Is your company ‘design-capable’?

If you have to prove the value of design, you’re not in a design-capable company! Some tips on getting good design done in your organisation.

How to be a design-capable organisation

In June, I attended (and sketchnoted) a “smart salon” panel discussion at the Museum of London, which addressed the status of design in organisations. It was about how to make organisations ‘design capable’, not necessarily design-driven or design-led. This free event was hosted by the Smart Design agency and was attended by people from diverse industries and sectors – I saw name badges showing pharmaceutical companies, banks, financial services, retail/e-commerce companies, not-for-profits and lots of others.

One panel, many perspectives

The panelists at this event included representatives from five organisations, who spoke about the strategic management of design activities in their companies. They were:

  • Clive Grinyer, Process Improvement Director, Barclays
  • Marianna Wickman, Global Head of UX and Design, BBVA
  • Angus Montgomery, Creative Writer, UK Government Digital Service
  • Darren Morgan, Senior Global Design Manager, RB (Reckitt Benckiser)
  • Catalina Cernica, Head of LEO Innovation, Leo Pharma
  • [Moderator] Sean O’Connor, Partner, Smart Design London
Smart Salon Discussion Panel

Smart Salon Discussion Panel

What did we learn?

Five key messages emerged throughout the discussion:

  1. A design-capable company doesn’t need to measure the value of design;
  2. When design is new to an organisation, there are misconceptions about what it is, and how it benefits the business;
  3. The design function in an organisation can take different forms, but a hybrid approach of ‘design studio’ and ‘dispersed designers’ tends to work best;
  4. Design must challenge the business;
  5. If there is no design, there is no project!

1. A design-capable company doesn’t need to measure the value of design

To get the discussion going, the moderator invited the panellists to share their challenges measuring and demonstrating the value of design in their organisations. Some of the answers were surprising, for example, paraphrasing Clive Grinyer of Barclays:

“Our digital app is great – we measure it by net promoter score; but otherwise I have given up measuring the value of design. Since the design function at Barclays is no longer a discrete unit, rather it is dispersed throughout the business, it isn’t needed to be measured. Once great design was delivered we never looked back. We gave up measuring the value of it.”

Marianna of BBVA echoed the sentiment:

“It’s a bad sign when you are asked to measure your UX success. You wouldn’t ask this for something like project management, or other management processes.  You shouldn’t ask it of design.”

What these points highlighted was that the level of maturity of UX design capability determines how managers perceive its function. For example, stakeholders in organisations where design is done well seem to take it for granted: it becomes second nature and its role in delivering great products/services and well-designed internal processes is not questioned. So it does not need to be quantified and presented per se.

From this observation it may be fair to assume that if your organisation is asking you to measure the impact, or benefits, of design/UX design, it may indicate that there is a long road to travel before your organisation can be truly design-capable.

2. When design is new to an organisation, there are misconceptions about what it is and its benefits to the business

Companies with less mature design capability can employ different strategies to give it a boost. When Leo pharma’s Catalina Cernica, whose organisation is comparatively new to digital design and UX, was asked to comment on this, she said  (paraphrasing):

“We are taking baby steps in design. The pharmaceutical industry is now going beyond the pill – kicking and screaming! At Leo we have a digital app to go along with our products; this is new territory for us.”

Catalina mentioned that design was sometimes perceived only as an idea-generating operation, and was told in the past that her design team “was not here to solve problems, just to generate ideas”. This suggests that when starting out with design in an organisation, there can be misconceptions about what it actually is.

Similarly, Marianna told the audience that she always explains what is meant by “design” before presenting any idea/pitch to colleagues who are unfamiliar with UX and design. Clearly, there are still occasions when colleagues understand design to be limited to visual appeal.

My take-home from this discussion was that communication and perception of design are handled well in a design-capable organisation.

