Sarah is deeply passionate about leading talented teams, developing people and building modern marketing and communications strategies and services.
Experienced in creating positive disruption and leading teams through change, Sarah has experience in transformation, marketing and campaign strategy, creative development and digital strategy.
The better your culture, the better your user experience
Can we ever really deliver great user experiences if the culture behind the service isn't great?
For years now, working on designing products and services has always resulted in me supporting a shift in the team and/or organisation's broader culture and ways of working. To some, the link and necessity seems obvious, but to others it's perhaps a little more of a mystery as to why the 'digital team' are leading large scale change management programmes and in some cases designing new organisational operating models.
The practicalities associated with this link can be tricky. As designers or transformation specialists we are often brought in to 'fix a thing' or 'build something shiny', and there often isn't the awareness of the inevitable need to tackle the blockers that pop up from behind cultural walls.
In this session, I explore this link and why I believe that it's all of our jobs to support stronger, more positive cultures for the employee experience but also for our users' experiences too. We'll ponder on how we do this when it often feels out of our remit and reach.
Thank you very much. Oh, can everyone hear me okay? Fabulous. Hi. It's really great to see people in real life. It's not really sunk in yet, and I've really enjoyed the talks today, so hopefully you guys have as well. So, yeah, my name's Sarah. I'm head of Experience Design at LEEDS 2023 Year of Culture.
So LEEDS 2023 is an unofficial year of culture, but we are kind of doing it anyway when we got booted out as a result of the B-word that we shall not to mention in this room. So, yeah, it's a really great organisation. We are independent, funded by a variety of sources and we're putting on a fantastic year of culture in the year 2023 in and around Leeds.
So little plug if you are in or around Leeds in 2023, come on down or up. Also I am hiring, I'm just going to get that in there right now. So I am looking for a digital product owner and a service designer. So hit me up if you want to chat. Got that all the way now, a bit awkward
so I'll kind of move on. So my background is marketing, communications and PR, and then I morphed into digital transformation which I'll come on to. So before this gig I was working with Joseph Rowntree Foundation, headed up their design team and also DWP and Leeds University Union, among other gigs.
So how did you wind up working in organisational design? Loads of people basically asked me this question. And yeah, from 2005 to 2015, I worked, as I said, in a lot of communications roles, marketing, started heading up marketing teams. And in around 2015 I noticed that my team was becoming kind of like more and more frustrated. So this is when obviously the Internet era was becoming much more prevalent.
A lot of us were doing our services and our daily business and our entertainment more and more online, and this directly correlated with my team becoming quite frustrated in their roles. So at that time I was heading up kind of channel shift. So we were shifting all our communications. Obviously, to more digital first, doing a lot more insight-driven communications.
So I had what I like to call the kind of the wow moment. So it occurred to me, okay, so I'm leading a team here in a digital space, but we're operating in an organisation that's not yet in a digital space. And the two were very much jarring up against each other. So things like claiming your expenses or booking annual leave or doing these what should be quick tasks, really really frustrated my team.
And this links obviously back to Sharon and Hanna's talk earlier. There's quite a lot of links between the talks today, which is great to see. And so, yes, this wow moment for me was very much kind of a way of working. I could see that my team wanted work in a different way because that's what not only they're used to as kind of consumers and citizens, but also what they were used to in terms of the channels and things I was asking from them. And to be honest, those kind of frustrations became a distraction.
So even though the team were really motivated in terms of the work they were doing, those kind of organisational influences, things that were out of my control to some extent were actually distracting from what we were trying to achieve. So the old chestnuts are the best, and when I was at university, I actually studied organisational design and culture as part of my degree.
And obviously you have all these textbooks and we used to have all these textbooks, and all these kind of wonderful quotes and models that you work with. And one of them, which will be absolutely familiar to you all, is the old Drucker quote that culture will eat strategy for breakfast. And in my whole career to date I've never known a phrase that sticks in my head so much, and I come back to time and time again. I kind of pride myself on being quite a good strategist, but you've not got a chance, in my opinion, if your culture does not harness that strategy, does not enable your team to actually take that strategy forward. So I keep coming back to this time and time again. And culture is such a huge part of what I do now in transformation.
