Standardizing Design at Scale

August 17, 2022

The following article is based on a recent interview conducted by Lou Rosenfeld, Publisher of Rosenfeld Media from his podcast, The Rosenfeld Review.  In this episode, Lou speaks with Candace Myers, Design Operations Leader at Netflix StudioXD.  The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

[Lou] Welcome to the Rosenfeld Review. I’m Lou Rosenfeld, and my guest today is Candace Myers, who will be speaking at the DesignOps Summit next month. Today we are going to be talking about design operations. Candace is a designops leader who started out her career as a lawyer in IP, intellectual property law. She’s been leading teams since 2013, first at Pinterest, and then at Meta. And is currently leading design operations for the Netflix Studios and enterprise tools teams. 

[Candace] It’s technically the studio product innovation team, which is an end-to-end product team that serves the studio, but I am part of XD.

[Lou] What’s the remit for that team?

[Candace] It is all of the tools that are created that power all of the content that you see when you turn on Netflix everyday.

[Lou] Do you feel working in the streaming video world has been very different than working at Facebook or Pinterest?

[Candace] It is different in some ways because we are an enterprise tools team, whereas when I was at Pinterest, and then Facebook, we were a direct-to-consumer team. Working in an enterprise team obviously has different challenges. Your audience is very different. The velocity of the work is very different. Also, I think at times the quality of the work can manifest very differently since you don’t need to serve necessarily billions, but potentially thousands or even hundreds.

[Lou] How does that impact the actually operations of design? Does it make it any easier when you find you have more of a captive audience that is ultimately using the tools? Or does that actually remove pressure on the design organization, and maybe not always in a good way?

[Candace] In some ways it’s simpler because you know exactly who your audience is. They share an email with you; and they’re quite easy to pin down and to connect with and collaborate with. Collaborating with end users is really something we have going for us, a tailwind. Headwinds, though, are that we’re talking about domains that are deeply complex. Postproduction tooling, audio dubbing for internationalized content. There’s not a ton of designers in the world who know how to design these tools for the people who are actually executing or using the tool to do their jobs. That becomes difficult because we have slim pickings in terms of the types of designers you can work with. And obviously the domains go so deep that we do tend to get into these walled gardens of collaboration, and our design team as XD potentially gets a little remote from each other, since people are so deep in their domains. 

[Lou] It sounds like you’re looking to unleash a lot of creativity in the service of standards. Those things seem to be at odds, right? A lot of design operations is about looking to bite off some of the less innovative, less creative work that is every everyday routine to free up the designers up and other members of the team to take on the stuff that may need more bespoke solving, a bit more creativity and true innovation. How do you square those two things?

[Candace] The ideas I’m tooling with here are less designer innovation, necessarily. Designers are going to innovate. The way designops works has never stopped designers necessarily from innovating. But I do think that we can bring a lot of insight into injecting innovation into our teams via the way we run our teams and the way we run and position our teams. When I think about what is hampering the average individual contributor on a team from having time to even think about what’s coming next or how they want to innovate on the product they are building, I think about the idea of operation overhead, or cognitive load that is dragging them down every day. 

There’s a few levers I’ve identified where I feel like we can free up this idea of cognitive load. The first one is with automation, no code, connecting tools that we’re already using. It becomes a key impact opportunity of DesignOps to understand how to connect tools in a lightweight way that takes humans out of the equation, including designops themselves. That’s where I feel like this idea of no code, automatic data visualization of resourcing and project progress is going to unlock a lot of the operational overhead that our designers and our designops humans are burdened with every day.

The second one is this idea of what are all of these low stake decisions that our designers are making every day that they really don’t need to be making. Something that I think about a lot is the idea that Mark Zuckerberg wears the same gray shirt every day; and Steve Jobs wears the same black turtleneck every day because they recognize it’s not worth their time to decide what outfit they’re going to wear that day. What is worth their time is to think about the problems that they’re going to solve for the world and their companies. I want us to really think about what is the equivalent of the gray t-shirt for our design teams; the black turtleneck for our design teams; these really low stakes, high yield decisions that are going to free up cognitive load on our design IC’s, and really create innovation space by taking out all that operational gunk that everyone’s dealing with.

