Jane Austin: On Design Leadership and the Role of a Designer

Jane and I talk about her opinions of what's the most crucial aspect of being a design leader, quantifying the value of our design work, and what we can do to support designers who are just starting out.

Photo of Jane Austin
Photo of Jane Austin

You can also listen to this on

Guests

Avatar
Director of Design, Babylon Health

Jane Austin

Connect with Jane

LinkedIn

Selected links from the episode

Jane’s Medium articles

The Intrapreneurs Club

Full transcript

Christian: Welcome to Design Meets Business, a show that inspires designers to think beyond pixels. I’m your host, Christian Vasile, and on this podcast, I sit down with creatives to talk about their stories, lessons they’ve learned during their careers, and how you can use design to make a bigger impact in your organization.

Today, we’re talking to Jane Austin, Director of Design at Babylon Health. Jane shares with us her opinions of what’s the most crucial aspect of being a design leader, quantifying the value of our design work, and what we can do to support designers who are just starting out.

Jane, I really appreciate you being in the podcast. Thank you so much for joining. You’ve been with Babylon Health for a couple of years now, and I’m sure you’ve got a lot to share about building teams and design leadership and all that. So we are going to be talking about all those cool topics today, but first, why don’t you give us a quick background of yourself and how you ended up being in the role you are today?

Jane: I’m not quite sure how far you want me to go back. I’ll try and I’ll go back quite far because it’s interesting. And I’ll try and counter along quickly to get to the present day. I’ve got a degree, a master’s degree actually, in philosophy, which meant I was completely unemployable. And I went traveling via around Easter Europe and Portugal, Europe, various other places, teaching English as a foreign language. So all these poor people they’re actually learning Scottish, not learning English. And then I came back to London and I got a job teaching refugees English. And this shows how long ago it was. It was for a government college and they invested all this money in an ICT suite for the poor refugees to learn English. But these CD ROMs were so badly designed and everybody was getting really frustrating and upset. I got onto a free course to program director at the college. We did the CD ROMs and discovered that actually there was a thing called usability and that this was a huge problem.

I had no idea that this was even a thing and that we used the CD ROMs as a – like a portfolio to go onto a second master’s which was called Hypermedia. I really am showing my age. And then from there, I got a job now and a really nice studio to be creative agency in Shoreditch, which went spectacularly bankrupt.

Set up my own agency. I phoned their clients and asked them if they had anybody looking after them. So it was like D&AD and Channel Four and the Design museum, so some amazing clients. And we didn’t make a penny. Not a penny. We just like — I was too embarrassed to ask for money. I didn’t understand how business worked. It was an absolute disaster. 

So from there I got a job in another agency and then I went and played safe. Because that’s when I discovered actually what product design was, it was owning the product and iterating on it. It wasn’t just kind of doing usability at the end of the process. So starting with product people from the beginning to craft something that people actually wanted. So that was at a trading company, online trading platform, which was insanely complex. I left there because I was second guessing myself. It was actually more like gambling than trading.

And went to the Government Digital Service, which was just amazing. I learned so much in GDS. I worked with some of the best people in the world. Then went to the Telegraph. We rebuilt everything at the Telegraph, and then they decided that we had built all the things, so they didn’t need a product team. They just needed to market the things. So we all got made redundant and then I went to MOO, wonderful company making business cards.

And then I followed my boss Chad and moved to Babylon Health where I am now. We’re an AI-powered healthcare, not really a startup anymore, it’s a scale-up, and their mission is to provide affordable and accessible healthcare to the world. 

Christian: Yes. Thanks. Thanks for that, Jane really quick, really, to the point. I love that. You said one thing that was really interesting, which is you’ve learned a lot at GDS. And a lot of the designers that I’ve spoken to around London and who have worked for the Government keep mentioning the same thing. Like, “Oh, I’ve learned so much working for the Government.” Which is probably another thing you would say in a lot of, let’s say, more forward-thinking industries. So what were some of the things that you’ve learned at GDS? 

Jane: At GDS I learned the power about having a mission and having these really clear sighted people at the top of driving that mission. I learned the power of doing research early and often. Research was a tool for everybody to understand the customer. So they had mandated contact hours. Everybody had to see the people using their product. They supported people, so people outside of GDS, to come along on the journey. We’re having an incredible impact on people’s lives.

