Illustration by Erica Fasoli

The design team at the UK’s biggest telecommunications company BT (which includes the EE and Plusnet brands) firmly believes that all great design must be user-centered. This means putting their 34 million customers at the heart of everything they do and involving their perspective in all steps of the design process, straddling human-centered product design, content design, inclusive design, service design, user research, SEO, and DesignOps.

We sat down with BT’s director of design Conor Ward to find out more about the evolution of the company’s user experience – one of the world’s biggest digital transformations – and how to balance the needs of a large business with those of the user, while innovating in workflows and collaboration to create better digital products at the same time.

A montage of different screens from BT's various digital experiences, including photos of smart speakers, smartwatches, and mobile apps.
The new BT Digital Design Language (as the foundation to their new multi-brand ‘Loop’ design system) is a new digital expression of the BT brand that enables much wider creativity for their digital design team.

Tell us a little about how your design team is set up at BT.

Conor: We have a very wide definition of design at BT. When I joined almost two years ago, we got together as a team and came up with the term “Human Insight Based Creativity” to describe what design means at BT and what we do every day. Our mission is to make the company more user-centered.

This definition breaks down as:

  • Human: Always focusing on the humans that we create for, and the humans that are creating.
  • Insight-based: Being evidence driven and focused on learning at all times.
  • Creativity: Always pushing the boundaries and the status quo. Never accepting the existing or the standard.
An infographic describing BT's definition of design: 'Human insight-based creativity'.

This wide definition means it covers many aspects of design. As such our design team is currently made up of 190+ people and structured into four areas.

  1. Product Design: 90+ product designers covering a wide range of skills across interaction design disciplines otherwise known as UX and UI with the goal of meeting business goals by meeting user needs.
  2. Content Design & SEO: 90+ content designers, content editors (CMS specialists) and SEO specialists across all areas of content design including content creation and curation with the goal of meeting business goals by meeting user needs.
  3. Inclusive Design: User researchers, service designers and accessibility specialists with the goal of ensuring we are not excluding any users for any reason, and that our product squads are as user centric as they possibly can be.
  4. DesignOps: DesignOps managers, ResearchOps and ContentOps, plus a design system squad all sit in this team with the goal of making designing easier.

How does this team work with the rest of BT?

Conor: We are a single design team as part of a single digital team across the BT, EE and Plusnet consumer brands. We operate as a mix of centralised and decentralised design depending on the squad type. Let me explain.

We have two types of squads in BT Consumer Digital, a ‘product squad’ and a ‘capability squad’.

  • The ‘product squads’ make things for users to use.
  • The ‘capability squads’ make things that product squads use.

All of our product designers and content designers would be fully embedded within the 90+ product squads that we have, trying to meet users needs through digital products and experiences.

Whereas capability squads in design are squads like the user research squad, the SEO squad, the service design squad, the DesignOps squad etc. I’m also in two capability squads myself, one with all of my heads of design called the ‘design enablement squad’ and one with my digital director peers called the ‘digital enablement squad’.

What are the challenges and opportunities to scale and innovate in design in today’s business environment?

Conor: There are many!

Firstly scale: One of the joys of having a huge design team is also one of its difficulties. Working in a large company means there are amazing opportunities to do big things that impact many people. But it also means that sometimes we get in our own way too. It’s difficult to be agile and nimble when there are so many of you with such a long history of decisions and processes in place.

The best way we’ve found around this is to think big and bold but act small and often. It’s the obvious argument for agility, but we try very hard to layer on the ‘build-measure-learn’ and ‘more value, less effort’ principles of lean startup and agile to ensure we have a bias for action, feedback and response at all times – not just in our products but in how we operate internally on a day-to-day basis.

Someone has an idea? Great, let’s run an experiment. No good? Learn and move forward. Empowerment, evidence-based decision making, intent-based leadership and trying to maximize the amount of work not done allows us to operate in a way that a much smaller team would.

The second point to call out is that now that design has its ‘seat at the table’ as it were, it needs to decide what it is going to do with it. How does design properly contribute in an executive environment? It’s a question I grapple with on a daily basis. Am I doing enough? Am I staying in my lane?

One of the biggest decisions I made upon becoming the first design director at BT was that I had to be clear on what the design strategy needed to be and how I would go about enacting it. I spent my first year driving that user-centered design (UCD) strategy to grow the design capability within the company, so that its strength was able to respond to the business goals it was contributing to.

