I believe in starting a conversation with fellow leaders and learning from their experiences. Making their perspectives available to the whole community is one step forward in spreading the message about the importance of UX. That’s why I have started a project of #UXFika – lightweight conversations with inspiring UX leaders, creators, and people who make a change through design.

This week’s special UX Fika guest is Chris Roy – Chief Product Officer at Boatim (Online marketplace for boats, yachts and special interest social network for the maritime industry). Chris is responsible for developing and driving the vision, roadmap and innovation strategy across Boatim’s digital products to fuel the company’s vision.

Today Chris talks about his passion for building design culture, creating strategy that fosters collaboration, incentivising growth, and driving the design culture within many successful organisations, like TravelPerk, Skyscanner, TescoBank to name a few.

Curious to learn more about Chris? Let’s get started!

Hey Chris, can you introduce yourself and tell me what you do today?

Sure, my name’s Chris and I am a chief product officer at Boatim. Before that I was working as a principal product design manager at TravelPerk — one of the world’s fastest-growing startups.

Looking back at my design leadership journey within TravelPerk, I joined back in December 2015 when there were 12 people — now there is around 500. We also grew the Product Design team from just 2-10 people in nine months last year — which was both a great achievement and a challenge.

Before this I worked at Skyscanner as a Senior UX Designer and before that at various tech companies. I grew up in Scotland, moved to Edinburgh to study Design Futures, and have now been living here — in Barcelona— for over 4 years.

What is design culture according to you and why is it important?

If I was to define a “Design Culture” I would say that it’s a culture that focuses on problems and customers. That’s an over-simplified statement though. I see a Design Culture as being many things, but ultimately it is something that should serve its context in the business and the markets it serves.

The importance of it derives from the fact that there are not enough discussions revolving around the customer. It’s easy to get lost in solutions—in the shiny. What we need to do is to focus on solving the right problems in the right ways. This is where I see culture playing a huge part in any company. Put simply, if you have no customers, you have no product, and no business—it has to start there.

Do you believe that design culture is achievable for any team and company?

A Design Culture is achievable for any company—given the conditions are supportive. For sure, some companies will be more reluctant to adopt or change than others, but that should not stop the conversation.

It will always be difficult to achieve if there is a lack of understanding and respect for what good design is. If we see design as only visual—you need to re-educate. You need to bring people into your process more and help them understand the true value you can bring. This is not always easy and requires a level of seniority and confidence that I certainly never had when I started out with my career.

What are the signs of an unhealthy “design culture”? Could it exist?

To me, an unhealthy design culture would house a lot of egos. It would encourage personal agendas that would benefit individuals, but not the wider team. It would also be a culture that values things like trends over understanding true needs. Or perhaps one which focuses on the superficial and fails to ask “why” enough.

Another signal of an unhealthy design culture would be a sense of superiority, closed to any input from others—that designers knew best. This is of course not true. Good designers should be empathetic to both customers and colleagues—looking at ways to improve product and process.

You have recently worked at TravelPerk. Could you say that design culture was embedded deeply in the company’s DNA? If yes – could you share how?

Luckily when I joined TravelPerk, they already had a designer on the team. This meant that for a company of 12 people, there were two designers—a 17% ratio! It was clear that the founders valued great design and saw this as a key differentiator. This definitely made my life much easier.

Being so early in the company gave me a chance to meet most people as they arrived. This gave me the chance to connect with departments like sales, customer care, finance, and engineering. One by one, I could get to know them and share with them what we did and proposed ways in which we could work together.

One initiative I set up early was to create a “fresh eyes” session for everyone that joined the company. This was the easiest and cheapest way to test the product, whilst connecting with new colleagues. Each new person that joined met with me for 30 minutes where we would go through different scenarios using our product. It was predominantly usability testing, but also empowered newcomers to challenge our thinking. It was easy to forget the “why” in some of the things we did—this served as a constant reminder.

In addition to that, it was a great chance to demonstrate the value of curiosity. If our sales or customer care agents could share a similar passion for understanding what works and what doesn’t when speaking with customers we can all help to build a collective picture of what success looks like.

What is the biggest mistake you think a lot of companies make when first attempting to create a design-centric culture? How could these mistakes be avoided?

I read a lot about design getting a seat at the table—as if it is some sort of right. Few other disciplines could work in that way, and this sense of entitlement can be dangerous. In short, you earn that seat.

In order for us to break any preconceptions of design, we need to get better at explaining what we do. We need to bring broader conversations to the table. Customer insights, data, technical constraints, and business goals need to be there in most discussions. We need to be better at tying our thinking and our solutions back to those points—otherwise our colleagues see us as working in an oblivious bubble—just focused on the shiny pixels.

Another mistake that can be made often is assuming that one or a few people have all the answers. It can be so liberating and eye-opening to open discussions to broader audiences. In doing so you also get natural buy-in from those people as they feel more involved from the start.

