Why we need design leaders, designops leaders, DPMs, and design managers

What is the relationship between DesignOps and Design? Is a DesignOps Manager the same as a Design Programme Manager (DPM)? Understanding the roles and responsibilities of each of these roles is key to ensure Design teams thrive.

While Design teams have been growing and scaling fast in the past few years, the growth of the design teams has also seen an increase in the number of design-related roles and growth in the number of operational models applied to run the Design function (NN/g 2021).

In this complex and fragmented scenario, it can be confusing to implement the right structures and processes: the speed at which design teams are growing requires clarity over the needs, the priorities, and the skillsets. Developing a design infrastructure and functioning ecosystem that integrates people, processes, and tools to deliver strategic and tactical value while supporting both the design teams and the business is one of the new key challenges in Design.

It is important that the teams evolve by design, through a clear vision supported by skills and executive capacity to ensure that Design teams scale and grow without compromising quality, culture, and production.

Evolving design teams

Design has been going through a specialisation from its early days, when a webmaster was ruling the web, to today, where design has achieved a high level of specialisation and a project requires a number of complementary skills to be executed. This fragmentation and specialisation has hugely increased the quality of the output, but it has also increased the complexity of a design project and it has brought to surface the need to orchestrate design initiatives on different levels.

The growth in demand and expectations from the customers has driven an exponential increase in the complexity required to pull together a successful design project and today’s organisations require a growing number of skillsets to be able to deliver quality at speed and to serve equally the business and the customers.

And this increasing complexity has led in recent years to a growing number of key roles that support — orchestrate — design teams to execute the work: the Design Lead, the DesignOps Lead, the Design Manager, and the Design Programme Manager (DPM). They may sound all similar titles and they are often mistaken and confused, but that confusion can be a costly error as the consequences for design teams and initiatives may be significant.

These 4 roles operate at different altitudes and with a specific focus that needs to be fully acknowledged to ensure design teams are run and led effectively and efficiently and that each of these 4 roles is set up to succeed and to amplify teams’ capacity to generate value.

There are two dimensions that help understanding and defining the design roles: the altitude (strategic vs tactical) and the focus (the product vs the process). By combining these four dimensions it is possible to clearly articulate and understand the role that the Design Lead, the DesignOps Lead, the Design Manager, and the DPM play within growing design teams.

Plotting Design and DesignOps leaders on 2 dimensions to define the remit and responsibilities of Design Leaders, DesignOps leads, Design Managers, and Design Programme Managers. © P. Bertini 2021
DesignOps and Design roles and remits. © P. Bertini 2021

Asking the right questions

One way to understand the difference between these roles is their focus: what are the priority and the biggest expectation for the role? 
Is the function focused on delivering products/services for the end-user (external-facing) or is it about delivering inner-facing transformations to improve design processes and operational and spending efficiencies?

Is this leader focusing on the processes (the How) or on delivering the product strategy (the What)? Is this leader expected to drive internal transformational initiatives or to deliver services and processes to the market?

And what does success look like? What are the metrics that define success and how are achievements measured and evaluated?

All the above are valid for the managers too, but a key additional question on their role includes the expectation to manage teams or just processes? Which are the focus of managers’ execution efforts?

Understanding the roles by focus: the product vs the process focus

The figure above shows how DesignOps is an inward-looking strategic function focused on delivering broader cross-functional initiatives and strategies to increment spending and operational efficiencies and to increase teams’ efficiency and efficacy.

This is a transformational function as DesignOps delivers initiatives that change how the design teams and the business operate to maximise return of investment and to support the growth and impact of design.
For this reason, solid expertise in change management is essential to drive a successful DesignOps practice.

DesignOps’ success is measured and quantified with clear KPIs that assess both Operational Efficiency, the ability to optimise resources utilisation and increase ROI, and Operational Efficacy (the ability to drive behaviours that deliver increased value(see more here).

