June 13, 2024

Z Zheng on increasing UXR maturity through Design & Research Ops

Z Zheng, Head of DesignOps at Cloudflare joined us for a Rally AMA on June 13 on increasing UXR maturity through Design & Research Ops. If you missed our live event, or want to revisit the highlights, read our recap below. If you’d like to watch a recording of the full AMA, follow this link

Who is Z?

Currently, I’m the Head of Design Ops at Cloudflare and can talk about design and research all day long. I have a background in design. I was traditionally trained as a graphic designer and eventually moved into a product design role. Over time, I explored various aspects of the design field and discovered my love for operations. When I started in operations, there wasn't a formal practice known as DesignOps; however, operational tasks were always part of the workflow, especially when I worked at agencies. Although not explicitly called DesignOps, someone was always handling these operational responsibilities.

In the last decade, DesignOps has emerged as a recognized discipline, which I find really exciting. I gradually transitioned from product design to focusing on operations to better support teams and share my knowledge. This shift involved working closely with design leaders and engaging more with operational work.

What is DesignOps?

I really like this definition of DesignOps published by Frog Design

“DesignOps is a human-centered approach to building stronger design teams that support the orchestration of individuals, processes, and tools to amplify creativity and impact at scale.”

What does DesignOps do? The answer will vary, but often you'll hear: it depends. According to a resource by Nielsen Norman Group, DesignOps involves organizing and collaborating, essentially humanizing the workspace. It's about how we organize everything, focusing on how work gets done and how it creates impact. From an operations perspective, we consider standardizing procedures, harmonizing the team, and prioritizing work with design leaders. We also measure success using metrics to talk about and socialize our work, enabling the design team.

The role of Research Ops is to streamline research and maximize its impact, much like DesignOps. Often, when we think of Research Ops, panel recruiting comes to mind. However, it encompasses advocacy, competency, enabling the team, educating and onboarding researchers, and managing tooling. Knowledge, whether it's collecting or sharing it with researchers or others in the organization, Research Ops plays a big part.

And last but not least, governance is a crucial role. Research Ops works closely with our legal team to ensure proper governance, which is something that may be overlooked, especially in larger organizations.


This is how I view operations: Design Ops is a service design to the design organization or the product experience organization. Operation practitioners act as the connective tissue, connecting all parts inside and outside the design org, and helping get things done efficiently.

What do the DesignOps, ResearchOps, & Research orgs look like at Cloudflare? 

I often tell people that having a DesignOps organization or function within the Design org is not just a luxury – it's a necessity. At Cloudflare, we have a Product Experience team that rolls up to the Product team. Traditionally, DesignOps has been a small team, often just one person for a long time, which is very common across the industry. Last year, I led a team that conducted the DesignOps Assembly Benchmarking Report, which found that the majority of teams are still very small, often teams of one.

In terms of Research Ops, it falls under DesignOps at Cloudflare. This arrangement can vary in other organizations. In companies with a large, mature research team, Research Ops might roll up directly under Research. Alternatively, in organizations with a well-established operation functions, everything might consolidate under a single umbrella.

What does a day in your life look like as Head of DesignOps at Cloudflare?

My daily tasks vary, but the focus always revolves around people, practices, and platforms. I start my day by triaging all the requests that come my way. Early in the morning, I prioritize people coordination because our team is split between the US and EMEA regions, and this is the golden time when our schedules overlap.

During this time, I engage in a lot of one-on-ones with people both inside and outside our team. Later in the afternoon, I reserve time for focused, heads-down work on various projects.

I also sync with my boss, the VP of Design, three times a week to ensure alignment on all the work we do within the organization. This alignment is important as DesignOps consistently supports and partners with our design leaders to address the needs of the team. That’s a typical day for me, although there are always exceptions and off-schedule days.

Could you share some examples of some successful design ops projects or initiatives at Cloudflare and kind of how you worked through those?

In DesignOps, we focus on people, practice, and platform. Throughout my years at Cloudflare, we've launched several successful projects and programs. Concerning people, I collaborated with our design leaders to develop career ladders for our team. This is something that is on top of every practitioner’s mind – how can they grow within the team. 

