Today on the show we have Laura Yarrow, Head of Design and Her Majesty’s Land Registry in the UK.
In this episode we chat about design agitation and enabling change within organisations. Laura recently shared a fantastic thread on twitter about many of the common designer statements that we probably all have heard a thousand times “no one is listening to me”.
We chat about the challenges that many designers have - and how Laura approaches many of these problems in her role within Government.
It’s a good one - let’s just straight in...
Read the twitter thread that inspired this episode;
This transcript was created using the awesome, Descript. It may contain minor errors.
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S1: Hello and welcome to Bringing Design Closer. Our goal of conversations that inspire and help move the ball forward for organizations to become more human centered in their approach to solving complex business and societal problems. My name is Jerry Scott and I'm the founder of the Human Centered Design Network and the CEO of this is doing dot com. Home to many of the world's best design and changemaker courses online. Today in the show we have Laura Yarrow, head of design at Her Majesty's Land Registry in the United Kingdom. And in this episode we chat about design, agitation and enabling change within organisations. Nora recently shared a fantastic thread on Twitter about many of the common designer statements we've probably heard a million times. No one is listening to me and we chat about the challenges that many designers have in their workplaces and how Laura approaches many of these within her role at the government in the United Kingdom. It's a good one. Let's jump straight in. Laura Yarrow. A very warm welcome to bring in design clothes. And this is how you do it. I'm delighted to have you here. How are you?
S2: I'm good. Thanks for having me. How are you?
S1: I'm delighted, Ira. I follow you on Twitter and I'm looking forward to getting into some of the topics today around, you know, design, leadership and agitators and what does that look like. But before we jump into the conversation or maybe tell us a little bit about who you are and where you're from.
S2: I can tell you.
S1: What you do as.
S2: Well. I was going to say, what do I do? Yeah. And you want to start from the very beginning? Like the beginning.
S1: You were born.
S2: In Miami Beach.
S2: Yeah. So I. I mean, my my background is in web development. I started that was when my career started. And I sort of slowly transitioned into the OECD world. So research and design. And so I was in my safe space of computers being, you know, the safe space, black and white, where you find it very binary easy. Once you've sort of worked out how to how to do that. And then, you know, the whole world of humans came to me and design and how, you know, that's so much more interesting, isn't it? So much more complex, so many more gray areas with people. And that's that's kind of how I got into user centered design. And I've just been fascinated ever since with what people do and why they do it, because they are just strange creatures that we were all very old. And so you want some more than others? Yeah. Yeah. So, yes, I do. My current role is working for U.K. central government. So I work for the Land Registry, and that's a team of designers. So I'm the head of design that the design practice and that consists of content, interaction, accessibility, service designers. And we've recently added a design ops person into the mix because we're growing this about 25 people on the site now, but it fluctuates at the moment.
S1: Okay, so it's busy. So what of the typical day look like for you then in Florida?
S2: Industry meetings, teams meetings, slack messages. But yeah, working with all different sounds exciting. We, we have a really strong, really strong community of designers. And so a lot of that is based around them understanding their needs and training and how we want to grow the community and progress people through their careers and do great design for the services. Basically because it is public services we work on, they have to be accessible and usable, inclusive and consistent, efficient. You know, all these things that we have to to design for is, is my remit and my name's on the sign off, you know, to make sure that they are done correctly and we meet the user needs. So that's, that's.
S1: Yeah, it is exciting. Like, you know, when you, when you get to be that person to do as you said, to sign off and things and your name is there against us. But that kind of responsibility doesn't happen by chance. So we're going to talk a little bit more around the leadership side of your role. It sounds like we could we could talk about a whole different gamut of stuff based on what you just told us. But I definitely want to focus a little bit more on what does it look like and moving the dial forward, which is something that I'm really passionate about, especially within the government sense and where you're at. And just to back up, you know, the kind of to zoom out a bit more in this conversation, what led us to connecting, you know, about this podcast was was a tweet that you put out and towards the end of January this year. And I'm going to I'm going to read the tweet out just for people who haven't seen it, because you were mentioning there it's had over 200,000 views to stage. And it starts off with and as you said, you got a little bit ranty, which I don't like, which I do like. I don't mind because over the years, the most common design or complaints has always been no one listens and UX isn't a priority or understood. So I want to throw something controversial out there. Some of this is our own doing a quick ish thread and why and how to fix it. I haven't met one designer that had it easy. Even orgs that invest heavily in user centered design still have their issues. It's always the illusive seat at the table that designers chase, and it's common to feel that you're stepped on or underappreciated. This is common. It's not you. However, as humans, we all have a certain amount of agency and freedom to try and change things like the amount of time, design and research is given in an organization. Some people might call this being an agitator, and to an extent I agree with this is a good thing. So let's talk about what it means to be an agitator and what where and why are you using that word and what's the background to us?