And I do think this has stood the test of time from all those years ago when I was in university, and I think it will continue to as well. So for me, kind of working in transformation, whether that's a head of department or a service designer, product team. Whatever part you play in that transformation, I really do think it's a balancing act, and I think you've got your external impact, but also your organisational improvement. Because for me, I'm not sure how far we can innovate if we don't transform the organisations that we're working within.
Now, we all want to ship the sexy stuff, right? So you can get bogged down in this internal stuff. And believe me, I've been there. So I think it is a balance, and I keep coming back to that balance. So I don't think it's one or the other. I think it's okay, how can we nudge and budge this organisation whilst shipping products, going to market, doing the kind of really good stuff we want to do, obviously for our users. I think if we don't look at that balance, that kind of can't do attitude, can rub off on you working in a transformational design role.
So if other aspects or the leadership of the organisation have got more of a mindset where things won't change or can't change, it can rub off on people working in these kind of roles. And obviously that's not the culture that we want because we are here to change things. So yes, I do think it's a balancing act that can be achieved. So day one, you turn up, you get this mug as a head of digital or familiar kind of role.
And actually, in my experience, they're not always ready for you. And if you look at the kind of job descriptions in this field, in my experience, it's quite rare that you'll see the internal side being called out. So people will say that we want to transform digitally, we want to put our audiences or users or humans first, we want to be digital first, we want to be mobile first, and all the kind of words that you want to see in a job description.
But it's quite rare that you will see we also need to hold a mirror up to ourselves and really think about how this organisation works and operates. And I've experienced that a number of times. They don't include the challenges and the changes that need to happen for the organisation to be digital. They just want someone to do the digital stuff but not necessarily unpack what that actually means in practice.
So an example of this would be principles. So whether that's your design principles, your accessibility principles, or experience principles. If you work just in the digital team or the design team or the transformation team, change management team, you're obviously going to be looking at creating principles. If those principles aren't co-designed with your colleagues or they aren't consistent across the organisation, you are going to bump up against not only issues internally, but your users will feel that.
So if you've got principles that you're operating in one part of the organisation but not another. And as another speaker said earlier, every team can procure IT now or software now. Now that's going to cause not just an issue internally for things like whether you need to integrate software, etc., multiple platforms or systems that you use.
But actually it's really bad for accessibility, it's really bad for your user because they get used to one way of working and then they're booted into the way of working. And we all know that that's poor practice. So it absolutely can manifest and demonstrate itself in front of your user. Same with standards. So accessibility standards or data standards again, like we want to create what we want to create and we want to do that holistically and work with colleagues across the organisation.
But if those, if those standards aren't being met or aren't being adopted across other parts of the organisation, you will again come up against problems. And again, your user is very likely to see that. And experience. So people in our field and everyone like exactly as Sharon was saying, we all know what bad looks like because we all have good before we walk through the office door.
If that's still a thing. Before we log on. So we all know what good looks like. We all know what bad looks like. So we have to kind of really kind of champion bringing that experience mentality into the organisation. And so often I see people within organisations who are just trying to find a route through and actually work around problems within the organisation.
And obviously that is not great for morale. But also that's a lot of time and money that we're spending as organisations. I predominantly work for social change organisations that are trying to do good things in the world, and pouring money down the drain is not a great thing when you're trying to make an impact in any sense
And I think a really important point on this is if we're not valuing that experience internally, how can we expect people to value it externally? So if we kind of see again standards and things, if we're saying we need to look at that, that didn't quite meet the standard. You know, our teams can pull us up and say, you want to talk about standards, it took me an hour to book a holiday day.
You know, these things do happen and it is kind of legitimate currency that teams can use. So my favorite word culture, which I talk about a lot and I think it's absolutely critical in our transformation work. So the origins of culture actually come from French and Latin and it's about cultivating, caring and tending for land so that crops can grow.
And now we might think of culture as a particular organisation or group that exists and has shared ideas, customs and social behaviors. And if we think about what influences us in our culture, it's media, it's TV, friends, it's family, it's education, it's the food we eat, it's how we socialize, etc. All those influences are exactly the same inside an organisation.
So if you are influenced by a film on Netflix, you will be influenced by your induction video. When you get into that organisation, our minds will work exactly the same way. And those little cues that you pick up inside your organisation are the same as little cues that you pick up externally. So I think culture is absolutely critical to enable a really successful transformation and a really great user experience.
