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inside the mind of design leaders featuring david stevens, design ops director

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UX / UI Design, Product Design, Creative...

Within this series, Kristie sits down with Design Leaders to get their insight into their successes, challenges and advice. This week, Kristie speaks to David Stevens, Design Ops Director at HSBC Commercial Bank.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into design?

I've been in the design and research game now for about 15 years. Growing up, I was surrounded by creativity and I always wanted to work for Apple, as did most young designers at the time - so I trained as a product designer at University of Sussex.

What I didn't realise at the time was that product design was a lot of Mechanical Engineering, a lot of electrical engineering, a lot of material science, and I wasn't very good at math.

I found a course teacher, who was seconded from the Royal College of Art, who taught me about the value of ethnographic research. They had a real passion for making things better for people who struggled in life generally. Particularly older people with arthritis and other chronic pain conditions.

Combining the passion for inclusive design and this newfound love of research, going out and watching people in the world, understanding their struggles and prototyping things at pace, and really understanding what works and what didn't was where it all started.

Since then I’ve worked as a practitioner and leader in design agencies and in-house teams, primarily in financial services and government

How did you transition into a leadership / management role? Was it natural or were you guided into it from your manager at the time?

I've always been really competitive with myself, not with other people. I've always wanted to try and achieve as much as I can, as early as possible.

My manager at my first job really instilled into me the value of 'You will get far if you're really good at your craft, and you're really good with people'.

She taught me how to really hone a lot of those skills to the point where I got annoyed when more experienced people weren't delivering the same quality of work that I was expected to at a more junior level. I knew I could take on additional responsibilities, like managing stakeholders, costing up jobs and all the rest of it. This gradually led on to leading more teams and coaching. I was lucky to be put on some training, the Dale Carnegie Skills for Success courses, which (whilst extremely cringeworthy at times) gave me the foundations to manage and lead with passion and empathy

When it comes to my approach to leadership, it's definitely not telling people the answer. It's trying to help them find the answer for themselves and trying to find ways to provide them with the resources, expertise and the coaching that they might need to find their own way of doing something, rather than it always being my way.

What is your current role?

My current role is Design Ops Director for HSBC Commercial Bank in the Customer Experience team. Whilst we’re one of our focuses is clearly on delivering great outcomes for customers, we also

From a design operations perspective, I'm responsible for everything that our designers do that isn't design; broadly speaking that includes the ecosystems, processes and culture that makes design work.

On a practical level, this includes:

  • making sure the team has the right tools for the job
  • ensuring we work as effectively and efficiently as possible
  • streamlining how we work with other delivery teams
  • building and nurturing service design and research communities of practice
  • communicating and living the values

I'm also responsible for training; which includes developing and delivering design thinking and service design training across the bank.  This not only helps create a career path for our service designers, but is also a critical part of upskilling the organisation in some of the basics around design thinking and creative problem solving.

Lastly, I'm responsible for service design governance. We're really looking to improve the experience we offer customers, firstly to ensure we get the basics absolutely right, but also in the market and growing as customers grow their business through the services that we offer.

Just on that, is service design new to HSBC?

Yes, the retail bank is a little further ahead of its design maturity,   because they’ve been the first part of the bank to respond to the (much needed) challenge from fintechs.

However, we’re now seeing a huge shift in commercial banking customer expectations too, and I feel extremely lucky to be part of a business investing in building this kind of capability.

When I joined last year, Kara Richards,  our Global Head of Customer Experience for the Commercial Bank, spoke to me about the need to really ‘move the needle’ on the customer experience in the bank. The way we wanted to achieve that was by building a world-class service design and research team that helped the bank create valuable and proven solutions, both for customers and the business

Service design was brand new to the bank and a lot of the education we’ve worked on is to ensure it’s clear what service design and design research are, how they differ from other disciplines and the value these skills adds to both what we deliver to customers and the way we do it.



And was that difficult, or did you have the right level or buy-in?

We've had such senior level buy–in and sponsorship, right from the top of the Group, so we’ve been extremely lucky to be able to grow a team from scratch in such short timelines.  This meant that last year we grew from 5 people to over 50 in less than 6 months, which included permanent hires, contractors and a few seconded agency partners to help us get key projects over the line.

The hard bit wasn’t the buy-in per se, but getting the foundations right for this rapidly scaling team to be as impactful as possible from the get-go.  

I know you've covered some of it, but as Design Ops is new, how do you explain Design Ops to others?

I've led practice teams and I've been a practitioner in research and service design strategy, but the reason that I find Design Ops so interesting and compelling, is that it's one of the few roles that exist to really make design work in a large organisation.