3. The design function in an organisation can take different forms, but usually a hybrid approach of ‘design studio’ and ‘dispersed designers’ tends to work best

Since the discussion was about management of design in organisations, the moderator naturally asked the panellists about the way in which design functions are structured in their companies. Clive Grinyer explained:

“Barclays don’t have a ‘design team’.  The design agency ‘feel’ does not connect with the banking business. Instead, design happens throughout the business.  Previously, post-crash, we had a new design team, and scooped up creative talent to Canary Wharf (which wasn’t easy to sell to creatives!) But it grew and we hoovered up the best people. Now, design is integrated and embedded. That’s why my job title is Process Improvement, which is a core business role, even though I have come from a design background.”

To counter Clive’s point, Angus Montgomery of the UK Government Digital Service, said it is important to build a business where designers want to work. But how are they doing it at GDS?  Would designers really want to work at a bank or government department?

Maybe not, but it can be made an inspirational place to work by writing about case studies and speaking about valuable design projects – this makes the organisation aspirational. Angus said:

“You don’t want the design culture to get lost in the organisation.”

Marianna BBVA’s added:

“We want a ‘design destination’: a design studio feel. We have a design education scheme going internally. We want to educate colleagues, why design matters to the business. Getting the right talent is easier with a design studio in the business.”

Does a design-capable company have a dedicated design studio, distributed designers, or some mix of the two?

Marianna summed up how to structure your organisation’s design capability: There are three options (the best choice depends on the organisation):

  1. Have a dedicated design team, a.k.a. “design studio”, internally.
  2. Have designers distributed throughout the organisation, effectively embedding design deep into your operation. You might not even call the people who do it ‘designers’.
  3. A hybrid of 1 and 2.

So why is a hybrid your best bet? Because having designers embedded means you are taking design thinking deep into what your company does/is. Good design will therefore influence all the decisions that you make – for internal processes, making products, delivering customer services, etc. By having a dedicated design team as well, you have an aspirational place for designers where they can try out new ideas, share best practice, compare tools and approaches – and, importantly, recruit great design talent.

What about third party companies and design?

Even with the hybrid model, it can be helpful to get outside influence to challenge norms. Darren Morgan spoke on this point:

“We encourage work from external partners or design agencies, because this can challenge the thinking of departments in the business. This can be harder for agencies to do. But it’s a good way to get new ideas in.”

4. Design must challenge the business

Clive presented his method for recognising ‘design-incapability’:

“A company that does not want to be challenged by its design function is NOT a design-capable company. In reality, there are few companies that can actually be design-capable – unless the founders are designers, or designers rise up to the top management positions.”

5. If there is no design, there is no project!

Even if your organisation has become design-capable – when there are no human resources for design work, the project should not go ahead.  Simple.

Marianna put it clearly:

“The most impactful thing we are doing at BBVA is say “NO!”.  When a company says no to thorough design work on basis of lack of resources, we simply won’t do the project. Unless you have the right talent to do the project we don’t do the project!”

Summing up…

Design capability can only come when leaders of organisations are wise to the benefits of design. To achieve this, we either need to have designers rising up to become managers (leaving typical design activities to others), or hire managers who are already effectively ‘design-evangelised’.

In all scenarios, grass-roots designers – wherever they may be in the company hierarchy – must continue to deliver exemplary work so that the value of design as a function will be recognised and, hopefully, in time, become endemic. Good design by market rivals or peer organisations may also spur on improvements in design work.

Discussions, conferences, workshops, and events such as the one reviewed here, all help to get the word out that design is important to the bottom line. If good design can deliver clear benefit to organisations, even to those historically design-poor and technology-oriented like banks and pharmaceutical companies, then people need to know about it!

We need to get creating more design-capable establishments, right now.

To read mode, the discussion moderator, Sean O’Connor has posted his highlights of the event at the Smart Design blog.  Thanks to Smart Design for hosting such an interesting (and free) event!


Sketchnote of the panel discussion

Smart Design Blog article

Smart salon event

Smart design

Video clips

Taken from the Smart Design Blog article

Disclaimer: The quotes in this article are from memory, so capture the overall sentiment of the discussion rather than exact phrasing from individuals.

