How to evolve digital design teams — insights from three high profile design leaders

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.

Richard Rutter
Jan 28 · 13 min read

Here at Clearleft, we’ve long held the belief that applying design discipline and process to new digital products and services minimises risk as they come to market. Organisations are fast coming round to this way of thinking. How your company looks and feels online can increase or demolish profit margins and customer bases. If a commercial competitor has the edge as a result of an effortless experience meeting prescient user desires, then it is time to implement change.

The need for success in the digital marketplace has heralded in a new era of design leadership. The new school are on top of design process while monitoring the very latest developments in technology. They are also across the cultural changes needed within their organisation, ensuring that their team’s morale remains high in the face of the fast moving world of digital design.

In the first of a series of interviews, we asked three team leads, currently shaping the future of digital design, how they stay ahead of the curve while managing their teams and delivering the design excellence that drives their brands forward.

Birgit Geiberger is experience and design director at adidas, Europe’s largest sportswear manufacturer. By leading and growing design teams, she aspires to create environments in which good design can happen. When time permits, she presents workshops at international conferences on a variety of design and communication topics.

Simon Rohrbach is content, research and design director at Deliveroo, Europe’s fastest growing online food delivery company. He oversees a team of around 40 content designers, user researchers and product designers, that help restaurants generate new revenues streams for online customer growth in more than 200 cities around the world.

Kerry Malone is head of user experience and design for Blue Lab, the innovation accelerator for integrated energy provider, EDF. Her deep knowledge of creative design, vision, communication and management, with an emphasis on collaboration and conceptualisation, enables her to deliver first class digital products for EDF’s 5.7 million customers.

Clearleft: If you were only allowed to give one piece of advice to someone beginning their role as head of UX/digital design in a sizeable firm — what would it be?

Birgit Geiberger: Prepare yourself for spending a lot of time on building organisation-wide relationships: stakeholder management, protecting and growing your team, and evangelising the value of design will become daily tasks. Create a stakeholder map with your close peers to understand where you should channel your focus and energy.

Having that overview, a solid understanding of the business strategy and the associated objectives, as well as knowing the challenges the organisation and your team are facing, will help you set the right priorities to make the most impact — and don’t forget to share with your team what you are doing and why, so they can fully support you.

Simon Rohrbach: Focus on celebrating business impact and building a culture. A positive focus on both will help connect design to company objectives — and clearly show the value it can contribute. A strong, humble and inclusive culture gives a team an identity, maintaining a sense of togetherness as the company grows.

Kelly Malone: Question everything, be curious.

CL: Innovation or efficiency: which is more important and why?

KM: Innovation — that’s our current focus at Blue Lab. Our industry knows if it continues the same path we will just get the same results. And whilst much of the main business needs to work on efficiency, at the Innovation Lab ours is to look further ahead and help the business go in new and profitable directions.

SR: Start with innovation — if done well, that will always lead to efficiency (they’re two sides of the same coin).

BG: What a hard choice to make! Being a designer, my answer is: It depends.

Both have their place, it depends on the context and on where you are in the design process. Early on, in the discovery and define phase, innovative thinking can create a higher impact. By identifying something new about the consumers’ needs and expectations, opportunities emerge and enable us to develop innovative solutions serving both the consumer and the business.

However, further down the process, efficiency becomes more important. A proper design system and well-defined processes enable a short ‘time-to-market’ and the designers can focus on their craft rather than operations.

In my role, I am involved along every stage of the design process and can lead the design from discovery to delivery. If I had to choose, my heart is closer to the discovery and define phases. I am passionate about design and people, which comes together nicely in these two phases.

Fully understanding consumers’ intentions and motivations and working on design concepts based on these insights is really exciting. Understanding the why consumers do something, puts the what consumers do in a perspective from which one can design better solutions. However, we also need to go ‘live’ with our projects — which requires efficiency.

CL: Which of the decisions that you have made has had the most positive impact on your design team?

BG: My decision to dedicate quite some time and energy to my people: those who were already in the team — as well as spending time finding future team members.

People are the heart and soul of the team and our success. Losing great people or hiring the wrong people is expensive for the business and can disturb the team as a whole. I really care for each individual in the team and try to support them in their professional growth. This is not always the easiest path and can eat up time. But seeing people grow is one of the reasons why I love what I do.

From the moment I joined adidas, I spent a lot of time hiring and growing the team. Adding new people changes the team dynamic — this is something one needs to pay extra attention to when your team is growing fast.

