How to evolve digital design teams

How do design leaders stay ahead of the curve, while simultaneously managing their teams and delivering the required design excellence that drives their brands forward? To find out more, Clearleft assembled a panel of design leaders currently shaping the future of digital design.

Jun 17 · 8 min read

Continuing our interview series with design leaders we speak to Conor Ward.

Conor Ward is Director of Design across BT Consumer, the largest provider of Consumer mobile and fixed broadband communications services in the UK. He currently runs a team of approximately 170 people at BT & EE, covering Product Design, Content Design, SEO, Accessibility, User Research & DesignOps across both the BT and EE brands. Serving over 34 Million customer relationships and with a presence in half the homes in the country this is customer experience design on a grand scale.

Clearleft: If you were only allowed to give one piece of advice to someone just beginning their role as Director/Head of UX/Design in a sizeable firm what would it be?

It sounds obvious, but talk less, talk last, listen first, listen more!

(Also well known as — use your ears, eyes and mouth in the ratio you have them).

Bringing a pre-defined set of methods, beliefs and activities to a new role because “this is the way we did it at <insert last place here>” isn’t helpful and is one sure fire way of ignoring your own good advice when it comes to system design: i.e. Sense & Respond. Inspect & Adapt. Learn & Improve.

Use your own tried and tested design methods on your own activity. Not just WHAT you work on, but also HOW you work on it. Try, Get feedback, Iterate.

Therefore listen to everyone you can get time with, from every angle of the business. Ask them what isn’t working and why is it hard to fix. I’ve met several hundred people already in my first few months and captured notes from all of them around these questions, issues, problems and great things to keep and protect. This insight has been fascinating and leads to countless opportunities for running quick experiments to verify these newly learned problems as well as testing ideas around how to solve them.

Clearleft: What's the most important thing you have learned about Design Leadership?

I have been a student of Leadership Gurus Simon Sinek and David Marquet for a few years now and try to regularly remind myself of key lessons they teach. I check in against them regularly to see how I’m applying them.

Simon speaks about things like:

“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe”. Therefore the power of the ‘Golden Circle’ he discusses, should ensure you have the ‘why’ clear and understood at all times in all your activities as a leader but also in how your company shows up to your customers.

“The role of a leader is not to come up with all the great ideas. The role of a leader is to create an environment in which great ideas can happen.” This is especially difficult to set up in a creative leadership role where you are dealing with pre-conceptions of an old style ‘Creative Director’ approach where the most senior design role is expected to make the product decisions or worse, be a player/coach.

“When a leader embraces their responsibility to care for people instead of caring for numbers, then people will follow, solve problems and see to it that that leader’s vision comes to life the right way”. The people make the product, the product makes the profit, so why not always start with the people and the employee experience?

David speaks about creating intent-based leadership by using ‘the leadership ladder’, where you push authority down to those that have the most information and coaching your own team to become better leaders themselves. I constantly try to be a leader that creates leaders, moving the conversation away from “do this”, to focusing on “what do you intend to do?” and at the most mature level “what have you been doing?”. If you haven’t watched his ‘submarine captain’ video on youtube, I’d highly recommend it.

Clearleft: Please give an example of recent developments at BT/EE that have had the most positive impact on your design team?

We are currently going through probably one of the largest customer-centric digital shifts that is happening in the country right now. Re-organising our entire digital estate to be focused around customer journeys in the in-sourced, co-located, user-focused, cross-functional squads makeup that has proved so successful in modern software companies. We have a new MD of Digital in Ash Roots, with the highest position Digital has ever had at this historic company of 30 Million customers. Design has also just been elevated as well to Director level in Digital, with myself appointed across BT Consumer which includes BT and EE brands and their digital ecosystems. These monumental activities are going to mark an unbelievable shift in our ways of working and our focus on User Centred Design going forward.

We believe in empowering our ‘digital superheroes’ to work autonomously as teams, and to rapidly learn and develop the best routes and techniques to creating customer value. We’re founded on the core idea that we continuously ‘build, measure, and learn’ which allows us to deliver on our purpose: to drive digital thinking and expertise so that together we can create the best experiences that enhance our customers’ lives. And we’re hiring more superheroes, incase you happen to be one, get in touch! (Specifically, in my team I’m looking for fantastic Product Designers and Content Designers right now).

Clearleft: What are the big changes in digital design sweeping across the industry in 2018/19?

Design seems to have become fully self-aware, self-organising, self-improving and less self-centred.