S2: I think I think the background is something I touched on in that thread, which is that we always want this seat at the table. And I like to say and others have said, this is isn't my my quote or my thought, really. But I'm. You can either be at the table and if you're not at the table or on the menu, you know, so your view of the one on the menu and I think that's where this feeling comes from. There's this accepted feeling that as a designer, you will always be on the menu. You will never have that seat. And you're always fighting to do the work that you want to do. And this is something I'm guilty of throughout my career as well, is that I've been frustrated with that, you know, you have this role that maybe has social impact. You know, we're designing things for people to make their lives hopefully better. But at the same time, you feel undervalued, you're underfunded or misunderstood. No one really understands what design does. It's quite a loaded term, and then you get this perfect storm and that makes people act in different ways. Where you become this agitator, you use, you know, you're frustrated, you're territorial. You know, Ali, I do the design work. I'm the I do the wireframes. And, you know, you're you not advocating in the right way. You're not collaborating, and you may even be quite derogatory. So I think I put that in the thread too, that you might sort of perpetuate this them as you know, I don't talk to developers or, you know, they said I couldn't do this. You know, they and and I think that's where it comes from, is that we have the agency to change that relationship. And that is designed to we need to design that collaboration. We need to get that bedrock right first.
S1: And it's interesting because in the thread you also mentioned about being good and bad agitation. And instantly whenever we talk about this, it can start on the road of potential conflict. And conflict resolution is part of being able to to navigate this. So in that sense, reset this territorial schism around, say, artifact generation like we we do the research or we do the the the sands making or the visualization pieces not you sit down development, all those kind of conversations which I've been in. Yeah, I was going to say I've been part of and I have been part of them too, maybe about ten years ago. And then eventually I was like, You know what? I kind of don't have time for this. I'm happy to share this with you and just try and get get an outcome that works to both both of our kind of agendas. How have you managed this? Because within government, it just seems to be a lot more prevalent that people who have been long stays within governments, that territorial is kind of comes part and parcel with the roles like This is my area, I've been doing this for 20 years. That's going to be a bigger challenge when you're trying to prise those kind of pieces away that is almost locked in with their identities. How do you manage that?
S2: So yeah, these longstanding habits and behaviors that I mean, yeah, this is the irony, right, is that it was supposed to be the experts on people and the way humans behave. And then when we have to turn inwards and internally to the people we work with and see them as our users and our our customers, we really struggle. I mean, that's been my experience myself personally and in other roles. I've been in that and you see it all the time. I, I've run training sessions, I've run various meetups and communities, and it's always the thing that gets people riled up and talking until like late into the evening is, you know, I just can't get this person to understand what I do or I just I just I'm so frustrated. I'm just, you know, not included in the right meetings or the right ceremonies and something. And actually, you know, that's that's really frustrating to hear because I think there are things we can do. And I think I talked about those in the thread that, you know, it's all the invisible stuff that's the hardest, right, isn't it? The how you govern yourself and how you how you talk about what design is and the so many different pitfalls. So for example, I think one of the things that I see really commonly is we're really defensive as designers and we don't always know it as well. So we may be writing things like, I just, I just need time to do this bit of design and it's almost like a, please let me do it. I'm asking your permission. And actually we need to just be confident in our roles and say, Look, I've been hired here to do a job. I'm the experts in this specific discipline and this is what design is and this is how we're going to do it. And I will guide you through that. I'm your strategic resource. So it's repositioning design in a way someone once read and then it's building these relationships on the overlaps as well. So there's a case for saying that design works across the whole lifecycle of a service or a product. Mm. Touching lots of different disciplines, whereas some don't, you know, like maybe deaf only touches one part of the project. Yeah. And so on. So designers work across everything and that means there's loads of these overlaps and opportunities, not challenges that. Opportunities to work with someone. So we mentioned earlier someone saying, no, that's my spot, don't do the design. Yeah, I think it's like someone brings you in product or product manager, for example, brings you a wire frame and says, look, I've had this idea, that's great. You know, we should be encouraging people to think visually to to come to us and actually include us in the conversation and then have the opportunity to say, this is great. I'm the expert I can on my, you know, expertise and my the evidence I've seen. I can I can help you make this great, you know, make this even better. So, yeah.