I think going back to the origins of the word, we want to create a culture where people can flourish, and that sounds obvious. Who doesn't get behind that? Who goes I'm not bothered about that actually? And of course we want people to flourish, but there's lots of examples where it can go wrong, which I'll touch upon.
And as I said, I tend to work for organisations with a social purpose at the heart. What I've seen time and time again is that the world has changed around us while we've been trying to change the world. Organisations are designed, and they're not designed in a way that meets the expectations of the people internally
who are then trying to change the world externally. And it becomes quite ironic, the whole thing, particularly when you are tackling huge social issues, but you're not tackling your appraisal system. And again, what does that say to your internal teams if you're trying to solve world issues, but you're not actually looking at the basics internally? And that speaks volumes.
And in my experience, I will say this is as applicable to startups as it is to legacy organisations. So please don't think oh, startups have got it nailed. Absolutely not. Because everybody coming into startups, all bring their own baggage, cultures and experiences and influences and do it their way. And it still can become kind of a victim of that. So how this can manifest.
So this is a workshop that I ran at one of my gigs, and these are plasticine models when people were asked to mold how it feels to get your job done in this organisation.
Probably doesn't take much explanation, which is the beauty of a tool like this. So I was able to give this to the CEO directly, and have a little chat about it. And as you can see, we've got snails. I mean, snails would be powerful enough, but we've actually got a broken line between the snails just for extra emphasis.
And then we got a tortoise or a turtle up there, and we've got a clock indicating kind of speed or lack thereof. And actually the green kind of splodge above the clock is a desk, that someone feels has just been crushed, so that's a strong metaphor for you there. So not only is this kind of a really great communication tool because I'm able to show that to the CEO and it's kind of quite obvious what that what that means.
But it's the kind of things that I'm talking about. And these are people that you then want to give the absolute best service to your users when that's how they feel really and imagine if we could lift all that stuff, how good your service could actually be. Yeah. So this is what that results in, of course, is roadblocks.
And there's only kind of so many of those you can jump over. And they are really, really kind of practical roadblocks. That stop people doing their job. So one example I've got here. One of my old places, they hired their first ever graphic designer. And when that person arrived in post, there was no Mac.
And they said no Mac, where's the Mac, I'm confused. And they said, oh, we don't do Macs. So they said, okay, what am I going to do then? And they said, oh, we've got a PC for you. Okay. I wasn't in post at this place at this point. So, this person spent three months training how to use a PC. And I don't really need to say any more about that example, not thinking about the actual skillset that we've invited into the organisation and therefore providing them with the tools that they need to get their job done.
Another example that I've seen a lot in a lot of different organisations is things around procurement or purchasing or signing up to subscriptions. So we know that when we want to procure a service such as a software, as a service in particular, that you just need a credit card. Now asking for a credit card with a limit that will enable you to use a subscription service in some organisations, it's a lot.
So and so I've seen it again, going around in circles, people getting frustrated going, but I need this Sprout Social to do my job and we haven't got the credit cards to enable them to do the job. And it's those simple things that can really, really frustrate people. And I think as you know, in this field, we need to really grease the wheels on this and hear this and be putting pressure on people to unlock some of these issues.
And so yeah, this kind of quote sticks in my head to me, which is when a flower doesn't bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.
I think it's a really important thing in this field to consider time and time again is that actually if people are frustrated, if people coming up against problems and issues, it's not their problem necessarily to fix that. We can all work together to vocalise these issues and make it better. And I think that's really, really important that we constantly look back to the issues and the environment so that we can tend to the culture. So what I like to call Prosecco moments.
So Jas earlier was talking about earlier and Jude and the team celebrating success. And so prosecco moments, shandy moments, Diet Coke moments, whatever you want to call them, are the kind of good things that can happen if you do kind of chip away at your culture. So a project that I led, a human-centred hello. So we had an induction, a word that many will be familiar with.
I recently had a baby, so it means something very different. So, we had an induction that was not focused on the individual joining the organisation. It was very much about get them through the door and show them the policies and procedures that they have to adhere to as an employee of this organisation. And that was kind of your first 48 hours really. When you, you know, when you start a new job, whether it's a contract freelancer or whatever, you know, you've got those nerves. You can know, what are the people going to be like and all this. You really kind of need a warm welcome, a human welcome.