Additionally, we emphasize continuing education and growth. We implemented "Growth Week," a mini-conference within our organization. This event allows our designers to learn from both external and internal experts. It also provides an opportunity to showcase the work of our Product Experience team and to promote our capabilities, which is an essential aspect of socializing the value of design.

On the Research Ops side, we conducted a significant audit of our research tooling. This process involves assessing the needs of the organization, whether it has a large research group, or designers conducting research, or both. Based on this assessment, we deprecated some tools and introduced new ones to better support our team. This effort was critical in establishing a formal position for Research Ops at Cloudflare.


I believe the connection between Research Ops and DesignOps is highly valuable, especially regarding tooling. Cloudflare's organizational structure, being relatively small, influences how we manage and integrate our operations. Initially, our Research ops function developed from needs arising within the DesignOps framework, which might differ from larger organizations with more established Research Ops.

Aligning our tools is crucial because it impacts not only the research process but also how we integrate with the product development cycle. This alignment ensures that the tools we use effectively facilitate information sharing and insight gathering. For example, we recruit participants from various panels so it’s important to ensure we have a secure and consistent recruitment process. We try to avoid redundancies, like tagging people multiple times across different studies.

What were the biggest challenges you faced when advocating for research resources?

Advocating for research resources, including personnel, tooling, and funding, is not a straightforward task within any organization. When I joined Cloudflare, we had one researcher, but there was a period when we had none. During this time, we relied on designers to conduct research to the best of their abilities. It’s not just about democratizing research; it’s about who conducts the research when there isn’t a dedicated team.


Without a dedicated research team, we focused on enabling our designers to step in. This involved significant efforts in education and securing the necessary tools. Advocating for the budget to acquire these tools was a critical step.

Once we equipped our designers with the right tools, it became apparent that there were limitations – designers, after all, are not trained researchers. Fortunately, we were able to hire a researcher again. Although the ratio of researchers to designers is still not ideal, it marked an important starting point.

We managed to secure a budget and increase our headcount for researchers. The process is often two steps forward and one step back, but overall, we make progress. The key is demonstrating the value of integrating research into the product development process. This involves not only advocating for the right tools but also refining the processes that support designers in conducting research effectively.

How do you measure learning & growth programs for your team? 

To effectively measure learning and growth programs for our team, the first step is ensuring that these programs exist and are feasible, given the team's workload. Many designers are incredibly busy. We began by reassessing how we allocate time, aiming to carve out opportunities for learning.

Once we established time for learning, we assessed the skills needed across the team. We then integrated these into our leveling guide, allowing for a portion of the criteria to be devoted to personal development within one's discipline. This framework gives team members the space to pursue learning in areas they are interested in, such as taking a course, reading a book, or conducting training.

These activities are then documented in the leveling guide, which both individual contributors and their managers can reference. This approach ensures that learning and growth are not only encouraged but are also tracked and recognized as part of career progression.

We don't rely strictly on numerical metrics, but we do use OKRs to ensure these goals are measurable and time-bound. The question we often ask is, "Did I accomplish what I set out to do in the timeframe I allocated, be it six months or a year?" This method helps us gauge the effectiveness of our growth programs.

Did you make the learning required or more guided by the desires of individual team members?

The learning opportunities we offer are more guided by the desires of individual team members rather than being mandatory. We have a very small professional development budget that team members can use to purchase books or enroll in courses. We also support our team members at different levels to attend conferences and we encourage individual contributors to engage in speaking engagements. Even when financial resources are limited, we make sure to provide time and opportunities for our team members to pursue these activities.

How do you balance ambitious initiatives with small wins? 

At Cloudflare, balancing ambitious initiatives with smaller wins is crucial, especially within our Product Experience team, which handles a variety of large-scale projects throughout the year. These big initiatives are time-boxed and align with key events, such as our annual "Birthday Week." This event is significant as we launch numerous forward-looking products.