S1: There's there's definitely there's there's a lot to that. And I mean, we ask for collaboration and we ask for participation within other disciplines within organisations. And I've had it a number of times. I remember one instance when I was doing work for a medical company and I was starting this is maybe 2011 or something I starting to sort of welcome. I was kind of saying, okay, now, now I'm kind of opening my mind a little bit more. And I created the first draft of interaction wireframes for this new system, and I was presenting this remotely to clients who in America that people were signing off in America. And it was an hour long session. And after 58 minutes, I was like, Listen, thanks for much. This is important. I was a junior on the team who is, you know, kind of unbeknownst to me, had also created his own set of wireframes, I guess. Can I just say one thing before we move? And I go, Yeah, sure. And he was like, kind of, you know, can you give me the sharing permissions? And then starts to share his own set of wireframes. And I'm like, Uh, so what do you do in those instances? And that was, by the way, that was I caught that one in the board pretty quickly. I was like, Don't do that again. But I had to understand where that was coming from. And if we ask for this participation and we asked for people to kind of like share ownership, there still needs to be a bit of an understanding that you're the person responsible for this. You're the person who's who's owning this, and how do you handle that? If you end up having loads of people create more frames and loads of people working on their own little versions of things and bringing it back.
S2: I think that's really common because we are mostly visual creatures. So it's only right that, you know, if someone wants to communicate something, they're going to do it visually. We were doing it since, you know, cave art, you know, millennia ago. It's the way we communicate is the way we get what's inside our heads out because we're not always good at articulating. That's a secondary way of communicating and, and, and visualizing. So it's, yeah, I think it's building these relationships, isn't it? But being clear about roles and responsibilities. And I know in the past we've done workshops where we've done like this script where you've got the, you know, designers, the BAS, the product people and all the, all the different disciplines and researchers maybe as well. And then on the other side, you've got, you know, what do you think we do? And then in each discipline actually to talk about what what they think you do and then you've been able to play back what it is you do and then agreeing on where the overlaps are and where you collaborate together. So it's really clear it's all out there for everyone to to know. And I've I've done in the past as well these charters between different practices as well, which are really good to say this is how we'll work together. But I think all of this is just scaffolding, isn't it? It's all scaffolding. Yeah. To what the real thing is, which is building the right culture, building the right relationships. And that's that's the hard that's the invisible bit that you have to work at like a marriage. It's like it is maybe saying more about my marriage, but yeah, it's, you have to really work at these things to get them right. And you do to persist.
S1: Yeah. But when you say building the culture and building all that kind of stuff, usually when you're, you're building something, you have a sense of kind of ownership of what you build and you know what materials you're going to use in that build. So if you're building a house, you know, you got to, you know, choose the windows to the likes of in government in particular. You don't always get to choose the materials. In this instance, we're going to talk about people. Sometimes you have to inherit people as part of your team who've been there for 20 years and they want to get involved and they've been seconded into this area of the business. And you're going to be working with people with different maturity, different levels of aptitude, and sometimes different levels of interest. They might be there and they're like, okay, well I'm not really that keen in and like, I don't really want to do the research, but hey, you know what? I'm the research person on this project. Have you had experience with that? And if so, how do you handle, you know, that kind of conflict? Because, you know, you sound like you're deeply passionate about creating services that, you know, sort of respond to the true human need. But not everyone on your team is going to be singing from that same hymn sheet.
S2: So, yeah, I'm going to be directly.
S1: Yeah, you be Frank O'Brien. Hey.
S2: I'm going to contradict eventually. I'm going to contradict you here. So I. I think in government design, user centered design is actually more mature sometimes than private sector or other sectors. So and I think that's because we've got this strong set of principles to work to. We've got a strong sense of direction, and we have to produce things that work for everyone. True. You know, it's a really big audience. And the land registry supports £7 trillion of property assets in the UK. So it's where it really props up the economy and. Yeah, absolutely. Yes, it runs. It has to work and it has to work for everyone and it has to be inclusive. So, I mean, and by. By saying it comparing it with the private sector, I mean, companies as a whole, I don't mean the actual practitioners because I think everyone, as you know, if you come into design and you're passionate anyway, that you do it, if you're not passionate about people and and designing things and creating and being creative. But I think you sign up for that. You know that it's going to be more restricted in like how creative you can be, but there's a different mission there. But going back to like leadership and inheriting and people's ways of thinking about user centered design, I think that's any, any organisation, you know, you could inherit people who are not passionate or they've been there a long time or they don't agree with the mission at that. That's anywhere. That's not just public sector and government.
