Last month Clearleft hosted a lively morning of discussion and debate featuring leading industry voices from Spotify, Virgin Atlantic, Google, Deliveroo, Bulb, and Pfizer.

Richard Rutter
Richard Rutter
4th April 2019

In front of an audience of design leads, two panels explored some of the common challenges facing internal design teams; from understanding and responding faster to customer needs, implementing the right systems internally for driving innovation, and creating a culture of design thinking. These are five key takeaways from the sessions.

Panel discussion and audience

Customer expectations are evolving

Customers are expecting more from the services they use and pay for. Service designers have known this for decades, but the design you do needs to be not just on screen, but before, after and behind the screen experience. User research and testing is a fundamental part of achieving this, and should be a key input into decision making when it comes to the design of services and products. The way to achieve this - and it can be far easier said than done - is to expose your organisation to the experiences of your customers.

Design decisions should be tested, but you need to work out the impact you want to make in order to validate changes, even when those changes are informed by research. Metrics can be an extremely useful guide, but in and of themselves can reduce your impact. Designers can find themselves focussing on a metric as a way of acting more quickly, when greater value could be found by thinking critically and holistically rather than concentrating on local maxima - but those things take time, effort and some political will.

The case for design systems

We designers love design systems - they can give us a grander sense of purpose - while of course providing a incredibly valuable resource to our organisation. Done well, they can (and should) be a significant investment, so putting a case forward to those with the purse strings is vital. The number one reason to state is ‘efficiency’. This is the codeword to use to get buy-in. Good design systems will introduce efficiency into workflows across design and development within the organisation. They also provide consistency to your customer’s experience, and keep the quality at the required level.

A good design system is not just for code (AKA a pattern library). It is not just a design guide or a brand book, and it is not just repeatable UX patterns. It is all those things. But the best ones also integrate copywriting, especially microcopy, but also copy guidelines on a wider scale - even within single brand the tone of voice will need to change with the context.

Your design system is a tool that needs to be communicated and constantly nurtured. As soon as the system’s consumers feel it is out of date, a design system’s use - and all the advantages it provides - will drop off a cliff.

Link design operations to the organisation

Design ops are your way of doing design, including how design links in with the rest of organisation. One good way of getting started on design ops is by specifying your research operations first - getting a system and process for your research ops will inherently describe how research feeds into design and other parts of the organisation (such as sales and marketing). Getting that right will spark getting design ops right.

Ultimately design ops should comprise the CRD trifecta: Content, Research and Design, as opposed to just design. These are typically thought of as different things, and occasionally siloed into different departments, but they all part of the same picture.

Introducing design ops may naturally involve a change in culture. A key part of any successful culture change is about showing people what’s in it for them, and design ops will do that.

Silos get a bad rap

It’s certainly true that large silos, operating independently without interacting with other silos, frequently means the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. However can be beneficial to consciously create small silos for individuals teams (perhaps these are ‘vats’ rather than silos?) Small silos enable you concentrate expertise - members will get to know, trust and learn from each other.

It’s also true that design works well when it’s integrated throughout the organisation, with content, research, design and even development represented in all departments. If that’s how you’re organised it’s important that the different disciplines have ample opportunity to come together as a team in to share learning and feed into each other’s work (just as pair programming can bring additionsal quality, so two heads are better than one when it comes to design).

Designers should ask permission less

Once design has been elevated from mere styling to problem solving, designers can start to be more influential. By heading down a hypothesis-based approach (with measure and test) you can start to make more substantial improvements. With appropriate design leadership, this can mean venturing into seeking out opportunities based on research and insight. This is real, not pie-in-the-sky, innovation, but you need to innovate efficiently for true impact. When you ask for permission, executives will come in and start directing. Start showing results and you’ll get more leeway.

A closing thought from the panels was that we should all stop talking about how we design, and start talking about the impact of design on the goals of the organisation.


Many thanks to Alla Kholmatova (Former Head of Design & UX, Bulb), Simon Rohrbach (Director of Content, Research & Design, Deliveroo), Nicole Burrow (Design Director, Spotify), Jens Riegelsberger (Product Design and Research Director, Google), Martyn Reding (Head of Digital Experience, Virgin Atlantic) and Nuala Sheerin (UK Digital Transformation Lead, Pfizer) for their generous time.

Join us next time

We’ll be running a similar event in September. If you lead or manage design teams, and you’d like to be in the audience, please let us know and we’ll get back to you with details nearer the time.

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