Tom Prior is an independent Digital Product Designer and Design Strategist. Through a decade of design leadership, he has grown design teams both agency-side and in-house, most recently jumping into the world of Interim Leadership as Head of Design & UX at RSA Digital.
A keen supporter of the grassroots design community, Tom is a design mentor, co-organiser of UX Camp Brighton, and regular contributor to the UX Brighton community. In 2020 he started Designers in Business, a newsletter aimed at helping fellow designers build their business confidence.
We catch up with Tom ahead of his talk on Strategy & Business day at the #UXfest Festival on 10th June.
UX Fest: How has your approach to your role evolved with more experience?
Tom: There’s one thing I definitely say more often with experience: “I don’t know”.
As a younger designer I often felt under personal pressure to have immediate answers. I’m meant to be a problem solver after all! It’s liberating (and humble) to say “I’m not sure, but give me some time and I might be able to help”. But it also takes confidence and trust.
Thinking time is so important in design but it’s increasingly at risk in our delivery focused product teams. We might feel uncomfortable if we’re not producing or shipping. Learning not to feel guilty about this is an important hurdle to get over.
Often with some thinking time I’ll conclude that the right thing to do isn’t design at all. That kind of decision-making is just as valuable as design output to most organisations.
UX Fest: What are the greatest opportunities to improve accessibility in design?
Tom: Designers building trust with non-designers and decision-makers.
Some of our colleagues genuinely don’t realise that the things we make could be difficult or completely impossible for many people to use. By having great relationships with decision-makers we can expect more forums to explain what accessibility is and why it matters. We can help them understand their product’s accessibility shortcomings and how to take remedial steps.
I’ve typically found that when existing accessibility issues are flagged, clients realise that fixing them is the right course of action. Unfortunately, this often requires a little time, planning and patience (especially for technical fixes). It can be frustrating if change doesn’t happen quickly when accessibility issues arise, so preparing for incremental progress is often a mindset I need to get comfortable with.
On the plus side, taking smaller steps to more accessible experiences helps highlight that getting this right from the start doesn’t have to be a lengthy or expensive process either.
UX Fest: How do you view the relationship between design and business?
Tom: As one that designers need more confidence with if we’re going to keep our seat at the table.
As designers, we’re often uncomfortable in our relationship with business. Sometimes this is down to a perceived conflict in value systems which can stifle any appetite to educate ourselves about the business world. But a better understanding of the business landscape we’re operating in is critical to see how we can navigate it more effectively and influence change.
For most of us, a little bit more business knowledge can go a very long way to improving our relationships with stakeholders too. For me, better relationships are the foundation of influencing better business outcomes. But business confidence can also help us demonstrate our impact more effectively and help us influence positive outcomes for a broader set of stakeholders.
Business can seem an overwhelming world to get to grips with, so I usually encourage other designers to start small and reach out to business stakeholders for help. This can also become the first step in forming those better relationships which are critical to our long term success.
Business confidence can also open exciting new opportunities for designers. Our skill set puts us in such a strong position to design new business models; ones that could deliver innovative, inclusive business models to market that we haven’t seen before.
UX Fest: What advice would you give practitioners who are just starting out in their careers?
Tom: Firstly, don’t be afraid to move around a fair bit early in your career. I wish I’d done more of this.
Some people will say it looks bad on your CV. But I think it’s more important to try your hand in a few different design environments to discover the kind of place you might want to double-down longer term.
So, give agency life a go. Join an in-house team. Get to grips with startup land and compare it to a more traditional organisation. Most future employers should appreciate this curiosity when you’re starting out and it will give you the confidence to look more broadly when it comes to making a longer term employment commitment.
But this kind of career experimentation isn’t for everyone. If you do land your first role in a place with a great progression framework and plenty of senior folks to learn from, that’s a really great option too.
Secondly, it’s fine to not use the design tools or processes you see everyone else using (or talking about on Twitter). Critical thinking is an important design skill. Don’t be afraid to apply this to the way you work as well.
UX is particularly rife with dogma around the right way to approach problems using design and Design Thinking. But if you think there’s a better way to solve a problem that doesn’t involve a popular process, workshop or tool… try it!
Thirdly, design leadership isn’t for everyone. Don’t feel you have to take your first leadership role when it’s offered to you, or that you even have to go into Design Leadership at all. It’s becoming increasingly realistic for designers to pursue senior IC (Individual Contributor) progression routes which are just as well paid and respected as leadership roles.
If you love the craft of design and want to focus on being a better practitioner, perhaps leadership can wait. Most talented designers get more than one shot at leadership in their career, so feel comfortable turning down management opportunities if the time doesn’t feel right.
Finally, it’s absolutely fine to see design as just a job.
You can be a great designer without being passionate about design. It’s a privilege to find purpose in design work, but work can give you the means to find your purpose outside of design.
Don’t underestimate the value of consistently turning up. Your work, presence and cooperation can bring real value to others without being extraordinary.
UX Fest: What’s the best thing you read/watched/listened to in 2020
Tom: I really looked to escapism and comedy to make 2020 more bearable. Laughter was the medicine I needed, so most of my ‘best things’ made me chuckle when things got tough during the height of the pandemic.
I got a bit obsessed with sports documentaries in 2020, and particularly loved The Last Dance (it’s already queued up for a rewatch). On the lighter end of the competitive spectrum, Taskmaster had me crying with laughter most episodes. I highly recommend designers check it out, as it really appeals to our lateral thinking sensibilities.
UX Fest: Lastly, what’s got you through lockdown?
One of the ways I kept busy during the early part of 2020’s lockdown was by launching a side project called Designers in Business.
It’s a monthly newsletter in which I curate useful content to help designers build more confidence in the business world. If that sounds like your cup of tea, head over to designersinbusiness.com to check out the archive of previous editions and sign up.
- On Twitter @TomPrior
UX Fest is brought to you by Clearleft, a strategic design consultancy based in the UK. We work with global brands to design and redesign products and services, bring strategic clarity, and transform digital culture.