So the people who redesigned the new passport service, it’s amazing. I actually saw them starting work on that — starting work with really understanding people’s needs and why they had to do this online service. And then building out from needs and making sure everything was clear and simple… doing the hard work to make it simple. They had values that were up everywhere. So you can’t – you’re able to make really clear decisions.

And then the way they did agile, it wasn’t just like… what’s it called, fragile, or like waterfall with some standups. It was proper agile where people were collaborating really well. The teams were really well structured. We had lots of retros and the people themselves. So I worked with Lisa who’s amazing. And just, they had the space as well to really do considered very good work. I think the problem being in a startup or somewhere commercial, often, everything is an MVP, and that’s really frustrating. But at GDS, they finished what we started and they released products which were a complete step change, most substitute of the products, but absolute complete step change in what had been done before, and setting standards that the rest of Government followed. It was just a joy to work there. 

Christian: Was there any difference, or now looking back, you’ve worked for the Government, you’ve worked for a lot of private companies, any difference in working or in how design is being applied at the Government versus how it is applied in private companies?

Jane: It’s an interesting question. I think at the Government, really, a lot of the battle had been already won. I can’t remember the lady’s name from last minute… Oh gosh, that’s terrible, I’ll come back to that. She’d written a report into why Government had to be more digital. So the battle of this had already been won.

And then secondly, they said the people who set up GDS had a system and a process, and that battle had already been won. And they understood the importance of research and design. But very often in private organisations, they don’t understand Design. They think Design makes things look pretty. I remember once getting interviewed for a job and the product manager said to me, “Oh, yes. I love design. It’s where the magic happens.” And I felt, wow, this is a place I don’t want to work. He thinks Design is like a creative genius in a cupboard doing magic, when actually it’s a rigorous process. 

So I think that what I learned at GDS, Design is a rigorous process that you follow that’s based on customer needs, and it results in something really good rather than you’re turning out and colouring in some stakeholders’ ideas, which is often what happens in the private sector. So for design to work well, you need stakeholders to understand the impact and you need to be able to do regular research and to iterate. And rather than HIPPOS, highest paid person in the organisation coming in dictating what you should do, at GDS it was the opposite. You started with customers or citizens and worked up from there. 

So I think the differences where the power is, and what battles had already been won, and having the space for design to actually prove itself, rather than just coming at the end and colouring in. That’s not everywhere, but a lot of companies are still like that remarkably.

Christian: So you said one thing that I’d like to unpack a little bit, which was one of the things that’s required is for stakeholders to understand the impact. And I’m sometimes wondering whether that’s something that we, as designers on the ground can do more towards. So to me, it always comes back to transparency.

It’s sometimes very difficult for stakeholders in the business to understand what you’re doing when you’re working in silos or you go away and you work and then a month later you come back for a grand reveal or something like that. So do you think being more transparent at work would help more stakeholders understand what it is we’re doing?

Jane: Absolutely. There’s so much you can do to work with stakeholders. From the start, actually turning your UX and your design processes on the stakeholders. So not just having empathy for your end users, but having empathy for your stakeholders, or just doing — interviewing them, doing empathy maps, trying to understand what they’re thinking and feeling, and be able to channel or create your messages in a way that resonates with them and solves the problems that they’re having that reassures them.

To speak in the language of business is really, really important. I’ve just finished… we get paid money to do training at Babylon. And I decided this year, I wasn’t wanting to do any additional training in design. I did a course in how to be a non-executive director, which was a five-day course. It was almost like a mini MBA. And it helped me understand strategy, the pressures that businesses are under, the way the finances are operating. And that was really, really helpful, because it means that I can now coach what I’m doing in the language of the stakeholders. 

And then you design with the stakeholders. You maybe have some quick wins to build credibility or you have a project that you make sure that they are — you bring them along on the journey with you, so they understand what you’re doing. And that’s where product is phenomenal at. You should be working really closely with product and tech all the way through the process. And product people are very good at translating design into the business. You have to make sure that you don’t sort of hide behind the product person and let them do all the talking for you. You have to go out there and try and build that relationship with the stakeholders and be able for them to understand the impact that you’re having.

Christian: So you said earlier that you’ve started this agency and then you didn’t make a penny off of it, because you didn’t necessarily understand the business side of it. So how has, I don’t want to call it failure, but how has that period of not being able to make that agency work helped you later on during your career? Has that taught you something specific that you’ve used later on?