On the other hand, we also recognize the importance of small wins. Our Developer Experience team has implemented what they call "Quick Wins Week," which occurs every quarter. During this week, engineers, PMs, and designers collaborate on small, quick win projects proposed by individuals within the team. These projects are similar to a one-week sprint where everyone focuses on achieving specific, manageable outcomes, such as design adjustments or minor enhancements. This approach is not yet adopted across all teams, but we are actively encouraging more teams to adopt this practice to balance the focus between large-scale projects and quick wins.

How does DesignOps interact with the Design System team? 

This is always a question for DesignOps people. Initially, when I started as the DesignOps lead at Cloudflare, I oversaw the Design System team. It's common in many organizations for the Design System to roll up to DesignOps, especially when it's a smaller team.

As our organization matured and the need for a more robust design system became apparent, our structure evolved. Currently, we have a fully-fledged Design System team that reports directly to the VP, similar to how I report. This team is now composed of a designer, an architect, and two engineers, enabling them to adopt a more planned and holistic approach to the design system.

Today, instead of leading the Design System team, DesignOps supports it. Our role involves operational support, such as providing a Design Program Manager to assist with daily activities or borrowing a Technical Program Manager to help if headcount is an issue. We also assist with the intake process, scheduling talks, and advocating for their work.

What strategies have you employed at Cloudflare and in your design leadership roles to leverage DesignOps for greater impact?

At Cloudflare, leveraging DesignOps for greater impact has involved a strategic shift from a reactive to a proactive approach. Initially, the focus was primarily on advocating for design itself, but we soon realized the need to streamline our internal operations. I partnered with our design leader to transform our team from merely responding to service tickets into one that is strategically involved in the broader company goals.


This transformation wasn't immediate. It required deliberate planning, like carving out time for strategy and managing workloads through clear communication about priorities and the capacity to undertake new projects. We emphasized the necessity of saying "no" to lower priority tasks, which allowed us to focus on projects with higher impact. Part of this process also involved educating other departments about why certain projects were declined, ensuring they understood our strategic focus.

As our team matured, our approach to DesignOps evolved. We developed a better structure within the team and improved understanding from other parts of the organization. We were able to get more of our organization to recognize the importance of integrating the voice of the customer into their work and the value of committing to research and customer insights. 

To socialize and articulate the impact of our work, we initiated several initiatives. One we started the Product Experience team newsletter that shares information about our activities in research, the design system, and product development to the entire organization. Another initiative is our Growth Week, which was initially only a design team practice, but has now expanded to include folks from across the entire company. This not only fosters interdisciplinary collaboration but also enhances the visibility and perceived value of our work.

How do you share the impact of your work and make insights actionable? 

To share the impact of our work and make insights actionable at Cloudflare, we focus on both demonstrating and communicating our contributions. From the perspective of DesignOps and Research Ops, training plays a significant role. We engage in extensive training activities, starting with interns who are introduced to our practices early on. This foundational training gives them a taste of our approach and sets the stage for more involvement.


We are also expanding our training to include the Product Management group. The goal is to enhance their understanding of our research practices, which is crucial for integrating design thinking across disciplines. By educating product managers about research, we strengthen the strategic partnership between design and product development.

An essential part of demonstrating our impact is not just telling but showing how we work with cross-disciplinary partners. We proactively insert ourselves into early strategy discussions to ensure design and research are considered from the outset. Although we sometimes find ourselves overlooked, we keep inviting ourselves to these discussions to raise awareness of our capabilities.


Our individual contributors facilitate workshops that showcase our methods and results. For example, one of our designers conducted a workshop that was so well-received by attending product managers that it led to additional workshops with other teams. 

Given the need for a native research team, how would you demonstrate to senior leadership the value of investing in research operations based on your experience?

Demonstrating the value of investing in Research Operations to senior leadership begins with hiring the right researchers and setting clear expectations about their roles, especially in an environment where scaling the team significantly overnight isn't feasible. At Cloudflare, we started by hiring a highly experienced researcher who not only conducted research but also took on the role of educating and integrating research practices across different teams, including our design team.