But often, and this isn't just a one-off incident. I've seen people's inductions are very much kind of read these policies and then come back to me when you've kind of ticked your health and safety training and everything. So actually, what I did was I led a team to understand people's experiences of joining this organisation over the last six months.
And this is because we're doing a huge recruitment drive. We're about to bring in a big cohort, And obviously what we learned was that people want to feel like you were welcoming Sarah into the organisation and you understood what Sarah needs and how Sarah likes to work and Sarah’s personality, etc. Now, obviously, that comes with time. You can't expect it on day one.
But you can set that tone and conversation. And we stopped calling it induction. We start calling it welcome. Just that subtle difference from understanding okay, we actually are welcoming this person into our organisation, into our culture, into our kind of family. And also and I bought every new starter a mug with their initial on it. That might sound small, it’s just a mug. But actually the initial thing is very important, I would say.
And so when that person arrived, there was a mug with their initial. Oh my name’s S and that's an S, is that for me? Yeah. You want a brew? Yeah, I want a brew. Nice one. Off we went for a brew and it's just humanising it again. It's just those little things that really helped humanise it. Also, some feedback was about not knowing how to act with the top leadership team, how should I approach them?
Am I allowed to speak to them? When do I get to interact with them, etc. So we put on events periodically. The people who joined in the last three weeks could go along to and have breakfast with the boss. And we actually called it Croissants with Claire, and they were able to just go and have a croissant and a coffee with Claire, and it was really nice.
And again, it was just really human. It's just a nice little moment. Amazing feedback from everyone. Another example, when I worked with students. We moved to being much more insight driven, much more human-centred and understood a lot more about our students due to a huge piece of strategic research that we we did, which included the segmentation study. And some of the insights showed that students who needed support the most were not accessing that support because our advice centre was up some steps and felt a bit like a GP appointment.
So you had to push quite a heavy door, go and sit on a little sofa, wait for your turn and people you know, a lot of people did that. A lot of people did that, said I need some help, I've been accused of plagiarism or whatever. The thing was, there was a segment of our students that really struggled with quite kind of serious issues and needed support and they weren't accessing that support.
So with that insight, we were able to normalise and kind of put in the mainstream our service advice support. How we did that was we moved it downstairs for one thing. And so you could still go upstairs if there was still a space upstairs. But actually, there was a glass a glass kind of vestibule, that's a good word, behind a welcome desk that people could go to on the ground level.
And actually we also altered the signposting in so that if you went to the welcome desk, which was usually kind of lost property or directions or that kind of thing, they also had a very kind of an entry-level training on that advice, so they could ask the right questions and then find out whether that person was need of signposting. And we also launched the first knowledge base for students.
So students were actually able to look through a knowledge base for any kind of support that they needed. And that could range from I've lost my Umbrella to I think I'm going to leave uni and kind of again, everyone needs a bit help and support. There's no student who doesn't go oh I need some help today. At one level and actually put it all in one place.
The knowledge base took away the ‘I need advice’ kind of label. Another kind of moment for me has been agile popups. What I mean by that is just, the last team talks about it in terms of building a community and that can really nudge and budge a culture. So doing your shown and tells, doing stand ups in the open. And one story that I had was I spoke at a management meeting about the three L. And so for those aren't familiar with that, it's a retrospective tool, what you've lacked, learned and liked during a sprint, or could be a project or an event or whatever. And I spoke about this management meeting. There was no pressure for anyone to do it, I was just sharing it like a tip. And then a few weeks later I went into finance office probably because I was late with my expenses or like begging for forgiveness in some manner.
I looked upon the wall and the three Ls were there. They said, oh yeah, we loved it. We've been doing ever since. And I was like, I never said let me know if you do it or anything. And they were just loving it and said yeah, it’s been a really great tool. And I kind of like skipped out the office thinking, Well, that's great.
That's another little kind of nudge and budge. And I think it is those agile little pop ups that you can share. So in terms of what we can do in our field, in our profession, and what can we do. Support a culture shift that will enable better user experience, one of the things I come back to time and time again is organisational values.
So who's got organisational values? Show of hands. Well, quite a few people. Maybe that's half. So yeah, a lot of organisations now have organisational values, which are hopefully slash usually, or the other way around, co-designed with teams. So what values do we want as an organisation to go into your strategic plan?