To be able to set the infrastructure up so that from the moment people join, you're able to give them the tools, the processes, the workflows that makes their life easier in a much larger organisation.

When we started out, we definitely didn’t get it right first time! We had people waiting weeks for a laptop and email addresses because we were new as well and didn’t have a clear sight of all the processes required in a large place like HSBC. But we learned and adapted and things are much smoother now.

The reason this matters to me, as a design, is that I’ve joined in-house teams having left agencies and it can be an incredibly painful experience simply getting the tools to do your best work due to the amount of red tape.

In order for design to be successful and taken seriously as a force for change in large corporates, we need the infrastructure for designers to be successful; so I see my role and purpose to serve the needs of the design community, to enable them to do their best work, to elevate the role we play in delivering solutions that really work and ultimately to create a happy culture.

What are some of the top challenges you've faced as a design leader?

One of the hardest things to do is to communicate the real business value of good research

There's not necessarily the organisational ritual or habit for conducting research with customers regularly and often, and that's for a number of reasons. It's very difficult to find someone who owns the research relationship, there's lots of different teams doing little bits of research. So we're trying to find a way to really centralise that at the moment, in one way or another, and that's why we have a Research Ops team.

Part of the challenge is helping communicate that if you spend this money now, you're going to reduce your risk much later. By doing this research with very highly skilled people, you’re much more likely to get great results rather than   going out there and getting your team to ask questions yourselves. Not everyone can do good research and it just becomes a waste of money. That said, when your resources are stretched, those skilled practitioners play an incredibly important coaching role, so that we build capability in the business and enable teams to do some elements of research themselves.

Part of what I'm really passionate about is making sure that we don't dilute the value of research practitioners in the context of much wider design and change. The skills that they have, such as adductive thinking and the ability to sift through lots of information and converge to the important information that they've heard from customers and colleagues, help distil the data and information down into the compelling insights that make a difference to what we design.

There's also the challenge of how to talk about service design in a way that means something tangible to a business. What you talk about is end to end, front to back design of services, but a service designer won't be the only one that can do that. Process engineers do this as well, we just have a slightly different way of looking at it.

Trying to find those moments of collaboration without stepping on toes is always a little awkward – thankfully due to the sheer scale of the challenges we face,  I’ve found that the organisational politics isn’t much of an issue at HSBC - everyone is genuinely willing to work with each other. So, we've got a good thing...

How have you found adapting to the new ways of working during COVID 19?

We've found it remarkably straightforward. Not without hiccups, but it's been much easier than I expected to transition to working from home environment, in terms of the project work that we're trying to get out of it, and that's largely because we're a global organisation.

We're in 79 different jurisdictions and need to collaborate with global teams regularly We made a big transition to Zoom just before COVID hit properly, so that's been an absolute game changer and given us the ability to use breakout rooms and run amazing engaging workshops at amazing pace. Doing this remotely has been a huge win for our team because we're pioneering this way of working and it’s actually accelerating some of the changes we were hoping to influence.

The more difficult thing has been an element of loneliness, I think, and trying to find the time in between the back to back half-hour phone calls and zoom meetings to try and find that time for wellbeing -for actually connecting with the team on a more personal level and take even the five minutes that you would normally have walking in between corridors. We’ve now set up remote breakfast drop-ins, happy hours with leadership where we share a Quarantini or two, ‘walkshops’ instead of workshops and ensure we share as many hints and tips for wellbeing as we can.

On a personal level, my wife has become a full-time parent to our two-year-old. It has been a more challenging transition, just to help find the time in the day and make sure that I'm still present having lunch and dinner together, going out for walks, trying to create some boundaries between my work and home life.  

Do you have a design philosophy that you live by?

If you design something for the extremes of people's needs, it will be better for everyone. So really making sure that we do things as inclusively as possible, whether that's internal teams, or if it's for customers.

One place where this really became clear, was when I was at the home office, where we were designing a service for internal users for immigration officers. Because of the pace we had to deliver, and because it was ‘internally’ facing, some people on the team were adamant we didn’t have to go through the GDS service assessment.  However, when you look at the needs internal users had it couldn’t be ignored – it wasn’t just the right thing to do, it was also essential for legally meeting the obligations the government has to meet the needs of its employees.   

So taking that experience into my role now and the types of people that I look to hire as well, I definitely look to hire people who look at things from that perspective – people who don’t just design for 80% of the audience. I want people who know how to design for 100%.



When scaling the HSBC team, what are the important qualities or skills you look for in a Designer?

We started off with people that are not only talented great service designers, but people who have a real resilient quality about them,

I also really wanted to look for people with a diverse background. Lots of people with financial service experience are particularly useful for subject matter expertise, but other types of regulated environments that people have worked in, as well. People I know who've worked in government, people I know who've worked in really complicated regulatory environments in the insurance industry, or in health care, for example, and much faster moving organisations like Amazon, as the organisational knowledge of places like that helped us modernise quickly.

