Last week we attended the DesignOps Summit in New York City, hosted by Rosenfeld Media. It was a fantastic event, full of informative talks and entertaining workshops aimed at helping organizations establish or improve their design and research operations practices. Seeing people from operations, research, design, and other disciplines come together to discuss shared challenges and solutions was incredibly cool, and it seemed like most conference goers were pleased with the learnings they took away from the event.

We certainly felt that way, and so we thought it would be helpful to share our biggest takeaways from the conference. In no particular order, here are our top takeaways from DesignOps 2018:

  1. "Ask for what you need to succeed. Don't negotiate with yourself before you get to the table." - Leisa Reichelt, Head of Research and Insights at Atlassian
Leisa Reichelt, DesignOps Summit 2018

The conference talks started out very strong with Leisa Reichelt giving us a look into her career working in the UK and Australian governments before joining Atlassian as their Head of Research and Insights.

Leisa impressed upon the audience the importance of understanding organizations in context before making decisions about how to scale design and research. At each organization Leisa worked, the path to success was different based on the organization's underlying objectives, complexity, workforce skill, and a variety of other factors. Despite facing different challenges in each organizational context, Leisa's message of leveraging creativity, agility, and experimentation while understanding your organization's DNA resonates strongly.

Leisa's most memorable quote came when she was telling the audience about a time when she needed to ask her supervisor for more user researchers; she had 4 researchers, but knew that she needed 20. Before meeting with her manager to ask for more budget, Leisa found herself negotiating...with herself. She started to rationalize asking for less than what she needed internally, before realizing that she shouldn't negotiate against herself before asking for what she needed to be successful. She ended up asking for budget for all 20 researchers, which she eventually was given.

2. "Small, incremental changes add up to make something better than we have now." - Mark Boulton, Head of Digital at EMBL

Mark Boulton, DesignOps Summit 2018 (Source)

Mark's talk was fascinating for a couple of reasons - firstly, because he shared stories about working at CERN back in 2012 when the Higgs Boson particle was discovered at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. And secondly, because he was speaking at a Design Operations conference despite working for EMBL, an organization that doesn't employ "designers" in the traditional sense.

EMBL is a molecular biology research institution in Europe that is somewhat modeled after CERN. EMBL and CERN both exist with the main goal of creating environments for their respective sciences to flourish. Because of this, these organizations operate very differently from for-profit companies - there is no profit motive, their hierarchy is bottom-up, and their output is published research. And while EMBL may not employ designers, all 500 scientists that work at EMBL have to create digital assets that are seen by others, meaning they make design decisions.

In an organization with few formal designers but many scientists who do design work, Mark's biggest challenge is communicating the importance and value of operationalizing design work done at EMBL. And the key to keeping up momentum on that front is looking for small, marginal improvements that add up to impactful change over time.

3. Unexpectedly awesome neurobiology lesson from Alëna Louguina, Senior Lead Systems Research at Shopify

Alëna's talk was fascinating because it incorporated information about how we as humans learn. More specifically, she discussed how our brains process information, and how that information becomes knowledge and wisdom over time.

Alëna Louguina, DesignOps Summit 2018

This process of turning information into knowledge is important to Alëna because her job is to develop systems that promote the distribution of research and application of knowledge at Shopify. Knowing how humans process information and apply learnings is key to increasing engagement with the research done at Shopify.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the system Alëna designed is its ability to continually improve through experimentation and evaluation. Information is distributed, knowledge is applied in the form of an experiment, the results of the experiment are tested, and regardless of the outcome of the experiment, you've added wisdom and a deeper understanding of the challenge to your team.

4. "You'll need to continually socialize the successes of your team - that's going to help you connect to the right challenges in your company." - Courtney Kaplan, Director, Design Program Management at Facebook

Courtney Kaplan, DesignOps Summit 2018

It was really interesting to hear Courtney's talk because Facebook's Design Operations team seems to be more mature than similar teams at other companies. While many organizations are still looking to get DesignOps formally setup, Facebook is focused on scaling their DesignOps program quickly and effectively.