Our researcher also conducted training to familiarize everyone with the tools we use, emphasizing that although everyone is welcome to use these tools, they need to go through training first. We've recorded these training materials for broader accessibility. It's challenging because effective research requires a centralized repository of information, which is essential before any insights can be shared. So, a lot of effort goes into consolidating this information into one place.

One of the other things our researcher did was conduct a quick, company-wide presentation to highlight what research is achieving, inviting everyone who wants to learn more to reach out. We’ve opened up a communication channel for ongoing questions. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, but by combining these methods and making our efforts known, we're setting the stage for significant progress.

What was your role in giving research and Research Ops a platform at Cloudflare? 

In my role at Cloudflare, I played a key part in establishing and giving a platform to both research and Research Ops. Initially, we didn't have a formal Research Ops role. By pairing up with our design leaders, I’m able to understand staffing needs and hiring practices. When it became clear that we were set to increase our research headcount, I saw it as a perfect opportunity to also advocate for a dedicated Research Ops role.

Often, people think about headcount purely in terms of filling specific job roles. However, simply hiring more people doesn't necessarily warrant the need for operational support. As we planned to expand our capabilities and capacity, it became apparent that we needed to consider whether we could support these expansions with additional operational roles. So, alongside the new researcher, we onboarded a full-time Research Ops professional.

What are the biggest disconnects between designers and researchers that you've navigated and getting alignment on Research Ops?

Our designers, who are accustomed to conducting much of their own research, were excited to add a full-time researcher to the team. It’s not hard to get designers excited about having researchers because they have a fundamental understanding of how important research is.

But, aligning designers and researchers required making some adjustments, particularly in how operations are managed. Previously, our designers would initiate research by submitting a request through our intake process. This setup allowed our research operations to maintain oversight and manage who was doing what.

Our amazing researcher has been really proactive in reaching out to the team and keeping an eye on ongoing activities, which has been instrumental for this alignment. Our researcher helps ensure that designers utilize external expertise and guides them on when and how to engage with the research team for specific insights.

We categorize research into types that designers can handle independently with the proper training and types that should be reserved for professional researchers. This categorization includes exploratory research for identifying problems and validation research to confirm findings.


Operations has become really valuable by providing oversight. If our designers are consistently consulting the researcher during their office hours or if I notice that different team members are working in silos on similar projects, operations intervene to connect these individuals. This connectivity ensures that collaborative opportunities are maximized and that research efforts are not duplicated unnecessarily.

Do you have any tips for teams that are trying to increase the collaboration between Research, Design, & DesignOps? 

As operations people, we tend to focus a lot on the people aspect. Sometimes, teams might not collaborate as much as they should, not because they intentionally exclude others, but often because it's simply not a habit or they haven't thought about it.

Building relationships is crucial. The first step is letting people know that we exist, what we do, and how we can help each other. It's about reaching out, making connections, and emphasizing collaboration. Can we align our efforts? This approach is about actively reaching out and focusing on the people involved.


As an operations person, I might overly focus on the people side of our practices, but that’s where a lot of our work really starts – it's all about starting conversations and building those connections.

How would you describe the unique perspectives a former UX practitioner can bring to a UX operations role?

Many people in DesignOps roles come from a design background, though not all – some may have a program management background. Our Research Ops person came from a data science background. This diversity of experience really contributes to the operations side of things. I always say work with people’s strengths and work with people whose strength may be your weakness. 

Since I come from a design background, there are many ways I can contribute to the UX practice. I also have a strong educational background and have taught various subjects within the field of design. One of my main contributions to our team is on the education side, helping with training and educational efforts. While I no longer do hands-on development or ship products, I leverage my strengths in training and education to enhance our UX practice.

Another advantage I bring is my extensive network and long-standing presence in the industry, which allows me to stay informed about what's happening. This means I can bring valuable professional development opportunities back to my team. For example, if I attend a conference, I'll share insights with my team, and if I spot opportunities for them to speak or participate, I'll encourage them to submit proposals or attend.

Teaching, for me, has always been a form of learning. My background in higher education has taught me that I learn best when I'm teaching because it requires me to articulate concepts precisely. 


So, my advice for anyone in UX operations is to leverage your background, whatever it may be. If you come from a program management background, focus on those strengths and partner with designers to enhance operational effectiveness. Each background brings something valuable to the table.

