Scaling your organization’s design capability: The limits of your design team

Avengers Endgame characters are an apt metaphor for a design team
Originally published on "Matters" by Designit

If you’re a movie fan like me, you’ll know all too well the ending of “Avengers: Infinity War,” where Earth’s mightiest heroes suffer a crushing defeat. Their team, although consisting of awesome talent and an ever-growing cast, simply wasn’t able to overcome their enemy; not strong enough, not big enough.

This was brilliant film history in the making, but also a learning opportunity for design teams. This defeat may resemble an experience many a design team has had, apart from the megalomaniac alien armed with magic stones from The Big Bang, plus an abundance of superpowers (scratch that, some designers actually do think they have superpowers!).

Too few designers to go around

Your design team can only ever be so big, and that’s probably not big enough. In any organization, particularly large corporations, the size of your design team is typically proportionate to the overall size of that organization. (The obvious exceptions are companies whose core operations are related to design!)

There will always be limits on a design team’s capacity and, in turn, a limit on what it can invest its time in.

By “design team” here, I mean the people who practice any of the forms of human-centered design, including UX designers, service designers, user researchers, and CX strategists. One could slip into a black-hole discussing “aren’t we really all designers?” — and we will come back to that question later — but the point here is that if you are part of a team who is dedicated to design, you will be familiar with the feeling that you simply can’t cover everything.

You’ll probably find that you are mostly responding to the relatively basic demands of your organization. You don’t have enough capacity to service all areas of the business. You don’t have enough time and people to take on a more impactful role in your organization. There will always be limits on a design team’s capacity and, in turn, a limit on what it can invest its time in.

Got anything bigger?

This conundrum probably sounds familiar to you if you are part of a small in-house design team, so the obvious solution is to just make the design team bigger. And there has been a lot of thinking done within the design industry into how to do this; take, for example, the excellent book “Org Design for Design Orgs: Building and Managing In-House Design Teams” by Kristin Skinner and Peter Merholz.

But even very large in-house teams are that big due to the large demands from the organization, and proportionately they are about the same size as a small company’s design team. They’re still just responding to the relatively basic demands of that organization and may not have any more capacity to service all areas of the business, nor to have deeper impact.

Very large organizations may in fact have several design teams, with the capability to split into different units following the org chart or lines of business. This introduces some new challenges, as we’ll see below.

Some common growing pains:
  • Not enough capacity to service all areas of the business: If the design team has limited capacity, they will focus their efforts on the highest priority areas. If the organization is functioning well these will be the areas of highest value; if not, they may be simply the parts of the business whom shout the loudest. Either way, there will be some areas who receive no HCD love. For example, anything related to product sales may drown out other functions such as customer service.
  • Not enough time/people to take on a more impactful role in your organization: You may well spend all your time and resources focussing on the more tactical or superficial, and thus never get the chance to go deeper and solve the big challenges for your organization. For example, the design team may be saturated with redesigning the digital channels, of which there are many benefits for sales and service of existing products, but have no capacity to work on a strategic level, such as creating new product concepts based on unmet customer needs.
  • Vertical versus horizontal ownership: Typical of large organizations is a matrix structure where some teams are organized around platforms or channels, and others organized around end-to-end journeys, cutting across channels, platforms and features. For example, a team who is responsible for the key digital real-estate, such as the booking engine for an airline, is focussed solely on this function and its effectiveness, efficiency, quality, and consistency. Meanwhile, another team might be responsible for the big picture customer journey of business travelers, which makes use of the booking engine as well as other digital real-estate. Each team has their own priorities and are usually at odds with each other, even extending into tribalism and conflict between teams.
  • Priorities driven by majority rules, not allowing for minority needs: For many organizations there is a customer group which forms a large proportion of the volume and thus receives much of the effort and attention, including that of human-centered design. Principals, patterns, and even processes are created with a bias towards that customer group, leaving any other customer group struggling to get the necessary attention. For example, in banking, the bulk of transaction volume is associated with consumer customers, folks like you and I, but the attention on these customers can drown out the work being done to cater for business customers or high-net-worth “wealth” customers.
  • Great insight is not fully utilized or brought to fruition: It’s not uncommon to see a lot of effort put into research, sense-making, and ideation, but then for that effort to go unused and never see the light of day outside the team who created it. The best insights in the world are useless if they aren’t used by those who are solving problems for the organization; you need to start using what you have learned, to start feedback and iteration, and delivering value. For example, research and design teams often uncover useful insight, and even embody them in artifacts or design tools, but their colleagues in the trenches don’t make use of them. They never hear about them, don’t understand how to use them, or simply choose to ignore them, because they don’t have an effective working relationship with the team who created them.

Customer centricity, or going through an agile transformation, is a major goal for many organizations, and this (potentially) widespread change in practices, priorities, and mindset requires at the heart of it, an effective human-centered design capability. Many, if not all, of the problems outlined above will stand in the way of being able to achieve this.

In part two of this series, we’ll look at a way to scale your human-centered design capability without needing a massive team… by creating a community.

This is part one of a three-part series by Design Director Patrick Kennedy on scaling your organization’s design capability. Read part two, on the power of community, here.

Patrick Kennedy
Patrick Kennedy
Design Director

Patrick Kennedy is a Cooper Professional Education instructor and Design Director at Designit Sydney.

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