Design is a team sport

I’ve just got back from the Doers conference in Budapest, which is a service design conference. I really enjoyed it and learnt a lot from the various talks and workshops. In this post I attempt to highlight the best bits and draw out some of the prevailing themes of the weekend.


Design is for everyone; it’s a team sport

I found Sarah Drummond’s talk, about how having designers does not just automatically equal being a user centered organisation, to be the most insightful and thought provoking of the day.

Sarah started by sharing a clip from “I, Daniel Blake” to highlight the issues of austerity in the UK but also to make the point that unconscious design costs us people, whether that be as extreme as Daniel Blake, people no longer giving their customer or through people resigning from their jobs.

Every decision an organisation makes has an impact on our experiences, which is why design is a team sport. Full stack service design is the only way to successfully approach it. My list that makes up the stack currently consists of people, culture, technology, systems, data, processes, policies, legislation and governance.

Sarah took this point further by explaining that user-centred organisations are like a weak-link sport, as opposed to a strong-link sport. She used basketball and football to clarify this. Basketball is a strong link sport because you can have Michael Jordan or LeBron James and it doesn’t matter who the rest of your team is you’ll stand a very good chance of winning. On the contrary, football is a weak link sport because your weakest links get glaringly exposed. You can have Messi and Ronaldo up front but if your defence and midfield can’t get the ball to them, you don’t stand a chance.

This theme of design being a team sport cropped up throughout my time in Budapest. At a meetup of the local UX community at Prezi’s office the night before the conference proper, Ulla Jones, a designer at DNA, a Finnish telco presented on what it takes to change company culture.

She made the point that working with clients who have an in-house design team shouldn’t be seen as a threat and vice versa. Ultimately, we all want the same thing; better outcomes for people. Agencies cannot position themselves as irreplaceable, we’re there to increase the level of mastery in the organisation.

Ulla gave a great example of a commercial model for this. She had commissioned an agency to come in every Wednesday for 3 hours between 9am and 12noon. Anyone from around the organisation could book a slot (or walk in) and discuss whatever they wanted related to customer centricity. People from projects from all over the organisation dropped in and it was deemed very successful. After a year this process was handed over to the in-house design team and is still going.

This also illustrates that changing culture and embedding design doesn’t happen overnight (something Sarah Drummond says can’t even happen when you buy in design teams). It takes time from there being design input, to design as a process, to design as a strategy to design as a culture.

Mauro Rego, arguing for the return of craft to design, also underlined the importance of design being a team sport; you need experts and multiple skills in your team. He called it the material of services:

  • Infrastructure – if you’re designing digital services you need to be able to code and understand technology
  • Social systems – you need an in depth understanding of the cultural context you’re working within
  • Expression – if you can’t visualise and communicate the service you’re designing then you’ve failed


Don’t preach, do. And don’t shy away from small incremental improvement

Sarah Drummond also touched upon another thing that is very close to my heart; incremental improvement. She urged us to not get too lofty, change one small thing at a time. The reason this is close to my heart is that transformation is often overhyped and overplanned resulting in underdelivery. Improvement doesn’t seem to get people excited despite which may be in part to overuse of the marginal gains theory.

I’m not advocating you don’t do anything other than small tweaks, I’m advocating that you get on with it (whether it is rebuilding your donation funnel or tweaking the IA of your landing pages) and learn from it and move onto the next thing, rather than wrap your work up in a huge transformation programme. Imagine if British Cycling had approached their projects with the mindset some companies use when undergoing transformation. They would have welded a half finished next generation superbike onto the backend of one they found in a shed, being ridden by a cardboard cutout design of the superhuman they were trying to grow from stemcells after burning their budget four times over but promising to fix it for the next Olympics.

The only way to find and prioritise the problems that need improving is by mapping everything. The day had kicked off with a pre conference workshop about journey mapping with Marc Stickdorn, which gave me some food for thought on what to include within the list of things I consider when mapping.

The most interesting tips were:

  • Start mapping somewhere near the middle of your journey; it’s difficult to agree the exact starting point or end point of a journey but the middle is much easier. For example, what is the first step of a journey of flying to London for a business trip? Awareness that you need to go… Researching the flights… Packing your bag… Instead, if you say the middle of the journey is being on the flight, it’s easier to start there and define steps in the past and future
  • Once the journey has been mapped, get everyone to independently score the satisfaction and impact of the emotional state for each step. This independent scoring helps avoid groupthink and acts as a conversation starter. In your workshop you should have a diagonal slice of the organisation represented so scoring independently helps highlight discrepancies like why do the sales team think the complaints process works well when the call centre team hate it?
  • How to properly remove a post-it note; I knew about not peeling upwards but I didn’t know the sharp pull technique!



