Spotify Design has more than doubled in size during the past three years. We’ve added new design specialties we’ve never had, like ontologists, service designers, voice designers, design systems engineers, and localization and accessibility experts. We’re the largest we’ve ever been, operating both in-office and remote. As a result, our design operations team has had new challenges to untangle in order to keep up with our ever-evolving, expanding design organization.
That’s where Kamdyn Moore, Spotify’s Global Head of Design Operations, comes into the picture. She sat down with us to discuss how her team has evolved to support, accelerate, and stabilize Spotify Design.
CANDICE: Hey, Kam. How are you doing today?
KAMDYN: I’m great, thanks. I’m excited to be here doing this with you.
CANDICE: Yes, me too. Let’s get into it. So, in another blog post, you talked about trying to explain to your dad what it is that you do. You said, “I create the space for teams I’m working with to do their best work possible within any given constraint.” Can you tell me a little bit more about what that’s been like at Spotify lately?
KAMDYN: I remember when I said that to my dad. Unfortunately, it didn't really help him understand any better. I guess this is what I’d say to him now — I manage an incredible team of people who make sure our designers have the resources, tools, direction, and organizational structure they need to do what they do best: design. In order for designers to get to that part, they need to be able to get into a state of “flow”. That’s what I’m trying to enable.
CANDICE: What does that mean — a flow state — and how do you help designers get into it?
KAMDYN: A flow state is all about enabling designers to have the space they need to create new experiences without getting distracted by all this other stuff that might weigh on them.
Given the right conditions, we want designers to become fully immersed in their craft so they can create without being bogged down by other burdens, like context switching, project management tasks, or even just finding the right tool or resource you need. From an operational perspective, it also means making sure there are effective ways of tracking design work, processes for collaborating, and ensuring there are consistent mechanisms in place for hiring, growing, and retaining our talent.
CANDICE: Definitely. How did you first start thinking about getting designers into this flow state?
KAMDYN: So this is where that word “constraints” comes in. I started my career as an interior designer at an architectural firm, and one thing I learned from that experience was that I was most successful when I was working within the constraints of the job — budget, timeline, a specific client’s needs or aesthetic — and how I needed to negotiate what I was capable of as a designer and what was feasible. For me, that’s where creativity and that state of flow really lies. When you don’t have constraints, it can be hard to pull yourself back into the reality of what’s actually achievable, so I like to start there.
CANDICE: I can see how if we didn’t have those constraints on both creativity and structure, it could quickly become chaotic. As creatives, I believe we do our best work when we have a middle ground.
KAMDYN: Exactly. It’s about finding that balance. That’s what I love about design ops, and in particular, about supporting designers. There really has to be enough of those constraints and structures so designers know where they can put those freeform ideas.
CANDICE: You’ve been at Spotify for three years, which means you’ve seen a ton of growth. How has Spotify Design’s rapid growth impacted your role and team?
KAMDYN: When I joined Spotify, the design ops team went from three people to six of us and we were supporting a design team of less than 150 people. I started as a Lead Design Program Manager for our design system, Encore, and was brought in to give structure to not only the program itself, but also to the team. That meant helping to establish a way of working for a rapidly scaling program of work, setting up rituals, and ways to track high-priority workstreams across multiple teams so that we could eventually launch the system.
Today, the product design organization has more than doubled in size and design ops has scaled alongside it. Encore has become an integral part of our product development process, and we now have design project and program managers supporting all aspects of the product design organization — from enriching the designer experience to enhancing our workflow effectiveness and design tooling.
CANDICE: We also have more diversity in our design roles now. It’s exciting to see all of these different roles represented at Spotify.
KAMDYN: Yes — exactly. And it requires us to think about what this growth means for Spotify Design and how our operational strategy needs to evolve to support it. We’re not just bigger in our number of people in design, but we’ve grown so much in the complexity of our design org, types of designers, and our needs. In some cases, we may need to fundamentally change some of the ways in which we’ve historically operated.
CANDICE: I think it goes without saying, but our design has grown as a result of Spotify's overall growth, in terms of people and products offered. Can you tell me a little about what the company's growth means for you?
KAMDYN: Spotify’s business model has shifted to become more than just a music app. We’re building a true audio platform. We’re moving from a two-sided marketplace to a single cohesive experience for everyone, regardless of whether you’re a listener, creator, artist, or advertiser. That’s an entirely new paradigm for the user experience, and it’s much more complex in how we need to support the design organization. It’s radically impacted how design ops has scaled our processes across the company. We’ve moved from a centralized model to a federated one, so we’re looking at how we can support and enable each of our design teams to continue to deliver design excellence — not just for where the business is today, but for where the business is going in the future.