Operational Efficiency looks at how resources (money, time, people, tools, processes) are being employed to generate value to the organisation and the team includes metrics such as:
– Tools’ engagement and utilisation 
– Rapid testing lead time
– Team productivity
– Delivery time

Operational Efficacy measures inner qualities of the teams and it assesses behaviours that have a direct impact on Operational Efficiencies such as:
– User/ customer engagement
– Experimentation cycle times
– Teams’ skills and skills’ distribution
– Employee satisfaction and retention

On the other hand, the Design Lead is a product/service-focused function that is expected to deliver for the end-user and who is responsible to clearly define the segments, strategies, and vision to deliver compelling experiences. This is a strategic role that owns the vision of the product: the Design Lead needs to craft a roadmap and engage with the partners to ensure it gets executed to ensure all market and user needs and expectations are met. This is why for a design leader it is essential to have influencing skills to ensure the product vision is fully supported by all stakeholders and it is delivered according to the expectations.

As an externally and product/service-focused function, for a Design Lead success is measured through a set of metrics that is related to the product experience and which is defined mostly by market and end users’ responses and feedback. Typical KPIs influenced and determined by the Design Lead include:
– Engagement with a function
– Completion task (Rate)
– Retention
– Conversion rate

Tactical vs Strategic focus

Similarly, at a manager role, DPMs and Design Managers operate with the same goals as their leaders but with a focus on the execution of single initiatives.

The Design Manager is to the Design Leader as the Design Programme Manager us to the DesignOps Leader.

DPMs and Design Managers are tactical roles that support the leads and ensure the execution of the vision and the strategy is done in the most effective and seamless way.
Design leaders needs to be able to rely and work with their managers to ensure that while the leaders get the buy in from the business and keep constantly under review that the strategy is valid to ensure maximum impact and return, managers can focus on the seamless delivery of the initiatives they have been tasked with.

Project and program management roles have been a growing necessity in the design industry in the past few years (Invision 2018), and while a Design Manager needs a solid background and hands on experience designing and executing design projects, a DPM may not need to have the same in-depth familiarity with the design execution. 
Nevertheless, DPMs need to be fully accustomed with all aspects of the design process, including cross-functional engagement models, and governance.

Both the DPM and Design Manager must understand and be familiar with the E2E design process, but while the DPM focuses on improving targeted aspects of the design process to empower designers, the Design Manager will ensure designers deliver the experience and execute the work.
And while DPMs may be detached from the product and service to be delivered by Design teams, Design Manager needs to have an in depth expertise of the experience to be executed by the teams to be able to effectively drive the implementation.

This is why while a Design Manager includes team and people management, the same is not always true for DPMs.

Design Managers and DPMs are custodian of the success of the vision and their responsibilities in ensuring a successful implementation relies on their ability to plan and assess risks, and in their ability to define contingency plans to ensure projects deliver the expected business results.

The Managers’ metrics are execution-related indicators and the measure of Managers’ success depends on the successful execution of the plan and projects they are driving. Their metrics are very similar and are related to project execution, including:
– Milestone completed
– Schedule Variance
– On-time completion rate
– Planned hours/actual time ratio

Ultimately, DPMs and Design Managers are not admin roles and their main focus is not resourcing or booking meetings, but they are critical functions that enable efficiencies, visions, and roadmaps to come to live and deliver value to the customers, the users, the designers, and the business.

Final Remarks

When an organisation decides to scale their Design organisation and support the growth and development of their design infrastructure, it is essential that decision-makers acknowledge these differences in scope, altitude, and remits to identify the skills that can better support the teams to scale and grow.

The UX Collective donates US$1 for each article published on our platform. This story contributed to Bay Area Black Designers: a professional development community for Black people who are digital designers and researchers in the San Francisco Bay Area. By joining together in community, members share inspiration, connection, peer mentorship, professional development, resources, feedback, support, and resilience. Silence against systemic racism is not an option. Build the design community you believe in.

Published by Pat

DesignOps alchemist