Ep 01: Martyn Reding on maximising your business impact as a designer
Navigating business context to maximise your impact as a designer.
In this episode we sit down with Martyn Reding. Martyn is an experienced Design Leader and Founder of the Design Leaders Studio, an online course for designers transitioning into management roles.We discuss why just a little business confidence can go a long way for designers, how to bridge the design and business culture gap, and explore how Martyn has scaled design teams in very different business context's.
Tom Prior: 0:02
Welcome to Designers in Business. I'm Tom Prior, curator of Designers in Business, and host of the Designs in Business interview series. Our guest for this episode is Martin Reding. Martyn is an experienced product design leader who's led teams at well known and successful businesses, including Virgin Atlantic, Zoopla, and MoreThan. He's currently Chief Design Officer at a new venture called UpZelo, and founder of the Design Leaders Studio, an online training course for designers moving into management roles. In this interview, we discuss why a little business acumen can go a long way for designers, how to bridge the design and business culture divide, and explore the lessons Martyn learned while building impactful design teams in very different business contexts. Thank you for joining me, Martin.Martyn Reding: 0:54
Thank you for having me.
Tom Prior: 0:55
No worries, it's really good to have you here. I've known you for a few years now.
Martyn Reding: 0:59
Tom Prior: 1:00
We first got to know each other when I was taking on an interim design role at a an insurance organisation which again, we'll talk about called RSA Digital. You'd been there a while. You were moving on to an exciting new venture at Virgin Atlantic,
Martyn Reding: 1:15
Right, yes. And you came in to cover my tracks, burn my files, bury the evidence for me!
Tom Prior: 1:24
Absolutely. But it was actually the first sort of interim design leadership role I'd taken on, the first time I'd gone in house. So a bit scary, but you made me feel very much at ease, taking that on. I got to know you a bit there, got to know a bit about how you put teams together and learned a hell of a lot. And we've kept in touch since then. And obviously, you've moved on to a number of different organisations. And I think it's that journey that you've taken as a design leader at organisations of different size, different business models, you're now in startup land. I think it's that experience of how you've built design teams, matured design culture that I'm really, really interested in getting into today. And how you have kind of made those teams have business impact in very different contexts. So I really want to start off by going broad. Before we get into the detail of your experience, I'd love to start by understanding from your perspective, why you feel gaining business confidence, and business acumen is so valuable for our discipline?
Martyn Reding: 2:22
Yeah, it's strange, that it's something that we have to encourage people to become actively aware of, and even pay attention to, you know, I, I think, you know, I started my career in very much the same way that most people started their career in this sort of field in that I was very much in love with the craft, and the making aspects of the role. And, you know, completely drowned in that kind of moment of learning all the techniques and hurriedly kind of rushing from one you new tool or methodology to another. And then much like, sort of most people who kind of do that for a while, I started to become frustrated with the environment in which I was designing and how difficult it was for the designs that I was creating, and sort of so lovingly crafting, and in all these sorts of, you know, these hurried kind of ways, I was so frustrated at the impact of the more lack of impact of them, and my ability to affect that. And what I had not sort of understood, and I think this sort of is an aspect that I think is maybe it's missing in design education, but it's certainly a kind of common theme across all the designers that I've worked with and known over the years. But understanding the reality of that Venn diagram that, you know, that sort of awful kind of Venn diagram where you have the users on one side and the business on the other, and the overlap is the kind of sweet spot is the theory of it. It's a terrible, I have nothing against Venn diagrams, but it's a terrible diagram for lots of reasons. But it does sort of highlight that there is there is the users needs, and there's the business needs. And I don't think designers for whatever reason, inherently want to get as close to the business needs as they do the users needs. You know, you can throw a stone in Shoreditch and you'll find someone who will champion the needs of the user and what's right for the user, and you're very hard pushed to find a product designer who will do the same for a business.
Tom Prior: 4:32
Yeah, absolutely. What's your take on why there is still this real lack of focus? Lack of emphasis on the business aspect?
Martyn Reding: 4:41
Yeah, I think there's a few reasons. One, I think is that there may still be some roots of design from art. You know, in my view, design is this sort of continuum between art which is you know, an expression for the sake of an expression. And then there's engineering, which is, you know, the mechanical solving of a problem. And I think design inhabits the space between those things. And I think in art, commerce is such a grubby topic that I think there's probably a bit of hangover from that.
Tom Prior: 5:20
Martyn Reding: 5:23
But I think partly because it's not, it's never part of education, it's never part of how people are sort of born into the industry, you sort of come in looking at lots of outputs, without ever understanding the problem that it's solving, you know, you get kind of obsessed with the actual outputs rather than the outcomes in those instances. But I think, I think, you know, most of all, I think it comes from the fact that the topic is rarely ever presented in a colourful, engaging way. You know, change management and business strategy, and, you know, profit and loss, and the sort of economics that revolve around business and those kinds of things. That, you know, they, they come with their own kind of, I mean, you know, no designer is going to put one of those books on their shelf as a pride of place. So they, they are pretty, dry things. And they're written in pretty dry ways. And it's so far from the language and the, you know, the kind of things that we're used to in the design industry, and the way we talk about things and the way we approach things that I think it's off putting. And I think that's a real shame. Like, you know, I've certainly kind of waded through more than my fair share of pretty dry material to understand what it is. And I think that, that gap between this is my knowledge as a designer, or Content Designer, Product Designer, Brand Designer, whatever type of designer you want to label yourself as there's a gap between that and those skills and that understanding of what's necessary, versus other parts of the business, the sales team and the support team, and maybe even the product management team. I don't think they they add up in the same way.