Claudia Pollina took us through her insights on working for a global company. She covered some familiar topics such as in-depth research of a company’s inner workings as well as of their customers. Claudia then shared the ethos of the in-house design team at Vodafone which was to map everything and then concentrate on simplification. Sounds simple(!) but simplification is often looked down upon as a concept. There is often a tendency to add further steps to a process or service to improve a problem area. The UK rail industry’s obsession with offering infinite different types of tickets is a good example here. Or all the different energy tariffs with fixed terms; just give me the cheapest one. Or comparison sites for comparison sites! I could go on. There are options which are simpler for all the people involved in these instances.


You have to understand business otherwise your designs will never launch or you won’t even win work

The first speaker at the UX meetup was Luka Baranovic, MD of HumanAct out of Croatia. He drummed home how important it is to get senior stakeholders to appreciate the value of design, telling us to use the same empathy we have for people who will be using the things we design, for the senior stakeholders who need to commission, buy into and sign off our work.

He emphasised the need for business and consultancy skills as much as design skills; a topic which will come up many more times during my stay in Budapest. He argued that senior stakeholders only care about KPIs, process and dashboards whilst designers care about meaning and purpose. A broad brush statement that in my opinion isn’t as broadly true as it used to be and it got me thinking about self-fulfilling prophecies; if we keep telling ourselves senior stakeholders don’t care about design then that will reflect in how we engage. Stereotypes and generalisations are the enemy of empathy. As ever, balance and context are needed to really assess who wants to hear what.

Luka also touched on thinking like senior, non-design stakeholders who only want to know what value the change will bring. He encouraged that design is participating in change and so it has a huge part to play in the much maligned transformational change buzz. A theory he attributed to Joel Bailey. However, he did warn that service design is in a “shitty” place because it doesn’t yet have an established position in the economy like UX design or graphic design.

This is a problem Marc Fonteijn firmly puts in our service design court because we don’t sell well enough. His talk was titled ‘The six and half reasons why we fail at service design’. A clickbait title the Daily Mail would be proud of! I listen to (and highly recommend) Marc’s podcast so I knew he was very passionate about how poorly service design is sold.

He started off with a very funny clip from Dutch football manager Louis Van Gaal who retorted a journalist with “Why did you ask that question? Am I that smart or are you that stupid?” We need to be prepared to answer all types of questions including passive aggressive and naive ones!

Marc’s message is pretty simple. Clients don’t care about service design, they want outcomes and benefits. They want to know they’ve been listened to not just sold the same standard framework. They want to go on a journey with you. They want you to ask questions. They want to hear stories about success. Similarly to Luka’s point, they want to know what the return on investment is so talk to them about money.

He finished with a great quote from Daniel Pink: “To sell well is to convince someone to part with resources, but not to deprive them, to leave them better off.”


Employee experience and the power of people are as important as customer centricity

Employee experience was definitely a running theme throughout the conference which I was really pleased about. For me, that’s why service design is the complete picture, over and above customer/user centricity.

Talking at the meetup, agency founder Thiago Nunes presented on designing the conditions of a significantly different company. There was some stuff which seems obvious but is always worth stating; always be recruiting for talent, look for attitude not experience, encourage autonomy, share experiences by celebrating success and mix teams (the classic diagonal slice across an org chart).

He also touched on some stuff that has only recently started being talked about widely and that I advocate enormously; cultural fitness, both physically and mentally. At Manifesto I’m part of a group of us who are defining how mental wellness is part of our culture. Thiago highlighted physical space and the empowerment to change it to fit how you’re working at that time as a powerful part of this. Additionally, he talked about space to explore and fail and being realistic about time and deadlines; true understanding and creativity takes time.

Employee experience also featured heavily in Bartek Lechowski’s talk about IKEA in Poland, in which Bartek placed human magic (from employees) at the heart of what makes experiences positively memorable; positively memorable being far more important than simply enjoyable in the moment. Our memory is what we use when we decide whether to do something again or tell other people about it.

In order to facilitate that human magic they redesigned the employee experience; focussed the recruitment process on attitude, built employee focussed workspaces and gave 80% of employees a 30% pay rise. Some organisations could learn a lot from this.


If you’re an agency, research your client as you would your customer

Mirjana Uzelac scrapped the presentation she had prepared for the meetup because she no longer thought it was useful based on the crowd’s reaction to the previous talks. I was amazed with that level of bravery! True flexibility and agility.

The speech Mirjana gave was a pep talk for agencies about how powerful our influence can be; “you are the change agents.” She also reinforced the advice about researching clients with the same rigour as we research people who will use the things we’re designing. Taking this a step further, Mirjana said mark your target and do something tangible that let’s them look good.

Finally, Mirjana gave a great piece of life advice courtesy of her mum; if someone is pissing you off then ask yourself what value are you bringing to them?


