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Dialling Up the Joy, Turning Down the Pain: Design Ops at Spotify

October 2019


Article credits
Cliona O’Sullivan

Opening act 

My first year of heading up design ops at Spotify is nearly complete. It’s been a hell of a year figuring what this discipline means and how it works at a unique company like ours. We have designers working across multiple locations, for multiple audiences, across multiple platforms. And to add to that, Spotify values a good deal of autonomy and encourages teams to solve problems in their own way, so we needed to tread lightly at first. 

Here are a few things we figured out and wanted to share with you—fellow design ops or design teams who are thinking of forming a design ops function. Note that we still have a long way to go to establish our practice, so I’m eager to meet my peers to exchange experiences and grow together. Reach out to me with your questions and comments through the link at the bottom of this article.    

Disclaimer: You'll find quite a few references to music within this article, we tend to do that a lot at Spotify. I hope you enjoy them and the Spotify playlist attached to this article. Appropriately, it's called “Ode to Joy.”

Getting the balance right

When I started working in this role, I quickly realised being labelled with any kind of “ops” title at a large company leaves one at risk of being fire hosed with all manner of random requests, from “we ran out of ink cartridges!” to “I need a new Sketch license” or, our favourite at Spotify, “our tribe needs some cool swag, can you design it?”. Our team had to establish a process quickly; otherwise, we’d be pulled in multiple directions and face a demand overload. We’re a team of six rockstar Design Program Managers (DPMs) who all worked together on this process.

First, we created a mission statement to define our north star:

“Design ops aims to turn down the pain and dial up the joy for design at Spotify.”

Design ops acts as a volume dial. We’re continually working through the pain/joy, the serious/fun, the rigour/silliness. Of course designers need all the serious stuff (such as tools, design systems, and working printers) to operate effectively, but the human, joyful part is just as important. Having a supportive community, a design culture, and continuous inspiration from the world of design, art, and music is also vital to fuel their creative brains. 

Conducting the orchestra 

Our design ops team supports hundreds of designers in five locations around the world. Not only are we separated by oceans, designers also often work solo in squads. We still believe design works best within cross-discipline teams to help infuse all parts of the Spotify business with user-centred thinking. 

But in a decentralised model, designers can miss jamming with fellow designers and the strong cultural bonds that a central model fosters. This is where design ops plays a key role. We make connections happen by bringing designers together in many ways: hosting regular socials, through our tools, and though our skill-building programs. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is how we created the three chords of Spotify's design ops.  

All you need is three chords

These chords are the key to our rhythm. They provide our work with a structure and a focus. They are the foundation of design ops at Spotify:

The three chords of design ops at Spotify: Culture & Community, Learning & Inspiration, and Tools & Systems.
  • Culture & Community: means nurturing our internal design culture and elevating our presence across Spotify and the external design community. We do this through promoting regular socials, establishing shared creative spaces—called “design studios”—in all our locations, and our shared rituals such as our arty “First Thursdays”

  • Learning & Inspiration: we host regular training sessions for designers to grow their skills. This year, for example, we took the time to teach them the basics of Framer X and offered a course in creative leadership, among others. As well as continuous training, this chord includes us developing robust onboarding bootcamps for new hires to learn how to do design at Spotify.

  • Tools & Systems: safe to say (after a year of negotiating and working with IT and procurement) we now have a smaller and way more manageable toolset for design. From the wild west of people expensing their own tools, we have consolidated licenses and access through IT support. This initiative has drastically reduced the “how do I get access to…” requests and our licensing costs. A contained set makes it easier for us to collaborate as all our designers are working in the same tools, following the same playbooks. This chord also includes the work guiding our design principles and design system (our most precious tool of all). 

These chords are also inter-connected. For example: a program to onboard new designers successfully and quickly (in Learning & Inspiration) will be dependent on simplifying access to our design toolset and connecting the new designer to our design system (Tools & Systems).

All our chords have a different DPM in charge, depending on where their passion and strengths lie. This setting helps to provide focus for our team and to contain our work (remember the firehose I mentioned earlier?).

Rockstar production

Our design ops team is amazing. Each of our DPMs have strong backgrounds in project management and creative production. We’re successful because, like the best producers, we can make sense out of complexity and help orchestrate a team towards a solution.

We drive programs of work that solve problems and address the needs of our designers, from kick-off all the way to delivery. We treat each design ops program like any large production: we write a clear brief, scope the work, build a roadmap, set success measures, facilitate a team through the process, and—best of all—deliver. Not to mention the satisfaction of marking them “done” in our design ops Trello board (see an example below, we are very proud of our use of labels).

Our colourful Trello board at full steam.

Spotify is agile and famously autonomous. You need to  be able to cope well with ambiguity to work here as change happens constantly. We do that by breaking down our programs into smaller pieces of value and regularly reviewing and prioritising our design ops backlog. Most of all, we remain flexible and open to change. 

Our bandmates: working groups

While administrative and tactical work will always be part of an operational team, we also need to keep a strategic mindset, which is why we need to be closely aligned with Spotify’s overall leadership and design strategy. 

Design leadership shapes and drives product design at Spotify, enabling our missions to create engaging, usable, and innovative products while maintaining joy throughout our process and output. Each member of the design leadership team sets the expectations of design within both their respective mission and collectively across the company. 

Design ops are also highly reliant (and grateful!) on the bottom-up support from designers at Spotify. A key to our success is through our working group (WG) model, composed of teams of committed and motivated designers working with us delivering programs. Having these WGs means our designers are accountable and closely involved in solving problems for their discipline, which means more adoption of the programs we provide.  

Examples of successful WGs we’ve formed and disbanded this year include our Design Days WG, who helped curate and produce our annual design conference; our Tools WG, who helped audit and streamline our design toolset; and our Editorial Board WG, who source and review content for this very blog.

Lead or backup singer?

Our team's level of involvement in design initiatives can vary depending on the scope and subject area. We’ve come up with a handy label system to help guide our level of involvement. This helps set our coworker's expectations on what kind of support we can offer and means they know how to work with us—and what we expect from them. Our three labels are:

  • “Driving” - programs we 100% own and are responsible for.

  • “Supporting” - programs in which a design lead or manager drives, and we help execute and roll out to all of design. 

  • “Looped In” - an initiative someone outside our team drives, where design ops provides light-touch support.

The three labels for our levels of involvement.

We are composing for tomorrow

My final reflection, and the one I'm most proud of, is on how my team's passion helps causes we care about through Spotify Design.

We hosted an event on design ethics in London called ‘Designing for Tomorrow’, which inspired us to adopt the mindset and apply it to everything we do. How does this work in practice? We consider ecological and ethical perspectives for every program in which we are engaged. We always aim to work with small businesses and up and coming creatives as partners; we carefully consider our travel footprint; we host sustainable and accessible events; we support our local communities and find ways to provide learning opportunities to underserved demographics and minority groups. 

These considerations will ultimately inspire greater ethical responsibility, inclusion, and diversity in our design practice.



Cliona O’Sullivan

Head of Design Ops

Cli has supported designers and guided the creative process throughout her PM career where she picked up agile, lean, user-centred design and product thinking and now applies the tools to the world of design ops.

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