[Lou] I like how you frame it as reducing cognitive loading. You’re trying to make the design process more frictionless. Is that a fair restating?

[Candace] Yes, and I would say more frictionless in a very targeted way. No one on a design team who’s kicking off an initiative, a design initiative, let’s say, should ever start with a blank document, right? There are things like principles that we can put into place that takes out so much of the guesswork, the zero to one work out of our day-to-day work. And I feel like that’s how we’re going to free up time to innovate.

[Lou] Can you nail down this concept [of freeing up time to innovate] with a concrete example or two?

[Candace] This idea of freeing up space in order for designers to innovate, I think it is sort of a critical component. If we think about it as a funnel, we have opportunities at the very top of the funnel, and then opportunities toward the bottom of the funnel to sort of enable innovation. The top of the funnel, for me, is just really this idea of creating space. Some of the ways that we’ve created space is what I like to call at Netflix battling the enemy of the unknown. As I mentioned, I work on this team that we would think of as a series of six or seven walled gardens, and it’s very hard for anyone to see what’s happening on the other side of any given wall. Not for lack of interest, there’s just a wall. So what we’ve done is we’ve used automation and no code to start to connect our tools, most particularly We’ve used Zapier to connect some of the other tools that are being used across some other functions like user research and content designs, specifically, I believe, Airtable. 

What we’ve done there is we have opened up this sort of dashboard that is line of sight. What happens in the human brain when you have an unknown is you fill it in with assumptions and experiences in the past. What my team has been battling for so long is PM, Edge, UIN, their leadership, product leadership are making all of these assumptions about what the team is doing, and the team has all this pressure on them. 

They’re just making these assumptions because they don’t have line of sight into what’s actually going on. What we’ve done is we’ve connected all of the tools, like I said using no code because we’re not about to mandate a single tool, and we have connected them in a way where anyone with a email can see what is happening in any of the walled gardens at any given time. The other way we’ve leveraged automation is to drive it up into widgets and dashboards. Any design leader, any product leader can see all of the different statuses sliced in a very specific and beautiful way that we just didn’t used to be able to slice data unless you wanted to spend two days pulling reports and putting it together into its slide deck. In terms of bringing up space to equip people, to stop answering questions about what’s the status of this and really drive and harness the power of their own time, this idea of no code and automation has really, really unlocked us.

[Lou] One of the other things that came from our discussion earlier is having designops take a role in equipping designers to be innovative, to look at innovation skills as a form of tooling for them. Is that something you’re also looking into, or even working on at Netflix?

[Candace] It’s something I would love to do at Netflix. I do think in terms of the maturity of the studio organization, the organization itself isn’t quite ready for this level of engagement. But something that I did when I used to run DesignOps on the community’s product at Facebook was really focus on equipping people with the tools to innovate. The way I did that, or sort of the way I thought through it was to really understand what our levers for innovation are. You can give anyone Jake Knapp’s “Sprint” book, and send them on their way, but does that mean they’re actually innovating? I’m not so sure. The problem we were facing on the communities products group, which has a multitude of tools over it—events, groups, dating, campus—we’re talking about five or six really large products in the Facebook app.

What we ended up doing was program typing a brain trust of our best and brightest innovators across the entire organization. It was maybe five or six folks. We call them architects. We basically put an engagement model around these architects in different ways in terms of high touch, high leverage, low touch, etc.; and how they were going to engage with the rest of the team. The purpose of this brain trust was really to maintain the structural integrity of this product’s ecosystem and show and teach each other and more junior designers, people coming up, or people who are just less inclined to innovation, what it looks like to build a product with innovation in mind; and what it looks like to innovate. I pulled them together as a cohort, kind of like a tiger team, but forever. We put some boundaries around their time and some engagement models in place, ensuring that there was always time for them to whip something up for Mark; or that there was time for them to sit and consult with a junior IC who was maybe an intern last year, and just wanted to understand how something worked. It’s almost like a stewardship. It’s a little bit of an ongoing education. 