We are aiming to find people who are adding to our team in terms of skills, potential and personality, no matter which cultural background. The diversity in our team in gender, culture and personality types is enriching on many levels.

Because we serve a global audience with our work it simply makes sense to have a multi-cultural team, allowing us to add different perspectives and to challenge each other in our work on a daily basis.

SR: One thing I’m proud of is that we made a decision to refer to ourselves as the Content, Research & Design team — CRD for short — to reinforce we’re not just aDesign team with some representation of content design or user research. We are a group of disciplines that work together as genuine and equal partners, each playing to everyone’s strengths. This has reflected positively not just in our organisational design, but also in our culture and the language we use as a business to talk about our team. Today, all three disciplines are flourishing and do great things together on behalf of our wonderful customers, restaurants and riders.

KM: The decision not to micro-manage. I trust my team — I’m not their mother — I ask for a certain outcome and then let them choose how to get there.

CL: How has the role of ‘Design Leader’ benefited you?

KM: The role has allowed me a new type of freedom. It allows me to keep an eye on the big picture — I’ve been able to start initiatives that benefit the whole of Blue Lab rather than just one project. It helps that I’m able to cut across all the silos and get people working together. I can bring empathy to not only our customers but to our internal teams — looking after people helps them focus on doing great work.

SR: Our job as designers is to help colleagues across the company build great experiences for customers, restaurants and riders so that we deserve the trust they place in us. We try to live up to that every day, and when we get to do that well in a way that benefits everyone, I think that’s plenty of value.

BG: As design leaders we are responsible for creating an environment in which good design can happen. That is easier said than done and has a few levels to it. We enable our team to do good design and provide structure and focus.

Setting up DesignOps has so far been very helpful in that endeavour. We also support our designers to having their own voice, encouraging them to speak up and to trust themselves that their contribution is crucial for the success of our products.

Outside of our team we raise awareness about the competitive advantage and the positive business impact that good design can bring. We add the consumer lens to each project and persistently represent the voice of the consumer throughout the process. By doing so, we elevate the discussion to solving consumer problems instead of finding solutions based on mere assumptions or available technical capabilities.

Clearleft have long championed Design Operations (DesignOps) as a role within design teams. Do you have team members assigned to this role?

BG: We only set up DesignOps fairly recently. With the growth of our team and the associated need for scalability and efficiency it was a natural step to improve the team’s process and output. We recently changed the way we support the business by setting up our product teams across the user journey and created a UX foundation team to support each product area. DesignOps is located within that team. DesignOps currently also supports User Research but I expect that within the next few years we will also develop the need for ResearchOps, as our research practice is growing.

KM: We don’t have DesignOps at Blue Lab as we do more research and discovery; but we do have ResearchOps.

SR: We don’t have DesignOps in name in design specifically just yet, but we do have a lot of the skill sets you see on design ops teams already on our team. We have, however, recently established a Research Ops function which is having great impact already — and I think we’ll do the same in Design soon.

CL: You have all achieved great things in very different industries. We’d love to know a bit more about what makes your design process unique.

Deliveroo’s success has led to rapid expansion: what are the repercussions of such growth on digital content and design?

SR: It means everyone has to be comfortable with letting go and focusing on what’s truly important. It puts an emphasis on team effectiveness and strict prioritisation, even if it feels uncomfortable at times. There will be a list as long as your arm on things you want to improve, but often you’ll only have time to focus on the most impactful and urgent ones.

What are the main influences on your decision making process at EDF/Blue Lab?

KM: We talk a lot as a team. It’s good to bounce ideas and not be alone in your thinking. We also call out workshops or group think to the wider audience if needs be. Culture is a big influence, as in: who for, how might we, politics, strategy,

Adidas prides itself on providing a digital experience that is “premium, connected and personalised”. How do you manage to ensure the digital design is aligned with these 3 descriptors?

BG: In order to design for a connected and personalised digital experience, our work needs to be informed by our consumers every step of the way.

In addition to the analytical data we collect, we can add an important lens to our work by developing a deep understanding of our consumers’ intents, needs and expectations in their interaction with the premium brand adidas.

In 2018, my team elevated our user research practice and we are able to conduct a whole range of research methods. We are currently building an internal knowledge base from our user research and are synthesising our findings to make them accessible to the rest of the organisation.

The insights that we accumulate inform the business, create focus, and support us in making meaningful connections between the adidas brand and our audiences.

Through these initiatives, we aim to offer the right content to the right consumer at the right time, thus creating a more compelling and relevant experience via all of our digital channels.