Jane: Quite a few things. One of the first things was I felt like weirdly guilty about asking for money for my work. But clients would come and they would make us do all of these changes. And then I would think, “Well, I didn’t get it right first time so I shouldn’t ask them for any money.“ Which was just crazy. And I felt so weirdly guilty that I wasn’t actually working, that I was somehow just enjoying myself so much that I shouldn’t be asking for money for what I was doing, that I was enjoying so much. So this weird guilt and strange feelings about money that helped me reflect on that and say, “Why should I? Why did I feel so guilty and weird about asking for money for my work? That’s really helped. 

The other thing is having much more structure in projects. So really understanding what you have to do, really pinning it down and really being very clear about the processes and what you got to do, why are you going to do it, rather than sort of like being buffeted by stakeholders. Being able to be much more structured about your interactions, to almost protect yourself. That really helped. 

And I think, just understanding the importance of business, it’s difficult to make money. And that gives me a lot of empathy for going to work in these other different companies and trying to understand how do they make money? What can I do that impacts their business?

So this helps when I was at MOO, which was an e-commerce business, trying to understand which products had the best margin, which one would be best for us to try and encourage the customer to buy. And then doing design switch, trying to — well, not like dark patterns, but try to showcase products which have the better margins, which were good to impact the business. So taking that knowledge of the business and applying it to design is definitely something that I took from that. 

Christian: I think, you’ve said something that will help us segue a bit into a topic that I want to discuss. You said you felt guilty for charging for design. And I think I can relate to that. And I’ve talked to a lot of people who do the same. And you see a lot of people, especially freelancers, who are struggling to charge proper money for their work.

And I think a lot of times this goes back to not necessarily understanding the value of what you can offer. Because if you talk to an architect, a lawyer, an electrician, a house builder, they don’t feel guilty for charging you money because they understand the value they can provide. And they also understand, “I provide you some value, you need to pay for it.” But I think with design coming from an art background where you don’t really solve a problem, you don’t really bring any value per se, any tangible value, I think we still oftentimes think of our work as not necessarily valuable. And I want to talk about that. And I want to talk about how can we quantify what it is we’re doing or can we quantify what it is we’re doing?

Jane: I think that’s a fantastic question. Maybe there’s two parts to that. The first one I think is just because we’re coming often from an arts background, as you said, business or commerce seems quite alien and we’re not taught about it.

And particularly I come from a working-class family where we didn’t really like have that sort of entrepreneurial backgrounds or understand about charging, about things. It was completely alien to me. And I think perhaps if you come from a professional family, where your parents work for a large company rather than being self-employed, it may be an alien to you.

It’s not something that you were taught at school. You’re not taught it as part of your degree course. It’s just very uncomfortable. And as British people, we’re uncomfortable about money altogether. So I’ve actually had been taught by an American friend of mine about how to be much more confident and articulate about money. And I think that’s maybe something all of us should do, go and find a really assertive American friend to teach you to ask for money, because it’s painful until you do it a few times. 

The second question was about how can you prove your value. I think that’s another fantastic point. You should be starting a project, particularly now that we’re working in collaborative cross functional teams, particularly if you’re working in a product organization, you should be starting your project with the ideas of what the success metrics should be from the start. So is it that you want more adoption, more people using the feature or is it to be able to sell more rather than just randomly designing something, you should be part of that conversation from the beginning to understand why the company is investing its time in this team to build something. And designers should not see themselves as that sort of thing, separate from that, but as part of the cross functional team that has been able to justify its existence. Because you don’t often hear engineers debating of like, “What’s my value?” So actually being — aligning yourself with engineers and product people as a group, understanding what your success metrics are as a cross functional team, and then proving that you’ve been able to deliver them.

That’s a really good way to go about it rather than sort of extracting design from the whole thing and saying, “Yes, look at our ROI.” You’re not — you as a designer and a product organization, you’re part of a group of people responsible for a feature or for a set of customers or something. And so you should understand why you’re building this from the start.

Christian: So off the back of that, how do you empower your teams to do that? Because it’s one thing to have it at a conversation level and say, “I think we should do that,” and it’s a whole other thing to implement the whole mindset in the minds of a team of however, 10, 15, 20 designers, I don’t even know. But how do you empower your team on a daily basis to do exactly that? 