Tom Prior: 7:17
Let's be honest, business to most designers feels like an extremely dull thing to try and get your head around! Compared to what we get to do, work on, talk about, present, put in our portfolios every day. It is a hard sell, for sure. And I wonder, do you think it's a case of trying to make it a more appealing proposition in terms of how it's presented - you said, it's typically presented in these tomes that no one wants to read compared to most of the design books we can read - or do you think it's just a pain barrier we need to go through?
Martyn Reding: 7:53
No, I think it's, I think it's a little of both really. I think you have to be willing, and you have to understand the necessity for it. Right, you have to I think that's a part where product designers today need to need to accept that they are not working in a user centric bubble. You know, even if you take some of the some of the people who or some of the groups that have come through like the GDS programme of the last sort of 10 years, you know, that team did a lot for furthering user experience and, and how it sits within organisations. But it did it without any real business driver behind it. But there was still things that the government in that situation needed to achieve, that were not 100% aligned to what the users needed to achieve. Right. So even in those examples, you have to accept that you are in an organisation, you're paid to serve a purpose to that organisation. But, you know, to the other side of it, I think there is a huge opportunity for, I guess, sort of old farts like you and me who have been doing this for a while who have consumed all that material, to then turn it into something that makes sense to people in the design community. I think that's the that's the biggest and most important thing that we can be doing at the moment. And that I guess that's why we're here today. Right? This is why this project so good.
Tom Prior: 9:20
Yeah. Trying to, you know, try and move the needle a little bit. But it feels like such an uphill battle for a lot of people. I think when you think about the things that as designers were told we need to get better at, we need to become more centred in so many different ways. And definitely business centricity has been the one that's been doing the rounds a lot more recently. I think it's that term, centricity, that scares people as well. It feels like this kind of magnetic pull that you can't resist and you almost need to, to your point earlier about design and money and commerce being a bit of a grubby word. It feels like something people almost from a value perspective, from a virtue perspective don't want to get close to and I completely understand that because I still battle with should I be getting close to this stuff? I think that's where the big challenge is, its a cultural divide that it feels like there's these two worlds of business, "The Business" and design that feel like their aims are quite different. One very profit centred one very user centred, and finding a way for them to be bridged, particularly from the design side feels very hard. So for me, it feels like that at the moment is probably the biggest barrier, that we have to face. When it comes to what what appears to be a cultural difference to designers, how do you think we start bridging that divide?
Martyn Reding: 10:54
Yeah, it's a, it is a grubby term, isn't it? And it is sort of frowned upon in some way, shape or form. But I think, you know, that was sort of built into us, over the years. If you look back at the 90s ad campaigns that came out of Apple, right, they had, I'm a Mac, and I'm a PC, and it was very much they positioned themselves, as you know, we're a design oriented company that are in it to make great products, and then over here is Microsoft, and they just did it for the money, look at and then poking fun at them and looking at how rubbish there. That's the kind of archetypes have existed for a long time. So I think we're kind of this is a symptom of that. And I think what we can do to bridge those gaps, and what we can do to kind of break that down a little bit is not only within sort of design, management and design ops kinds of roles and positions and situations, start to create demonstrations of why it's important and why it's valuable in black and white terms. But then also, you know, like I said, I think you can digest a lot of that kind of material, and frame it in a way that makes sense to designers. You know, you can look at some like, heavy heavy going reports from, you know, the likes of Harvard Business Review, or whatever. You can, I don't know, you can ingest whatever thing is coming out of Simon Sinek lately. Nine times out of 10, it will be almost exactly the same as a design theory, but just in different terms. And, you know, I think to someone like David Butler, who was the, I can't remember his title, exactly, I think he was the VP or global VP of design for Coca Cola. He wrote this, he wrote this incredible book about his time at Coca Cola. And it's incredible, because it's so obvious. And it's frustrating and sort of wondrous at the same time, because he's talking about these, like, really big scale, grandiose business strategies, like prototyping, and research, and you're like, Oh, God, this is so obvious to anyone who's designed any software in the last 10 years. But he's able to do that in the space of a global business. And he's doing it with operations teams, and sales teams and marketing teams. And so, yeah, you know, as you mentioned, the Design Leaders Studio, which I set up last year, all of that is essentially me trying to take all of that stuff that I ingested, all those kind of dry business books, and podcasts and lectures and stuff that I sat through, and all the terrible mistakes that I've made in my roles, and turn them into terms and structures that makes sense to designers. Because I think that the sort of strange irony of it all is that I think, actually, I think really good designers are incredibly well equipped to do well in businesses. I think that good designers have got pretty much all the tools you need to successfully navigate most organisations of different sizes and scales, right? We're kind of, you know, we're built in with research, with empathy, with strategy writing, with vision, creating with like, roadmapping that's all it is. That really is all that it boils down to is all of those things that we already know just applied at a different level on a different scale.
Tom Prior: 14:42
Completely agree. I feel like a lot of these concepts in business because of the way they've been presented, and because we've had this distance between us and business for a while, it feels like this mysterious world that we can't possibly understand. I think it's well within designers gift to understand most business practices, business strategies, business models. I think we work with an awful lot of complexity day to day in some of the systems we design around that actually picking this stuff up, if it's presented in the right ways, it's not hard. I really believe - I agree with you - that if it's presented in the right way, made more accessible, something else that we're, you know, we take pride in, I think it starts to have inroads. But going back to your point around people, designers starting to realise once you understand these concepts, the impact they can have, kind of want to go for full circle and say, okay, what do you see as the potential impact for designers that get more comfortable with business practice, with business concepts, with the language? What are we missing out on at the moment, that a bit of that confidence can help unlock?
