At the end of 2017 I took the role of head of user experience at Virgin Atlantic. What follows is a ‘warts and all’ run down of how I built the UX team from scratch. The steps I’ve taken in my new role as a design leader, the wins I had, mistakes I made, and the lessons I’ve learnt along the way.
Stepping into the role
Preparing for day one
Shortly after accepting the role I started gathering notes on how I wanted my first 90 days to go. I had the opportunity to swap notes with Alison Austin, who was also preparing to start a new role. This coincided with the Leading Design conference, which I used as an opportunity to listen to presentations from design leaders, as well as catch up with Cap Watkins — who generously gave me time to pick his brains.
I created a stack of notes in Dropbox Paper which included my thoughts on cadence, software/hardware costs, tricks for improving UCD culture, various formation of teams and all the job descriptions I had written in the past.
I also made a list of design assets I would expect to find e.g. personas, sitemaps, component libraries, empathy maps, journey maps. This was used as a checklist when I started.
Shut up and listen
I packed my first 10 days in the office with one to ones. I met stakeholders and team members, desperately trying to remember names, but more importantly I started piecing together an understanding of how the team operated. I asked each team member what they thought of the current strategy, what they were anxious about and if there was anything they felt I absolutely shouldn’t change. I treated each meeting like small pre-mortem exercise on my role to draw out any fears about around the group. I felt it was important to get a view of what people feared, before I set foot in the door.
Before I started I bought a set of notepads to capture ideas and feedback.Within the first 3 weeks I had filled an entire pad. There was many years of backstory for me to catchup on as I soon realised the scale of the complexity I had to wrap my head around, before I could fully understand how to design the right org.
Once I had met with everyone in the digitial team, I sought out teams that are connected to us. I found my counterparts in the brand team, marketing, customer experience, IT, Delta, procurement and Virgin Holidays. I listened to their perspective on my team and started building a mental map of how the team was perceived around the business. This proved very important in laying the groundwork for changes I wanted to bring in. It felt important to listen to the different business units, before I planned any changes.
Prototyping the team
At the end of month one I took an opportunity to use a project that was kicking off to try some new ways of working. I made it a priority to capture everything we did in this project, so it could be shared internally. I wanted to start telling stories of how effective user-centred design can be. I even seated the project team in a communal space so they couldn’t be ignored. All of this was to lay foundations for normalising UCD practices. At this stage I hadn’t hired any new team members, so I drafted in Clearleft. In effect they became a prototype for the structure I wanted to build.
Moving from ‘listening’ mode to working with designers, researchers and content strategists was refreshing. Things felt like they were moving. I started to feel like a team leader again and my confidence grew.
I’ve since learned that Marty Cagan refers to this as ‘pilot projects’, but around here that means a whole different thing.
Leading a change
By month 3 I had formed a clear direction for the structure of the team and it was time to kick recruitment off. I started with a content strategist, UX writer and a lead product designer as these would give the team the best opportunity to get some quick wins under our belts and they could begin putting a design system in place. We started advertising and I took it upon myself to tell the story of our new team wherever I could and told everyone in my network about the roles.
The new plans lead to some tricky negotiations with the existing team. Adapting to change is often difficult for people and so I spent a great deal of time looking for ways to support those people and where necessary help them move into new roles. I’d expected there might be some people who weren’t prepared to come on the journey with me and there came a point when I had to say ‘the good goodbye’ to a team member. It’s a disruptive and emotionally charged process that took it’s toll on me. Over this time I developed a stress-related back problem. I put a lot of pressure on myself and my body hated me for it. Many times I squirmed and considered how I could get out of it or maybe just pass the responsibility to someone else. But I knew this was my job and to get to the team I wanted to build, it was neccessary.