EuroIA 2014 and activity diagrams

[May 2015] – I’m tending to refer to these things as “[key] activity descriptions” these days, since the “diagram” bit could sometimes be confusing. You could also refer to it as an “activity canvas”, too. Anyway…

I had the privilege of giving a quick talk at EuroIA 2014, entitled “Maybe there’s more to this than user-centered design?”. As you might have guessed, I think there is more: I wanted to explore and share some thoughts I had about how we approach UX design in complex settings like scientific service design (and others besides). In recent project work, I’ve been using modified activity diagrams to help me characterise apparently important activities. I thought this might be useful for other people, too.

Picture of activity diagram template

Picture of activity diagram template – click to download a PDF version

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User research – the gentle art of not asking users what they want

Following on from some email discussions, some of my EMBL-EBI colleagues asked me if I could give a general talk on the topic of user research.

They work on Ensembl, one of the joint flagship projects of both the Sanger Institute and EMBL-EBI. It is described as “[a project that] produces genome databases for vertebrates and other eukaryotic species, and makes this information freely available online”. It is a complex system that supports the activities of thousands of scientists around the world.

There were a couple of specific questions that they wanted to explore, and I tried to cover them. I also made the general point that to gain value from user research, we need to dig below the surface, to have articulated goals, and to have a mechanism for reporting findings and acting on them.

A big thank you for the invitation.

July 16 – Designing Effective Data Visualizations: Lecture & Lab

Noah IliinskyI’m very happy to be able to invite you along to what should be a great Interfaces event in mid-July.

I’ll be hosting author, designer and data visualisation specialist, Noah Iliinsky, who has generously offered to give both a talk and a short workshop:

“Designing Effective Data Visualizations: Lecture & Lab”

Noah will introduce some of the basics of the design process and its application to data visualisation, and then you can apply what you’ve learned to your own data, with Noah as a guide.

WHEN: July 16, between 14h and 17h (in fact, probably finishing at 16h)

WHERE: Room M203, Wellcome Trust Genome Campus, Hinxton, Cambridge

[FR – 16/07/2012] – feel free to download all the notes and resources associated with Noah’s talk and workshop.

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Highlights from Vizbi 2012 – March 30th

The Vizbi 2012 conference was held at EMBL Heidelberg at the beginning of March, and a few of us from the EBI were lucky enough to attend.

In an effort to share some of the ideas we picked up there, we will present a summary of … the whole conference, or our highlights at least! And now… here are the slides:

WHEN: March 30th, 15h00

WHERE: M203, Cairns Pavilion, Wellcome Trust Genome Campus 

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“Secrets of simplicity” – Dec 1st

Giles ColborneThe final EBI Interfaces speaker for 2011 will be design consultant, Giles Colborne. The author of Simple & Usable will speak to us about the “Secrets of simplicity“. There might be the opportunity for some audience interaction, too, beyond just asking questions. Giles is a really engaging speaker, and he will no doubt want to involve you, the audience, as much as possible!

WHERE: M203, Cairns Pavilion, Wellcome trust Genome Campus

WHEN: Thursday, December 1st, 14h00

As usual, if you don’t work on the Genome Campus but you would like to attend this course, please contact me and I can arrange for your visit.

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Upcoming talks, autumn 2011

We have three great events to go before Christmas (hey, they’re already selling Christmas puddings in the shops!).

October 17, 14h00 -15h00, Webinar: “Principles of Web Navigation: Advanced Design Techniques” (one hour) – James Kalbach

November 14, 15h00 – 16h00, Talk: “The language of software: the role of content strategy in software development” – Des Traynor

December 1, 15h00 – 16h00, Talk: “Secrets of Simplicity” – Giles Colborne

The webinar will be in C209 (near Sanger reception), and the talks will be in M203 (next to the restaurant).

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