Empathy, onboarding and design operations

Abby Cecily Smith
May 4, 2020 · 7 min read

In this post, design operations manager Abigail Smith introduces our design operations team and explains why much of the team’s work relies on one thing: empathy.

I joined the realms of design operations last year, making the move to BT in October 2019, becoming part of a newly established design operations (or ‘DesignOps’) team. This is a brand new discipline for BT, as it is for many big companies, and not everyone gets the value of this discipline yet. With design newly represented at director level at BT, EE and Plusnet, I was really excited to join the small but mighty team here.

What is DesignOps?

A lot of people ask me what DesignOps is. From what I’ve read, and from what I’ve experienced so far, DesignOps is most commonly described as ‘the amplification of the value of design’. This can be quite hard to get your head around, but I like to think of us as ‘design ambassadors’. We exist to support the design team by providing everyone with the right tools, environment and working practices to thrive in.

Let me explain a bit further by borrowing an analogy from Dave Malouf (considered the Godfather of DesignOps). If a digital design team is a taxi, then the driver of the taxi is the designer element and the physical act of driving a passenger from A to B is the work done. Everything that supports the activity of the taxi driver providing this service to the passenger (the vehicle, the fuel, the map, the meter) is an operational support function. That’s your DesignOps.

For the BT Design Team, my team’s purpose is to set the standards, the processes, and the environment to amplify the value of design. In the simplest words, we support the doing of design.

DesignOps in practice at BT

For me, effectively supporting over 170 designers (across varied disciplines like product design, content design, user research, SEO and design operations) comes down to one core attribute: empathy.

Over the last 6–9 months, our biggest DesignOps deliverables have been related to keeping a finger on the pulse of the design team’s ‘health’, and doing what we can do to boost it. For example, we’ve worked to:

  • lay the foundations for our long term design system work,
  • introduce and roll out more effective and collaborative design tools
  • build and launch our Design Playbook
  • foster a collaborative design community
  • work to establish the right cadence of design team activities and events, and
  • launch a best-practice onboarding experience across the team.

Let’s take the last one there — onboarding — and delve a bit deeper into what we’ve been doing and how.

The onboarding journey

Sometimes stepping into a new job is seamless, and sometimes it’s catastrophically bad. We all know that the onboarding period between your interview and the first day and beyond can influence our initial impressions of a role, team, or company.

My own BT onboarding journey began six months ago. With my DesignOps hat on, I wanted to map my onboarding experience through a new joiners’ lens, whilst also reaching out to other newbies in the same boat as me to find out their views.

In my first two weeks, I hosted a series of 1:1 discussions with my colleagues, capturing the good, the bad and the ugly, and learning from other onboarding experiences they’d had before BT. As a newbie, it was awesome empathising with them about how they felt about joining the team. I could begin to see some key trends emerging, and because I was in the same boat, I found we could be really honest with each other about what onboarding looked like in our team.

Graphic showing negative comments from new joiners such as ‘I didn’t have a pass’ or ‘The building is so confusing’.
Graphic showing negative comments from new joiners such as ‘I didn’t have a pass’ or ‘The building is so confusing’.
Honest comments from new joiners about where the onboarding process was letting them down

It was clear we were getting some of the basics right, but we were falling down in some critical areas:

  • getting people access to the right tools for the role from day one
  • educating people about our operating model
  • helping people navigate BT’s labyrinthine London office

The picture was definitely getting clearer as I spent time with more and more people across the team.

Measuring our impact

To capture a wider audience in a shorter time, we decided to run an anonymous survey which went out across the design team. The aim was to get people to rate each part of their onboarding experience — pre-joining, their first few days, and their first few weeks. Many of the same core themes and issues began to emerge, and we ended with an overall onboarding rating of three stars (of a five star rating). Pretty average, perhaps even quite kind at that point, but it gave us a clear picture of onboarding for us to work to improve. If the idea of a five star rating was a carrot on a stick, it was definitely dangling!

Between November 2019 and January 2020, we welcomed 18 new members into the team. During this time period, and using the feedback we’d already gathered, we set up some key improvements to their onboarding experience:

  • a pre-joining email outlining key information about their first day
  • a new joiners’ hub page housing team information like org charts, vision statements, team videos and quick links to HR
  • 1:1 introductions for new joiners with DesignOps in their first couple of days to walk them through the team hub page and BT’s internal systems
  • an onboarding Slack channel to connect them with each other
  • a DesignOps weekly drop-in session for face-to-face support, and
  • gathering new joiners’ feedback at our directors’ monthly onboarding breakfasts to gather group retro-style feedback to add to our backlog

It came to the end of January and we wanted to find out if we’d made any headway with our star-rating. When we ran the same survey again in February with our new joiners, we found all three parts of the onboarding journey had improved, and we’d reached four stars!

Of course, we’ve still got some way to go, but seeing a 25% improvement in just three months through listening and responding to our team members certainly felt like a step in the right direction.

“My first day and following few weeks couldn’t have been any better in terms of getting me up to speed, giving me access to everything I needed and making me feel welcome” — newly joined Product Designer

Testing our outcomes

Our next iteration involved running a usability testing session with designers outside of the business. Using the hub page we created, and gathering their experiences of onboarding at other companies, we invited 5 designers, both in-house and agency, both perm and contract, to share their perception of joining our team.

An image of a whiteboard containing post-it notes listing what makes a good or bad onboarding experience.
An image of a whiteboard containing post-it notes listing what makes a good or bad onboarding experience.
Reviewing and grouping feedback from usability testing

Doing this was invaluable for the project, because we began to understand the scale and variety of expectations of prospective candidates in the design field, and what makes a truly brilliant onboarding experience. The insight we gained here has helped us to iterate on the materials and activities we already began, and has sprung lots of new ideas about physical onboarding packs, social events, and how we can shape the end-to-end onboarding journey — not just in the design team, but more broadly across Consumer Digital too.

We’re always keen to promote cross-functional collaboration and share what we’ve learnt, especially with teams without dedicated ops functions — it’s led to the beginning of a centralised DigitalOps Guild. This approach has influenced the creation of a Product Ops team, and boosted the growth of our own DesignOps team, bringing about new ContentOps and ResearchOps roles. All of this demonstrates the value of operational teams within our fast-paced digital world.

Covid-19 and remote onboarding

Of course, in more recent weeks, onboarding has had to take on a much more remote form as we welcome more designers into the team from home due to the Covid-19 lockdown.

Some of the challenges we’ve faced have been around the technical limitations like security blockers when first logging on and securing hardware orders. First days are perhaps more important than ever now that we can’t be in person, so we’re really getting to grips with video-calling and regular check-ins to make sure our new joiners feel integrated from the get-go.

As anyone in DesignOps will know, it can be hard to measure the impact you make when trying to improve something. By giving our team members various forums to voice their thoughts and feelings, it gave us the opportunity to truly empathise with each other to bring about actionable improvements that have made a real difference to those joining the team. In my opinion, being a design operations manager, or ‘design ambassador’, comes from getting to know the great people in your team and what they need to live their best work life. For that, you need one really important thing — empathy.

We’re continuing to iterate on our onboarding experience at BT, so reach out in the comments below if you’ve experienced some brilliant onboarding that we could learn from.

BT’s Design Team

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