DesignOps at Airbnb

How we manage effective design at scale

Categories: Perspectives — Adrian Cleave

Modern product development is hard. The number of individual roles and titles that go into building a successful digital product at scale is mind-boggling. On the flip side, while we have more distinct specialties than ever, these lines are blurring and most individuals will usually straddle at least a couple of these. Seen as a continuous spectrum of skills, it’s clear that to succeed in today’s modern product org, everyone needs to live and play across multiple bands.

Working daily across so many disciplines, from Engineering to Product Management, Research, Content Strategy and an array of Design specialties, every little overhead in the transfer of information compounds. Inversely, every optimization and positive connection significantly lowers friction for everyone.

This is why we’ve created DesignOps, to ease collaboration and amplify effectiveness, not only across product disciplines, but also between the increasingly complex world of Product Design.

The Importance of Integration

I joined Airbnb 15 months ago and took on the creation of our Design Operations team. The design team, with it’s multiple disciplines, has tripled since I joined. By building a DesignOps team, we have been able to streamline work across our growing network of teams as well as within disciplines.

With an early background in publishing, DTP and GIS I witnessed and embraced the transition to digital. After co-founding Sideshow, a purely digital agency, I took on many roles, from interactive developer to UX designer to Product lead. Always drawn to the intersection of the three disciplines, I got the most satisfaction from building things of value through the interplay of technology and design. This served me well, as being able to see the world through the eyes of an engineer or a product  manager provides invaluable insight when trying to bridge those disciplines in a large scale org.

Back when our product design organization was smaller, designers and engineers worked closely, everyone knew each other and our all hands could be held in one meeting room. Most people worked on the same floor, passing each other in the hall several times a day. There was never enough time or people to do everything we wanted to do, but we were constantly driven to grow and learn. Change was the norm, and we faced all of the usual difficulties that product organizations do while experiencing such tremendous growth.

At this stage, we leaned heavily on the raw talents of individuals and the close relationships that allowed people to easily share information across smaller groups. As the team continued to grow, we reached a tipping point where things suddenly became harder. Teams could no longer all fit on the same floor. New people brought with them new ways of doing things. The loose structure that had allowed us keep pace before was not stable as we scaled, and new challenges emerged. Access to information, design standards, workstream collisions and quality issues all became very real problems.

Any operationally-focused team that was not directly aligned to a product feature was a good candidate for DesignOps — because their goals could support our mission to amplify and empower cross-functional product teams.

When I first joined Airbnb, our Design Language System was relatively fresh. Its goal was to unify our design language across platforms and empower designers and engineers to build solutions as parts of a greater whole, all while accelerating the design and development process. The DLS is now established and has been well documented by our fantastic team.

That was when DesignOps was born. With the bulk of designers, researchers and content strategists embedded in cross-functional teams, an operational gap emerged. We needed a team dedicated to running a highly integrated and effective design org.

Our mission is to provide agility to the whole product organization through centralized tools, systems and services that enhance  speed and quality of execution. Our functions include Design Program Management, Design Tools, Localization, Production Design and Team Coordinators. We work closely with Marketing, Product, Design and Engineering to create the best user experiences possible.

Defining DesignOps

The DesignOps team at Airbnb was loosely inspired by the DevOps movement. Having seen the gap between Engineering and Design at even mature tech companies, I felt that the DevOps concepts of cultural shift, collaboration and automation was 100% relevant. At the time, different companies were tackling various aspects of this separately, some had emerging tools teams, others had Design Program Managers, and many had commoditized Production Design depts and translation teams. None, that I could tell, were integrating these into a single team of complementary functions that would centralize the operational aspects of Design while also providing leverage to others. When considering what it takes to scale and run a high performance design team that needs to maintain pace in a hyper growth company, this approach made a lot of sense.

As the vision for this new team matured, several questions and challenges emerged. We began to ask ourselves things like:

• What are the criteria for disciplines that should be part of DesignOps?
• How do we identify and define entirely new roles? eg. Design Tools
• How  do we avoid working in a silo and listen to our partners in Design and Engineering?
• How do we socialize, build awareness and define the interaction with this new team?
• Education and adoption of new process and tools is hard. Early and often is key.
• Most importantly, how do we measure success?

As our arena grew to include any team that affects the user experience across any of our digital platforms, new disciplines were added and new teams were created. The guideline we followed was that any operationally-focused team that was not directly aligned to a product feature was a good candidate for DesignOps because their goals could support our mission to amplify and empower cross-functional product teams.

Today, DesignOps consists of five distinct teams:

1. Design Program Management
Driving our operational strategy and owning and evolving a holistic design process.

2. Design Tools
Building tools to empower and amplify designers as well as bridging disciplines.

3. Localization
Making sure Airbnb’s language is truly international and radically local.

4. Production Design
Ensuring our design is executed to the highest quality across Product and Marketing initiatives.

5. Team Coordinators
Keeping teams healthy and happy and leadership sane.

Of course it’s not as straightforward as it sounds, and not everything is running perfectly, but as long as we start to see small efficiencies compound, we know we’re moving in the right direction. We’re at a stage where the core teams are set up, the goals are laid out and everyone knows what we’re working towards, and that’s more than half the battle. I’ll be posting more detail about each team  and how they interact, and we’ll be sharing learnings, tools and resources in the hope that as a community we can keep pushing forwards together.

As we continue to evolve, my hope is to reach a stage where the process and tools fade into the background, and we live in a world where information is easy to find, people are easy to locate, prototypes are quick to create and work is easy to share — and we look back and wonder how we ever did it before.

Adrian Cleave is Director of DesignOps at Airbnb, father of two girls, technology optimist and occasional pianist.

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