Building a diverse design team in challenging circumstances

Dean Vipond
Oct 18 · 9 min read

Growing a diverse team, from a profession which is not diverse, in an environment where your profession is not fully accepted, with tools and processes which can exclude, is a huge challenge.

A line of young, white men, smiling at the camera.
A line of young, white men, smiling at the camera.

Every now and then on Design Twitter, an existential argument emerges, around who should or shouldn’t be classed as ‘a designer’, and what should or shouldn’t be considered ‘design’. To the outsider, and to many insiders, they are tiresome, indulgent affairs, usually giving an exclusionary air to an industry that desperately needs to be more welcoming and around 285739% more diverse. Luckily, I missed the most recent debate. It happened over a (rare) sunny weekend in June, so I was offline having a picnic. However, I did notice one postscript tweet which struck me:

This chimed with the frustrations I have found whilst being (partly) responsible for the design capability within the NHS. The challenges to growing a diverse team compound each other.

Because the NHS delivers health and care services for everyone, it’s only right that those of us making design decisions, are a representative reflection of our society as a whole. But it isn’t. The designers working for teams within NHS Digital are all diligent, committed and thoughtful people. But they are mostly white, and mostly men. No matter how empathetic we may be, no matter how much research we conduct with a diverse participant group, it is no replacement for lived experience. Nor do the career experiences of white, male designers in any way reflect those of people who come from other backgrounds. Meritocracy is a myth, and there’s no point me going over that again here, when others have explained it far better than I ever could.

So I’m going to try and break down all the issues that are preventing us from building the team we need to.

1. Lack of perceivable diversity is a vicious circle

There is evidence that shows that people from under-represented groups are less likely to apply for roles if people like them can’t be seen within the organisation. It implies that it is not an environment where they will be supported, or be able to thrive. NHS Digital has some brilliant, hardworking support networks — for disabled colleagues, for colleagues of different ethnic backgrounds, for LGBT+ colleagues — as well as allies across the organisation who work with them. But when you look at a profession like design, and those of us who often do public speaking about our work, you would not necessarily think it’s the best place, if you are from an under-represented group.

This, then, puts undue pressure on the few non-white-dude members of the profession, to put disproportionate effort into being either advocates for where we work, or being part of work to ensure diversity is being maintained (e.g. helping sift CVs). When these people already have a demanding role, they shouldn’t have to be part of every activity, too.

2. Our job descriptions look intimidating

To ensure we can pay competitive market rates for designers and attract talent, our job descriptions must demand sufficient qualifications, experience and knowledge to bring parity with other healthcare professions. Currently, job descriptions for designers at NHS Digital are 13 pages long, and feature an intimidating list of criteria. Our mid-weight designer role, for example, demands a Masters degree ‘or equivalent experience’. We currently don’t communicate what ‘equivalent experience’ actually means, so this risks dissuading potentially brilliant designers, simply because they might not think they have what we expect. 13 pages is a lot of words, and is a daunting prospect for more neurodiverse people, or designers from less privileged backgrounds, for whom a Masters has always been out of reach.

3. Design is not yet fully accepted

Design is still a relatively new concept at the NHS. Sure, it has one of the most recognised and trusted brands in the UK, but employing user-centred design as a way of delivering services, is still a new development in the organisation’s 70+ year history.

Where I work in NHS Digital, it is taking time to shift the notion of ‘delivery of tech’, to ‘delivery of services, supported by tech’. This means part of the job of a designer, is to shift the thinking from ‘building a thing’, to ‘identifying the problem, and ensuring what gets made helps solve that problem’. When you are the only designer, in a team with eight software engineers, and a delivery manager on a tight schedule and budget, this can be tiring, stressful work.

Whilst a design agency knows it needs your skills, and works hard to tempt you to work for them, attracting talent in a space where we are still terraforming the environment, is a bigger challenge. It’s one thing to be frustrated when the client throws out your amazing concept two days before deadline, it’s quite another when a programme of work fundamentally misunderstands your place on the team.

So our designers need to be resilient, in a way they don’t have to be when working in an agency.

Under-represented person, under-represented role

I have spoken with white, male designers who have been having a hard time on project teams, and it is easy to draw conclusions. “Ah, that team hasn’t yet learned the benefits of user-centred design!” It can’t possibly be anything else, and we can discuss ways of bringing the team around.

But what if it were, say, a designer who is a woman of colour, assigned to a project team that is majority white male, and not used to having design as part of the development process? If she is finding she is being sidelined, is it because she is a woman? Is it because of her race? Is it because she’s a designer? A mixture of all of these things? It is much harder to tell, and the evidence pointing to it, likely much more subtle.

Microaggressions can leave you somewhat disorientated too, as their subtle and contestable nature may make you doubt your own reality and leave you, questioning and second guessing yourself and your experience, over and over again, hours if not days, after the casual act of Othering. — from “On Bodies that don’t belong

Even if we fixed all the challenges of diverse recruitment — simpler job descriptions, better language, diverse sifting/interview panels, advertising in more appropriate places — assigning a new design recruit from an under-represented group to a team like this would be just throwing them under a bus. The culture needs to change on a number of levels.