How could every person from UX and Design team make an impact in fostering design culture?

Ask questions. It sounds simple, yet can be so hard. It’s something I ask my team to practice as much as possible. When given a user story or task to focus on, stop. Ask why. Why is this more important than that? What value does this bring to the customers? How will this help us to achieve our broader goals?

All too often it can be easy to stick to the momentum and keep running. As painful as it can be, it’s often best to throw a stick into the wheel and stop riding for a second. Taking time to look around, to spend that bit longer understanding the problem space pays off.

On top of that, leveraging practices like design-thinking workshops can help. It opens up the “magic” of what you do. It gives your colleagues tools that they can take away and use, making your life easier. When done well, these workshops will elevate an understanding of customer needs and the problem space. They will uncover solutions that no-one thought possible before. By gathering and sharing information collectively, it also leads to an improved culture between teams.

How do you cultivate design culture on an everyday basis as a leader?

With the size of the team growing, I’ll admit—it’s been tough. One truism is that the design culture will rely entirely on the people that underpin the discipline. One of the hardest parts has been finding the right people with the right mix of skills. Getting this right has to be the first step.

For every new person that joined the team, I would create a matrix of skill sets and look at what gaps we had. This would help when trying to identify what kind of personalities and skills we needed. Having a mix of complementary skills allows everyone to learn from one another—rather than having 10 people who are all more-or-less the same.

On a more operational level, you have to set up tools and processes that facilitate and encourage positive behavior. One such change was our move from Sketch and Abstract to Figma. Doing this meant that all work was immediately accessible to anyone in the team. It brought huge transparency and avoided those situations where someone could sit on their design until that “ta-da” moment.

Working in squads and tribes, each designer’s encouraged to share and seek feedback on a regular cadence. This helps us to iterate faster and to surface questions that we may have otherwise missed.

In terms of rituals we meet every week to sync on bigger, cross-team issues and then every few weeks for Maker Days. During Maker Days we gather topics from our weekly meetings and set aside time to tackle these. It’s often focused on bigger research projects or cleaning up our Design System or processes. It also gives the team the chance to connect outside of their squad—meaning that you could pair up with someone you wouldn’t normally work with.

What 3 pro-tips would you give a company interested in creating a design culture without any idea where to start?

Hire the right people! Unfortunately, I don’t have a checkbox-guide of what that designer should look like—it depends on the company and their needs. By far though this will be the biggest success or failure of growing a healthy design culture.

Give trust! It sounds simple, but so many companies struggle with this. Once you trust your people, great things will happen. Back to my previous point—if you hire the right people, why would you not trust them? Trust will empower people to grow and to push the boundaries, innovating on things that don’t work, and challenging the business. If you don’t offer this, expect a servant workforce who will only be as smart as the person dishing out the orders.

Ruminate over your customers! Never assume that you or your colleagues have all the answers. If, when asked, “when was the last time you spoke to a customer?” results in a pause—it’s been too long. Customers will change and you need to be there to understand when this change takes place. Couple this with curiosity and the ability to dismiss customer wants—focusing instead on needs—and you are off to a good start.

Would you be interested in working alongside Chris?
Boatim is looking for a Senior Product Designer to take the lead on all things design during this exciting chapter. If you are looking for your next challenge, check out the job description, and apply through their website.

Extra bits

Who would you like to have a coffee with?

Chris Do. I came across some of his videos on Youtube a couple of years back and have been following ever since. It’s been interesting to watch his new hires grow and take over more of the production work. There’s always some thought-provoking content coming out from him and his team.

Fun fact: I almost had the chance to meet up with him in Berlin. I had seen he was in town and reached out but unfortunately he was already on his way back to the US. I came so close to actually getting that coffee wish!

Which product design inspired you recently?

I’m really loving Notion right now. It has truly changed the way that our team works and is something I have adopted for personal projects too. There’s great power in its flexibility—but also the opportunity to make a mess. It’s a fine line.

Recent recommended read (a book, podcast, article)

I’ve recently finished reading Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar. I’m actually hoping to do a write-up soon, so keep an eye on my Medium profile for that. For podcasts, I often listen to Design Details and UX podcast. They are just the right length for taking the dogs out for a walk.

About the UX Fika Series

In UX Fika series of blog posts, I talk with people that inspire me and whom I look up to as my role-models. The motivation behind doing this is, you might see some patterns and hopefully you’d be able to learn from the amazing people that I have had a chance of learning from.

For my international friends, FIKA is a Swedish concept, a state of mind, an attitude and an important part of Swedish culture. It means making time for friends and colleagues to share a cup of coffee (or tea). With no rush, full immersion and being present in the moment. That’s why I thought “UXFika” is a perfect name for meaningful conversation with UX leaders I look up to.

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