Martyn Reding: 16:00
I mean, it's almost endless, really. I think the only sort of, you know, kind of, end point to any of it is the market that you exist in, and the product market fit. But ultimately, I think the possibilities are endless, I think, you know, if you ever think back to an organisation that you've been in, or maybe you're in currently, and you know, you've had a frustration with how your design is adopted, or appreciated, or funded, or resourced, or any of those things, if you've ever had any of those frustrations, you know, you have to kind of wind back to why that organisation is restrictive or less receptive to those things. You know, we talk a lot about design maturity in our community, and we talk a lot about, you know, companies that kind of believe in design and invest in design. And what we're really talking about is do you trust design, do you understand the value of it as a group of people, and you can look at somebody like Apple, for example, and they were in a horrible state, you know, at one point. And I think they were something like 90 days from insolvency, or whatever it was, and they made a number of changes. And then they used design to get themselves out of that position. They designed their way out of that position. So the company inherently has a trust and a faith in design. And, you know, in any kind of problem that comes along, they don't have any issue with just investing in design, to find a way out of it. And I think, you know, on a different scale, but there's certainly reflections of that within, you know, an organisation like Virgin Atlantic, whereby, you know, that company is, you know, a fraction of the size of British Airways. A fraction of the size. It has no government backing, unlike Norwegian, or Emirates or anything like that. And so, the only real.. and they're not the cheapest in the market either, because they're, they're selling kind of long haul luxury flights. So the only real competitive advantage they had in the very early stages was designing better experiences. And so they had a level of trust in it. And if you're, you know, you're in a place that doesn't have that, it doesn't understand that. The easiest, and the laziest thing to do is just to blame the people around you and leave after a few years, right. And the reality is that that's never going to change, you're never going to improve, unless you understand what the business needs and figure out how to respond to them, or even at least understand how to talk to the business in a language that makes sense to them. You know, if your business is obsessed with operational costs, start talking about your design system or your roadmap in those terms. Or if your business is obsessed with, I didn't know, profitability, or whatever it is, start talking about the user experience in those terms and see what happens because it'll just, it'll unlock. And the more you can talk in those terms the further you can go and it's, yeah, I think it's endless once you can get into it and you can then take your team and start scaling your team, you can fund your team better, you can get better tools in your team, you can bring in better specialists, whatever it is you want to do will become easier when the business trusts you. Because they understand you.
Tom Prior: 19:38
Let's say we've got a team that want to put forward a business case - I'm saying business case - put forward a case for a design system, for example. What are some of the ways that you'd be encouraging your team to present that to have the best opportunity of getting a business trust them. To give them the funding, the runway, the space to make something like that happen.
Martyn Reding: 20:04
Yeah, immediately stop talking about design systems. That's the first thing to do.
Tom Prior: 20:10
We love them though!
Martyn Reding: 20:10
I know we do, and they're fantastic. And they're very important to our work. And they're massively beneficial, but for the business... Why do I want this? I don't care if your job's faster, I need to get this stuff done, right. But if I talk about a design system in, okay, I'm going to show you a problem here, this inefficiency, and then I can calculate, I can make an estimate, I can say, well, roughly, this is taking us two to three times longer than it would be if we had a design system. Therefore, that's meant that the cost of that person is roughly this many days, that's roughly what it's costing us per month, for not having a design system. Immediately, that's a different conversation. Now I don't care about design system. Now i'm just thinking, why is this team so inefficient? So now I can say to them, okay, well, if you let me spend x amount of pounds or days, or whatever it is, you're measuring in on building a design system, this will become much more efficient, which means we're going to get through this roadmap faster, which means we can deliver these things faster, which means you'll get a competitive advantage sooner.
Tom Prior: 21:17
Sounds like a much more compelling case.
Martyn Reding: 21:18
Why wouldn't you do that, at that point. Rather than me saying Airbnb's got a really great one and I love it, can we do that? That doesn't work. Like who cares?
Tom Prior: 21:26
Yeah. And on the subject of design systems, it's undeniable that we have as a community, I think fetishised design systems for quite a few years now for very good reasons. But they have become, you know, almost like a go to project, something every team wants to have a crack at, get out there. When it comes to building trust and seeing the value in design, do you have any kind of worries, concerns about the kind of design system mentality could be kind of devaluing the impact design can have beyond the use of a design system? Very often we talk about it in terms of, you know, Lego blocks, and we can put things together, and it's going to be very easy. And I've presented that to product managers and other other disciplines and they've gone great, I can start designing, and it makes design feel very accessible, which is great. But for me, some of the most powerful design work I've been involved in, particularly with early stage organisations, is so far away from a design system, as far as testing product market fit, and exploring, you know, really, out there ideas and new business models even. You know, we've been very kind of obsessed with design systems for a while, do you have any misgivings about where it might be putting us as far as building that kind of, that case for more investment? And where, where we have business value?
Martyn Reding: 23:02
No, I think you're exactly right. I would like to get to a point whereby we use design systems to expose the designers who aren't really adding a lot of value into the business. I actually like that. And I encourage that, and you know if a product manager wants to grab a design system and throw some stuff together, great. Why not? I mean, I can't remember the exact analogy, but you know, when you kind of what's, what's the story, like you can teach someone to fish and they can do it themselves and all that kind of stuff. And the sooner you can do that, the sooner you can get people solving those small niggly problems across it without the need for a product designer, it's like having a hand in everything, the sooner that you can kind of elevate yourself to the next level of maybe it's service design, or maybe it's looking at the bigger picture of where we're going or the brand design or whatever. And then, you know, further to your previous point, then you can look at the much bigger picture of where does this team sit within this business? And are we offering any value to it? Yeah, design systems to me feels just like the foundation work, and if I don't have to have anything to do with that foundation work, and it's solid, great, I never have to have anything to do with it again. As long as it's fit for purpose, and it is actually making people efficient, and it is actually creating consistency and it is actually driving accessibility. I don't need anything more to do with it after that. And what I think is good about it is it democratises design because it it brings people out of this, this sort of daft ivory tower mentality where I'm just going to go away, I'm going to quote some psychology and I'm going to come back and if you don't understand it, you're stupid. I hate that type of behaviour in design teams. I really loath it. And I think that design systems just push back at that, which I think is great.