What is the ideal state of collaboration between Research Ops and DesignOps?

The ideal state of collaboration between Research Ops and DesignOps isn't about choosing one over the other; it really depends on the organization's structure. In our case at Cloudflare, Research is integrated within the Design organization. This setup means that we strive for alignment in everything we do – whether it's process, tooling, or advocacy, we're one team, and we aim to work closely and inform each other.


However, in other organizations where Research might be a completely separate entity from Design Ops, the approach would differ. In such cases, it's crucial to reach out and establish how both functions align with the broader goals of the team, whether those are directed by the product team or the overall company objectives. The focus should be on aligning priorities, and ideally, harmonizing processes to ensure that both teams can collaborate effectively. This requires regular communication and coordination to ensure that efforts are not just parallel but truly integrated.

What’s the role of DesignOps in increasing the maturity of research at Cloudflare?

In terms of increasing the maturity of research at Cloudflare, the role of DesignOps involves first assessing where we stand. There are numerous maturity models out there, covering design and research. Choosing a model is a starting point; the key is to use it to gauge progress.

You might use a design maturity model that incorporates research elements, or you might opt for a separate research maturity model, depending on the organization's structure. The critical aspect isn’t which model you use but how you use it to advance from a lower level of maturity to a higher one.

An important consideration is that maturing isn't uniform across all aspects – similar to how leveling works with people. Just because someone is a senior designer doesn’t mean they are senior in every skill or area. It’s the same with organizational maturity. You might find that while some areas are advanced, others are still developing. This checkerboard pattern is normal and acceptable as long as there is overall progress.


From an ops perspective, working closely with research and design leaders is crucial to decide which maturity model best fits our needs. We need to set timelines, track progress, and make adjustments as necessary, much like managing OKRs. It’s about maintaining a living document that helps us understand where we are improving and where we need to change our approach to foster advancement.

So, the role of DesignOps is essentially to facilitate this process, collaborating with leaders to pinpoint and implement the most effective strategies for maturity growth.

Who is involved in determining maturity? 

At Cloudflare, determining maturity involves multiple roles, primarily led by our design and research leaders. Operations plays a supportive and advisory role to these leaders, helping to facilitate and strategize the process.

Our design managers are instrumental in driving progress, and similarly, our researchers take a lead role in defining priorities and setting the direction for our maturity efforts. Operations steps in to assess if something that one team is doing exceptionally well can be standardized and shared across other teams. For example, if a particular approach or tool is proving effective, we consider whether we can create templates or frameworks to help other teams adopt these successful practices.

Additionally, very senior individual contributors, who are leads of each product, are also heavily involved. They identify specific initiatives they want to pursue and consult with operations to see how we can support their goals, whether that’s structuring initiatives, promoting them, or advocating for necessary resources.

In essence, it’s a collaborative effort between design leaders, design managers, research leaders, and senior individual contributors, with operations providing the necessary support to unify and enhance these efforts across the company.

How does the maturity of the wider org affect the maturity of research and design? 

Absolutely, the maturity of the wider organization significantly impacts the maturity of research and design. Since no team operates in isolation, our product experience team is part of the broader product team, which in turn is part of the larger company structure. This includes teams like infrastructure and innovation, all of which need to work together cohesively.

We aim to align our efforts not only within our teams but also with the company's overall goals, working both together and independently. For example, while our design team is well-recognized within the company, there's still a need to continuously advocate for and clarify the details of what we do. The overall maturity of the organization, including that of the product team, can pose limitations to how much the design team can advance its own maturity.

However, design maturity is also an area where the design or experience team can take initiative. We focus on what's within our capability and control, continually striving to improve our group's operations. It's crucial that our objectives align with the company's overall goals. This alignment helps us articulate our value effectively; without it, operating independently wouldn't benefit the team or help us advance in maturity.

Connect with Z

If you enjoyed Z’s AMA:

Thank you, Z!

We’re grateful to Z for joining us and sharing her insights and experience. If you’d like to watch the full AMA, follow this link