CL: At Clearleft we believe that design doesn’t work in silos — how much would you agree?

KM: True, though it still happens here at EDF. In Blue Lab, we have one design team spread out across all the projects and it helps that we are not distributed. But there are other design teams in the main business, with different goals and needs. Luckily though, we do have a shared pattern and image library, as well as, common best practices… and we do talk to one another.

BG: One of the greatest powers of design is solving problems through understanding requirements, purpose, context and user needs. To do so, designers must collaborate with different teams, listen to their expertise, build empathy for the user and iterate on solutions. All of this cannot happen in a silo. At adidas we place a lot of emphasis on collaboration between experts in their respective fields. Incorporating different viewpoints while designing creates the highest impact for the consumer as well as the business.

SR: It works, just not very well.

CL: Who have you heard speak recently at a conference that inspired you?

KM: I’ve been to loads of conferences lately and most speakers inspired me. Many are from the US and to me it seems like they are forging ahead and laying the foundations for us here in the UK. It’s a privilege to learn from their mistakes and to see where we are heading.

SR: Kara DeFrias gave a very powerful talk at Leading Design 2018 about leading and building great teams. It connected with me because it was fundamentally about finding purpose, and ensuring others find purpose so you can do great things together. Her work on the Cancer Moonshot project was particularly inspiring.

BG: Farai Madzima’s talk at Interaction 18 “Can being African make you bad at design? — Cultural bias in design” inspired me to dive deeper into the topic of cultural bias and how it affects individuals, teams and their outcome. In the past I taught many workshops on communication styles to help designers improve their communication skills and to build empathy within teams. The dimensions for cultural bias that Farai is mapping out in this talk, takes this a few steps further.

Having lived and worked in different cultures myself, I can relate to the challenges and the opportunities it brings. The different dimensions Farai is referring to, such as Deciding, Disagreeing, Leading, Communicating, Persuading, are heavily influenced by our cultural background and can lead to cultural bias.

I find Farai’s talk very timely. Products nowadays are designed for a global audience but not often by diverse teams. Our global experience design team at adidas is very diverse. We have about 14 different cultures represented in our team of 40 people. Diversity is a key ingredient in our team and work.

CL: In your opinion, who has got their user experience bang on point in 2019?

BG: I had the pleasure to be on the jury for the Interaction Awards 2019 and got very excited about our Best in Show winner. Since the winner will be only revealed at the Interaction 19 conference in Seattle in February, I cannot say much about it though… I can only say that the project is a great example of the high impact that designers can have by identifying business opportunities after gaining a deep understanding of the intended audience and their context. The winner’s submission also demonstrated great craft in their process.

SR: I’m a heavy user of Google Maps. It does so many things well, and that’s a hard thing to accomplish. Bulb has made something people use every day — energy — relatable and engaging. Monzo is great — it strikes the right balance between having a personality but also being very efficient to use.

KM: Liza Kindred (founder of Mindful technology) — for helping to calm a noisy and chaotic world. May we see more of this! Ame Elliott (design director at Simply Secure) for helping privacy and security not be a boring dirty word. Let us sit up and pay attention.

CL: One last question: as longtime designers, how do you remain inspired when directing new projects?

SR: I take a lot of inspiration from architecture and interior design. There’s so many parallels between designing physical spaces and digital ones.

KM: I love going to conferences — and not just UX conferences. It’s great to see brave people trying/making/breaking things and having the courage to stand up and share that with the rest of us. I also read and watch a lot of Sci-Fi which I find inspiring. Also just people watching, walking around and seeing the world around me and all its colours and chaos.

BG: I am thriving on the interaction with people. Different personalities, cultures and viewpoints inspire me, ideas come naturally to me when I spend time with fellow human beings. Local meet-ups, conferences but most of all my engagement in the global design community is a huge source of inspiration.

The energy in the IxDA community, the joint sense of sharing and giving back is fuelling my ideas and inspires me to try out new and different things. I can only recommend to any designer, or person actually, to get engaged with your community, whichever is closest to your heart.

Get out there, get engaged, get inspired and make a difference!

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.

If you’re a new or aspiring design leader, check out our Leading Design conference aimed at people just like you.

This article was made possible with the help of Tim Healey. Many thanks to @birgitgcom, @simonrohrbach and @kerrymalones for their candid input.

Leading Design

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

Richard Rutter

Written by

Cofounder of @clearleft, author of @WebTypography, designer of digital things. Please patronise responsibly.

Leading Design

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

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