Clearleft hosted the third in our Design Leadership panels in February, the second panel discussed the complex nature of balancing business needs with those of the user, and the challenges faced.

Jon Aizlewood
Jon Aizlewood
one week ago

We were joined by Conor Ward, Director of Design at BT, EE and Plusnet, Daniel Souza, Design Operations Director at Babylon Health, Ana Jakimovska, Chief Product Officer at Culture Trip and Andy Budd, Chairman at Clearleft

You can sign up to join our next (now virtual) design leadership panel here.

Clearleft design leadership panel sitting infront of a blue screen

Scaling design

The panel explored the nuances of scaling design, and how Design Ops is integral to bridging the gap between business and user needs. On one end of the spectrum, we had Culture Trip, who Ana referred to as a ‘start-up, scale-up in hypergrowth’. Similarly, Babylon Health is growing rapidly, investing heavily in Design Ops as they become more complex, dealing with more and more markets as they scale. For both companies, however, it’s not about growth but more about how design at scale can improve the business’ relationship with the product.

When you move from start-up to scale-up you start to make better proposition decisions. You have a more mature relationship with the product teams, and you find more balance between cost reduction and a good experience.
Daniel Souza Design Operations Director at Babylon Health

On the other end of the spectrum, BT are an older, more traditional company. They are very much operating at scale with a digital team of 1,000 and a 200-strong design team. However it’s a challenge to foster a scale-up and start-up mentality within an older organisation. Since joining BT as Director of Design, Conor’s goal is to bring together the various design teams into a single digital team, reporting to the CEO. By removing some of the bloat found in traditional organisations, he has been encouraging more of an entrepreneurial mindset.

Org structure matters

When it comes to organisational structure, people are always looking for the ideal model. Balance becomes increasingly important. Simply adding one more person to the team, or one more product to the stack can see it quickly destabilise. Org structure can be a bit like building on shifting sand… although a reorg may fix a bunch of problems now, it can also create a myriad more later. Similarly, one designer embedded in a team can feel completely overwhelmed. The attempt to solve this by centralising the design team can see the whole team end up becoming a siloed resource. It’s not easy.

Organisational hierarchy is inherently problematic, it seems.

At BT, Conor is embracing the fuzziness by trying to make operational models and structures without looking at the exact skills and types of people available. Asking first ‘how do we want teams to work together’ followed by ‘how are we going to give them line management and support’ and working from there is a good start.

At Culture Trip, they tend towards simplicity, using mental models and narratives and embracing what Ana refers to as ‘the messy middle’.

The messy middle can work great if there are enough boundaries and goals, and it supports the right relationships between people. If you put too much process in you can starve innovation and self-initiation. Org philosophies need to change, and the messy middle is OK but design leaders have to support that
Ana Jakimovska Chief Product Officer at Culture Trip

Avoiding pitfalls

In order to change the mindset in larger, more traditional companies, it seems to start with good communication from design leaders. Conor has taken three steps to elevate design to a business level:

  1. Define who design reports into ‘at the table’. Set design as a peer to Product, as well as Engineering and Data

  2. Change the language. Rather than the leadership team they are called the ‘Digital Enablement Team’

  3. Re-define Design itself. Think ‘how do you define design’? How can you make it as wide as possible, encompassing product design, content design, user research and Design Ops?

The breadth of these steps means they can’t have a typical design process at BT. Instead they have to adopt a user-centred process with wide guard rails. The importance of language cannot be underestimated either, as we’ve spoken about before with Martyn Reding.

Babylon tries to avoid using terms like innovation and BAU altogether, arguing that when everyone has a shared mission on patient outcomes, they can flex to deliver them in different and new ways.

Ana also recommends clear guides around innovation to avoid a business obsession with the ‘new’:

I don’t believe in feature bloat. Building new things the whole time is overrated. Focus on what is the core value you bring to the user — making that really good first — rather than this obsession with innovation and new things.
Ana Jakimovska Chief Product Officer at Culture Trip

Designers moving into product

There is a lot of tension now between Designers and Product that hasn’t existed before. Is this because product managers have the business acumen and language, able to have the conversations that design can’t?

More designers are moving into Product (particularly in the US) in order to influence at an organisational level. Arguably now more than ever, Design has to prove it can deliver business-level outcomes, with user outcomes as an added benefit.

Babylon, for example, has seen huge benefits in Design Directors becoming Product Directors. They are seeing unexpected levels of collaboration between Product and Design, which in turn elevates the product by removing tension and friction between teams.

Empowering teams with metrics

A bit like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs we often see different levels of metrics. The first level is no metrics; everyone works from random decisions. The next, but arguably more dangerous level, is individual team metrics which can often cause conflicts. The third level is a company-wide alignment — not necessarily the same metric, but connected ones. Andy Budd argues that nirvana is ‘having metrics so embedded in your values and culture that you don’t need to rely on them so much anymore’.

For Conor it’s about short-termism vs long-termism. Some companies have a culture or leadership that’s looking at quarterly stakeholder value whereas some choose to treat the customer properly, play the infinite game over short term gain. It’s up to both Design and Business leaders to set the right environment for both metrics and culture.

Ana as a Chief Product Director sees her role in three ways to:

  • Deliver the best product for the users via other people
  • Enable the environment for people to thrive and be their ‘best selves’
  • Communicate strategy and choice of metrics in a way that creates empowered teams

The panel’s advice? Find the metrics that get the best results for the business. Provide clear boundaries within which teams can work, and offer the right support, resources and buy-in to make it happen. Where possible embed ‘user value’ within a metric to hit that nirvana of empowered teams.

Have you found this useful? Watch the video of the full panel here and make sure to join our next panel on the 27th May.