What design teams can learn from DevOps
Software & Web Development

What design teams can learn from DevOps

The coming together of Development and Operations into ‘DevOps’ means application development is happening at a rapid pace. But isn’t it about time the teams that design the User Interfaces and Experiences for these applications to adopt Agile methodologies as well?


The problem with design today

According to Gartner, there were nearly 10 billion connected devices out in the world in 2017.

“That's crazy, and as a designer I can't even fathom that,” says Andrew Godfrey, Senior Design Specialist at digital product design platform InVision. “As these devices start to grow what tends to happen is that your user experience becomes less consistent.”

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At the moment, he explains, it is a pain getting products from ideas to market.

“There’s lots of friction in the design process; lots of different apps, lots of different stakeholders.”

These problems chiefly lie within the issues of scale, communication, and manual processes.

“How we collaborate and communicate is a challenge. Trying to figure out how to collaborate in a larger organization is really difficult, and that becomes the job, not meeting customer needs, and ultimately validating business models.”

Godfrey cites Conway’s Law to illustrate the problem with miscommunication. 

“If you look at the organization chart and how people in silos communicate with others, that starts to be replicated in the front-end user experience. And the result is always visible on the end product. If you have a Frankenstein's monster design organization, I guarantee you'll have a Frankenstein's monster design user experience.”

“And so, it doesn't really matter much about how many designers and user research and technologists and cool things you do, if your team isn't set up to meet those needs of your customers and your users then you're fighting a losing battle.”

While maintaining design consistency might be easy in a small startup, once an organization grows or you’re already a large enterprise this can quickly become hard to manage manually. In a previous design role, Godfrey worked at a company with sixteen variations of a single blue button.

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“Some were lower case, some were upper case, some had rounded corners, some had drop shadows. Imagine maintaining that. Every time you want to try to update that, you've got to do it sixteen times. For a button. That's crazy.”

“Instead of building the next generation of apps, they're trying to turn every button to pink. It’s useless work, you don't want the designers doing that kind of stuff.”



While designers are languishing in manual processes and version control, the DevOps revolution has changed how many organizations function. Where once projects were slow and inefficient, today the technologists can work as fast as they want. But this has changed the power dynamic in some companies.  

“Many people would be surprised how engineering-led many of the world’s leading apps are,” says Godfrey. “Design is still figuring out what to do, where the engineers just rely on Kanban or scrum to knock it out of the door.”

However, in those types of scenarios, he warns, engineering has ‘too much thought control’ over the direction of a product, leading to a real danger that organizations “just ship code and don't pay attention of the user experience.”

“Agile's such a hot topic, designers can learn so much from engineering teams because engineering teams got their act together a long time ago. Version control. GitHub. Professionalism. Designers are still trying to get to there.”

But, things might to be about to change. In the same way DevOps is about making teams quicker and more efficient so they can innovate and iterate more, Design Operations (DesOps) is the same concept, but centered around UX and UI.

Obviously, there are major differences between the two, but Design Ops takes a lot of same tenets as DevOps – version control, automation, continuous testing and improvement, better collaboration – and applies them to delivering digital products on the front end.

“We're always trying to get things faster into market, because if we get things faster to market we can find out what's not going to work so we can pivot and actually focus on the things that are going to work.”

In the same way all good design is now done using version control to ensure everyone is working on the latest version of the codebase, designers also need a single source of truth.

“I might have one designer over there, he's got his own document with his buttons in. I've got my little document with my buttons over here, but those buttons are different. But we think they are the same because I don't what version they're working from, I don't know what version I've got. There's no single source of truth.”

Rapid testing and improvement is another area where design can learn from DevOps. Instead of big user feedback efforts done every few months, companies should look for small groups multiple times a month.

“I love big data, but the problem with that sometimes is if we focus on the analysis of just quantitative means, you lose some empathy, because then they are just a number.

“Whenever you start to bring some science in validating ideas, you start to lose touch with the user and what they're trying to achieve because that's where the insight is to really make an amazing product.”

Godfrey advises companies to have a mixed methodology and embrace the likes of RITE testing.

Instead of research groups of 20-50 people, he says, ask three people every two weeks. This regular source of feedback and iteration enables a DevOps-like cycle of continuous delivery and improvement.

“You can do this in a day; you can ask your customers what they think, what they do, build something, test it, and then actually implement it if it works. And that could be done in an afternoon.”

“What that does is you start to change the designs in between the participants that come into your research sessions.”

“It's useless to commit to timeframes, the actual important thing is trying to get the kind of time down between you showing something to an actual potential customer and seeing if they're willing to pay for it and have a really great user experience.”


Design thinking & design maturity

Design process thinking can be broken down into a simple cycle: speak to people that are going to use the product, define what that product should be, ideate on how that might look and feel and work, prototype and test and implement that.

“People have woken up to the idea of design thinking, and of the power of design as a real business value add.”

In the same way different organizations have different levels of maturity for their DevOps or Cloud or IoT strategies, the same can be said about an organization’s digital design maturity.

Designed by the Danish Design Council, the Danish Design Ladder validates where the organization is when it comes to design

 [image via the DanskDesignCenter.dk]

The four steps help assess how mature a company is in its design thinking. A company at stage one, for example, has no design. This stage, according to Godfrey is where companies “just ship it, hope for the best, close their eyes and think of Christmas.”

Most companies are around stage two, where they look at styling or polishing an end product. “Somebody upstairs has an idea, it gets passed down the chain and lands on the designer’s lap. These are the wire frames, make it look cool.”

Stage three – ‘Design as a Process’ – is where companies start to take design more seriously; they may have a user research department, may be testing continuously with users to ensure quality etc.

Stage four, says Godfrey, is where you do start to see the big technology giants like AirBnB and Uber and Facebook, and where companies should be aiming for.