Be prepared to have basic conversations, not everyone is as evangelical as us

Thiago Nunes made a very small point that got me thinking about something else I’ve been reading up on lately; shifting baseline syndrome. This is usually used in the context of our acceptance of pillaging of nature because of the ever shifting baseline we use to measure the devastation (yes I’m a vegan and a member of Extinction Rebellion!).

Thiago said his company communicate almost exclusively internally and externally via WhatsApp and Slack. He says this has removed the need for the formality that email prescribes. Email has clung on despite so many proclamations of its downfall. Maybe people’s acceptance of less formal communication as my generation (and the multiple ones coming through the ranks now) move into positions of genuine influence in organisations, will rapidly degrade email’s centrality to our work life. My mum still doesn’t believe what I wear to work and maybe I’m not going to believe my kids don’t use email when they hit the world of work.

However, there are always industries that cling to formality to the point where they leave themselves wide open for disruption. See the below email between my solicitor and my buyer’s solicitor about some documents relating to the house move I’m going through at the moment.

“We  would  respectfully  request any further  documents you send to  us are stapled in the usual  manner. You have provided a draft TR1, form TA13 and an amended Contract all without staples and thus are not complete documents. In this  instance we will presume the documents are complete and will staple these for you but any future unstapled documents will simply be disposed of.”

Hands up who else would relish the opportunity to disrupt industries where that kind of stupidity counts as work.


Innovation labs aren’t the answer to long term innovation

Lou Downe is someone I respect enormously for the work she has done and led to transform public services in the UK and also to help simplify the sometimes overcomplicated world of service design. If you’re new to service design (obviously read my blog post from a few months back first!) read Lou’s blog about good services being verbs and bad services being nouns then read her blog about what the Government Design Service mean by service design.


Having scaled GDS from 170 designers to 980, Lou has an enormous amount of wisdom to impart. Here are some of the things that I wrote down and underlined and highlighted in my notes:

  • There is no formula for being human/customer/user centred, every situation is made unique by the context.
  • Everyone is trying to do a good job; people don’t wake up in the morning thinking “I’ll do a crap job today, that’ll show ‘em”.
  • Helping people break out of the cycle of inertia is extremely difficult.
  • Collaboration is a privilege, don’t expect it to happen on it’s own, you need to work hard to earn people’s trust to collaborate with you.
  • You don’t ever get to the point where transformation has been achieved, the only constant is change. True transformation is the ability to deal with this change and help others deal with this change, not just design one thing and leave.
  • Service design is the design of services (i.e. stop bullshitting with long explanations!)
  • Google is the homepage of your service; it’s the homepage of every service
  • A design/innovation lab isn’t a long term strategy; when everyone else sees a bunch of people in an innovation team it tells everyone else that they are not allowed to be innovative. Design and innovation have to be opened up to all.
  • The strategy is delivery; deliver the services you design to prove the value and then scale.


Mauro Rego reinforced Lou’s points by saying that ring-fenced innovation teams are just a glass ceiling to the rest of the organisation and the best form of change is to do, not to preach.

Mauro also visualised something we have struggled with before; explaining that there has to be a balance between delivery (of designs, code etc), process (explaining and getting buy in for the process) and education (upskilling others to the point where they can deliver their own work eventually). He did this using the help of mixing board dials:

Not all the dials can be set to maximum, anyone who does that on a mixing board will make a song sound terrible. So if you’re in full delivery mode the other two dials must be dialled down. Similarly, if you’re in full education mode you can’t expect those people you’re educating to be churning out high quality deliverables because they’re learning.


There’s nothing like a crisis to speed up change… climate emergency declaration anyone?

Ulla Jones told us that organisations only truly change when there is a genuine crisis to hasten the need for change. This is when agencies can be most effective because the senior team are fully on board. Adding to this, she made an interesting point that was backed up by other speakers during the evening; in-house designers spend half their time on projects and the other half ploughing the field so agencies can come in and add to or complete the work.

Mariana Machado, taking us through the internally-led cultural change at Accor Hotels, reaffirmed the point. Accor’s hospitality offering had become stale due to the over standardisation of service and the lack of a common North for everyone who worked at Accor. Hotels, countries and brands each had their own North.

To discover what the North could be they asked one question at the mixed participant workshops: Why do you wake up in the morning? Having defined what they wanted the people who stayed at their hotels to feel, they worked backwards to design the optimal employee experience that will support that.

Intriguingly, she relayed how the CEO only found out about the initiative through hearsay and contacted her to find out more about it. He loved it and commissioned a full scale external rollout.

So, I hope that has been thought provoking. Conferences like this are my preferred way of learning new things, confirming things I had in my head and also changing my mind (or I should say pivoting my mindset!?) on things I thought I knew.

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  1. ATZ LUXURY says:

    Yes, thank for sharing

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