Connecting The Ops with Jon FukudaSeptember 2, 2022
Ahead of the 2022 DesignOps Summit, Lou speaks with guest Jon Fukuda, a co-founder of Limina where for 18 years he has been delivering UX and technical design to his clients. His focus is on facilitating the implementation of scalable research and design operations. Lou and John discuss the concept of digital transformation and explore what it looks like to walk a client through the difficult terrain of operationalizing their design processes, how to have those difficult conversations surrounding company culture, taking the lead as a change agent, and more.
Jon is co-founder of Limina.co with 20+ years as a User Experience Specialist with a focus on UX Strategy, Design Thinking, and UI Design with experience leading human-centered requirements, strategy, interaction design, testing, and evaluation. Most recently, Jon has dedicated his efforts to Research & Design Operations facilitation for scalable/sustainable human-centered systems.
The following article is based on the episode. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
[Lou] Welcome to the Rosenfeld Review. My guest today is Jon Fukuda, co-founder of Limina, where for the past 18 years he has been delivering UX and technical design for his clients. He focuses on facilitating customers to help them implement scalable research and design operations. Jon is also one of the curators of this year’s DesignOps Summit, taking place on September 8th and 9th. Welcome to the Rosenfeld Review, Jon. It’s great to have you.
[Jon] Thank you. Good to be here.
[Lou] Jon, you talk a lot about this concept of digital transformation in the design ops world. Does that term mean something different now than it might have 10 or 20 years ago?
[Jon] Yeah. I see that the impact of digital on the way business happens today has kind of taken two tracks. You have the front runners who started operationalizing their digital transactional spaces early in the late 90s through websites and transactional internet spaces coming up all over the place. And then they settle into eCommerce or content management — essentially web fronts or storefront web portals to these businesses. But then another wave of disruption comes, and we have design-led organizations that have recognized opportunities to fully innovate and revamp the way that people engage with digital services to better enhance their lives. And that separation still remains today.
So, we have a very strong design-led set of organizations that are part of your speaking community at the DesignOps Summits. They share their stories on how they operationalize in design, and it’s almost like the future has been achieved for that group. Lagging behind them are many organizations that are still in the midst of adopting new systems and providing digital services to their customers in a way that better serves them.
Those are really the people that I think of their leadership coming more from the technology side of the business or from the business management side of things and less so from folks who are on the ground with real users, doing the research and understanding problems that exist. The former are the ones I want to invite into the fold. You need to learn what it means to become a human-centered business and how to drive your capacity to research and design at scale so that you can better move through that maturity arc of your digital transactions in your digital transformation.
[Lou] When you’re pitching these approaches, do you have to present differently to a company that is just beginning its digital transformation than you would to one that’s a bit further along? Or is it just simply using more accessible vocabulary?
[Jon] I would say a lot of the time, we get into discussions where we have to address issues of culture. So, if the value isn’t being recognized in terms of how we invest in research or a new design system, that comes from somewhere within the organization, right? So what’s the misalignment of what we put our value on as an organization and how can we understand the value of better designing for our customers’ needs? And a lot of times, at the surface, the value of a human-centered approach and how you can achieve that at scale makes sense.
But then, when it comes to implementation on the ground, how do you actually build your components in atomic ways? You’ll get pushback on the ground from either the engineers themselves or the product managers, so it ends up being a cultural battle. If you can build alliances and partnerships and tiger teams that can demonstrate the power and capacity of achieving research and design iterations at scale, those are the things that can be change agents within an organization.
[Lou] What should and shouldn’t be responsibilities among design ops people who are change engines? Is there a sort of map of responsibilities for change?
[Jon] You do have to pick where your strengths are and where your battles are going to have the most impact. And sometimes that’s in HR where you address how you bend the arc of what your hiring structure looks like and how you staff designers and researchers to teams and what that organizational model looks like. Other times, it’s in the budget arena where you address if you even have hiring capacity. Are you throwing enough at this problem in the way of investments? There’s a huge host of things that come along with fully operationalizing a research and design org such as tooling to the craft, the team makeup, any procedural changes, etc. You look at where you can have that first win to prove the value of that and then you take the next step. Ultimately, I think what design operators and operational managers are looking at is, where can I show that impact and where can I make those changes that are going to provide the most value to the organizations?
[Lou] I’m really interested in what works for you when you’re working in digital transformation when you have a client who may be new to the process. Even in terms of vocabulary for having conversations about these challenges, are there methods or techniques that help you make an impact with your clients?
[Jon] One thing I’m grateful for is to be practicing in this age where the tooling has really come a long way. So, if we talk to our customers about the value of research and insight repositories, or if we talk to them about how you can achieve deploying design at scale with the aid of good governance in the design system, we can actually show them those things almost in real time. We can pull up an example research repository, or we can pull up a design system, and it can click immediately, and they can immediately start thinking of how that applies to how they might be able to achieve research and design skills.