Jane: If you look at the rule of a manager or a leader in a product organisation is quite different to how it’s gone before. In the past, you might have a manager responsible for a group of people and telling them what to do and directing their work.

It doesn’t work like that anymore. In a cross functional agile product like companies, the role of a manager is more like a servant leader, that you’re there to promote people and to empower them and to make sure that they have the tools to do their job. That you’re able to perhaps give them the coaching, help them understand what we’ve got to do, but you don’t tell them what to do.

Their responsibility is to work with product and tech and to understand what their roadmap is, to use research, to understand what you need to build, to use research to see if they’ve validated what they’ve built, and to collaborate really well with products and technology. So the way that design works now, I think is to be a partner and to be — there should be like a really healthy tension between product tech and design.

So design should be focusing on the customer with a problem to solve, tech should be focusing on feasibility, and product should be thinking about the business requirements. And between the three groups of people, that tension results in some really good decisions. And that’s what you should be trying to support as a leader or manager in a product organisation. How to give your team confidence to make these decisions, confidence to be assertive and have really good discussions with product people, to make sure that are there’s enough designers to be able to have these conversations. 

And that’s where things get difficult, is when you’re in an organization and there’s nothing you can do about it, but there’s not enough designers. So they end up not being able to look forward enough to be able to do discovery. So then they get it handed to them and then they have to just execute rather than really thinking about it. That’s the place, perhaps, you can push back as a leader, but not always because that’s where organisations become very difficult to work for where decisions are sort of handed down from the top.

And that might segue to another question that I know we were discussing prior to starting this podcast, which is like what is the good and the bad organization to work for? So good organisation is one where the teams are empowered to make their decisions. There’s a good structure. People know what outcomes they have to build. There’s consistency. So there’s kind of guardrails around consistency, like the design system and processes. But the teams are within this structure, they’re told what outcomes they need to achieve, and they can decide how to do it.

And that kind of bottom up, but very supportive structure. You get really great results. Where designers become really fed up and disempowered and burnt out is where some dict-outs are handed down from the top. You’ve just got to build a feature. They don’t quite know why they’ve got to build a feature. They don’t get to do discovery and they become feature factories. That’s a bad organization and a place where it’s really difficult to do good design. 

Christian: So let’s stay on that topic, I think, And let’s talk hiring a little bit, but let’s talk hiring from the perspective of a designer. So when you go to an interview, obviously you need to do well enough to prove to the people you’re sitting in front of that you have what it takes to work there. But there’s also the other side of the story, which is that organization also needs to “prove to you” that they are right for you. Sometimes it’s really, really difficult when you just have brief interactions with people in a company you’re interviewing for to know whether that company is fit for you or not, whether you would actually enjoy working there or not. So how do you go about doing that? 

Jane: From the perspective of a designer, one of the things you should look at is Glassdoor. Glassdoor is going to give you a glimpse. Oh, there’s a terrible expression an old boss of mine used to see is “opening the kimono”. It’s terrible, terrible expression, but I suppose that’s what Glassdoor does. It helps see the insight, the truth of the organization. And it’s an amazing tool. Definitely one to be used. 

Also maybe see the kind of people that are working there. Do they talk, or do they blog, and are there people that are respected? Then actually in the interview I think, — Oh, sorry and when you’re looking at people that work there, maybe you know somebody, or you can have a chat to them, just give a little bit of a detective and do some digging. And then in the interview, a lot of people don’t realise it’s a two-way street. You’re not there just to prove you can do the job, it’s also to make sure that that job is right for you. 

So there’s lots of questions you can ask. Like, “Why is the role open?” “How do you decide what to build” is a really fantastic question, because that’s when you know if it’s going to be a feature factory or people are a bit more empowered? Ask about how the teams are set up, so that you want to make sure that you’re in cross functional squads, ask about how much research is done. So do people just build stuff or is it actually based on needs and do they the validate it? Where does power lie? Sometimes you’ve got organisations you’ve got very senior engineering people dictating things. Those that might be hard one to answer people hadn’t really thought about it.

