Illustration by Bhavya Minocha

To build a successful design team, I believe you need to first find great people. While this is an incredibly important and perhaps obvious step, it is just one part of the equation: what comes after you find them will determine how successful you are. You need to then empower them, give them support, and enable them to all act in the same strategic direction. Having a solid design team strategy is key to this alignment. If there is no design strategy or strong design leadership, there is a danger that design will be merely a delivery function in an organisation rather than a strategic driver.

My favorite piece of leadership inspiration is the video below, adapted from a talk by leadership coach and former nuclear submarine commander David Marquet, on bringing authority to the people that have the best information (usually those closest to the customers). Building a design team can be hard enough, but when you add the need to do it at an enterprise scale, everything can get much more complicated. This video has helped me find the right approach, though I admittedly still catch myself daily not quite matching my target behaviors to fully achieve this intent-based approach. It’s just another part of my long learning curve towards great leadership!

My current team at BT, EE, and Plusnet is around 180 designers. At that size, effective and efficient communication as well as good design leadership is difficult. To deal with this, I’ve had to learn to create the best possible creative environment that supports constant feedback and continuous improvement. I’m still a designer, but as the phrase goes, now “I design the design”. Thus, I’ve learned to design my team just as we do with our products: iteratively. It also helps when you have the incredible team that I have, to help me with this goal.

Behind the scenes: An example of a design team structure

In order to create a harmonious and productive design team, at scale, we follow a decentralized model for designers. Everyone is embedded in their cross-functional product squads, supported by a centralized Design Enablement team, which looks after the management of everything.

Following this decentralized model, my design team is split into four capability areas:

  • Product Design: Led by Rich Chong, this team is made up of 75+ product designers (multi-skilled designers looking after how users interact with our products and experiences via UX design, interaction design, visual design, user journey mapping, analytics etc). They work hand in hand with the content designers in a handover-free process.
  • Content Design: Led by Rebecca Hales, this team is made up of 75+ content designers, content editors, and SEO specialists (again, multi-skilled designers who create and collate the content that users come to us for in the first place, using many skills across copywriting, CMS editing, video production, user journey mapping, content strategy, pair writing, analytics etc).
  • Inclusive Design: Led by Jeanette Clement, this team is currently made up of 11 people, covering user researchers, accessibility specialists, and service designers. They ensure everyone can use our products, considering the end-to-end experience across our large operating model structure, along with the front-to-back optimization of how we create our user-facing services.
  • DesignOps: Led by Matt Gottschalk, this team is currently made up of 7 people, covering DesignOps managers, ResearchOps, ContentOps, and the design system squad. They help our design team work in the best way with the best tools, processes, methods, and the best environment possible to create the best work of their lives.

Putting it all together: Exploring new ways of working

Finding the best way to collaborate in this decentralized model is a trial-and-error process, and we’re never afraid to try new things to help people do their best work together. Every product squad, for example, has a basic makeup of at least one product designer and one content designer. These two roles work hand-in-hand, ensuring there are no silos of work across the squad. Rather than being handed a brief or list of requirements, squads use preferred collaborative tools like our internal “Build, Measure, Learn” canvas, working together in Miro to identify user needs, business goals and hypotheses to test. Then they continue to use this tool by user journey mapping, working in the open for all to see at all times including any stakeholders. These activities create a culture of user centred design that ripples outwards to the rest of the organisation.

From this abstract point, they jump into their product design/content design tool together to start creating collaboratively. Gone are the days of a requirement doc being produced; followed by a copywriter creating content in a Word doc; followed by a UX designer creating wireframes; and then a visual designer pulling everything together into a beautiful design before getting sign-off via a slide deck presentation to stakeholders; and then, finally, passing everything to a developer. Phew!

Instead, now, everyone is able to work in a single cloud-based tool, together (a godsend for remote collaboration in these current times!) creating the minimum amount of output with the minimum amount of effort, for the maximum outcome of value to the user and therefore the business. There is transparency across teams at all stages; all squad members work together, at all times. Heaven!