S1: Yeah. Yeah. One of the big things in your threads which kind of said, okay, I definitely want to speak to law, which made me reach out was because I was formulating a talk pre-pandemic around trust and building trust. And within design is we, we talk about building culture and building teams and, you know, getting buy in and getting the seat at the table and stuff with us. Building trust is really, really hard and building trust in teams and organisations that have been doing it a certain way for so long. And then you become this person who comes in and you know, in my instance I'm like a Duracell rabbit. I'm just running around kind of full of energy. You kind of go, Let's try this. That's me. I'm probably over positive some days. How do you what are your thoughts on the role of trust and what are the things that you should avoid doing not to avoid doing? Like, what are the pieces that you think we need to be cautious of?
S2: Yeah. So I saw a really good quote the other day and it was by Catherine Grace. He's the the new head of NHS X, I think it is. And it's via Stephen Covey who did is it seven having highly effective people. So he said progress happens at the speed of trust and it's a really slow thing to develop, but it's a really quick thing to break, isn't it? So it's one of those really interesting cultural things that happens is that, you know, you can discard trust really quickly and it will never be built again, you know, between people. But if you take the time, if you accept it's a long game, it can be built and the things not to do. I think with the things I listed earlier about, you know, being derogatory because that breaks trust really quickly and yeah, you know, advocating in the wrong way, making it us and them being territorial, not sharing and being transparent. But I think the way to build trust and the opposite being transparent and also showing the science of design. So you said you run around going, oh, let's try this, let's try this. Actually been focused and showing that design is so much more than color palettes. Yeah, it's you know, it's actually about cognitive biases, gestalt, psychology, the way we perceive the world. Behavioral economics and other, you know, psychological and social science backgrounds. That is how we build the credibility that we're a scientific, strategic unit in an organization. And we have a way to be used early on in the process to to be part of the decision making, to be part of the problem framing. And yeah, the same as any of the other discipline. Mike Developers, for example, if we're included early, we can, we can help supercharge what you're doing but brought into light. We can only do the aesthetics. Really.
S1: Yeah. I wonder. And again, this is a kind of a pretty open conversation, but I don't think we can measure trust. I think it's a it's something that you can sort of sense. It's it's a human human thing that if you feel like you've actually hit that point where you can actually have open conversations without fear of retribution and fear that things are going to happen in a negative way. Um, what are your thoughts on being able to, to, to measure these kind of things? Stars are intrinsically difficult to measure. But how do you know when trust has been reached other than building the relationships yourselves? Like so if you're managing lots of people, what you're saying as the head of design, what are you looking for?
S2: So the more I talk about this subject, the more I realize it's actually just talking about psychological safety in teams as it is. It's like you said, there's this key indicators that that psychological safety is there, not just in the design team or as a team. You work in the OECD team, the research team. But between that team and other teams that the adjacent disciplines like developers and product and you know, all the other, other, other disciplines. And I think the key indicators, one you touched on is that people are okay to be candid about when they've done something wrong or they failed or something didn't work. So for example, you know, you often see in organisations look you've done the research but you can't show it, you can't show that it's too negative, something's going wrong and that's going to affect my delivery schedule and I'm going to get get it in the neck. And so there's that sort of candidness I think is one of the key aspects. And I think also that willingness to work together as well is like another key indicator. So you'll get people who are actively seeking to work together. So you might get a designer and a product manager who have regular meetings. They really you can you can feel you can feel the love between them that they really enjoy working together. And you can see where people have been avoiding, you know, and that's, that's the key indicator.
S1: Not turning up for meetings and stuff.
S2: Yeah. Not, not then and also not been included in the meetings. So you can see just looking down the, the attendee list, have anyone, has anyone from a OECD perspective been included? Is that would be a key indicator that they don't feel like they belong there or they don't feel like they can ask to be there or that they don't even know that you said it exists in the organisation. So yeah, there's lots of these key indicators like that and it is like you say it's hard to measure isn't it.
