which had 36 speakers and 700 attendees from around the world joining in Helsinki. Additionally, I have conducted internal workshops, with one instance being the teaching of a design thinking workshop to non-designers to assist them in developing their ideas internally. I have been part of a working group that created Elisa’s sustainability strategy. There, with facilitation and storytelling we were able to create a bold narrative for how Elisa as a company plans to become more sustainable. On top of that, I've conducted enterprise design sprints, which I go into more detail about in a case study on a personal website.
To help teams outside of Elisa adopt a DesignOps approach, I regularly held workshops for them as well. The training lasted a couple hours and covered an introduction to DesignOps, why teams need it, and doing individual work with the DesignOps canvas. Just by simply picturing how individuals view their organization and how it operates, participants were able to have several discussions about how to make teams' ways of working more deliberate.
I never understood the true impact of my work. Until 3 years after I have left my job at Elisa one of the designers sent me a screenshot of their workshop on Designer Recognition. In that there was my name (“the ghost of Angelos”) where designers still remembered the work that I have done for them. This serves as a true honor to me but most importantly solidified my suspicions that DesignOps is a truly needed profession within the design community
After working at Elisa, I joined Posti to help this 380-year-old business through a digital tranformation. In the year 2020, Posti established its first design organization ever. Juho Paasonen, the head of design, appointed me to lead the design system and kick-start the team's adoption of a design operations mindset. I was given the responsibility to not only offer a scalable design system but also to develop working methods for both internal and external designers as I had joined the team as the third internal designer (collectively the team had 9 designers in total).
My work at Posti was 3-fold:
- Build a design system that scales, and manage a centralized team
- Jumpstart DesignOps as a mindset and start building the structures for a design organization
- Lead the product design team and directing them to deliver the best possible UX experiences cohesively, under a major rebrand
I established a team of two developers and a designer to work on the Design system, and I served as the team's product owner. My duties involved making a consistent experience, assuring deployment across Posti services, and defining a roadmap for the design system. We did some major projects that were cross-cutting across Posti services, for example we worked with Avaava and Qvik to make sure that all our customer-facing products were accessible with the WCAG AA standard. I have helped build a design system from scratch and then worked with the development team in order to implement it as the single source of truth for most teams at Posti. At the end of my time there, I had calculated 34 teams using the design system.
On the DesignOps side, I led a series of workshops to map designers' skills, designers' journeys, and to visualize and establish a design process for the entire team. With the designer journey workshop, my hypothesis was that designers were focusing most of their time on the delivering part of the design process while they focused way less in exploration and defining the scope of the products they were building. Indeed, a handful of designers only had the time during the discovery phase to do some research and comprehend the scope of their tasks. Designers often felt like feature factories as a result of not having enough time to control their own processes and produce their best work.
Through that work I have taken all the pain points that designers reported and created a few opportunities to help them within their teams. For example for the discovery phase of a new feature inside a team, I introduced the project template - a way for designers (and engineers) to be part of the decision making of what gets built. The template was a documentation that helped in the start of a project to define what a team would build, what are the expected outcomes from business objectives and customer experience perspectives, how will the team know they are successful, and whether it is feasible to implement right now.
We developed a virtual design leadership group in close collaboration with the head of design (head of design, service design lead, and product design lead, the latter was me), and we also made sure that we had OKRs, as a team but also individually for every designer, that had been cascading from the overall corporate OKRs. The OKR work was something we did once every six months, but we also checked it occasionally in between to make modifications and ensure we were moving in the correct direction. For instance, ramping up DesignOps was one of my own major goals, and conducting workshops—two to three with the team and separately with designers—was how I was supposed to measure its success.
The work I had done was also useful when we started thinking about how to redefine our entire development process as a unit at the Posti E-commerce group (product, engineering and design together). I spoke with folks from product and engineering on a regular basis. In fact, we were able to persuade teams that designers should be involved well in advance on the development of services, working with individuals from product and engineering to define the project's scope together as a team.
As the team leader for the product design team, I often met one-on-one with the product designers to make sure they had all they required to be successful. I was in charge for the design teams’ rituals and I also organized frequent alignment meetings where we as a team ensured that we were all on the same page regarding the kinds of experiences we wanted to produce and then collaborated to ensure that our experiences are cohesive.
At some point in 2021, I took on extra duties, which I shared with another designer because the head of design at the time went on paternity leave. My duties included making sure that our projects were sufficiently staffed with internal and external designers, hiring designers internally, and managing vendors. That administrative job included allocating a budget for the design resources and paying the external collaborators. It was crucial to develop a hiring process that was appropriate for designers, and I worked to streamline one where we concentrated on how to screen designers in a way that was valuable to them while also ensuring that we hired the proper people for the job, and how we onboarded them at Posti without them feeling lost as they started in a very complex environment.
Different sized teams from 17 to 40 designers worked in both businesses, and it made sense in both situations for design leadership as well as for designers to have an operational counterpart. There were many lessons learned, but the most important one was that individuals recognized the value that operations brought to the table.
Lastly, I wanted to share that I have worked on projects for the design community in my spare time despite being quite busy with design and design operations in general. For instance, I lead the State of DesignOps report, the de-facto industry benchmarking for DesignOps, and maintain a repository of resources connected to DesignOps at https://documenting.design. I appreciate those activities because it enables me to gain the most intimate understanding of how DesignOps functions throughout various companies and teams.