[00:00:37] Chicago Camps: So Fred, tell us about your background and a bit of your career path so folks can understand how you got where you are in Design Operations.
[00:00:45] Fred: I’m old, so that’s long. I’ll try to do the short version. When I was in school, I stumbled into technical writing as a course of study, and as part of that I discovered the usability testing of documentation to see if it actually worked well for people.
[00:01:02] And through researching that, I discovered the usability testing of software. Little brain wave went off. I’m like, huh, so you’re telling me that if we test whether people understand the software, then we don’t have to write a 395 page printed manual to use the software. I’m like, huh, that sounds like a really good idea.
[00:01:23] So then I took a user interface design class and as a part of that, stumbled into creating. Usability testing lab at the University of Minnesota, and that’s how it all began. And I’m glad that I discovered that when I did, cuz I literally made up a degree out of all of the things that I had taken so that I could graduate and go work on the internet.
[00:01:48] My BS degree is literally BS. My first part of my career was roughly 15 years working as an agency based UX. In which time I did all of the UX things except visual design. I joke that I dress like a wire frame because it’s true me in color. We do not get along. But all of the other things like research strategy, interaction design, information architecture, usability testing, obviously all of those things are deep in my skillset.
[00:02:17] And then something happened. This happened.
[00:02:20] Chicago Camps: An iPhone!
[00:02:21] Fred: Yes, an iPhone happened and all of a sudden the business world decided. We can make a lot of money if our stuff doesn’t suck. So the UX world just exploded in terms of demand for design talent, and I got really interested in the idea of how to fulfill that demand, which led me to the idea of apprenticeship because design is very much a craft.
[00:02:49] And for literally millennia craft skills had been taught through an apprenticeship model. So I’m like, huh, that sounds like a good idea. Let’s do that now. I had been an agency designer for about 15 years at this point and had been actively avoiding leadership, and then I moved to an agency where I created this apprenticeship program.
[00:03:09] And the Thursday before the apprentices were supposed to start on my desk was something that said manager info. I looked at that and I was very confused, and I asked my manager, I’m like, does this mean that the apprentices report to me? He’s, yeah. I’m like, damn, it got me. So I was officially a leader, which was weird, but what I learned through three cohorts of apprentices was that it.
[00:03:41] Even compared to my most fulfilling design project, helping the apprentices to become successful was probably the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done in my professional career. So when the opportunity came up to lead the design team at that agency, I hemmed and hawed for a little bit and then went for it.
[00:04:02] And that was the beginning of my real leadership career. And the reason I tell that story is that leadership and Design Operations are very much tied together for me now. The things that I discovered when I was leading this team was that my responsibility as a design director was three things. One, make sure that the design team was fulfilling its business obligations.
[00:04:27] It’s we’re billing enough, right? Second thing was make sure that the environment is a healthy place for the people on the design team. And the third was leveling up the practice of the design team. That was my favorite bit, which I spent about 2% of my time doing. And then an interesting event happened that accidentally got me into DesignOps. I got fired from my job as a design director because there was a lot of leadership shuffle at the same time. We had brought in a new president and it was a whole big thing. I got caught up in it. It was very difficult at that time, but now I laugh about it because if that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be in Design Operations through some wonderful people on LinkedIn connecting me with some people at Best Buy.
[00:05:15] I ended up starting the Design Operations practice there, and it was fantastic because that 2% of time I got to spend leveling up the design practice was now my entire job. That’s how you get into DesignOps as a career. You get fired from your leadership job.
[00:05:32] Chicago Camps: How would you explain DesignOps to someone who is new to the field of UX?
[00:05:38] Fred: The short version of this is that I say that Design Operations is the practice of designing how an organization does design, because a lot of the stuff that I do, I use human-centered design methods to essentially do organizational design where it comes to things like design process, tools, and administration, communication, setting up skills, and providing learning plans and stuff like that.
[00:06:05] Basically, we reduce the friction in a large organization to good human-centered design process happening.
[00:06:12] Chicago Camps: How would you help someone who is new to the field decide if they could or should get into DesignOps or if they have some road to work through in UX design first? Can that happen?
[00:06:27] Fred: Yes. I can tell you why. Cuz I have people on my team in that very situation. There’s a lot of different skillsets that go into Design Operations, and probably one of the most transferable is project management.
[00:06:40] So if you have a project or product management background, if you’ve been involved in digital product work in any way, shape, or form, you can find your way into a DesignOps organization, most likely. It really helps to have, at the very least, a competent understanding of the human-centered design process because a lot of what we do is aimed at making it so that that process can happen even when an organization is operating a massive design team at a very high level of scale.