CANDICE: What does “federated” mean in practice? How does this model differ from centralization?
KAMDYN: Now that we’re bigger as a design team, my team has adapted to reflect the structure of the design org.
We have several distinct design organizations (we call them mission design teams), each responsible for core aspects of our product experiences, whether they are building internal tools, ads products, growing our user base, or creating new consumer and creator experiences. So, the question I ask is, “how can design ops best support and enable these teams?” If Spotify Design was centralized, we’d likely be centralized too, but we choose to mirror the design org. I have members of my team embedded directly within a mission design team, and others who support programs of work that impact every designer, regardless of where they sit in the organization. Our remit touches the designer experience, strategic design, delivery, execution, and more. This structure has really helped my team to deliver impact.
One of the most important aspects of my job is to look for patterns, identify gaps and learnings, and see if there are things that should be applied elsewhere across the org. It’s hard because things don’t happen overnight — and we don’t always understand all the implications of change — but we’re always thinking about whether people feel like they belong, if they are inspired in their craft, if their careers are supported, if the tools are right, and whether design is delivering excellence.
CANDICE: And since those things vary by business need and team, that’s why there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach from design ops.
KAMDYN: Right. So, going back to that federated model we’ve introduced — that’s why it’s so important to have embedded design program managers in each design org to really identify the goals and needs so we can best support them. Then, we bring those learnings back and figure out what can be centralized aspects of design ops, and also figure out the right level of constraints across the board. There’s a reason Spotify’s business operates as bespoke teams — we’re all focusing on what’s unique to our work, and then we simplify and streamline what’s common.
CANDICE: I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier.I think most people in design understand that design ops supports teams with processes and tooling, but you mentioned that Spotify Design Ops also supports planning and delivery. Can you talk about how your team does that?
KAMDYN: This is the newer side of scaling the team, and we’re still figuring it out. We’re not entirely sure what’s working best yet. When we were a team of six, we were centralized and focused on building a design community, and an identity that helped establish Spotify Design as a thought leader; inspiring our designers, and recruiting and retaining top-tier talent. We spent a tremendous amount of time doing this, and it’s essential to our work. However, this also meant, from an ops perspective, we sometimes neglected the business impact and strategic value of design. So, when I stepped into this role two years ago, I wanted to shift us to have a healthy balance of community/culture and business impact.
Since then, I’ve been working to try to build out that design delivery side of things so we have design program managers who have understanding of the product development cycle and the design workstreams, a proximity to the design work itself, and can ensure these things all are connected back to the business. For example, we have company bets — big company priorities — with designers from across multiple orgs working on them. Each bet has a single program manager ensuring we’re meeting the business milestones and moving toward the same goals. These program managers play a critical role. But what we’ve seen is that design work becomes a single line item in a project plan.
Now, as design program managers, we understand that a design line item might actually have five different workstreams and teams within it. We’re also the ones with the multiple levels of visibility, so we’re often saying “this thing is happening over here and over there” so we help connect those teams and designers. My team members have an intimate understanding of the design process and we use that knowledge while working in close partnership with all stakeholders to help move the work forward.
CANDICE: Let’s talk about collaboration for a minute. What does your team’s collaboration process look like?
KAMDYN: It’s definitely changing as we’ve grown. We’ve had to give each person on the team more individual focus while simultaneously needing to provide more visibility into work across all of Spotify Design.
As far as the working style goes, we work in two-week sprints and only focus on the top three things we want to achieve in that sprint and we document it in Coda. By doing this, we see patterns, connections, and opportunities for collaboration. It’s also important for us to create a sense of a team. Being a design program manager can be really isolating, so it’s important to me to give my team an opportunity to connect with each other and share learnings. To do this, we have a monthly demo hour where we share our screens for an hour. We can get super nerdy about how we’re tracking work and how we can better understand prioritization and capacity — just like how designers can get in crit. We also do retros at the end of every sprint and have our own quarterly planning process.
CANDICE: I love that your team’s rituals mirror the rest of Spotify Design's. So, Spotify is known for having some of the highest levels of retention across the tech sector. What’s your opinion on why that is? And, how does your team think about increasing retention even more across our design org?