And also, “How do you iterate?” If it’s a place where you’re in a permanent MVP, That’s a dreadful place to be a designer. Again, people get burned out, so just asking people how your products evolve, what basis you’re evolving from? And then maybe ask if you ideally meet some other people in the team. Ask if you can go for coffee with them. If you get through to that point, definitely, you need to validate that this is a place you’re going to be spending at least the next two years of your life, probably more time than you will be spending with your family. So it’s really important to make sure that’s the right fit. And that’s another thing being assertive about, making sure that you value your time as well as asking for money. And that is this place the right organisations for me to give the gift of my time to. 

Christian: Cool. So we’ve got it from the perspective of a designer. Let’s just twist it and talk from the perspective of a company, because you’ve probably interviewed hundreds of designers by this point, you’ve said yes or no to hundreds. So let’s try to extract some patterns of what people do really well at interviews that impresses you. And then what people always kind of seem to be stumbling upon as negative step when they are in front of you. 

Jane: What I look for in an interview is — so I don’t give tasks. I think tasks are really, really unfair way to assess people. For a start, it can often relate people who have family commitments or who have chronic illnesses who might not have the energy to do this. And you’re weeding out some potentially fantastic candidates. So I think it’s a daft thing to do. Although if you want to keep doing it means my candidate pool’s bigger.

So what I do instead is try and look for signals to see how something works and what it would be like as a colleague. And so for that, we ask people who interview with us to talk through two or three previous projects. So first we give them a brief. We explain the problems that we have and structure that we have in our company, what kind of thing you might be working on, who they might be working with, challenges they might have, and ask them to go and think about a couple of projects that they’re really proud of the top to the kinds of roles that they will be doing. 

Then they come in and present to a panel. And there, we like to see a story. We like to see that people followed a good process. Maybe they got something wrong and they learn from it, that something surprised them, that they think about things deeply, that they collaborated well. So we have sort of set of questions that we use to see if someone’s going to be a teammate, because modern product design is so much about collaboration and about good decision making. So we look for those signals.

And then we just we — we call it a culture fit. I like to think about it as a culture art. What makes that person who they are and what strengths do they have that they can bring to the team. And it’s really good to focus on strengths rather than weaknesses. So what is sports value art? What’s the cultural art is that person bringing to the team? 

So the mistakes I’ve seen is where people… actually, will tell you the one of the worst mistakes I’ve seen was somebody actually presented a bit of work back to me in the portfolio that they hadn’t done that I had. I know, can you believe it? That was years and years ago, though. But I’ve heard stories of some of the things happening the other times. I think perhaps the worst things people can do is just present work where they’ve not really… they haven’t really looked at customer needs. They’ve not really thought about what they’re designing. They focus too much on shiny, shiny, beautiful stuff, rather than actually thinking about creating a product. Where people perhaps haven’t learned anything. 

So you ask people to reflect back on the project and say, what would you do differently? And we would always do something differently. Some people would say nothing, you think, well, that person perhaps hasn’t got the growth mindset that you need to succeed. So it’s those kinds of subtleties that we look for because we’ve got so many fantastic designers that apply to us. So there’s subtleties about what people’s aptitude and potential. It’s important to hire for potential rather than reality. 

Christian: So I know that you wrote a couple of years ago an article on Medium, where you explicitly stated that you think that your main job as a design leader is hiring. That is your number one job. So, first, why? And second, how do you bring good designers in front of you? Because putting a job ad on the website is not enough anymore. So you must be doing some things to be able to bring that talent in front of you, that you can then interview. So why is it important? And then how are you doing it? 

Jane: It’s — there’s a lot of things you need to do as a design leader. And I think the hiring is probably first among equals. It’s not the only thing that’s important, but if you get your team composition and structure wrong, things aren’t going to go well. And when I say hiring, I don’t just simply mean interviewing people. I mean, thinking really carefully about the components or the structure of the organization that you want to have.

So you have people in squads, but will you have a research director? What level should that person be? Do you have a design system? How would you build this? Do you have service designers? If so, by what parts of the product they look up? So often I go in, I think the last three or four jobs I’ve gone in and built a team. So this is — I’m talking to more people working perhaps at startups and scale ups like I’ve done. 

So first you have to understand the rules you’re hiring for. And then you need to go out and get people excited about coming to work with you. So that’s quite hard work. You’d also do mentoring. I’m continually mentoring to try and think about the next generation of designers, doing podcasts like this one, or talking. I’m member of Slack groups where I support other designers, I do portfolio reviews. So continually just trying to nurture a talent pipeline, that doesn’t sound too cheesy.

