Creating design that lasts (Avoiding the Ferrari syndrome)

In the past few years I’ve noticed a pattern emerging. I have seen a lot of great experience design failing to see the light of day, and I have noticed that there is a behaviour and attitude amongst designers, writers and researchers that’s contributing to this problem. Many times great designers have applied insightful methodologies and executed fantastic solutions only to find stakeholders stop them in their tracks.

I first noticed this pattern of behaviour in myself and so I hope that this observation will help you recognise it and perhaps avoid my pitfalls.

The F1 analogy

Ferrari are the greatest formula one team in history. They’ve won more races and championships and hold more records than any other team. This is due, in part, to being the longest running team in the sport, however they’ve reached a level of influence in their sport that is unlike any other sports team.

For decades they enjoyed huge success. In fact from 2000 to 2004 Ferrari utterly dominated the sport. So much so that the FIA changed the rules multiple times, just to give other teams a chance — it didn’t work! Ferrari had accumulated so much knowledge of building powerful engines that they couldn’t be stopped. It was a halcyon time for Ferrari fans.

Then the story went the way all stories like this go. Outside of F1 the world changed. The pinnacle of motoring was now hybrid engines. So the sport switched and Ferrari was in trouble. They got left behind because they struggled to change what they’d done since 1939. They were quickly overtaken in races and in overall success.

We’ve all heard stories like this before. This is not a story about disruption and transformation. It’s what follows that I find interesting and here’s where you might start to recognise the pattern.

Ferrari is a brand built on good design and so they decided to design their way out of their problem. They up-rooted their engineering process and hired a flood of ‘all star’ engine designers. They poached top talent from around the world. However the following seasons did not prove fruitful for the team.
They had adopted new design thinking—they had new designers doing what the winning teams were doing and they were using the newest tools — but they repeatedly had problems with their cars. All of the data predicted a high-performing car, but in the races it was erratic, unreliable and simply not fast enough.

To get to the bottom of the problem Ferrari launched an internal investigation. After spending millions they finally pinpointed the problem:

The engineering teams and the aerodynamic teams didn’t understand the newly designed engine.

Their new hybrid engine had been designed in a newly setup studio, with new designers, in another part of Italy. In order to innovate and free themselves from the legacy of old Ferrari engine designs they created a new engine design studio.

It was a beautiful new studio, filled with the brightest minds, working in truly innovative ways. The rest of the business wasn’t invited in, for fear it would slow them down or box them in to ‘old thinking’.

Is this sounding familiar yet?!

The new engines weren’t well integrated and they weren’t understood.
Yes, leads from around the team had been in the design meetings, but the engine design studio was never fully immersed in the business and ultimately it failed.

The part about design teams

Creating a new way of working in isolation is relatively easy. I don’t believe that’s the real challenge. Creating a new way of working that’s integrated into existing systems is the biggest challenge for the design community right now — and that is where lasting change comes from. Otherwise you’ll suffer from the Ferrari syndrome, with an engine that may be the best in the sport, but built in isolation to the car. And it doesn’t win races.

Many of us have seen this behaviour play out in product design. It’s an emerging and somewhat disturbingly popular pattern. Most of the time the disconnects are consciously created a way to ‘protect’ designers from the everyday grind of a company. They are separated to ‘free’ them from current thinking and getting boxed-in by confined thinking. This makes sense as a short term fix, but that confined thinking is the problem. Coming up with new ideas is not the hard part. Smashing together a visionary prototype won’t change the direction of the ship. The hardest part and the opportunity for creating design that genuinely lasts and makes a difference, is in those everyday processes.

IBM Design studio, London

It’s often referred to as the inclusion / exclusion syndrome. We want to be seen as special and not like other departments, with our special processes, special equipment, special workspace and our own special twitter feed. But at the same time we want to be accepted and listened to. We want other teams to give us equal attention. These two sentiments pull against each other.

Many of us have fallen into this behaviour. I myself have encouraged it in the past. I encourage you to self-examine to avoid going down the same road. I believe that these patterns of behaviour ultimately limit us — it limits our scope of work, our success and it limits the longevity of our work. Sometimes our work will never launch. More often than not it will launch with so many compromises that its original intent is lost, and we become guilty of authoring bad designs.

Here are the things I’ve learned to help you avoid falling in to the Ferrari syndrome:

  1. Don’t put up walls or hide away
    Design out in the open and make yourself part of the everyday life in your organisation. Let everyone see what you’re doing and don’t prevent anyone from poking about inside your team. Resist all temptation move to a different building. It’s understandable that a product team will need its own space, but try to find somewhere visible that people naturally walk past. When I started my team at Virgin Atlantic I made the first project team work next to the kitchen. It wasn’t lovely for them, but everyone had to walk past them and everyone could see what they were doing and how they were doing it.
  2. Be different in how you work, but not how you look
    Please don’t be tempted to make your design team its own logo and whatever you do never ever set yourself with a different name, to the rest of the company — if there was ever a sure-fire way to create a disconnect it’s through tribalism. This is tantamount to drawing lines on the floor or hanging up a flag. Please don’t Brexit your team. Be a part of the organisation’s ecosystem.
  3. Learn to speak the language of your business
    If the organisation is revenue driven try using phrases like ‘design debt’ and ‘content overhead’ to describe situations. Make it easy for others to relate to you — embrace those acronyms. I’d suggest going as far as creating a sheet of translations, with the UX matters you’re dealing with on one side and a business-centric version on the other (eg. “improving the design system” translates to “increasing speed to market”). Learn the red flag words of your business and apply them to how you talk about UX work. Nothing will isolate others more than using your own language.
  4. Create ambassadors
    Indentify opportunities to suck people from outside your team into your design process. Then drop them back into their jobs and let them act as your champions. This is not a one-off matter, this is something you should be keeping up as much as possible.
  5. Create good news headlines
    Lastly, if you can create nuggets of good news, you can share them widely.
    Particularly metrics or things people can relate to. If your company has an intranet, Slack channel or uses tools like Workplace, make sure you and your teams are posting updates regularly. I’d recommend putting up posters with split-test results and research museums as methods to try.

These are all relatively small changes and they’re all things we can easily control. Each one should be formed into habits, so they add up to a significant change and designs that lasts.

Design + Leadership

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