KAMDYN: I think there are a lot of reasons but a lot of it is our company culture that fosters high levels of autonomy and trust that you’re given when you join. We trust that you’re an expert in your craft / field / function. We live up to the Spotify values, in general. When I think about it for design specifically and how my team contributes to it, I’m very proud of how we have created an engaged design community, even within a distributed workplace. Now, I’m wondering where we can push our culture even further into one that breeds innovation and challenges us to be at the leading edge of design. That’s where I want to see us go next.
But when it comes to attracting and retaining top-tier design talent, we aim to make sure our designers have a shared sense of purpose, know how their work ladders up to the larger Spotify goals, and that they have the right growth opportunities to evolve in their craft.
That’s one of the reasons we recently revisited our career framework; to ensure we have clearly articulated a growth path that feels aspirational.
CANDICE: In 2019, I attended UX London and listened to a talk about how Spotify Design was creating unique experiences for India. There were several designers speaking, all at different levels, and a design manager. I remember feeling so inspired by the talk and the representation they had there.
KAMDYN: Yes, we want to give all levels of designers this opportunity, whether internal or external at an event. The more we can do this, the more we’ll be able to grow our leaders and leadership skills. And no matter someone’s level at Spotify, there is a voice and unique perspective that adds value to a conversation. That’s something we truly believe. Later this year, we’ll have someone presenting their work at one of the biggest design systems conferences. We have to keep pushing our designers to show up and push the industry forward.
CANDICE:Now, we’re more than two years into living in a distributed, remote world, and while it’s allowed us to hire more diverse designers all over the world, it also means we’re working more and more across the globe. How does your team support distributed and asynchronous work?
KAMDYN: We do it in broad and tactical ways. When the pandemic first hit, we did a photo Friday event in Slack where we asked designers to take a screenshot of something they’ve been working on and share it. We coordinated socials like happy hours or maker hours — whatever we could think of to maintain a sense of connection. Then, Zoom fatigue started to creep in from too many virtual meetings, so we tried to think of what we could do differently to avoid burnout and feeling overwhelmed. We even created a virtual speaker series, but we ended up putting these on the back burner as people have started to crave more in-person connection.
More tactically speaking, we’ve had to rethink our resources since we have more designers all over the world. So we created a design toolkit with all of our team resources, links, tools, career framework, and templates so it’s all easy to find no matter where or how you work. We’re still iterating on how to support this sense of connection across a hugely distributed design team. It’s really hard — but that’s what also makes it fun!
CANDICE: Related to balancing the connection with the work itself, how do you balance priorities between improving the design practice and the designer experience?
KAMDYN: One thing I’ve noticed in my experience is that you are asked to think about all of the things — the experience, the work, the opportunities, the community. Typically, design program managers are asked to think about all of these. However, as Spotify Design grew and design ops grew, I wanted to be intentional about the focus for each person and finding this balance. We have people thinking about what designers need to grow, what designers need to execute, and what people need so they feel like they’re part of a community. A different person is thinking about each of those things. Then, we come together like a venn diagram to share our findings and identify where we can work together. Dividing the focus like this allows us and designers to thrive.
CANDICE: It’s hard to believe it, but we’re nearing the end of 2022 already. Can you give me a sneak peek into what’s on the horizon for Spotify Design Ops next year?
KAMDYN: Each year, I think about a theme. That theme encompasses what design ops is trying to achieve for the year. In 2021, our theme was “do less but better.” This year, it was “look to the future and scale for impact.” 2023’s theme is “enable design excellence”.
In addition to our theme next year, we’ll have four focus areas. We’ll look at how we elevate a Spotify designer’s experience and ability to get into that flow state I mentioned earlier; how we advance our cross-design leadership strategies; how we push workstreams forward, and how we can better use data to drive our actions.
I really love this work, it makes me so excited. It’s fun to be in a place where you want to continue to see that arc of change, and change takes a long time. We’re in a beautiful place to see the evolution of change at Spotify and for Spotify Design.
CANDICE: One word that keeps coming to mind is empower. Everything your team is doing is empowering, not just design, but the company.
KAMDYN: Exactly! Holy smokes, Candice. This was fun. Thank you!
CANDICE: Thank you for sitting down with me, Kam. Let’s do it again sometime!
Hear more from Kamdyn Moore in the “Installing Chandeliers in Bathrooms” episode of the Spotify.Design Past Lives podcast.