One of the common themes we heard throughout the conference was this notion of designers and design operations professionals needing empathy for business leaders and the challenges they face. This empathy can help operations folks better understand the business goals that define success for an organization, which is necessary for developing programs and processes that benefit from internal momentum.

I loved hearing Courtney talk about the importance of socializing your DesignOps team's successes; she did this internally at Facebook and found that others started coming to her, looking for advice on how to solve complex, messy problems. Sharing stories of her team's success opened the door to solving other challenges that further demonstrated her and her team's value.

5. Miles Orkin wrote an original rap and performed it during his talk - it was legendary.

Culture is an indisputably important part of any organization, but it becomes increasingly more important as an organization scales in size. Miles is the UX Vision and Culture Lead at Google, and he's responsible for cultivating an environment where designers feel empowered to do their best work.

Miles Orkin, DesignOps Summit 2018

One of the highlights of the entire conference was watching Miles perform his original DesignOps rap for the audience - we're working on securing footage of the performance and will link to it as soon as we can. :)

Another powerful lesson Miles shared with us is the importance of fun, authenticity, and emotion in building a truly excellent design culture at Google. Those three factors help set the tone for Miles' team in almost everything they do. In addition, Miles believes that creativity is organic and a result of healthy culture - if you prioritize having fun along the journey, are authentic in your dealings with others, and stop downplaying the importance of emotions, good things will follow.

6. How feedback loops help Maria Skaaden manage her continuous design practice.

Maria Skaaden, DesignOps Summit 2018

Maria currently works for the national railway in Oslo, Norway - the rail service was recently privatized after being owned and operated by the state for years. Maria and her team have been working on the railway mobile application and use a continuous design approach when it comes to solving user experience issues.

One key aspect of continuous design is the implementation of feedback loops within a product - this allows users to provide feedback quickly and easily to Maria's team, who utilize a Trello board to organize and visualize the feedback they're given. We interviewed Maria before the conference took place and she gave us great insights into her work and the processes her team uses to practice continuous design.

7. Palestinian raves, positive deviance, and user research with Hana Nagel, Lead UX Researcher at SAP

Hana's one of those people who just exudes coolness. Whether you're having a casual conversation with her, or listening to her talk about Research Operations, you immediately realize how intelligent and passionate Hana is.

Hana Nagel, DesignOps Summit 2018

The beginning of Hana's talk introduced us to a world of underground raves being held in Israel and Palestine where both cultures come together to dance and interact in safe spaces away from the segregation and violence taking place above ground. This behavior is evidence of social change, and studying social change can help us understand how to better enact lasting systems change when it comes to engaging our teams with user research.

Another fascinating concept that Hana shared is called positive deviance. This happens when someone operates outside of social norms and experiences positive results. The example she shared was of a fisherman in a poor country who began using his fishing net in a different way. This resulted in the fisherman catching more fish and keeping his family fed, which are obvious positive outcomes. Hana's point was to embrace positive deviance and the opportunity it presents for scaleable, positive change.

8. Decentralized design at IBM and how knowing your user extends to business leaders.

Doug Powell, DesignOps Summit 2018 (Source)

The closing talk was given by Doug Powell, VP of Design at IBM. Over the last five years, IBM has added over 1,600 designers to its workforce, and Doug's main responsibility has been developing and maintaining design operations that allow the individual businesses to meet their needs for design resources.

One of the most interesting parts of Doug's talk was when he spoke about the importance of designers "knowing the user" in order to deliver a great solution. For Doug and his team, the users are business leaders at IBM; these are the individuals that have to buy into the importance of design and ultimately invest in design resources. Business leaders at IBM are extremely busy, competitive, perceptive, and data-driven; knowing this, Doug and his team began to measure the impact of design by looking at staffing ratios, career trajectories, designer health and attrition, and user sentiment. Combined, these factors were able to tell a compelling story - investing in design results in better alignment, faster product launches, and financial savings. Understanding the business leader's priorities and being able to frame the solution in their terms allowed Doug to enact impactful change at IBM.

Until Next Year

This year's iteration of DesignOps Summit was really special. The quality of the speakers was extremely high, the venue was in a great location, and the conference attendees were engaged and friendly. Special thanks to Rosenfeld Media for all of their hard work organizing the conference - we'll see you next year!