And then making sure that you have another subset of values that is right for the team. That perhaps your first few hires you might look at the values of the organisation, but then you want to think about the values of your team. What you stand for, what kind of personality do you want to have? Where do you see potential, what do you mean by potential? And work with your team do you define this, and then when we hire people, as I said, there’s a cultural art. 

So that hiring is — actually, there’s a multitude of things that underpin hiring, that make you sure that your team is running really well, really well structured. And your job is to sort of like, make sure people get the right people come into that team in the right place and that they’re onboarded and they’re supported very well, set up for success. 

Christian: You talked a couple of times about nurturing talent and people coming in. And I think one of the things that’s very obvious to me is that we, as an industry, we’re not really doing enough for the people coming in. There’s barely any support. There’s barely — I know there are articles and YouTube videos and all that, but as in peer to peer support, there’s not a lot of that. So if you — I assume a lot of senior people, senior designers, maybe design leaders are listening to this. What could they do to give back to the community and to help these people just coming in get to the point they are at?

Jane: There’s a few structured things out there. There’s the thing called the intrapreneurs club, run by Michael Giles, which is fantastic. Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to be as involved in that as I really wanted to be. But that’s something you could perhaps reach out to them and see if they need support. They’re trying to bring around people who are underrepresented in the industry to find them jobs and get them supported. 

I do some volunteer teaching. I support some like entrepreneurs clubs to try and help them understand the role of design of the kind of people that they should be hiring. I do some volunteer mentoring. Some universities have reached out to me to do things like portfolio reviews, which I do. So there’s a bit of volunteer work that I do. And there’s so many people looking for it.

So I think maybe even just putting up, deciding the kind of sector or group of people that you’d like to help would you could tweak, that’s one way to look at it. Although that might distill like real life people who really need the help. So there’s perhaps other organisations and different places you can go and try and find people. There’s quite a few sorts of like local youth groups or some charities that are trying to get underrepresented people into creative industries. So do a bit of research and you could find these organisations and just volunteer. 

Christian: Yes. I think another example that’s been on the podcast is just being able to offer portfolio reviews. Just the other day, I had someone write to me on LinkedIn after I think I gave her portfolio review a couple of times back in April or something. I don’t even remember. And she wrote to me to say, I just got a job. And she was just so thankful. And stuff like that makes you want to do more of that.

So I think there are small steps and I think if you just want to help, you can just put a message on LinkedIn and people would love to have your half an hour or whatever. So I think it’s stuff like that that we need to do more of as people who’ve been in the industry for a while. What are some of the things that you’ve seen junior designers just coming into the industry struggle with versus what are the things that you’ve seen more senior designers, generally, struggle with?

Jane: Tricky question. Perhaphs junior designers, they haven’t got a story to tell. So it’s really hard to get that first job, because as I’ve described, there are a lot of these signals that I’m looking for, are for people who’ve already had a job and they’re able to talk about how they’ve collaborated to how they’re able to share what they’ve learned from a project.

Junior designers, often we wouldn’t have that. So try the — you could do some volunteering or tell the story about your degree show or whatever course you on. You should have done a project, so you’ll be able to tell a story about that and what you’ve learned. So I think that’s just like getting over the first hurdle is being able to give people the signals and the information or enough information for them to make a decision to hire you.

And also like, how do you demonstrate potential? So what could you do? That’s another thing that the junior designers struggle with, and then I think junior designers actually on the job, there’s all this stuff around being a designer. So like, understanding the complexity of shipping staff, understanding how to influence, how to tell the story of your design, how to present it, how to measure it. So there’s the hard design skills, but all the soft skills around it are things that you probably learn just through years of work.

Senior designers, it’s more to do with, again, I think the soft skills about thinking about how you might understand different things that are going on in the organisation and connect them. How to look up and out from your work. How to manage upwards. How to understand stakeholders. How to be assertive and push back. How to really unpack what you’re designing, so rather than thinking about beautiful execution, maybe being targeted that you shouldn’t be doing something at all. Being able to do much more, in depth research or think about sort of longitudinal research or to think about much more difficult problems. 

