How Design Operations (DesignOps) Work at Eleken

Kateryna Mayka

Hi! We are Eleken, a SaaS design agency. And though we consider ourselves to be a well-established team with common goals where everyone knows what they are doing and, in which direction we are moving, we also face challenges in our daily work.

For example, nowadays designers are involved in more strategic conversations. However, we’re being asked to balance that involvement along with our daily tasks (researching and designing). We have more meetings to attend, more policies and regulations to navigate, and more interruptions overall. Sometimes, we’re just too busy to design!

DesignOps is a way to remove some of that operational load from designers’ lives so that we can spend time researching and designing, achieving better results.

For that reason, in this article, we want to show you how we optimize work processes to make our team operate smoothly. And naturally, we can’t go without a small intro of DesignOps definition.

What is Design Operations?

Design Operations is a collective term to describe our efforts for optimizing our teams, tools, and workflows. 

As for DesignOps roles, there’s no need for special titles - everyone can do it (researchers, managers, or/and designers).

However, if you want to know some specific job positions responsible for design operations these can be: 

  • Design/UX producers, who drive day-to-day design work and processes forward
  • Design/UX program managers, who optimize a businesses' global approach to UX and design
  • Research Ops specialists, who elevate the quality and consistency of research across teams

There's a need to mention that there’s no specific operational design framework that all companies should apply. There are many elements related to enabling consistent quality design and each business should choose their own DesignOps practices based on problems they encounter.

Now, we want to share with you the way we at Eleken have shaped our DesignOps practice.

How Eleken ensures effective design when scaling

As we grew, new challenges appeared, and to cope with them we developed a stable team structure, design standards, design process, toolset, hiring, and onboarding procedures, collaboration methods (both with each other and with our clients), and many more aspects that we can call our DesignOps.

For you to better understand how Eleken handles the difficulties that may occur on the way to delivering successful design solutions, we singled our four elements of operational design that we are going to discuss below:

  • How we work together
  • How we get the work done
  • How we cooperate with our clients
  • How our work creates impact

Let’s get it started! 

How we work together

Here you will learn how we:

  • structure and build our team
  • enable effective internal communication
  • share and expand knowledge
  • hire and onboard new members

Team structure and roles

Eleken is not a typical design team with roles common for most SaaS companies. We differ both in structure and hierarchy. Basically, there are two main roles in our team: design lead and product designers.

Eleken's design team structure
Eleken’s team structure

The design lead’s main duties are to supervise and mentor designers, fully accompany newcomers throughout their onboarding, and serve as the contact person for clients that want to provide any kind of feedback/apply some changes related to their cooperation with Eleken.

Product designers at Eleken are independent individuals (as we don’t have product managers) and are all dedicated to their specific projects where they are responsible for user experience, visual design, UX research, and everything needed to create high-quality design solutions.

Team management and coordination

As I’ve already mentioned, designers at Eleken are independent and when you hire them they become a part of your team, like an in-house employee with whom you communicate directly.  We believe that when you let your designers make decisions and take responsibility on their own, they grow professionally quicker and are more likely to come up with unique design decisions.

Therefore, for the most part, Eleken’s designers don't need thorough management from our side. There are two main cases when our design lead supervises and coordinates designers:

  1. New member onboarding. When a new person comes to Eleken they receive full attention from our design lead (we will talk more about onboarding later).
  2. On-demand. When designers feel they need some help, they can address Eleken’s design lead anytime and receive full support, advice, and mentorship.

Team communication and experience exchange

team communication
Image credit: blogin.co

For a team (especially for the one that scales quickly) it’s essential to have a possibility to share thoughts and opinions, and most importantly get feedback or criticism from peers.

At Eleken, we hold regular weekly meetings where we discuss projects, share both positive and negative experiences, look at each other’s works, brainstorm ideas together, and get each other’s feedback. This practice allows everyone to stay tuned, create a common source of knowledge, and exchange experiences.

Hiring and onboarding

remote hiring and onboarding
Image credit: wsj.com

Both hiring and onboarding at Eleken are lengthy processes. It usually takes four-five months from the moment the designer applies for a job and until they start working on real projects. We are super attentive and precise when it comes to choosing a new team member and put a lot of effort into finding and educating great SaaS design specialists.

Hiring at Eleken consists of three levels:

  1. Portfolio evaluation. We create a job post and people send their CVs and portfolios.
  2. Test task. If we consider certain candidates to be suitable for our position we send them a test task. When analyzing the test task, we mainly pay attention to the applicants’ ability to create logical design decisions while adhering to major design principles.
  3. Interview. Finally, we invite the candidate to the interview which we can divide into three blocks: personal background and motivation to work in this industry, logical questions on basic understanding of the essence of the design, and finally, communication skills in English. The third block is especially important for us, as we want to make sure our designers will be able to clearly explain to our clients each step/idea/decision they made.

After we make our choice based on the interview results, the onboarding stage begins. 

Each newcomer goes through a three-month boot camp where they have to design a product (an imaginary one) from scratch. They undergo all stages of the design process including brainstorming, competitive analysis, user research, wireframing and visual design for each screen until we get the final result. 

During the whole onboarding, our design lead monitors the process: he constantly communicates with the designer, discusses each step, provides feedback, points out their strengths and weaknesses, shows the right direction for further development, and makes sure they understand what makes a good SaaS product.

Only after the design lead approves the candidate, they can work on real projects.