[00:07:13] Chicago Camps: What are the signals or the signs that an organization needs to have a DesignOps function?
[00:07:20] Fred: The biggest one is simply size. I was going to say that one of the things that is important is to not be an agency, to be company with a main function, part of which design supports. But I’m not going to fully make that claim because I’m going to suspect that there is an aspect to Design Operations that can happen within an agency, but because the business model of an agency is so different than the business model of a corporation, it’s probably gonna look a little bit different.
[00:07:52] And even in an agency, Design Operations is still happening even if it isn’t someone’s job because We still have to do things like make sure we have the Figma, make sure that everyone has access to the Figma, make sure that we have documentation on how to do certain things so that our documentation is consistent.
[00:08:10] Those sorts of things. There’s always an operational aspect to any sort of design team, but when it starts to become a dedicated practice is really when you start to need to scale. One of the things I’ve observed about design at scale is that it very quickly becomes all about the screens. And frankly, making screens is not what makes user experience designers valuable.
[00:08:32] What makes us valuable is all of the thought and the focus and the strategy that goes into figuring out what we’re doing, when we’re doing it, why we’re doing it, and who we’re doing it for. And so the practice of Design Operations helps us reduce the inherent friction in the design process.
[00:08:49] A big part of that is research operations, because if you don’t have humans, can you have human-centered design? Not really. So my research operations team spends a great deal of effort to make sure that we have really quick access to humans so that we can respond to product needs really quickly and quickly get human input into the design process.
[00:09:11] And that’s just one example of how the Design Operations practice ensures good human-centered design process. And in my mind, at least, good process is good design and vice versa because everything we do is contextual that it’s really difficult to look at one thing and go, oh, that’s good UX design, and that’s bad UX design.
[00:09:33] So good process leads to good design.
[00:09:36] Chicago Camps: If I’m new to the UX field, how do I know if I want to work in DesignOps or another part of UX?
[00:09:42] Fred: If you’re always organizing things, if you’re always trying to improve a process, if you are really focused on growing your own talent and you’ve got a path or maybe a project plan for growing your own talent, or you’re just interested in how design creates value within an organization.
[00:10:07] Then I would say cozy up to your friendly neighborhood, DesignOps practitioner and learn a little bit more about what it is they do at your organization. And pretty soon you’ll be able to judge whether this is something that is interesting for you. I do also want to provide some guidance to people around patience. When you’re new to a field, there’s a lot to learn. So definitely follow your interests. I would also encourage you to dig in deep into a practice area. Before jumping into another practice area. Cuz it can be really helpful to deepen your level of craft.
[00:10:46] It’s my job to help deepen the entire design team’s level of craft. So if you’re going to get into operations, you should be used to doing that for yourself, at least to some degree.
[00:10:57] Chicago Camps: I think that’s really sound guidance, really helpful for folks to take their own discovery-based approach. To what they wanna do next. I think that’s great.
[00:11:06] Fred: Human-centered design, your own career.
[00:11:08] Chicago Camps: What’s the biggest impact you’ve been able to have as a DesignOps leader?
[00:11:13] Fred: I I would say it’s different between my time at Best Buy and my time at Rocket. At Best Buy, I would say the biggest impact that I was able to have was developing our skills framework which was a way of mapping the skills of everyone on the experience design team. So that includes our our UX writers, UX managers, our content strategists, our designers, our design system staff, everyone could map their skills on the same framework. And this was helpful because it really gave the designers and researchers and everyone over there a tool to work with their leader on developing their own craft.
[00:11:56] It was also something that helped leaders understand where the team might lack in terms of a crucial skill so that we could then make a decision on whether to train people up in that skill or maybe look to hire someone who has a high level of that skill. That was a. pretty big deal. And then of course the transition to Figma was always a challenging thing, but we did that, too. And my favorite thing about that was that there were some people who were really skeptical. And at least one of those people who was really skeptical became the biggest proponent after we made that change.
[00:12:31] So that was fun. And at. I would say and this is gonna sound like a cop out, but I promise it’s not: hiring the ResearchOps team. That’s the best thing that I’ve done at Rocket did Figma Rocket, too. But our ResearchOps team is phenomenal. They are currently in the process of doing a research democratization program where they’re training designers and writers and people who are not researchers, how to do some of the fundamentals of research. In fact, on Monday I’m teaching a usability testing class which will be fun. And they’ve gone through all sorts of hurdles to create a, research participant panel. So now we have just a couple a day turnaround time if we wanna recruit even a somewhat specialized panel for research.