[Lou] So you’re showing rather than telling obviously, and that’s so nice to be able to do in ways that I’m sure wasn’t the case, not that long ago.
[Jon] Yeah. We still have our own gripes and grievances; I think there could be better integration between the tools that span across the entire life cycle from getting your research planning up to date to then conducting and getting it into the repo to your design plans. And how do you build the backlog and how does that fit seamlessly into a designer’s view? What are they looking at as they’re pulling up their wire frames and mockups? None of that integration’s really there yet. So, the plumbing for design operations is still an opportunity to be had.
[Lou] Well, that’s interesting. Now, in many situations, the platform becomes the Trojan horse for the movement. I’m wondering if you’re seeing the same thing with your clients in design systems.
[Jon] Yeah, absolutely. Especially with things that are harder to grapple with like compliance. But we can show them, “You have a couple things out of compliance and let’s just take that example into your design system and show you what color contrasting and font sizes can do for that.” Then you see how it would ripple through your components if you built them atomically and you run that demo really quickly. So those tools are really great.
[Lou] I have a question about implementation and tooling to get a foot in the door. You know what you want to have happen, but what happens after you show them the light of the design system or research repository? There’s an aha moment where they go, “Oh, culture has to change,” but does that happen right away? Or do they have to invest and maybe even fail in some of these tangible platforms?
[Jon] I think you can do your best with implementing systems and repositories. It’s almost like a “build it and they will come” ideal. The real challenges that exist in any organization are those cultural tropes that you brought up and that we build into our conversations that if we’re going to implement a design system, there’s a lot that comes with it. There’s a governance model. We have to come up with core tenants of how things get into a design system. How do they age out of a design system? How do you challenge the design decisions that have been codified in your system? All of that is very cultural for an organization.
Then you get into conversations about how we can work this in so that there’s a seamless integration of a design system. And what are the things that you do have grievances with, and how might we address those? What are you willing to give up along the way? And you think about how those are such human-centered problems that exist at any organization when it comes to adopting any piece of technology. So that question of change, design leadership as a change agent, or the change management role in the organization starts to happen.
[Lou] There’s a lot of opportunities for many players in these conversations to be uncomfortable and it’s hard to avoid as a consultant. How do you help people with that psychology, especially when it might be you and your own discomfort?
[Jon] I think it has to do with how you position yourself in an organization. The Limina stance on providing consulting services, especially in design ops, is that we’ll know we’ve succeeded when you no longer need to call us. Everything we’re doing with our customers is to empower them to achieve research and design at scale for themselves. So, if they’re getting pushback, we can’t take it personally because they’re fighting with themselves at that point.
We take a very supportive role. We’ve done our best to empower them to push things forward and to adopt better practices in research and design, and all the cultural aspects that come with that. Even including governance and for them to have hard conversations. If atomically constructed components is a two-way street between the engineering stack they have and how they’re able to deploy things atomically, and to the designers in the Figma — setting up the libraries atomically — then you need to set up the design system to accommodate that to Wall Street. And then to have a governance model that works at both ends of that. Along the way, what happens to teams that are going through their own maturity arcs, they’re all going through this process of becoming continuous learners, right? So they’re all going through their human-centered design maturity arc of their own. This is great to see when it’s happening well, and it’s hard to see when those challenges become uncomfortable maybe you have to give up concessions along the way.
[Lou] Before we wrap though, Jon, in Rosenfeld Review tradition, what’s your gift for our listeners?
I’ve been reading Jake Burkhart’s posts on Medium; there’s a URL integratingresearch.com which will take you to the medium post that he’s writing on research repository work that he did and continues to think about from his work at Amazon as a product manager of their insight repository. And I’ll just say, one thing that I love about Jake’s approach here is that he’s gone deep on what it means to be a knowledge manager of research insights. He then also takes a T-shaped approach in how to democratize and scale that value across an organization that has a lot of different product teams and can actually get much more from an insight repository than just a single project team.
[Lou] Jon Fukuda, great to have you. Thanks for sharing your experience and wisdom with us on the Rosenfeld Review.
Rosenfeld Media’s next conference is the DesignOps Summit, a virtual conference scheduled for September 8–9. Learn more at https://rosenfeldmedia.com/designopssummit2022/
The Rosenfeld Review podcast is brought to you by Rosenfeld Media. Please subscribe and listen to it on iTunes, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast platform. Tell a friend to have a listen and check out our website for over 100 podcast interviews with other interesting people. You’ll find them all at RosenfeldReview.com.