Tom Prior: 24:56
Yeah, absolutely. And you know, ultimately it should free us up to work on some of that higher value stuff. In order to have true impact, we talk a lot about impact as designers, it's having influence on how money is made, the business model, how value is extracted at a genuine level. And I really hope we get there. But it feels like such a such a big, big mountain to climb. Do you think we can get there?
Martyn Reding: 25:23
Yeah, absolutely. I said, when you peel lots of the bullshit away, it is largely the same thing as Design Thinking underneath. And I don't think people you know, I don't think people in the design community should be afraid of that. I don't think business really is a term that people should shy away from or, you know, kind of put into a category that is an area that they don't want to be involved in. Because you are involved.
Tom Prior: 25:52
What are some of the ways that designers can maybe try and shed some of that, maybe start to build better relationships with people that at the moment they sit across the room from and feel like they have nothing in common? And actually don't want to start building a relationship?
Martyn Reding: 26:09
Yeah, I mean, I so I think there's sort of three things. I guess, sort of three traps that I've fallen into that I would, I would sort of always keep in mind from my experience of getting them so sort of horribly wrong. I think one, as I said before, I think is a big thing around language, right? You know, the design community, particularly the user user experience aspect of the design community, is steeped in somewhat esoteric language, we refer to methodologies and tools and trends and things in a way that is, frankly, impenetrable for people outside of it. And when we are kind of, in our own bubbles, you know, like design reviews, or podcasts or articles or things like that, that's fine, you know, go for it, why not? That's great. But when you are trying to communicate to someone in sales, or marketing or support, or the exec team or whatever, I think you have to adjust your language, I think you have to drop those terms and think about things from the perspective of what the business needs, and what those kind of hot terms are around that business. I think the second thing is, you know, I certainly have fallen into this trap is, I think that there is a common behavioural pattern for a design team, to isolate itself inside a business. And you know, by either putting kind of a badge on it and saying, This is our team, and we've got to, we've got to like a logo or do it like physically, if you have a workspace, people putting barriers up and or no, this is our special space, and you don't come into it or by, you know, even just sort of syphoning off bits of like the server space. Whatever it is, I think that is really problematic. And I recently, it's not recently it was about a year ago, I was in I was in a London office of a very, very big tech company. And they were very excited about their new offices. And I went to the design team, and they were in a glass box. And they were very pleased with their glass box. But you couldn't, your pass couldn't get you in there unless you're part of the design team. And they thought that was brilliant. And I just thought it was the worst thing I've ever seen.
Tom Prior: 28:31
That's wild. Yeah.
Martyn Reding: 28:32
Because talk about like, immediately isolating yourself. And when I spoke to people who weren't in the design team? I tell you, they had nothing good to say about that whatsoever.
Tom Prior: 28:40
It just seems on the outside just doesn't seem like a good look. Right. I can understand to an extent of, particularly when design was a fledgling, well, I guess we've got to talk more specifically things like user experience design, digital product design, were a more fledgling field, and we wanted to build a sense of community. And it kind of makes sense in in that phase of an industry to be like, look, we need to have a place where we can go and have a community of practice and build a language that works for us. It feels like we're beyond that point now. Right, that we are mature enough that we can kind of get beyond that?
Martyn Reding: 29:24
I would hope so. I would hope so. Yes. I think that unless you're starting a completely fresh team in an organisation that's never had a design team. I don't see the need for it. But you know, then I just wanted to mention the third thing that's in there as well is that for any designer into a new organisation with a new market or new product, they're taking on a straight out of the gate, I've seen this every time, they will just go straight in and they'll start going, okay, I want to do some user interviews, I want to know what the competitors are doing. I'm gonna do some heuristics. I'm going to look at the data, I want to get all this data, I want to interview. And they just consume everything they can about the users and the users needs. And they build all this material up, and they build up their understanding. When did you find out about the business? When did you go? Like, what? Why didn't you go and sit with the sales team? Yeah. Why don't you spend the day listening to calls at the call centre? Why didn't you ask if you can shadow an exec for a day? Like, do you know how profitable you are? But are you profitable? Do you know that? Like, what, what's the most financially important thing to happen in the business this year? And that's so weird, isn't it? And those are, those are the three things which I think I've, I failed on, like, you know, I learned the lessons along the way. You know, I just tried to tell, I tried to think that actually, if I can get people around the business to talk about user experience, that would be the best method. And it wasn't, and when I learned to speak their language, that changed things, and I thought, if I built little, kind of micro sub brands, for my teams, that would be the best thing to do. And it wasn't, it isolated us. And when I just sort of got into an organisation, I just said, I don't want to hear about the business, I just want to hear about the users. It wasn't the right thing to do, because I didn't understand what was necessary.