[00:13:15] And then they’ve also done a fantastic job creating a research repository for us. So it’s fully tagged. Most of our existing research is in there. Everything is tagged. We’ve got processes and documentation around how to get stuff in there. It’s fantastic. So these folks have really reduced the friction to getting human input into the design process.
[00:13:38] And human-centered design. Human is the first word in that. That’s hiring that team and enabling them to do all that great work that they’ve done is definitely the biggest impact on the team that I have had a hand in.
[00:13:55] Russ: We’ve got a question from our live studio audience.
[00:13:59] We are going through a lot of growing pains around shifting that UX discussion from screens to all-encompassing user experience design. Zach asks, do you have any tips, recommendations for growing our operation practices?
[00:14:14] Fred: Where design is being done, Design Operations is being done. It just may not be someone’s explicit role. One of the things I’ve had a decent amount of success with is identifying what I would call like an ops partner. So that would be someone on a team, on a product team who I, as an ops leader would go to and would rely on for operational things around that team.
[00:14:38] So if there was a big process that I would roll out or something, I would rely on these ops partners to provide feedback on what was going on so that I could adjust things. And I think in a small team situation, . I think you can do this a little bit differently. There might not be a centralized ops leader or that could be the leader of the design team, and if you guys identify some of the core operational challenges that you’re having, you can identify people on that team who are interested in solving each of those challenges, and then that becomes a portion of what they do.
[00:15:14] Yes. That either means they need to work a little bit more or they need to have some of their other responsibilities spread around elsewhere. But with a team of 12, you’re getting close to that level of scale where an operations team is gonna be really helpful.
[00:15:31] Typically, I think of that around like 20. That’s where it seems to be that there’s enough complexity that you really start to need ops. And again, I’ll also say if researchers are included in that, focusing on solving any research operational problems. If you focus on those first, that would be super helpful.
[00:15:49] That’s gonna be your biggest bang for the buck. And if you don’t have researchers on your team, hopefully they’re on another team. If you don’t have researchers, that’s a whole other problem, . But if they’re on this other team, you could have a conversation with the research leader as well. And talk about this idea of of identifying a few people on that team who are interested in helping to solve some of those operational research, operational problems over there.
[00:16:15] And it’s a good halfway solution before you actually can have the ability to invest fully in a Design Operations team. Yeah, that is a great question, Zach.
[00:16:26] Chicago Camps: We’ve got another question from our live studio audience.
[00:16:29] Stephanie asks, let’s say you’re at an org that has invested in a large and talented team of researchers, strategists, and designers, but the team currently has no process standardization and trail of documentation. Where would you start to make the most meaningful impact to help set them up for collaboration and scaling success?
[00:16:50] Fred: I’m gonna have to do the annoying UX thing and ask a question here.
[00:16:53] Are the researchers and designers not already collaborating? Are they operating as two separate teams?
[00:16:59] Chicago Camps: Yes.
[00:17:00] Fred: What I might try in your situation is work with the research team, work with the design team, and say, hey, I want to experiment with how research and design collaborate. Can we, for the period of, I don’t know, a month, something like that, whatever would be a meaningful time period in your particular context. Dedicate a researcher to a product team or a design project and see what we learned from that experience. My hypothesis is that you will learn a lot about communication that will provide you guidance on how you might improve communication between those two groups in the first place.
[00:17:41] Another thing is super simple. Presumably you guys are on Figma. If you’re not, you should be , the Adobe purchase, not withstanding. And the reason I say that is because Figma really understands digital product design at scale. It’s more like a collaboration tool that allows you to do product design rather than a product design tool with some collaboration features. So one of the things that we do at Rocket is all of our researchers have Figma accounts. They don’t have the paid accounts necessarily.
[00:18:12] They do have paid FigJam accounts, so they can still use Figma to collaborate with the designers on design as well as on workshops and things within FigJam. So if you are already on Figma, that’s a really easy thing to do otherwise experiment with dedicating that researcher to a particular project for a limited period of time.
[00:18:36] And then I think you’ll just learn a whole lot as a result of that. But yeah, definitely solve the research operational problems first.
[00:18:44] Research operations is a great place to start to have a big impact. And the more communication that can happen between the research team and the design team, I think that’s gonna be definitely the best place to go after that.
[00:18:56] I would say that depends a lot on your individual situation, but it sounds like there’s some standards that you might be able to identify that would be low hanging fruit. I don’t know if there’s any particular documentation that you guys do. Maybe reach out to a design team or a project team, a product team, however you’re organized, and say, Hey, let’s try and do this in a consistent way and prototype a template to a particular piece of documentation or a process. You could always prototype a process with your engineering team on how something goes from an idea to a Figma to a n actual digital product.
[00:19:37] That would be a good thing to explore, as well.