But what it really does is give us true leverage. We have all these amazing people who are doing this incredible work. These are unicorns of the industry, and we have democratized their information. We’ve given the entire team access to them; and that was really such a linchpin on our team, as we were all asked to continue to develop the quality craft, and ultimately impact our products together in tandem.

[Lou] What I really resonate with is the education aspects there. I think that fits very much with the trend that I’m seeing about the educational role of designops professionals. There’s the kind of obvious stuff, like we need to get some training in our team on X, let’s go find someone. But then I think what you’re talking about is a lot more nuanced and a bit more integrated into what designops people are doing. 

Your background is so interesting to me. Does your intellectual property law background connect to what you’re doing now? Has it helped you, or is it totally irrelevant?

[Candace] The work I was doing was intellectual property, soft intellectual property. So copyright, trademark work, business development work for creatives, all that type of stuff. I realized that what was always the best part of my day was just working with the creatives themselves. It wasn’t working with other lawyers. It certainly wasn’t researching case law or filing copyrights with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Those things are so boring. They’re so banal. It wasn’t writing nastygrams, and having adversarial conversations with people.

I like to meet with people and build and solve problems in a collaborative way. At the time that I started practicing law, it was right before design – products, and brand design had gone in-house in tech in San Francisco and Silicon Valley at large. There were all these little studios popping up, and they needed somebody who had some sort of business acumen and some sort of legal acumen. When I graduated from law school it wasn’t a great time, the economy was kind of terrible. I just put my shingle out there, as they say, and started making connections in the design community. And my husband is also a designer. That helps me get clients and understand the needs of designers. 

From there, I started working with a lot of little design agencies who were doing all different types of work. After doing that for a couple of years I decided I would really like health insurance. That would be something that would be wonderful. I decided to pivot a little bit to be more of a studio manager, and step away from law. I knew law would always be there. I got hired at this little B2B or SaaS agency called Compare Networks. This must have been 2011. We used to make B2B iPad apps for the first iPad. Everything was brand new. Those things were like door stops. That’s really where I cut my chops in product design and agency life. They were amazing to take a chance on me.

[Lou] Do you ever find that since that time people look at you and ask, “What are you doing here? Why aren’t you practicing law?” Or do they say, “Interesting. You must have some special insight into rules and how policy works, and how that might help us do what we need to do?”

[Candace] I’ll be brutally honest and tell you where being a former lawyer serves you the most. Performance review time is really a great time to understand how to write a highly effective, simple, short advocacy document for yourself, and for the people who report to you. And then when requesting headcount, all that legal writing and persuasive writing certainly never hurts. I think that people really understand the power of what it is to be integrated into the creative field without being a creative. So I don’t get a lot of questions about “why don’t you practice law?” anymore, but I get a lot of unsolicited requests for legal advice. That’s a fun party trick.

[Lou] I have one final question for you. In Rosenfeld Review tradition, I like to ask guests if they have a little gift of goodness, whether it’s a good piece of content, a book, an article, or a podcast, or person that you think our listeners should know about. What do you have for us?

[Candace] The podcast I appreciate the most, it comes out Mondays and Fridays, give or take, is called the Pivot Podcast. It’s with Kara Swisher, who is a legendary New York Times reporter, and Scott Galloway, who is a legendary jerk as a brand genius, as well as a fit financial and tech, and understanding the larger global piece of business. The reason I always tell my team or fellow DPM folks to listen to this is because it ties together exactly what we have to tie together every day in our jobs. It ties together human psychology and intent. It ties together the business climate. What are you working in? What needs to change? Why are you here? And it ties together this idea of brand being probably the most highly leverageable thing you can have in life. Whether it’s your own personal brand or you company’s brand. When I think about something that I use every day, it’s all three of those. And what’s the business use case for this work? What are the humans behind the work needs, and how am I going to position this work to be great? 

[Lou] Well, Candace Myers. Thanks so much for joining us on the Rosenfeld Review. Candace Myers of Netflix Studios will be presenting at the DesignOp Summit, which takes place September 8th and 9th virtually, talking about the pretty broad topic of standardizing design and scale. 

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