It takes much time and resources to get a new employee for our company, but this way we are confident our clients get access to the top design talents and receive only high-quality service.

How we get the work done

Here you will learn how we:

  • define our guiding design principles
  • improve design quality with consistent sets of design tools and processes
  • set priorities on tasks
  • cope with leadership overload

Our design principles

To provide high-quality design everyone at Eleken adhere to the following UI/UX design principles:

  1. Always design with the user in mind. We teach our employees to put themselves into users’ shoes each time they create something new.
  2. Build the correct hierarchy. By laying out elements logically and strategically our designers can influence users’ perception and guide them to the desired action.
  3. Use visual objects like style and patterns when possible. It will keep the consistency and will relieve a headache of your developers.
  4. Each design element should have its purpose. We don’t put a funny image on the screen, just because it looks nice. Eleken’s designers always try to simplify the interface (remove unnecessary things) and make each piece of design perform its function.
  5. UI/UX design is all about managing the user's attention. Good design doesn't need onboarding, when done correctly the user will intuitively do what they need to do.
  6. Remember about accessibility. We make designs for all people, and not only for those with excellent eyesight. That’s why when working on a project we ensure that the interface is well-structured, colors are contrasted, and fonts are readable.

Design process

To keep the design workflow running smoothly we created a designer handbook that describes characteristics of the product design process at main types of projects:

  • Design from scratch (there is only an idea and we design a product from the very beginning)
  • Redesign (there is a product, but it needs to be restructured not to be outdated or complex)
  • Design support/product extension (there is a product but the client wants to create/add new functionality)

This document is accessible to all our designers and contains useful information needed to effectively perform design duties.

For example, here is a scheme of how the design from scratch looks at Eleken: 

the scheme of product design process from scratch

 

Design tools

To facilitate the design quality and let design scale efficiently we defined a set of standardized tools. We use:

  • Figma for main design purposes. It covers 95% of our needs (prototypes, wireframes, logos, presentations, icons, and so on).
  • Google spreadsheets for UX research.
  • Miro for brainstorming, schemes, and user flows.
  • Slack and Gmail for communication.

Design priorities 

Both for design agencies and for freelance designers it is often difficult to decide what project to work on and when to work on it. To prioritize, they have to consider the design team capacity, uncover problems in the design workflow, and so on.

Eleken doesn’t face the problem with prioritizing. While design agencies/freelancers have many products, we focus on one. You hire a remote team member who is completely dedicated to your project.

Leadership overload

Although each designer at Eleken is dedicated to their own project, we work as a whole team, helping and supporting each other.

In case our design lead feels overloaded (though it happens very rarely) there are senior designers who can help and provide feedback for those less experienced. 

And that’s one more thing that differs Eleken from freelancers: we're a team, every designer collaborates with the team to get feedback and improve.

How we cooperate with our clients

Here you will learn how we:

  • collaborate 
  • provide effective communication with clients
  • ensure the length and quality of our design

Collaboration with clients

By hiring designers at Eleken, our clients get a remote team member who they're in complete control of.

Our UI/UX specialists can be:

  • a standalone designer in our client’s company
  • a part of a design team (if an additional pair of hands is needed and the client doesn’t have time for hiring and onboarding)

We work on the time-based retainer pricing model, which means you buy a subscription (weekly or monthly) and get a full-time designer working on your project. This model allows you to stay flexible: you can unsubscribe in case you don’t need our services anymore, or add more designers if you need more employees for the project.

If you want to learn more about the way we collaborate with clients, read about our pricing

Communication

means for remote communication with clients
Image credit: rockcontent.com

We provide outsource design work, that’s why it was essential to us to think out ways to deal with any remote communication challenges.

Means of communication: we work with any means of communication that is convenient for our clients. In most cases, we use Slack for messages and Zoom for meetings. 

Type of communication: our clients talk directly with the designer, without any middlemen. This way there are no misunderstandings or “Broken Telephone”.

Frequency of calls/meetings: it’s up to our clients how often they want to contact the designer. They can set up weekly meetings to receive general updates about the project’s progress, or have daily standups. 

How we ensure the length and quality of our design

There is no fixed amount of time that product design takes. We can estimate the period of time needed based on our experience, but we strictly follow the pay-per-month rule. Working closely with our designers, clients know perfectly well how the project’s progress goes.

As for the quality, we’ve already mentioned that each of our designers goes through complex hiring and onboarding processes so that we make sure they have skill sets to create high-quality product design from start to finish. Also, the client can easily reach out to the designer and can control how the project goes at each stage. 

How our work creates impact

Here you will learn how we:

  • educate others about the value of design
  • define our values and goals

Transmitting the value of design

At Eleken, we take care not only about our employees but we also want more people to understand the power of design. For that reason, we are open for communication and try to actively interact with our clients as much as we can.

We don’t keep our design processes secret and let people learn how we work. So, when you hire a designer, you, in fact, get the knowledge of the whole Eleken agency. 

Our mission

Eleken is a team of design enthusiasts. We believe people face enough difficulties in their daily lives and applications/software they use on a regular basis should not be one of those troubles. Technologies are called to simplify people’s lives, and with the help of profound UI/UX design, Eleken can help everyone feel the value and enjoy the beauty of technological progress.

We help SaaS products become closer to their users and open their full potential to make people’s lives better. 

Still have some questions about Eleken’s DesignOps?

We are always open to communication! Schedule a call with Eleken.

Read more about SaaS design