Self-aware: All the snake-oil jargon, processes and diagrams that promise to have the easy one-process answer continue to be debunked. ‘Best practices’ when it comes to solutions continue to require user context and evidence to be applied. Copying competitors and beautiful UI trends continue to fall by the wayside in favour of simplicity, usability, effectiveness, efficiency, satisfaction and dare I say a modicum of delight. Design has finally realised across the board (not just the enlightened ones that knew all along) that its impact is far beyond the ‘Output’ deliverables it used to be so obsessed with and instead is genuinely focusing on the ‘Outcomes’ (Measurable customer behaviour changes) and ‘Impact’ (Measurable commercial benefits) that Jeff Gotthelf refers to in his famous whiteboard video. Design and designers have made a huge step towards focusing on designing beautiful businesses based on user needs & behaviours.

Self-organising: DesignOps, ResearchOps, ContentOps, you name it there’s an Ops for it these days. And not just because it’s a catchy title. I created a DesignOps team quite a while back after hearing it explained at the Leading Design conference in London along with various articles from folks like Dave Malouf & Andy Budd. I immediately understood the power that operationalising your activities can give a design organisation. Taking control of how you run your own efficiencies, processes, people activities and tools really makes a difference when it comes to giving time to focus on the big prizes like scaling and growing the design maturity of an entire enterprise.

Less self-centred: Design has realised that doesn’t have the right answer, just a really good set of tools to ask good questions and experiment towards a ‘less wrong’ answer. Designers have realised that Design isn’t necessarily just done by designers. Whatever you think about this debate, the fact is that decisions made by other people in the business such as technology choices, sales propositions and service choices all affect the digital experience and vice-versa. Therefore if we can ensure that everyone knows how they affect the end Customer Experience based on the choices they are making, the organisation becomes more intentional in its design activities. Which fits in with Jared Spool’s definition of Design — as the “rendering of intent”.

Clearleft: User research and user testing — how important are these to you and why?

Top priority. Because when it comes to cultural shift, as per what we’ve learned from Behavioural Science (see Shooks Model as explained by Barry O’Reilly) changing thinking doesn’t change behaviour. Instead, change behaviours to change thinking.

What we do is built on our values and attitudes, which are supported by our culture. Small incremental changes to behaviour is the best way of moving forward when it comes to trying to this.

This was proved out for me when I was trying to instil a UCD culture in my previous role as Global Digital Experience Director at the largest utility company in the UK. The biggest single change I made there was to build an on-site lab and then ask each product team/squad to use it minimum once a month to test their digital experiences with customers. We started with basic usability testing, and asked every cross-functional product team member to attend with their team, not just the designers or researchers. Overnight the conversation changed. People used to ask me ”who is going to make the call on this experience decision?” or “when are you going to decide on…?”. That question changed following the lab usage, to “when are we going to find out..?”. All of a sudden we had an evidence based, objective and UCD culture. This change was the biggest single shift in customer centricity we made, and the foundation on which we built a brand new way of working and thinking.

Clearleft: Who have you heard speak recently at a conference that has inspired you, and why/what were your learnings?

My favourite conference every year is Leading Design. Each time I learn a ton of new things, but I’m also reminded of many things I already know but am not finding time to put into practice. If you are a design leader and haven’t been to this, I would highly recommend it.

In recent times a few of the things this conference prompted me to focus more on were:

- The importance of business skills and being able to speak the language (Scott Berkun)

- Get the organisation structure right, to enable you to get the strategy right, which enables you to get the design right (Kirsten Skinner)

- Leading a charge for change in a non-inclusive flag waving manner makes you an easy target to shoot at, and also easy to ignore. (Scott Berkun)

- A new take on DesignOps roles, considering a split around product design ops and programme management design ops (Meredith Black)

- Amazing human focused ideas like starting each meeting with a reminder of the team vision (Kara Defrias)

- The importance of personal resilience (meaning, purpose, self awareness) on your physical, mental and emotional health. (Julia Whitney)

- and so much more…

Clearleft is a design consultancy helping organisations realise their digital potential. We use research, design and strategy to enable innovation, deliver products & services, and build design capability. Find out more about how we could help you.

Many thanks to @uxmuch for his candid input in this series.

Leading Design

Looking at the challenges and opportunities of design leadership in all its forms


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We help design leaders get the most from their digital products, services & teams.

Leading Design

Looking at the challenges and opportunities of design leadership in all its forms

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