Managing a distributed team during COVID-19

Managing a remote team requires flexibility and adaptability. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, forcing most workplaces to shift to remote work, these skills have been tested in new ways. For us, that has meant embracing the unique challenges of the day – if someone needs to work one hour on/one hour off throughout the day because they’re sharing childcare with their partner, so be it. Whatever works.

To deal with this, we’re also intentionally over-communicating with each other. Our Slack channel usage, communication style, ways of working, and meetings have all taken a pivot towards new levels of openness, with short bursts of lots of communication and breaks (and the removal or reduction of any unnecessary meetings). These little reach-out moments, to those who might otherwise disappear behind the video-chat extroverts, really make a difference across the team. We also ensure that we always leave space for little personal chats, catch-ups, and fun interactions that would normally happen face-to-face (including the odd remote pub quiz).

We’ve also had 11 people join the design team in the last month, and thanks to our DesignOps function, managed to onboard them entirely remotely, something we’ve never done before. Plus running our monthly all-hands and daily workshops & remote usability testing all remotely, pivoting to this within days, so we’re learning and adapting to our situation and environment very quickly.

Systemizing creativity with design systems

There is some truth in the idea that design systems can kill creativity; if done badly. It all depends on how you create and optimize your system and the governance around it. You can focus on operational efficiency as the ultimate goal, or you can work towards a loftier goal of systematizing creativity. We are in the very early days of our new design system, which covers three brands from a single code base – one of the tools we’re employing to ensure creativity is a link between brand guidelines and the design system is something that we’re calling the “Digital Design Language.”

This isn’t a set of rules to abide by (we have clear rules via our brand guidelines). This also isn’t a set of component descriptions or atomic elements (those will exist in our design system). Rather, the Digital Design Language is a foundational abstract world described by metaphor and visual expression, covering the thinking behind three main areas:

  • Physical theory: shape, space, depth, tactility, texture
  • Movement theory: behavior, choreography, personality, attitude
  • Relationship theory: interactions, arrangement

These three theories encourage designers to explore concepts utilizing a breadth of rediscovery each time a new interaction or experience challenge occurs, rather than feeling like they always need to either reuse an existing pattern from a set pattern library, or face breaking brand guidelines with a new one. This definition of the digital manifestation of our brands via widely defined boundaries of shape, space, depth, arrangement, and choreography will ensure not only creativity but inspiration to continually reinvent our experiences.

We also have a light touch governance structure in place that is built to not only allow but also encourage deviation from existing approaches, while ensuring efficiency is also tightly measured, which means a hypothesis-driven continuous design culture is welcomed and expected. With this, we’ve managed to achieve a consistency that is constantly changing.

There are of course many challenges and constraints in the way of a perfect team, a perfect way of working, and a perfect product experience regardless of what company you work for, but that’s half the fun of being a designer, isn’t it? Constraints drive innovation. So we identify them, challenge them, and never accept the status quo or the first easy answer. As a design leadership team, we work hard to have the right intent and transparency with our people. If we’re trying to do the right thing for the right reasons, normally there’s a way to keep moving forwards.

Our huge ambition for design is based around embedding user centred design throughout the business as a proven way of developing products that genuinely improve tens of millions of people’s lives. We aim not for perfection or the right answer, but instead to continually get ‘less wrong’. If every day we get a little ‘less wrong’, then we’re doing something right.

The golden period of design leadership

Design leadership is really in a golden period right now, where the value of design has never been more visible and recognised. Design leaders are having to speak business language, be peers of executive colleagues, and operate as business leaders themselves rather than managers of a design team. They are having to take responsibilities that didn’t sit with design before, and share accountability with other areas in a way that really opens up new ways of thinking about design. Instead of having to evangelise about how great design is, they are expected to prove it. The world is changing fast and senior executives have business problems they need solved yesterday.

Now is the time where the companies that have:

  • The best understanding of their users’ needs,
  • The capability to learn the fastest about their customers’ behaviours,
  • And the ability to utilise the right methods to rapidly adapt and respond to meet those needs better, are the companies that will survive, succeed, and flourish. Design can clearly offer a key role in this capability.

You can read more about our journey on our BT Design team blog.