“They start to bring designers in at the start. They ideate with the business stakeholders and big teams, and probably have a chief design officer or a VP of design.”

Companies that are really up to speed will be able to go from idea to a tested prototype in a single week, according to Godfrey. During Google designs sprints, for example, teams are given five working days to validate a design before handing it off to start working on the next one.

While some may say Google is the exception to every rule, Godfrey has prior experience of running week-long sprints at a design agency.

“We were managing to come in on a Monday morning, run a design workshop with a client, build a prototype by Wednesday, test on Friday, and come back in on Monday, get that insight and regurgitate that into the next sprint.”

Designers are now elevating the conversation of what design can add to a business. It's important to think about your maturity and see where you can leverage designers to move that conversation further up, ultimately to build more profitable friendlier experiences.


Change can be scary

All this change can obviously be a scary concept for companies. In the same way Agile development changes the conversation about how and when projects are delivered, DesOps changes how people talk about design.

“Companies have this anxiety about uncertainty and really are still in this process of figuring out how to deal with this with continuous uncertainty. People are trained intrinsically to predict the future, especially in business, and to say, 'I don't know what the idea is going to look like yet, or how it's going to turn out', that freaks people out.”

But companies resistant to change often fail. The recent collapse of Toys R Us, he says, is a great example of Digital Darwinism, says Godfrey.

“They didn't kind of deal well with the internet when it came around, they didn't get into the continuous improvement model, and they stood still.”

Across various surveys, design skills are routinely listed as one of the top 10 skills businesses are demanding right now. But if your organization isn’t taking design seriously, why would the best talent of an in-demand field come to your organization?

“If there's a lot of churn in your design team, it's usually because you're not giving them big enough problems. If you're not challenging your design team then they're just spinning the wheels not doing anything and you're wasting that awesome ability.”

Companies known for embracing DesOps include AirBnB, Adidas, and Spanish banking group BBVA. Lonely Planet’s component library is a good example of a company sharing the fact it has a well-maintained design system, which makes it an appealing place to work for if you’re a designer.

“When I'm trying to hire the next designer or technologist they will look and see say 'oh they do Design Systems, they're up to date, and know what they're doing. They're mature in design, I'll go work for them over your company.'.”

“You're getting designers now coming out with MBAs and computer science degrees, but they can also prototype and visualize a complex idea instantly and hand it to a user, and that's a powerful business tool.”

If your organization is looking to become more Agile in its development – or already considers itself Agile – allowing design to follow suit makes good business sense.

“If you've got an engineering team just bashing out code every two weeks, the design team is trying to keep up with that, and this scale starts to accrue debt.

“The design team and the product team actually will spend the majority of their time maintaining that debt that you accrue - the duplication of elements and components in the user interface - rather than using your design team for more exciting and new opportunities.”

“You might have a really great idea, but really good ideas are ten a penny. It's actually how you build that idea and release it to market because then that says to me you can then come up with multiple ideas and have a runway to actually validate those.”


View from a designer

This might be all well and good in theory, but what about in reality? Ed Carroll, Product &Service Designer at Airportr (a UK-based startup that collects and checks-in passenger’s luggage at airports ahead of time) spoke to IDG Connect about the realities of being a designer in a startup.

Do you agree that design teams have a lot to learn from application development teams?

I do agree, but I also think that it’s really valuable for designers to become more embedded in the development process and work together with developers.

 A lot of designers have come from art backgrounds and have had to bend programs like Photoshop into interface design tools, which is not what these tools were designed for. This mindset and way of working made it awkward for design to match development.

It’s great that in the last few years we’ve seen some dedicated digital product design tools released (Sketch, Figma, Framer etc.) which really help align design, front end, and back end development teams. At AirPortr, we’re trialing Abstract (which is a version control tool for designers and very helpful for serving as a single ‘source of truth’).

Do you think organizations that offer software could benefit from adopting ‘Design Thinking’ and integrating design into processes earlier on in development?

I’m a big proponent of design thinking for any business. No matter what the venture, it’s critical to fully explore and understand the ‘problem space’ before you start working on any solution. Giving design a seat at the table can be invaluable in the decision-making process.

How difficult a change do you think adopting ‘Design Thinking’ is for organizations?

I think it’s difficult on an organizational scale because a lot of designers don’t come from business backgrounds, and their progression is different when compared to say a managerial track.

As a designer, it’s often about proving the business value of the work. For some it’s frustrating, because the research shows that on average, if you’re applying design thinking and have hired properly, you can get to market literally twice as fast.

Can you talk about the design process at AirPortr (and where you feel the company stands on the Design Ladder)?

I think we’ve evolved a pretty rigorous design process over the two years I’ve been here. In addition to service design, my focus falls on the internal-facing products and business design, and it’s impossible to design practical and useful products in such a unique venture without having a thorough understanding of why and how people use them - which you can only get with a good process.

While design or design thinking has certainly informed business decisions at AirPortr, I’d say the company is probably still at Step 3 on the design ladder. We integrate design from the start, and we do make quantitative product decisions based on research and user testing, which is great to be able to do in such a heavily regulated environment.

That being said, working in collaboration with large enterprises like British Airways, American Airlines, and Heathrow Airport means that business and strategic decisions have to be viewed in a different light to a typical startup. We certainly face some interesting challenges!


Also read:
Six ways DevOps is changing the role of IT
DevOps is a CIO’s theory of evolution
The making of a design-first enterprise IT company
Autodesk: Next designers might be VR-native
Design guru Don Norman: Microsoft is beating Apple at design


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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect. Writes about all manner of tech from driverless cars, AI, and Green IT to Cloudy stuff, security, and IoT. Dislikes autoplay ads/videos and garbage written about 'milliennials'.  

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