Yeah, completely. I've made all those mistakes as well, big time. I think a lot of it comes down to education, design education, and this slight obsession with the dogma of design, the design process, if you're not ticking these boxes, then you're not a real designer. I think moving outside of that feels really uncomfortable, particularly for.. I can completely appreciate that junior designers have gone through a programme or you know, I went through university, and you see the ideal way of doing it, you see the double diamond, and you want to do all of those steps in the process, as you know, as you see in portfolios and stuff, but the reality is, you might not need to do all of those things anyway -which is a different conversation - but to your point, turning around some of those techniques around user research, using them on the business, on the business folks, you know, empathy mapping, great technique. What is your sales colleague worried about? What are they thinking when they're talking about, you know, their targets? Or even when they're getting presented your designs? How can you better equip them to be effective. So completely agree. And I think some of that falls on us, on design education, design leaders to give designers permission to move out of some of those processes a bit more, feel comfortable mixing it up. And to your point about language, I often hear the refrain, you know, the speaking the language thing has kind of been a really useful conversation. I have heard some backlash from it recently that business has it's own language, which is, like, way more bullshit, apparently, than design's. So you know, why should we kind of give over some of our lexicon, the way we communicate these meaningful terms that, you know, we take pride in and we associate with, and take on these, these new ones that seem to have no meaning.
Martyn Reding: 33:22
Yeah, yes. I have read those same kind of arguments. But I don't think it's beyond the wit of us to become bilingual. Right? I'm not asking anyone to wear a tie to work and a waistcoat, right? You don't have to do those things, right. You don't have to start wearing patent leather shoes to work just to fit in with the business. You can do both. And you can exist in both worlds. And I just think, you know, come back to that kind of stupid kind of Venn diagram. You know, you've got one side, you just need some more of the other side to it. Really, that's the reality of the situation.
Tom Prior: 33:57
That's it. For me, this is where this business centricity thing annoys me. Because that does create the wrong impression of where we need to move towards. For me honestly, like most designers only need five, ten percent business acumen to be so much more effective. It's a secondary skill for me. I love using that. I know that T shaped design way of talking about skill sets is a bit old hat now, but I still like it. You know, the stem of the T is where your expertise is, deep expertise. And then across the top your secondary skills. I think that's where business is, you know. It's something you can work on and build up over time, but it doesn't need to, you know...
Martyn Reding: 34:37
Yeah, I think the concept of a shape of a designer is really interesting, and it's something that I've sort of explored quite a lot in the last few years. I know that Jason Mesut, has been doing a lot of really great work on it. The thing that I've found the most useful in broaching these kinds of conversations with people in my design teams has been to to draw out you know, like a series of axes and cut it right down the middle. So one side, I would refer to as your craft skills and in that you can include, I don't know, you know, discovery and research and prototyping and UI design and design systems motion design, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, all those things that you know, kind of make up a product designer. The other side, I would include strategy writing, I would include change management, I would include relationships. And I would call that these your business skills and these your craft skills. And what I think we should be aiming for is something that's more circular and rounded, so that you have kind of even skills across the park. And then, you know, I do these exercises to provoke conversation, because nine times out of 10 people have got like, you know, high spikes on the right hand side of the craft skills. In the business skills it's a pretty lowly showing, and I kind of say, well, that's why you don't have the traction for your team. Because your craft, you know, you've put all this time into your craft skills. And these muscles over here are very underdeveloped. And that's what you need to focus on.
Tom Prior: 36:01
Right. And I think that the data visualisation techniques you're talking about, yeah, it just brings it to life. Yeah. Designers, we we kind of like a visual, right.
Martyn Reding: 36:09
I kinda feel like that's within our wheelhouse, right?
Tom Prior: 36:12
Definitely. I want to move on to talking a bit about the organization's you've worked at, and we've talked a bit about some of the tactics that you recommend, maybe some of the mistakes you've made, at different organisations. When it comes to building a team that has trust, one of those kinds of measures... well, one of the things we can look at and maybe say is design getting trust, is it going to have the opportunity to have more impact, is scale, right? Is this team growing in size? Will that lead to growing in influence? And it seems to me from from talking to you over the years that pretty much every organisation you've gone to, scaling design, and very often quite rapidly, has been part of the remit. So I really want to get into some of the practical ways that you've gone about that. Maybe how your view has changed through the years, through the roles as well. And how you've maximised that business impact as a leader at those quite different organisations. So, a traditional organisation like RSA, an insurance organisation, a brand focused organisation like Virgin, a tech org like Zoopla, and now your're a startup founder. I think our listeners will be fascinated to hear how the different contexts of those organisations, the cultures, and the financial models have helped or hampered your ability to scale those teams and have that impact we're looking for.