I have since learned that while it was necessary to set this up as a foundational function and a quality single design practice, it must then be quickly pivoted to be contributing to and in service of the company strategy, otherwise you’re building design capability that risks becoming misaligned. And so I’ve been spending my second year in the role aligning to strategy and direction and finding ways that the company and its customers can benefit from having UCD at a strategic level. 

This kind of approach may sound obvious at a Silicone Valley design-led startup, but I have found it to be a much more complex task to navigate at a large 100-year-old FTSE50 company, and so for me personally this is a very exciting part of my career and one I’m just beginning to understand.

What design process do you follow to ensure you continually evolve and optimize the UX of your services?

Conor: We’ve taken an interesting path on this one. We decided, based on the existing processes in place across the company, that in order to work in a ‘product’ (not ‘project’) manner and agile (not waterfall) approach we would have to create a process that was visibly and conceptually different to these existing left to right flows, where design was a stage in the process.

We had to create a non-linear process that articulated the iterative nature of how we wanted to work. We also decided that creating a ‘design’ process was excluding those outside of the design team (product owners, product engineers etc), so we decided not to create a design process at all, or even any design principles!

Instead we created ‘Experience Principles’ that everyone could and should be contributing towards, as well as a UCD cycle that aligned to our build-measure-learn approach, so that it became one and the same. Now we had a product process that an entire squad could follow to meet user needs through business goals, and work in a hypothesis-led experiment-based manner (outcomes- and impact-focused rather than a delivery- and output-focused).

Everyone may not be a ‘designer’, but everyone certainly contributes to the user experience, and therefore the more inclusive we can be when it comes to user-centered design, the better.

The build-measure-learn user centered design cycle at BT.

How has COVID-19 changed your design workflow?

Conor: Hugely! We had migrated to cloud-based design tools before lockdown, and this meant that we were able to embrace fully remote working very easily. However, what we didn’t anticipate was the huge leaps forward in terms of collaboration and user centricity that this would also bring. We moved from a very siloed set of activities and handovers to a place where all designers and other squad members could work synchronously on the same thing at the same time in a fast, transparent, and efficient manner.

Now the time was being spent on aligning on problems to be solved and employing user-centered design to solve them together as a cross-functional team, not producing internal deliverables for each other. We also created our collaboration templates like build-measure-learn canvases, user journey mapping, and research observation gathering in cloud collaboration interactive whiteboard tools. As such, this shift has been a game changer for us and hugely increased our user-centered design maturity overnight.

What role does data and user research play in your design process?

Conor: User research plays a huge role in the design process, as does data. We’ve got a great in-house user research team as part of the design team here at BT. They have recently launched our new behavioral science-based measurement system where we rate the usability of our products via constant lab testing. We call this framework ‘EES’ and it covers the key well-known areas of Effectiveness, Efficiency and Satisfaction. We now rate our user journeys against these metrics qualitatively, and these ratings help the teams stay objective in capturing observations rather than attitudes and opinions from our lab testing.

BT's 'effectiveness, efficiency, satisfaction' framework for measuring the usability of user journeys with user research.

Next, we will be working with our data team to see if we can align these ratings across lab testing and our quantitative live usage analytics.

What’s next for BT in experience design?

Conor: We have a huge ambition to completely transform our digital experiences. We’re aiming for the Astro Teller (Google X) moonshot view of making things 10 times better, not 10 percent better. This is a huge undertaking and doesn’t happen overnight. One of the key ways we’re starting to influence this transformation is by embracing service design to help us look at the end-to-end service that the customer experiences and the front-to-back ways in which we provide it across our teams.

We’ve recently begun defining basic things like language and terminology to help us move towards this way of working together, and next will be getting a better view of our services via our customer lifecycle analysis, service mapping and operating model optimisations to align ourselves and our activities as close as possible to the goals that users are trying to achieve.

We want to be a future reference point for world class user-centered design, and we’re enjoying our early progress on that journey.

Also check out Conor’s accompanying article on how to build a successful design team, follow the BT Design team blog, and read more UX evolutions about Virgin Atlantic, Etsy, Netflix, Medium, Dropbox, Firefox and charity: water.