So a junior designer might work on like a button or a small aspect of the site. Senior designer might work across an entire feature. And then more senior people would be thinking about the holistic for the entire product. How do you make that consistent? Or they might be thinking about something six months in the future and how you might support — future of the product might be. So the difference often is the same skills. It’s the scale or the range of impact that you have between junior to senior is what the difference is. 

Christian: This might be a tricky one to answer, but you’ve mentioned potential a couple of times. And I’m wondering, how do you read potential? Sometimes even people themselves don’t know they have the potential, because how would you? It’s in the future. So when you have someone in front of you, what makes you think, “Oh, this person will become someone in this field.” Is it more of a gut feeling or are there specific things you’re looking for? 

Jane: I think there’s a bit of a gut feeling. Everyone has a gut feeling, but I try to ignore that because that could often be your biases. I try to be aware of it and try to ignore the gut feeling. I think things that give it – talk to me about potential are people who really love the job, they find it really interesting, who have opinions about different apps and why they like them, who maybe worked really hard to get where they are, maybe did a career change or somewhere that they’ve done this sort of extra work to show that they really, really care.

And I mentioned earlier that people doing extra work is — you could end up limiting your group of people that you’re hiring from because people have chronic illnesses, people are parents are caring for supports. They may not have the time to do this. So the kind of thing I’m talking about is maybe that they’ve been reading books or reading not just design books, but books about the industry or books about how to work with product people. That they’re thinking around the problem. That they’re thinking deeply. That they’re trying to unpack why we work how we work. They’re just looking more deeply rather than just thinking about a pretty interface. For me, that talks about potential.

Christian: What’s your take on generally design education versus being self-taught or just taking an apprenticeship or whatever. What’s your thought on starting out?

Jane: Gosh, I don’t know. I think if you can and you haven’t got enough money or time to go to university, then there’s a lot of apprenticeships and there’s a lot of sort of short-term courses, which seem to — people I’ve seen do very well off the back of them. Some of them are perhaps a bit more of a factory, and perhaps people they’re churning out a lot with designers there’s not jobs for. I’m not so sure. Design education, I think from – I’ve been doing some volunteer teaching in universities, and often it’s very difficult for people who are teaching the courses in universities to keep up with sort of modern product design techniques, because there’s so much that goes on outside of just actually creating an interface.

And people are being taught how to create an interface, when actually you should be thinking about how to do effort versus value mapping with your product and tech person because that’s the design activity. The looking at roadmap is a design activity, thinking about what KPI you should measure is a design activity, because all of this impacts your design. So I think this traditional design education is quite focused on the craft rather than all of the things that you need to do in order to produce a fantastic product design.

Christian: I think this focus on craft, it’s naturally what’s going to happen in the beginning of your career. At some point in time, ideally, this transition should happen where instead of focusing on the craft and the tools, you just start thinking about the 10,000-foot view or the future, the strategy, the KPIs, all the things that you’ve just mentioned. How does that transition happen? Is it just something that you just have to wait for it to happen over time or are there shortcuts you can take to get there?

Jane: That’s a great question. I don’t know, actually, I’ve kind of something I’ve seen just people have over time as they get more experienced. I think it just takes time. Some people, it might take less time than others, which is why often you see in job ads when people mentioned that years of experience required. I don’t think that’s strictly fair. But it’s things that deepen your practice to understand how things work in the real world. It’s not something you can just know overnight.

Think it has to be quite a bit of enough experience. And also to give you that innate confidence to be able to stand your ground, to be able to argue to sort of say, “Oh, I’ve seen it before.” I mean that’s actually a really good way to describe what needs to happen, being able to say, “We have seen it before and it played out like this. So I think maybe we should try this, or I’ve seen this before and this bad thing happens, so we should avoid it and try this different thing.” That experience is always part of your craft. It does take time to just know how things work, how situations play out, how you should tackle a particular situation. That takes time and I think that’s okay. It’s okay. 

Christian: Yes. So it’s patience and then just keep working, I guess. We’re nearing the end. A couple of more questions for you. You wrote another article than the one I was referring to earlier where you — I’m going to just quote because I think it says a lot about your idea of what a designer should be. 

So it goes like this, “I believe that to ship great products you need to move from a genius designer, working alone to save the world, then to the lone designer in the crew feeding this great development beast doing continuous delivery, to someone who facilitates the team to make great decisions to support design. In other words, you need a designer as a facilitator and I don’t mean facilitating workshops for clients.” Let’s unpack this.