Martyn Reding: 37:51
Yeah, I mean, those three organisations that you talked about were three similar kinds of companies, but just at very different times in their kind of evolution. But the thing that's, you know, the thing that sort of true throughout was that my approach was, I guess it was a design approach, I designed the design teams, and I started how you would start anything by just listening and understanding. So I think it's fair to say that at the point when I joined Virgin Atlantic, which was 2017, there was no product design team. There were no researchers of any kind, no content designers, they had people in production, and they had product managers and content managers, and you know, a few others, but there was there was no product design at all it and the entirety of it had been outsourced for quite a long time. And so they didn't see a need in the business for it. So I wasn't kind of, you know, encouraged to scale that team. I think, when I started, I had two open roles, I think was was where I'd started from. And so my first task was to understand this situation and understand what the kind of perception of it was around the business. So it was user interviews, right? So I just I just picked people from around the business who I understood, you know, were sort of pivotal, and we would help or, you know, we'd have opinions. And I asked them who else I should talk to. So it was like a kind of, you know, sort of growing kind of list as I was going through it. And I made notes and I listened to people and I had like a script of things that I wanted to ask them about how how they perceived the value of this team and where it had gone in the past and what bothered them and what they want, what they were trying to achieve and all that kind of stuff. Had a big board of notes and I made themes out of it. You know, this is basic research stuff, pretty straightforward. I made themes, and then I figured out okay, well, these people are trying to achieve this, these people have been sort of burned by this, this is what's needed over here. So I sort of took that kind of situation. And I looked at what was happening. So they were at the time, like I said, they were outsourcing a lot of stuff. And as an airline, as most airlines do, they're they're trying very hard to control costs. I mean, I can't speak to what airline situation is today, 2022, it's probably not great. But at that time, you know, everyone was controlling costs. So for me, that felt like a huge opportunity. So I figured out the cost of this outsourcing, versus the cost of having that team in the building. And to have, you know, employees, I looked at the things that people were trying to achieve, and I just steadily just put these things together into a strategy. You know, and it was, I don't know, maybe it was around 18 months or so. And the team was close to 50 people at that point. And it was, you know, every time we had an opportunity to prove a value in some way, shape or form, we did it. And then in doing so the communication of the value became my primary function at that point. So that was that was huge at the time, because you got 10,000 or so permanent staff, I think with, I don't know, a couple of thousand support staff spread across five or so continents, you know, multiple timezones. So you can't just do an all hands and everyone gets design, right? It's not that kind of deal. So you have to sort of campaign it. And I had to figure out what are the key messages that I spread over the course of each quarter? And what things do I have at my disposal? So I started using Slack, I started using the internal, you know, intranet kind of thing. I started using the email mailboxes that we had, I started using whatever all hands I could go to, I went to heads of department and I said, can I come and speak at your team meetings, I've just got some stuff to say, and this is what I want to talk about, and introduce it. And yeah, and that was my role, I was continually communicating the value of it. And it really was not a problem funding the team at that point. And people were coming to me telling me they wanted to hire more designers at that point. So the problem of me trying to say we should do this went away
Tom Prior: 42:31
Right. Because you had latched on to a kind of measure or an important measure for the organisation. A lever around cost saving that resonated really well, because that is so central to how that business makes money. So did that become the theme of how you presented just to the business? How did you get your designers thinking in that way, as well?
Martyn Reding: 43:05
To be honest with you, I think, you know, when it came to the product designers who came on board, I didn't need them to, I didn't want them to get too deep into that stuff. I felt that was my role. And you know, the role of my sort of senior members of my team. It was me with the support of my content strategist and my lead designer, and then so on and so forth. And I, and I overshared everything. I'd tell everyone, everything that I was doing all the time and why I was doing it. The only thing that I wanted my team to do was to be aware of it right and get credit for it. So when I said okay, this is the thing that we've deployed, or here's the thing that we're about to release, or here's a measure that's moved, I put the names of the people who are involved in it, against everything. So they didn't have to go out and tell everyone what they were doing. I was doing them for them. And that was as the head of the department. That was my role at that time.
Tom Prior: 44:04
So your kind of take on leadership at that moment was was really all around expressing value through measures that the business understood and kind of, taking those successes of your team and framing them in a way that the business couldn't argue with the value that was being generated from it, and linking it into measures that mattered to them. So not expecting everyone on your team to be business savvy, but I guess starting to demonstrate behaviour that eventually II guess you would hope would trickle down, but not putting that burden on the team straightaway that you're just building out, right?
Martyn Reding: 44:44
Yeah, but I had to explain obviously, why things were necessary at certain times. And in that instance, you know, with that role, we were starting from low.
Tom Prior: 44:59
Low terms of size? In quality? In perception? Yeah, all of those, you know, fantastic business. I've got nothing bad to say about Virgin Atlantic at all. But in terms of the product design function, it wasn't there, right. So there were many instances... you know, this particular instance, with the first product designer who came onto the team, you know, chap called Rob is exceptionally talented. And, you know, the first couple of things that he got into, I knew that they were going to be tough from a product design perspective. And I knew that he would have to sort of hold his tongue on a few occasions, but I explained why that was necessary. And that these were small projects, that if he did them well, and if he could kind of serve their needs exceptionally well, they would let us into the next one, and then move to the next one. And then it would get so much easier. And it did, and it worked an absolute dream, in that respect. But if he knows, and he understands, it's much easier. And so my role in terms of like, that sort of design business balance in that instance, when you're trying to scale that fast, and you're recruiting a lot, and all those kinds of things, you can't lead by control, you have to lead by context, right? If you just give them all of that context, and you explain that to them in terms that designers understand and care about, that's enough for me, because I'm not going to sit there and tell him to push these pixels this way, and that way, and change the colours and what have you. That's not a good use of my time at all. But if he understands that, here's what we're trying to achieve as a group. And this will make all the things that he wants to do better, he will do and it's okay. Showing this is part of the long game, right? Doing these things here that you may not see massive value in, or maybe it's not the perfect process, but trust me. I'm doing my work behind the scenes, this is going to unlock those bigger challenges.
Martyn Reding: 47:01
Yeah, that's right. And like I said, all you're doing is you're taking all of this business bullshit, like digesting it down into something that designers can understand and see your value in. Yeah, you're doing it in both directions, right, you're showing the business, the value of what's happening in design, and you're showing the designers the value of what you're doing to the business?
Yeah. Because that's the bit where, you know, when I've been in leadership roles, I have struggled in the past with that kind of frustration that designers have, when it comes to the point of why aren't we doing X things? In the process? Why why is this a priority at the moment, and it can, it can be very hard to just go back with, look, this is what the business needs without saying this what the business needs right now. And if you nail this, what the business actually can get from you, the value can you can truly bringis going to be along the road. But you know, it's about setting that expectation, particularly with, you know, new teams may be inexperienced teams to understand that it's just part of the process in some organisations. You know, delivering well, and delivering often on what you're asked to do is a great look for a lot of teams. Yeah. And really does unlock a lot that trust. So seems like worked well at Virgin?
Martyn Reding: 48:26
Yeah. But yes, it did, I think at the time. And a very different experience at Zoopla. Zoopa, at the time that I joined, was scaling.
