I am an operation and program management leader and a coach. In my tenure, I worked in a variety of business areas: market research, web build, social media management, operation and analysis, and service design. From London to Seattle WA, to, now, Barcelona.
Specifically, at Amazon I designed, implemented, and continuously improved operational strategies to deliver campaigns, products, experiences in a measurable and transparent way, at scale and without ever sacrificing quality or team wellbeing.
What were the main challenges you faced during your 7 years as a Design Operations Manager at Amazon.
When I started at Amazon, Design Operations wasn’t really a thing. Thankfully I was working in advertising where Design is understood as a key component of business success, but it’s not always the case for more tech-heavy parts of the company. And when Design isn’t fully understood, Design Ops is even more of a challenging component to implement and evangelize.
Does scale really depend on the company size, or do you think that there is a threshold from above that all design operations management is pretty much the same?
I think the foundations are consistent when you want to establish mechanisms to support a 1-to-many ratio: design systems, self-service documentation, mechanisms and levers, etc..
The key difference is that the “hyper-scale” can impact your ability to reach approval as fast as you need to. Quite often, the problem isn’t the tools or processes, it’s the people!
Amazon solves this by using the Leadership Principles, a set of 13 principles agreed upon by anybody in the company that helps to guide decisions.
Often teams and projects also have Tenets, additional guiding principles that the group of people within the scope of the tenets agree to. Principles and Tenets help to create consensus faster. Theoretically 🙂
Who are the key allies you should have as a Design Ops manager? And who are the main detractors?
Design Managers are your key allies, as well as your cross-functional peers, for example in Product, Engineering, Marketing etc… My experience, especially at an earlier stage of my career when Design Ops was pretty new, is that some Design Manager struggled to relinquish part of their authority and tasks to Design Ops. But the best synergy happened when they realized the powerful alliance of Design Leadership and Operational Excellence Leadership. A similar resistance can come from other disciplines because the scope of Design Operations sometimes overlaps with what was previously owned by other parts of the business. Nothing a good onboarding strategy can’t solve, though!
In your opinion, having a design background is an advantage or disadvantage for someone who is looking for a role as a Design Ops manager?
Great question! Personally I don’t have a design education even if most of my career has been in design.
I always found that not every Design Ops practitioner is the same. Each background can bring a ton of value and as a Design Operations Manager, I built a diverse team for that purpose. A designer-centric UX producer or program manager will shepherd creatives and get really embedded into the process while a Tech-centric will build the best, automated processes to scale the team quickly. As someone with more of a business and agency background, my strengths always lie in rallying teams, creating collaboration, and ensuring the right balance between design and business needs.
How much evangelizing do you think a Design Ops manager needs to do?
Evangelizing (concepts like design best practices, process and mechanisms, BXT or the product development triad) represents a large part of a Design Operations manager for two reasons: 1) because of the newer nature of the role and 2) because of its very goal. Designing, implementing, and maintaining an operational strategy to help teams work better and delivering better artifacts requires a lot of “influencing without authority”, relationship building, communication, training etc… so evangelizing or promoting best practices is a key part of the role. I would say that to successfully scale, an organization needs to embrace and collectively adopt processes because, to quote Jeff Bezos, “good intentions don’t work, mechanisms do”.
What is your take on Design Systems?
Design systems are a great example of mechanisms over good intention. You can spend hours of resources in creating a beautiful design system – but if your company doesn’t adopt and abide by the rules of your system, then it’s a pointless and possibly costly exercise. How do you fix that? For example, your company can announce a rule that anybody releasing a feature that does not conform with the Design System will see their feature immediately taken down (and any additional sanction if they are caught doing this multiple time). The beauty of Design Systems is that it allows a team to function autonomously, but there must be a mechanism to ensure that they do – without having to throw a gatekeeper in whose job becomes making sure everybody does a good job.
And how can a design team use research insights efficiently?
There are so many ways research contributes to design. The challenge, from an operationalization standpoint, comes back to evangelizing and aligning research with the rest of the company. Quite often product development organizations focus on short cycles of usability testing while month-long generative and field studies can be discarded by teams operating on two-week sprint cycles. The most efficient and effective way to solve this is to enable designers and product managers to self-run usability (with tools like usertesting.com for example) and focus the research team on aligning quarterly or yearly research roadmap with the company’s goals and ensure that key stakeholders make the time to participate. Whether it’s by taking them to in-home studies and spend time close to the customers/users or by presenting regular updates on “demystifying research”, sharing early findings, and interesting customer insights.
What would be your main advice for those starting on their path as a Design Ops manager now?
Go for it! It’s an exciting role, a mix of operational excellence, creativity, and sometimes psychology. I have absolutely loved building a career in this field despite the resistance and the challenges at times.
If you are an individual who’s looking for a career in this field or a team or company who wants to lay the ground for a successful organizational strategy, please feel free to get in touch