In terms of the qualities themselves, you have to be resilient, extremely analytical, but pragmatic as well as we’re in tough times and have to focus on delivering what customers and colleagues need as quickly as possible.

You also need people who are willing to connect and navigate throughout the organisation. We have a very complex organisational structure, it’s hard to figure out who reports into who, what their reporting lines are, who's responsible for what, is it just regional or global, who has the influence, and so having the ability to network through the organisation is also really important. You need to be a real people person and understand how to create long-lasting relationships.

You also need to understand the commercial realities of in house teams. Unlike agencies, you can't just hire more freelancers to get a project done. That doesn't exist in the bank. You have to deal with the resources that you've got and figure out what impact you're going to have and what projects are going to deliver something of real value, provide growth opportunities for the team and demonstrate impact

What do you think makes a good work culture?

We've been having this discussion quite a bit recently and for us culture is ‘how we do things here.’ It's a mixture of behaviours, beliefs, values and actions that are instilled in a team.

I think you'll get a lot of people who join a team and try and wonder how they fit in. What we've tried to do is make sure that we've got a culture that is very transparent in terms of what we believe and what we do. We make sure that we're working in teams, rather than being lone wolves, for example, that we try and choose hero projects, instead of spreading ourselves across absolutely everything. When it comes down to the projects that we're working on, we try to empower them to build their own micro-cultures. So having the tools to run a workshop to get to know the project team and stakeholders better,  the workshop, even if it's just workshop templates and facilitators to kick start a project and to help people get to know each other before they get going.

We’ve also used the 16 personalities test, it's basically a high-level psychometric test that tells you what personality type you are. That really helps to understand the neurodiversity of the team. It’s actually helped us understand that we’re over-indexed in a particular type of personality – whilst that’s to be expected to some extent (as we’re all designers), it’s also given us clues to areas that we could benefit from different styles of thinking.  

For me culture is the ways that we work, the support that we provide each other, the way that we provide feedback, the way that we call out the bad behaviours, and, and the way that we continue to nurture a culture of progression, continuous feedback, iteration, and ultimately supporting each other, especially in times like this.

What's one thing about design that's clear to you, but don't think is so clear to other people?

Everyone has the skills to solve problems creatively and that design is never surface level.

Being able to coach people through the importance of thinking creatively and using design thinking techniques, as an example, to understand people's behaviour or empathise with an audience, to be able to explore things from different angles, and use it as a tool for just doing their job better – whether that launching greater products or services, or creating a presentation for their boss, or to answer a difficult question for a group of customers on the front line.

To summarise, everyone has the ability to think like a designer, even if they don't have the craft.

Last question: Blogs, books and podcasts, what can you recommend?

Good services by Lou Downe, a great introduction to talking about service design in a really practical context and the things that good services do. The reason that's good for leaders is because we've often talked about service design and the importance of a method for many, many years, but very few people get into ‘this is just what a good service looks like’, or ‘what it should do’, both from how it supports the customer, but also how it supports the business.

Making Of A Manager by Julie Zhuo, it’s awesome. I've made so many mistakes as a leader over time and so has Julie, by her own admission. Hearing her on the Julie Zhuo: Learning to manage like a leader - DesignBetter is great. And because she was just like, I have no idea how to be a manager first time around, these are some great life lessons and some tips on how to do things.

One of the really practical things I've taken from that book is with direct reports, making sure you have at least weekly check ins with them, because without doing that you don't have enough contact time. I think that's really important.

Org Design for Design Orgs by Peter Merholz, Kristin Skinner. That takes a lot of lessons from the Adaptive Path acquisition by Capital One and looks at how you integrate your design teams into delivery and the different models that work in house teams.

Design Better podcasts, it's one of my favourites, they have some great speakers on there. They've also got a tonne of great handbooks co-authored by lots of different people. For instance their Design Thinking Handbook, the DesignOps Handbook and their most recent one around remote work has a huge amount of valuable information.

The Crazy One podcast by Stephen Gates.

I'd also recommend following Ross Breadmore from Lloyds Banking Group, he’s a design director and he often does some great week notes and medium articles about building and measuring capabilities in a growing service design in particular.

Let My people Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard. The CEO of Patagonia, and it’s their lessons in culture. It’s a great one.

Hit Refresh by Satya Nadella. A great lesson in how to completely reshape what was quite a toxic, competitive sales driven culture, into something that serves the needs of customers, both at an enterprise level but also wider society. So that's been really inspiring.


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