Produced by Haallas, Parempaa bittiä (‘Better bits’) is a podcast that examines design, digital service design, and UX design from different perspectives. The podcast is in Finnish, but the episode highlights are translated into English and available in a blog format.
The guest for the sixth episode of the Parempaa bittiä podcast is Heidi Vaarala, one of the core team members of the design house Alpha Design Partners.
Heidi talks with Matti Linna, Head of Design at Haallas, about DesignOps, i.e. methods and processes aimed at optimising the work of designers and team practices so as to make design as effective as possible, both internally and externally.
Heidi’s current occupational title is Creative Director, but she has worked for more than 20 years in many areas of design, from service design planning to user interface (UI) design and from conceptualisation to business design. For the last ten years, Heidi has worked as Design Director for several companies. She has experience selling design and developing DesignOps, has implemented design teams, and developed design business.
Effective design as the goal
“Alpha Design Partners is a full-stack design house. We help our clients develop their design operations and provide them with UI design, service design, training related to the topic, and user experiences. A typical client relationship generally involves a bit of all of these,” Heidi says, describing her work with design and customer experience.
DesignOps is becoming a larger and larger part of Heidi’s everyday life. It involves organising people, practices, and design work to make design as effective as possible within the organisation and, through this, in the range of services and solutions offered to clients.
“We can help the client in developing a particular service or product. Once the project grows and evolves, we can support their organisation’s design operation while simultaneously continuing to work on another product or service.”
How design became the new standard
The attitudes towards design have changed in recent years. Organisations have started to develop their own design teams, and almost all companies that provide solutions, services, and products now have an in-house designer or design team.
“Where this type of expertise was previously outsourced, and there were some organisations that didn’t buy design at all despite needing it, organisations now have their own experts,” Heidi rejoices.
As in-house teams become more common, it also means that someone inside the organisation needs to lead the design operations. This allows the effectiveness of design to be developed more systematically. Here is where Heidi enters the picture.
“The effectiveness of design must be developed further, which is something that we can assist with as needed,” Heidi states.
A happy team produces results
Organisations should start to consider how to organise their design operations as soon as the first designer enters the organisation. Heidi recommends that the team leader should be a person who knows how designers operate and understands design philosophy.
“To get the right things out of the team, the leader should be able to optimise the team’s potential, know everyone’s strengths and be able to link them to the organisation's needs. A team comprised of experts, such as designers and developers, is put together under this same umbrella of expertise,” Heidi describes.
Development work is often fast-paced, and Heidi says that the team should not contain more than ten people for the sake of agility and wellbeing at work. The key is to make sure that no individual employee has an excessive workload or is expected to know everything.
“This sounds like it should be obvious, but many recruiters still assume that an individual designer is a unicorn who magically knows how to take care of everything, which is absolutely not the case,” Heidi points out.
“The Design Director also bears great responsibility in the sense that they define what type of person is needed for the job. A good Design Director knows what is worth buying.”
Do you have time to talk about design?
It is also important to raise awareness of the different roles of the team members within the organisation. Everything is linked to increasing understanding of the purpose of design and how it can meet various needs. Heidi feels that there is a great deal of work to be done regarding awareness.
“Awareness of design is still lacking. There are many roles that are essential for product development but that are generally regarded as ‘drawing nice pictures’,” Heidi states.
She says that the Design Director should network with the entire organisation and inform various parties and operators on how the design team can assist them.
Heidi remarks that networking in DesignOps is largely legwork. The best case scenario is to bring the management team on board and keep the work methods design-oriented. This can be achieved specifically through networking.
Convincing the management team with numbers
The ability to measure the effectiveness of design plays a key role in spreading the message about design in organisations. A theory about design philosophy can only go so far – management teams need to see numbers to become convinced. But what exactly can and should we measure?
“The service experience, practices, improvement in work efficiency and output quality, customer and user orientation and satisfaction, the motivation level of the design team, the level of wellbeing at work, the scale and growth of the team,” Heidi lists.
Heidi says that all of the above can be directly linked to business indicators.
“Numbers and analyses show that design can greatly contribute to business growth. There are many examples that attest to this,” Heidi points out.
How is design sold?
Indeed, design can help the client’s product or services succeed on the market, but what about selling design itself? According to Heidi, the key question is how the purchasing and sale of design can be developed.
“Alpha Design Partners exists precisely to make it as easy as possible to purchase design,” Heidi says.
“I’ve worked specifically in sales, and the win-win solution for all parties is to bring the designer in when discussing why and for what purpose design is required.”
Customer orientation is also present in sales work, and the designer should be genuinely interested in the client’s needs. Designers participate in the client’s sprint cycle to help them with current issues, according to the situation.
“Searching for a solution is creative work, which is why the designer should be involved from the start. After all, the designer is the one who designs and creates those solutions,” Heidi says.
Heidi has noticed that the client often benefits the most when buying design based on the Design-as-a-Service model. This may include monthly guidance sessions and solving current issues not originally included in the project.
“This method is light when compared to heavy project management. Needs often occur quickly and are brought up when the designer sits down with the client,” Heidi clarifies.
“The aim is for everything to work seamlessly. This ensures the best possible outcome, which is exactly what designers aim for in their work.”
Keeping a finger on the client’s pulse
Heidi has picked up many important pieces of advice over the course of her varied career. However, she says the most important thing she has learned is the ability to read the client’s needs and adapt to them.
“I’ve been in teams and organisations of different sizes and met a diverse range of clients. This has taught me that the designer must be able to adjust their efforts to a level that meets the client’s needs,” Heidi points out.
In practice, this means taking a lighter approach and working on a smaller scale when the need is small. It is not always necessary or even worthwhile to follow a heavy process diagram.
“By keeping a finger on the client’s pulse, the designer can tell how their work will produce the best value. Designers should also remember to question things and be bold instead of following existing processes.”
Heidi has diverse experience in different design areas and is a core team member of the design house Alpha Design Partners. She has more than 20 years of experience in customer-oriented design, and she swears by broad expertise and the ability to apply solutions. She likes to switch between UX design, UI design, service design, and business design to meet the client’s needs. Heidi has spent the last ten years working as Design Director at software and design companies, and she has also supported and guided others in the development of design operations. In her free time, Heidi can be found with a compass in hand somewhere in the forests of Pirkanmaa – or holding a craft beer at a death metal concert.
The podcast is hosted by Haallas' Head of Design Matti Linna. Matti has more than ten years of experience in UX design and service design in various industries in the public and private sectors. At the heart of Matti's design thinking are insights gained through in-depth user and customer understanding that can be used to create useful, functional, and easy-to-use digital services. In his free time, Matti can be met at the Crossfit Hall or on the mountain bike trail.