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.


Design, data visualisation and weissbier at Dagstuhl

Earlier this year, I was invited to take part in a week-long “seminar” on data visualization for biology, to be held in September 2012, at a computer science institute called Schloss Dagstuhl, in Germany. I was pleased and surprised to receive this invitation out-of-the-blue, having never heard of Dagstuhl, but given that it came from Seán O’Donoghue (co-organiser of the Vizbi conference), I was happy to accept.

To start with, I didn’t know who else was invited or what I was supposed to do there. As it is, it turned out to be a very rewarding and productive session. Outcomes include papers, talks, invitations, videos, sketchnotes (of course!), plans for future events and conferences, and new collaborations.

Schloss Dagstuhl

Yes, there is an actual Schloss… a mini one, at least

Continue reading

Lightbulb tactics – dealing with usability issues that don’t get fixed

A matrix of tactics for getting usability issues fixed

On July 20th, I had the pleasure of giving a workshop at UX Bristol 2012 alongside Caroline Jarrett. We promised that we would share all the great ideas and recommendations that our participants generated. These were tactics for how to make sure that the usability ussues you find actually get fixed.

A big thank you to Steve Krug for allowing us to build on all the work he did with Caroline on this topic, and for letting us reuse his slides in our presentation.

The following is a matrix of those “lightbulb tactics“, with the four main usability testing phases we considered on one axis, and some apparent themes along the other. I produced those themes by doing a quick bit of affinity mapping of all the tactics… hopefully, they make sense!

A matrix of tactics for getting usability issues fixed

A matrix of tactics for getting usability issues fixed. Click on it to see a bigger, annotated version!

Continue reading

“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.

Continue reading

Layout for consumable content

It’s great to see this (free!) article from Bang Wong in Nature Methods. Bang, who gave an EBI Interfaces talk in June 2010, writes about the positive impact of laying out page elements according to a regular grid. If you have been reading this blog recently, you’ll know that I am pretty keen on pushing the topic of content strategy and design, and layout really tackles the latter, page-by-page. We need to be able to design out content so that it is readable and consumable, otherwise it won’t convey its message effectively.

Clip of figures from Bang Wong's article on layout for Nature Methods

As Bang states,

“Well-structured content can guide readers through complex information, but when the material we present lacks order, it can confuse or, worse yet, agitate readers trying to make sense of the material”

I am really happy to see these concepts and approaches being introduced to the scientific authors, and especially in such a high-profile publication.

If you’re interested in learning some more, designer Mark Boulton has a series of excellent articles on this subject. It has of course been around in print design for years, but Mark’s articles were really what brought it to my attention a few years ago, and if you are a web designer, you should definitely start there (there are some differences with what works in different media… ).

Slides for “Human factors in computational biology” talk

Remember back at the beginning of April, Anna Divoli talked to us about human factors in computational biology – from mathematical models to user interfaces?

At last, Anna’s slides are available online, and thus embedded here:

Write-up: Software East UX night

Software East UX event March 2011 screengrabA few of us went along to the Software East event where Jenny Cham was speaking. My notes from the four talks are below. 

The evening was organised by Mark Dalgarno of Software Acumen, and was one of the events he puts on as part of the Software East group. It was held at the offices of Red Gate Software, in Cambridge, and there were around 100 attending.

The talks included:

  • 18:30 – 19:00 Michele Ide-Smith (Cambridgeshire County Council) Embedding usability in your organisation
  • 19:00 – 19:30 Stephen Chambers (Red Gate): Things we learned when redesigning the Red Gate website
  • 19:30 – 20:00 Break
  • 20:00 – 20:30 Jenny Cham (EMBL-EBI): Why did you click there?  How to run 1-to-1 usability testing
  • 20:30 – 21:00 Rob Kerr & Neil Turner (Cambridge Assessment) Remote User Testing 101

Continue reading