Jane: I think what you said there, pretty much sums up everything I’ve been saying in this interview. That being a designer is more than creating beautiful Figma files. It’s getting them built. It’s working with people to build them. It’s understanding what you need to build. It’s understanding the business. It’s compromising, working with products and tech to say maybe something can’t be built, what would be a simpler version? If you have a big vision, how to turn this into like small incremental changes in order to get there. How do you know that you’re on the right course?

So design is about the relationship and conversations and context and being able to navigate this in order to get something absolutely fantastic in people’s hands. And it might not be the first thing to start to thinking about, but there’s no way that you’re going to get something great in someone’s hands if you lock yourself in a room and come out with a beautiful, beautiful Figma file, which you might not be able to build it. It might not be what somebody wants. It might not be able to get it on the roadmap. It might be actually the wrong solution, it might be massively over complex, there’s so many different things you have to consider before something actually gets built.

So your job is to navigate all of this, to make sure that you’re putting the right efforts versus value versus business versus customer needs. All of this kind of stew of information that you have to navigate your way through and still have your vision and create what you want to and make sure it’s as good as possible, but not too good. Because obviously you need to be commercial as well. So you don’t want to over engineer a solution. So all of this takes a lot of navigating, a lot of facilitating, a lot of conversations and lots of compromise and commitment and assertiveness in order to make your vision a reality. And a Figma file isn’t really a product design. It’s just the first step. 

Christian: I love that. That’s a great answer. That should be a quote. Maybe you’ve already answered this, but maybe you have something else as well. We’re moving into the last two questions at the end that I ask everyone. So what’s one thing you wish more designers would know?

Jane: So one thing I wish more designers — well, actually several things I wish more designers would know. There’s this whole debate, should designers code? Probably not, but they should know how things get built so we can understand that is the thing we’re designing actually buildable? 

Another thing they should know is how strategy works, how to balance what it is that they’re doing and why they’re doing it. And then how to have the confidence to be able to understand the rest of the business. You have to talk to the rest of the business and make sure that the design has the credibility and the impact that it deserves.

Often designers don’t like to get involved in business or they let product do the talking for them. I think design has tried to be part of that conversation and trying to be as commercial and user-centred. That’s the balance. So there’s loads of things that I wish they would know. 

Christian: And how do you recon the future of design as an industry looks like? 

Jane: Well, there’s been a few new AI tools come out that are sort of automatically building interfaces. So that’s interesting. I was thinking, what impact will that actually have? Possibly not that much because for real product design, you really need to understand the problem you’re solving, what the proposition is, the value proposition. What’s going to make your design stands out? And that’s not something that can be like cut and pasted with artificial intelligence. 

So perhaps design would be moving away from just focusing on the interface to thinking a lot more about what problems are you solving, what’s the wider context of the design needs to be, and how to remake something that solves the need that people might not know if it’s solved or to solve a need better than anyone else has. That’s how innovation happens. 

So I think the future of designers to think less about the interface and more about the whole problem, the whole product, the whole surface, the whole person who’s going to be ended up using it. 

Christian: Great. Jane, this has been a pleasure. Where can people read more about you, find out what you’re writing, all that good stuff.

Jane: I really need to have a website. I don’t and it’s terrible. I actually bought a really cool URL and I’ve done nothing with it. I’m ashamed. So yeah, probably just — there’s two stories in Medium from about four years ago and there you are. Sorry, I need to do something. That’s my new year’s resolution. 

Christian: Right. We’ll just put your LinkedIn in the show notes so people can find you that way, if they want to. Once again, Jane, it’s been a delight to have you here. Thanks a lot for taking the time and I’m sure we’ll get to catch up soon again.

Jane: Thank you for having me Christian. They were brilliant questions. I really enjoyed that. Thanks. 

Christian: That’s it for today. Thank you so much for listening to the show. Since you’ve made it this far, I hope you found this useful, and if you did, you should know there’s much more content just like this on the way. So if you want to learn more about how designers can impact businesses, please consider subscribing and maybe sharing the episode with others. And before I say goodbye, remember that you can find show notes and links for this episode and others on our website, designmeetsbusiness.co. Catch you in the next one.