And a bit like a strategy like I was saying before, what good are those values going to do if we're not actually using them in our vocabulary on a daily basis, a weekly basis, a monthly basis? And if one of your values is we are bold and you're seeing things in the organisation that people are not able to to act on that, so they're not making kind of bold decisions, then that is our role to connect those dots and say, but this is our value up here, so can we talk about it as a value?
Because I want to connect to this value. And if I want this value to mean something to me, and ultimately I want to be part of this community that believes in these values, then how do we make that real? And how do we use that as our currency in an organisation and as a superpower. And I think if values are meant for anything, that is kind of what they're meant for. To bring people together around a shared value and belief. But then what does that look like? And in organisations you see a lot of behaviours. What are the behaviors that go with these values?
But that's great. That's all brilliant. But I really think we need to say, okay, if this thing doesn't work for me and I keep doing it, I keep telling you just not working for me, I don't feel like we're using that value and I don't feel like I'm connected to that value. And it can just shift the conversation, but in a helpful way.
And I don't think that's about being challenging in a negative way. I think that's been positively challenging and saying, let's make this better together because what the values are one of the reasons that I'm here. And yeah, I think the people all want to help don’t they. We all want to help people. And like the prosecco moments are all about helping people.
And when you help someone, you feel good and they feel good and it's a better day in the office. So I think taking an interest in people's problems, like genuinely and again it's really hard. We're all so busy, we've got so much to deliver to the outside world and actually going, oh, I just need to help this person do this thing.
It’s a big slice of the kind of pie that we might not be able to give away. But the nudge and the budge on the culture might just be worth it. And coming off brief. And you could do that in a way that's more coordinated through sprints or something. You can say, okay, we're going to take two weeks out of the organisation, out of my objectives to actually help this person.
And if that person is in a team or part of the organisation that has not yet bought into transformation or not bought into a new way of working, then more the better. Because, you know, forming allies, forming relationships, forming friendships, and helping people, and then being able to talk about helping people, I think is really good.
And hopefully they will talk about how you help them as well. And it's not about the glory for you as an individual. It's obviously the glory of the thing that was better and someone saved time or money or feels better about you, or it’s just easier. That's all good stuff. And also sharing the small wins.
There’s a lot out there about agile communications and how we can just kind of relax a bit when it comes to communicating and the amount of time that we say don’t read that. I haven't finished writing it yet. Don't. It's not right, it's not read. And I think let's just communicate a little bit more frequently and a little bit casually and share these small wins.
And alongside wins is, of course, sharing mistakes and a lot of organisations really, really actively ask you to share mistakes so that other people don't make them. So really kind of think about when you've made a mistake, how might we ensure that someone else doesn't make that mistake? And that's not about highlighting a failure of yours.
It's about, again, the for the good of the organisation. Also kind of incubator projects can work really well. So if you’re doing innovation labs and that kind of thing, you've got a product to ship or you've got a service that you’re working on, working out loud as much as possible and showing that can just help to nudge that culture.
So like the three Ls example, someone just picked that up in an organisation, started doing it and that was really great and that can happen. And then of course, there’s the Trojan Horse. So what is the big thing that we all want to work on and get people around to demonstrate transformation in action? And that can be really, really powerful as well.
And then, drop this bomb. So how might we incorporate culture into our ways of working? So how might you talk about culture? How about you use the word more? How might you normalise culture? Own it? The thing is we are the organisation. The organisation is not a logo or the CEO. People say, oh no, this organisation can't do that.
But we are the organisation. We are. There's no one else, we are the organisations. So how might you talk about culture in one-to-ones, in show and tells? How might you reflect on what you've done in that sprint? Or, in that project and what impact that might have on your culture, either negatively or positively? And just talk about it more, just talk about culture more is what I would encourage. Because I think that going back to that kind of balancing act, it's not that your job is suddenly going to be kind of head of culture, but I think we are all head of culture.
I think in the roles that we do, the things that we see, we are able to influence and we are able to nudge and budge, and I do think organisations that have transformed their cultures in response to the Internet era will provide a better service inside and out. And in a way, I'm kind of like, how could they not? When you kind of see that, it is going back to what many of the talks have said today. This is why it's my passion and profession now. To work with that balance. How might I deliver great things for users whilst also improving an organisation for the users within the organisation? So that's me, they’re my thoughts.