Clearleft hosted our third lively morning of debate on the theme of ‘From idea through to delivery’. The first panel discussed how product teams balance business-as-usual with innovation.

Alex Higgs
Alex Higgs
28th February 2020

Our first panel featured three digital-first businesses. They’re all 5-10 years old and at different stages of building out their product function.

You can watch the full panel video here.

Tension between bottom-up and top-down ideas

The panel discussed how to level the playing field when it comes to innovation. They all found that the structure of design and research teams plays a key role. An active CEO is also a factor.

  • At ClearScore they know the product is working, but to achieve the active CEO’s vision requires dedicated teams. So rather than random offshoot initiatives, they use standalone teams. They give those teams a bit of space and let them innovate.

  • Receipt Bank are operating in a post-founder world. They needed a whole new cadence of generating strategic visions. It has taken organisational change to shift to an evidence-based approach when they are creating and validating user problems. But some are easier problems than others:

Very different conversations happen between user problem spaces and optimising checkout flows. The former is still not defined.
Divya

There has to be a set discovery process in place, but that seems much easier to define when optimising the existing process rather than the unknown.

  • At OVO they have been growing their research capability to drive innovation and reflect their focus on human-centered design:
Understanding customer needs is integral and often provides the balance between proving hunches and finding existing problems or opportunities to solve from users.
Annmarie

Changing from hunches to hypotheses allows CEO vision and user insights to be validated in the same way.

Clearleft breakfast panellists

The spectrum of a product design team

When prompted on the balance between innovation and business as usual, Annmarie finds two types of designers. There are some who love a challenge and thrive in the unknown. They’re good at identifying problems and coming up with the solutions. Others are not so comfortable with uncertainty. Both are okay:

This idea of a unicorn I don't think exists. It's okay to be a designer that just loves crafting a great experience that is usable.
Annmarie

At Receipt Bank, Divya has focused on the balance of people in the team that you hire: comfort with uncertainty vs. discomfort with uncertainty.

Perhaps there is not enough recognition of the maintainers?

There is a tendency to reinvent the wheel. We’ve come to a point in digital design where there isn't that much scope to do new things, which is great in some ways, but not in others especially with new hires who come into their career with the desire to create something new.
Divya

When looking at the combination of creators, architects and maintainers, Frank acknowledges that it’s “much harder to create something from what is existing, rather than something from nothing”. For example, it’s easier to create a brand new design system than create a design system from an existing product.

Scaling product teams

OVO has gone from five to 30 designers in a very short space of time. They went from being the disruptor to being one of the Big Six. That’s a phenomenal change within a culture that is very agile and digitally focussed. It has taken a lot of work to maintain the culture of being lean: doing discovery and exploration alongside systemised design.

Designers keen to maintain this culture set up a community of practice. Designers connect across different products, meet regularly and share what they’ve learnt. This maintains a feeling of “we’re all in it together” rather than part of a machine.

Receipt Bank, on the other hand, has an HR function alone that is 20 people strong. It’s hard to maintain your culture as you scale from a lean 10-20 person start-up to a 100 person product org. Divya learned it is important to “be honest and upfront about it or you will create a false, forced culture”.

You also need to be realistic about where you are on your product team journey.

Frank mentioned that one of his first mistakes at ClearScore was thinking he had to hire separate researchers, prototypers, UI and UX designers:

In a small start-up company, we actually needed more generalists.
Frank

This taught him that it’s more important to find people that are right for the current stage of growth rather than sticking to your vision of how the product team ‘should’ be structured. Now that they are a bit larger, they have been able to branch out to more dedicated skillsets.

Annmarie noticed a spectrum of hiring needs:

There are those great at discovery and insight, and others that are amazing at brand and applying it to product. It's okay to specialise in one or the other. I have yet to meet someone that covers both.
Annmarie

Closing the design and business gap

  • While the design team at OVO is there to discover new things, they also have to deliver on revenue. This can come from both ends of improving the customer experience. You can find solutions to customer problems that can drive new revenue streams that haven’t yet been discovered. Or you can increase the existing revenue stream.

  • Receipt Bank are actively moving away from revenue as a goal. They are moving towards task completion as a goal. They want goals that are more motivating than money-making. This involves some smart measurement of activity.

  • The product team at ClearScore have Objectives and Key Results for design teams. These OKRs quantify the magic and delight of design. But they also ensure that the designers are building something that is contributing to the business goals.

Clearleft panel audience

We will be running another breakfast panel in May in London - please register your interest here if you’d like to attend.