Tom Prior: 48:38
What was your role at Zoopla?
Martyn Reding: 48:39
I was the head of product design there. And I was focused on the customer facing aspect of Zoopla's proposition, which had grown through lots of acquisitions and mergers and those kinds of things. And before I'd started, they'd kind of sort of said we need you to scale by this much. It'd end up being more than that. But yeah, very different situation. And there was a lot of kind of discovery happening in the business at multiple levels, because everything was kind of new, like the management team were new, the architecture was new, the team structures were new, the investment that we had had, at the time was new. I was new, so that, you know, there's there was everything was kind of new, and everyone's still discovering these things. And discovering the depth of the business opportunity and the users needs at the same time.
Tom Prior: 49:39
Martyn Reding: 49:41
And so really, my role became a lot of, wouldn't it be great if a designer was here to fix that problem for you? You know, it's sort of very, sort of, I guess, maybe it wasn't much more subtle than that. But my team sort of started at one size and then grew out to somewhat a bigger size, because I was able to kind of point to the successes of the other product designers in the other teams and say, well, you know, if you had that resource here, and we had that sort of team size here, those things, we could start moving faster on those things. Because everyone was moving very quickly to keep up with the, you know, like, really ambitious roadmap that they had. And I was really fortunate in that team to work with Tony Collins, who's their Director of Design, who sort of had a sort of wider master plan for design across design systems, and research and content design, all those other aspects. So I was sort of a strand within that. And probably the least established aspect within the design team. So at first, it was about kind of picking up the pace and trying to keep up with the other parts of the design team. And then it was about kind of developing the nuances that were particular to the area that I was responsible for. Because when it's been done over here, with great success, the temptation is just just to repeat that line for line. And we'd started down that road. And I soon realised that actually, the needs in the customer area were a little different and I wanted some different roles. And so I had to start championing the introduction of different levels into the team, slightly different role profiles to those levels. You know, things like content designers coming into the team, that kind of stuff,
Tom Prior: 51:39
That must have been quite a challenge. I don't know if you'd had that anywhere before. Where there is an established, well performing product design team in another part of the organisation that is very hard to resist just copying that recipe for success. And you can imagine the critical eye on you going down a different road, for your given context, right? That must have taken... must be hard to resist maybe some pressures to copy that and to go now in this context with this challenge that we have, we need to take this this view and stick to it?
Martyn Reding: 52:18
Sure, yeah. It comes down to the same thing as before, and that you have to sort of understand the right levers to pull. And you know, I can't remember how long it took, but after a while, it was somewhat automated. And I managed to kind of get like the product director, some of the heads of engineering saying I think we need more designers on this? And it was sort of doing the scaling for me in the end. I could move on to other things.
Tom Prior: 52:51
I want to make sure we talk about we've moved on to now because... very different, right? To the likes of you know, Virgin and Zoopla these giants, big organisations, you've now jumped into startup land. Tell us a bit about UpZelo. And maybe how it's changing the way you think about where design fits into that. Because I imagine you're a lot closer to how money is going to be made.
Martyn Reding: 53:21
Yeah. Yeah. What was I thinking? So let me see if I can kind of catch all the different aspects of that question. So this came about... the founder of UpZelo was somebody that I have worked with in the past and sort of, you know, been friends with for a long time. And we've talked for many years about you know, wanting to work together in some way, shape or form. And I was sort of going along at Zoopla very happy and then you know, Phil, our founder kind of just said to me one day, I've sold the startup that I had previously, and I'm interested in starting something new. And I'm interested in starting from design and going design first this time. And, you know how do you turn that down, right?
Tom Prior: 54:27
It sounds pretty irresistible.
Martyn Reding: 54:28
It's ridiculous to be employee number one, and I've spent, I think close to 10 years in large organisations, you know, and this is something completely new for me. It's design, in a very different flavour. And I thought, wow, that is terrifying on many levels. So that's what I should do.
Tom Prior: 54:52
Jump in at the deep end. Yolo, Martyn! So can you tell us much about that? I know you're still... things are in development. But yeah, what can you tell us about it at the moment?
Martyn Reding: 55:02
So all of the kind of ideas and the concepts... well, what I should say is that where we started from when we kicked off the project to where we are today has developed a lot. And it's developed a lot through the design process and through research. And, you know, for me, building something entirely from zero is a new experience. I've always joined established brands and established companies, inevitably, with a degree of legacy technology or brand legacy or whatever. And this is, you know, totally blank slate. But we both worked in organisations, where we had seen kind of subscription type SAAS models working, and felt like the tools that were available to the people in those organisations, they were not very well shaped and suited for what's needed today. You know, maybe if you're a big, large SAAS enterprise, they're great. And perhaps there's a few tools out for new ventures, there didn't seem to be anything for anyone in between. And in particular, when we looked at these sorts of different problem areas, and we sort of picked around at the different ones, the thing that no matter what we did, in any of our research, the thing that stood out, was that people would leave a subscription, and the company wouldn't really have any idea why, or how to retain them in any way, shape, or form, or what to do next. And maybe they'd be spending lots of money trying to win back people. But they certainly weren't feeding any of this data back into their roadmaps or products or anything like that. And so we felt there was an opportunity to start to look at this area. There's a number of tools out there that do the onboarding of users very, very well. But no one ever looks at the other end of the scale. And, you know, I think anyone who's kind of been through any kind of VC process will know that one of the first questions in the list of anyone who's investing is why does your churn rate look like that? Why is your retention like that? What are you doing about it, and so, UpZelo is a is a tool aimed at subscription based companies to help them fight churn and increase their customer retention. So we have like a number of different kinds of aspects to the product from surveys and responses, like targeted audiences, customer flows, that kind of stuff that you put together, you can test different offers, you can test different messages, and you can find the things that help people stay within your subscription service. And you can find richer reasons and richer data as to why people are leaving so that you can kind of improve your products.