Even the most positive advocates can fail to be good leaders without a culture shift. You can’t have a diverse workplace if employees are afraid to show their true personalities. And The Boys’ Club doesn’t disband just because you hire women. — from “Hiring isn’t enough” by Catt Small

Fixing the culture

At NHS Digital, we have unconscious bias training that you must undergo when you first start at the organisation. It’s right there on the intranet, next to modules about fire safety procedures and how to book train tickets. It’s something to be got through, before you can start your actual job, rather than something that the workplace culture should simply demonstrate when you first arrive. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely understand the challenges of delivering messages like this at scale. But it still feels problematic, and doesn’t solve the wider problem. It feels like the organisation is saying, “Welcome to NHS Digital, oh, and by the way, remember not to be racist or sexist!”

Don’t say you’re inclusive, show you’re inclusive

On Day 1, anyone new joining the organisation should be able to tell that they are immediately welcome, that their individuality is an asset, and they have the freedom to call things out if they are not right. People are conditioned to keep their heads down, especially when they are acclimatising to a new workplace, but this is exactly when we should be encouraging people to point out things that worry them.

When people don’t feel safe enough to tell you that they don’t feel included, you assume everyone is included. — Kim Crayton

People in power need to be braver

In my middle-management design position, I am crucially-placed to use my (white/straight/able-bodied/male) privilege, to be an ally. That means calling people out if they use unhelpful language, and explaining why. It means ensuring all voices are heard in meetings, not just the usual ones. It means checking in with your under-represented colleagues, and ask them if there’s anything that needs improving, and then getting on and doing it. Calling people out on their behaviour is Not Fun (especially as an introvert), but being on the receiving end of these things is considerably Less Fun, so stick your neck out. People like me have a lot less to lose, than others do. We shouldn’t be wearing our rainbow lanyards or retweeting Black History Month quotes if we aren’t actively pushing against damaging workplace behaviours.

It also means being prepared to apologise if (when) we make mistakes. Do this stuff without expecting a pat on the head and a trophy, and if you mess up, say sorry. Our feelings don’t matter as much as those we claim we’re trying to help.

It’s only a pipeline problem if you keep using the same old pipeline

According to the Design Council, the design industry in the UK is a whopping 78% male. Design management positions are 88% white. Stats like this make it easy to shrug and say, “well, how can we build a diverse team, if the scene isn’t diverse? It’s a pipeline problem.” People talk about The Pipeline™ as though it’s a force of nature, like the tides, that cannot be influenced. It can.

As an industry, we need to look at building new routes into the design industry. Routes that are accessible and desirable to people who have the potential to be brilliant designers, but look at the people already there and just see barriers. Routes that don’t mean huge university fees, or the need to be able to afford your own Macbook and Adobe licence before you can even think of approaching anyone. Routes that allow people to switch from other professions, later in life, maybe after raising a family, or another significant life event, that means you have insights and understanding, even if you don’t have a long list of blue chip clients under your belt.

These are all possible, if we shift our methods of nurturing design talent, recognise and be truthful about the racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and ageism — unconscious or otherwise — in our industry.

Taking a user-centred approach

It’s funny how as designers, we approach everything from a user-centred standpoint, but with something like diversity and inclusion, it’s a path less well-trodden. But this is just where this approach is needed most. Do usability testing on job adverts and job descriptions. What language encourages, what language excludes? What qualifications might stop people applying? What aspects of a design role appeal to some people, but not others?

Do interviews with under-represented designers on their experiences in different jobs. What environments and behaviours are needed to let them do their best work? What is damaging? What is exhausting?

Interview project managers on what diversity and inclusion means to them — who wants to be an ally, but doesn’t know what it entails? Who is worried about saying or doing the wrong thing? Who doesn’t care, and what do we do about that?

What does a service map of beginning a design career look like, for, say, someone with cerebral palsy? Or a deaf woman of colour? Where are their pain points? There is so much to learn, that cannot be gleaned from annual staff surveys, and exit interviews from departing colleagues who don’t want to lay it on too thick, because they need a good reference.

Try new working methods, and team compositions. Iterate. What do retros look like when everyone feels they can truly express themselves in a safe environment?

OK, so what are we actually going to do?

I’ve written this, partly to understand the competing and compounding pressures underrepresented people face in my industry and workplace, and partly to understand my own responsibilities in finding and implementing solutions.

In our part of NHS Digital, we have a director who has charged us with improving the state of diversity and inclusion. As part of this, the Digital Service Delivery professions (design, user research, content, delivery and product) will be working with our HR colleagues as a pilot division, to trial new activities and new ways of working. We are treating this as a design problem, and will take a user-centred approach. We will be examining three main areas — how people find out about working at NHS Digital, how people apply and get jobs, and how people experience working here. HR have ambitious aims in this area, and together with a director who is giving us the space to learn, we will improve both the diversity of the people who work here, and the inclusivity of our working culture.

Change is possible

We have it within our power to completely change the design industry. It is not a simple task, and it will take years and years. But with commitment, patience, trust and care, we can build a profession that can truly work for everyone. If we don’t, we will continue to design products and services that only serve a narrow slice of the people that need them.

Lack of inclusion is a risk management issue — Kim Crayton

We are keen to speak with people who have had success (or failure!) in their workplace. Please email me at dean.vipond1@nhs.net Thank you.

Dean Vipond

Written by

Lead designer. Personal website: http://www.deanvipond.com

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