As part of my responsibilities at British Gas, I was responsible for leading strategy, planning and output. This project involved scaling the design function developed by my research team during a cost reduction project. The key was to construct a design operations function that focused on creating best practice for design and building a systematic framework that enabled sustainable scalability. In addition, there was a need to align the business and design objectives and improve the design-business dynamic.
“Efficiency and structure comes naturally to Bryn. Coupled with a deep understanding of design practices he is perfectly positioned to help address enterprise design challenges. He brings a good balance of perfectionism and pragmatism.”
As the design team grew, we ran into classic scaling problems such as poor communication, inconsistent methodologies, and overlapping outputs. These issues were prohibitive to the business’ cost reduction goals, created friction between design and other disciplines, and had a negative impact on employee satisfaction.
We decided to establish a Design Operations function (or DesignOps for short), which would focus on determining design practice, building a systematic framework enabling design scalability, and exploring how to better integrate design with enterprise in order to shape and build products that are successful.
We started with operationalisation, with a focus on strengthening the foundational principals of our design practice. The aim was to have the right tools, systems and practices in place to enable successful delivery of design at scale. This included:
- The creation of a design system.
- A process for design system adoption and its continuous improvement.
- A service manual providing structure and guidance on how to conduct different design practices.
- Digital and design principles that served as a “North Star” throughout the programme.
- Mapping and communications tools allowing value to be tracked and recognised.
Once the foundation was laid, we turned our attention to the efficacy of our practice. This included:
- Advancing research, insight, discovery and analytical capability.
- Assessing the organisational design, modifying and integrating with other business areas.
- Mapping shapes of roles and building an effective acquisition, on-boarding and retention strategies.
- Putting in a process for developing key skills while improving continuity.
- Measuring the impact of design on ROI so it could be mapped against business goals.
While a significant amount of the time was focused inwards to define and implement our working practice, we also spent a considerable amount of time looking outwards and connecting with the business as a whole. The purpose of this outward focus was to grow awareness of our design practice, develop positive perceptions, and educate how it would operate in conjunction with other disciplines. This work included:
- Coaching key business units.
- Aligning objectives with wider business goals.
- Developing efficient ways of working.
- Improving cross-departmental communication.
We felt a need to shape the overall vision of what it means to be a design led company. To achieve this, we got both design and business leaders together to develop a new way of working. This approach not only enabled design strategy to understand and therefore support the business mission, goals and objectives, but also allowed the business to understand and embrace weaving user-centred design, outcome-orientated thinking, and a scientific approach into business operations.
We developed a playbook which took from a wide range of design, research, and business management principles. The primary focus was on utilising design practice efficiently, and was broadly split into five areas: tools, training, measurement, integration, and organisation.
While trying not to blame tools, it certainly helps when they’re fit for purpose. We worked with design and procurement teams to choose, build, and operationalise an effective set of tools that allowed delivery with optimal capability. We aimed to establish continuity across the practice, but also implement a change process that would allow future adaptations. An essential part of this was setting a goal for the use of a particular tool, understanding the relationships between required versus optional capability, and ensuring performance was measurable against a defined outcome.
To embed change, as well as developing tools, processes and practice, we felt it was necessary to address how knowledge was shared and establish training protocols. Specifically, we considered the following:
- Day-to-day processes, such as how to use any tools introduced.
- How new team members could get up to speed quickly.
- How research was shared.
- How skills could be progressed through to expert capability.
- Maturing understanding of design throughout the business.
If design practice was to form an integral part of the business, it needed to be understood by the business, and to achieve this, we worked to educate the business about design thinking. We also felt there was value in educating the design team about the business. Measurement was made in terms of value to both the business and the customer. This approach ultimately increased programme management efficacy, as increased insight enabled the business to focus on the areas of highest impact.
Design was considered a capability separate to the core of the business and it regularly ended up detached, unable to make the impact it was capable of. A major part of establishing design operations was connecting with other departments to better integrate working practice. Rather than designing upfront and then passing work through lengthy gated processes, we worked to grant autonomy or get the right input and timely approval.
Businesses are in a constant state of flux, constantly responding to a wide array of factors. As a result, their teams and organisational structures morph, bend, and sometimes break. With deep understanding of the capabilities required to design with efficiently and effectively, we helped create organisational structures that perform, while remaining responsive to change. As part of this we mapped team and individual capability, established requirements, orientated with high level outcomes, and developed a training strategy to ensure resilience on ever changing terrain.
Designers like to design.
Striking the balance between creative freedom and efficiency is a challenge.
- Focus on information and structure rather than format when templating.
- Education and knowledge capture are essential to allow movement of people.
- Investing in effective on-boarding pays dividends, especially with a distributed team.
- We need empathy for employees, not just for customers as it’s systemic.
- It is important to set boundaries and not step on the toes of other departments.
- Successful interactions rely on people being receptive and open to discussion.
A happy, effective design team.
Designers felt valued, could see the difference they were making, and were free to focus on what they love.
- Turnover of staff reduced and average tenure significantly increased.
- Design was able to increase relative capacity by 35%.
- Design was integrated into discovery and strategy work.
- Budget for design was significantly increased.
- Design team grew to match size of product team.