Tom Prior: 57:54
Right. So your product is intrinsically tied to a number of very key metrics that matter to a lot of businesses. So obviously, using some of that business knowledge that you've picked up before, I guess intrinsically links to the design work you need to do.
Martyn Reding: 58:10
Well yeah, so the challenge that I've sort of been digging into for, I guess, you know, the course of the past year is how do you design this product? And how do you design the brand for that product? And how do you design the business to deliver the product? You know, it's design at every level, and in a day, I will move between... do we like that word on that CTA? And is that the right person in that shot? To are we charging the right thing? And are the thresholds between this plan and this plan correct?
Wow. As design goes, you are right through, stretching...
Martyn Reding: 59:00
Madness, isn't it? Yeah. And so it's been really fantastic for me to sort of consider... it's an opportunity for me to consider my career in chapters. I started my career in agencies and that was like the most exciting for me to get into agencies and work with as many different clients as possible and do all the usual agency things... pitches, awards, launch parties, you know, all that kind of stuff, all that good stuff. And then going in house for me felt like, well this is very different way for design to exist and now because I can't drop it and run, and whatever I do here is attached to me and it felt like the difference between I guess renting a home and owning a home right.
Tom Prior: 59:45
Martyn Reding: 59:46
You know, if I do that, if I paint that wall green, I've got to live with it.
Tom Prior: 59:51
I know that feeling. Yeah, with agency, you get to the end of the project, that's done, on to the next thing. But yeah, you're leaving a bit of a legacy at these organisations.
Martyn Reding: 1:00:00
Yeah. And so those two felt like very different chapters to me. And I'd never explored and I don't think I'd ever really had a great desire to explore the startup world before that, because of the, you know, the usual kind of stereotypes and reputation that comes along with it. But it but it just felt like a new opportunity to sort of see design existing in a third sort of chapter for me, for want of a better way describing it. So yeah, it's been fantastic. It's been very exciting. Like I said, there's been design challenges throughout. And I think now the most interesting thing for me is how do we move between what's been a very discovery orientated phase for us and figuring out what this thing is to now at the point when we've launched, to figuring out what we do next? And how do we build an inherent a culture of listening to users, and responding.
Tom Prior: 1:01:01
We mentioned at the beginning, that you have your own kind of product that you've built, Design Leaders Studio, so tell us briefly a bit about that. And I know you've got a bit of an offer for Designers in Business subscribers and listeners and watchers.
Martyn Reding: 1:01:18
Yeah. So Design Leaders Studio was a project that I started just before lockdown, actually. It was a thought that was kind of sparked by a mutual friend of ours who was thinking about going into a management role. And they came to me and they said, you know, I'm thinking about going into a management role, I want to talk to you about it and get some your point of view about it. And so I kind of gave like a sort of a very light overview of what my role has involved and the kind of work that I'd got into. And they were shocked and horrified. Because they, I think, had imagined, like some sort of Don Draper scenario where they were sort of the Tom Ford of the environment, like this creative director kind of role. And I slammed that ambition into the ground. But it's sort of stuck with me like how people, you know, who were kind of very much in the practitioner or IC track, what little exposure, they kind of get to design management and what it entails and what it involves, and all those things that we talked about before of understanding it in the terms of design thinking. And I thought, originally, I kind of put it together as a workshop that I would deliver in person. And then through some encouragement from my partner, Rachel, I turned it into an online course. And so I essentially downloaded all of the kind of things that I've learnt in design management roles, all the mistakes that I've made, all the things that I do in those situations to try and reach for success. Or, you know, I've sort of tried to digest as many of the kind of books and other materials out there into terms that hopefully designers can understand. And I just, you know, put it all there online for everybody to work through. So whether or not you are, you know, a senior designer and you're in, it's something that you're thinking about getting into, or whether or not you have just started to move into and take in a design management position, and you want to kind of expand your knowledge. That's, that's where it's aimed at. And it's, it's as digestible as I could possibly make it. So I've made sure that there's no modules that go over the 10 minute mark, they're all super short. There's lots of downloads and templates, there's a whole Miro board that you can take at the end of it. It's really, it's me just trying to give all the stuff back that I have learned in some way, shape or form that makes sense to people to help them.
Tom Prior: 1:03:54
Great. It sounds like there's a big practical element to it, I think that is really going to resonate with people. And you know, a lot of leadership advice can be a little highfalutin. This looks like there's some really practical stuff in here, some guidelines and tools that people can put to work really soon.
Martyn Reding: 1:04:14
It's aimed to be very base level. I purposefully stripped out anything. So if you are, you know, VP, director level, this is not for you. That's not what it is. If you're looking for something about the philosophies of leadership, this is not for you. That's that's not what it is. If you just need to know like the basics of like, how do you like organise a team? How do you kind of budget for tools? How do you scale this, that and the other? How do you write profiles to frameworks? That's what it's about. It's like the practical aspects of where do you start from in design leadership?
Tom Prior: 1:04:47
Sounds brilliant. And we're going to put a link to an offer for listeners, watchers, subscribers, in the show notes and in the description below, and in the newsletter that's going to go out alongside this episode. So get yourself a sweet discount on behalf of Martyn.
Martyn Reding: 1:05:04
Tom Prior: 1:05:06
Brilliant. Martyn, it's been an absolute pleasure chatting to you today. So thanks so much for coming in. And hopefully we will chat again at some point about what's been going on at UpZelo. But yeah, thank you very much being here today.
Martyn Reding: 1:05:19
Thank you for having me.
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How the financial and human sides of business can benefit design
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