S1: Yeah, absolutely. You were talking about, I guess that the controversial piece that you're referring to in your your tweets, there was loads of them, I think was like 15 or 20 of them nested together and it was great. Like, I love those kind of big longer threads, but it's really important to think about design, I guess, as like the fabric of the organisation. To quote Sarah Drummond, good friend of the podcast treaty, to understand like the role that design we're sometimes contributing to to these kind of negative behaviours. Can you talk to that a little bit more around what you've seen?
S2: I probably can't talk about we're not.
S1: Not, not, we're not looking for names, but just in terms of like all other things as well, things you might have seen within organisations like other than what we've discussed so far, so far just to give us anecdotes because some people might kind of go, well, that's not us, but I'd love to hear some of the background scenarios of, of led to this kind of thread just and again, obviously I'm not looking for anything incrimination or anything finger pointing.
S2: I can probably talk more about my experience as well. Yeah.
S1: Your perspective on these things.
S2: Yeah, it's like a younger designer where you come across this this profession and you think, that's it, that's mine, that that is for me. And you immerse yourself in all of that. And like you say, you come back and you're so excited. You want to tell everyone, this is it's almost like this is the new way, the new religion. And yeah, this is this is what everyone must follow now. And here's all the jargon, Hazel, the terminology, Hazel, the dense stuff, because it makes me sound smart and you don't know this, so this is new to you, but actually that just makes that rift even bigger because people don't have time. They've got their own day job, you know? So explaining the terminology is really important. Explaining the reason why you're doing it as well, I think is another thing. So and I think this is maybe what I put in the tweet as well is that we have no, we don't we don't spend a lot of time explaining what we do or how we do it, what will deliver, what it means. And the activities were doing and what they mean the how long it takes. I've already said that one but yeah we didn't explain all like the how, what, where we went and what they can expect at the end of it. So yeah.
S2: If, if I was having my house some building work done, for example, if I, if I was doing like an extension, I wouldn't just let someone come in and say, okay, just like I just want that wall knocking out. I don't care how you do it, I don't care how long it takes. I don't care what it looks like, you know, just. Just do it. You know, I would want to know the ins and outs, you know, and I think we forget that we are working on some people's precious houses. You know, no one has a stake in that. You know, they don't want it to fall down. You know, some people will be. Crushed by it. Some people will be yeah mildly maimed and you know, it's it's actually one of those things that we forget that this is a shared project is a shared goal. And, you know, I think that's what we need to be more clear with. You know, why should anyone trust us if we don't tell them how we work, what we do, how long it takes? So we need to be clear with all those things I've not done in the past.
S1: Yeah, I think it's fair to say many of us have probably not done that. We spent probably this probably coming from a place of fear, I think within design where we're like, well, we need to perform it, we need to to deliver value straight away. And sometimes it's a case of slowing down at the start, trying to understand the system and understand the network that you're currently going to be a part of, and making sure that you're working and being inclusive and adhering to the best practice and slowing down to to go faster is kind of up. Speed up is usually the best approach. Remember and in a government project in Australia it was what are the big projects that I've probably spoken quite a lot about? I took an awful lot of time to to get to a point where I was like, okay, now I'm ready to start designing. I am talking months. And a lot of it was it was a case of going out and doing an awful lot of diligent work in terms of documentation and research and stuff. But one of the pieces that I found really helpful and I got to it a little bit more in your perspective of this in the real world, when we were working with people side by side was meeting them outside of the office, and I would always book my meetings in coffee shops close by, and I'd scout the coffee shops to make sure it wasn't like, you know, a roadie bar. But on a being able to have a meeting outside of the building to help build that trust that I have, you know, kind of a more of an organic speed as opposed to the corporate structure where we're sitting in a, you know, a glass box and we're sitting there and we're like, what are you going to do? And I found that to be a really powerful thing. I found it to be a nice tactic, too, because people love getting their coffee paid for and a slice of banana bread. It was it goes so far and been able to enable able to build that relationship to help enable that trust. How have you found doing this stuff? You know what I'm going to ask next in the pandemic, the that kind of emulation and those kind of behaviours, we've obviously struggled. We can't do that face to face as much as we can and I guess it's probably only got it get back up is going to get bigger because remote work is now huge, which is which is fantastic, but it'll give us other challenges and to be able to deliver and to be able to make those relationships. How, how and what are you doing around that space?
S2: Yeah. So I agree with what you say, that you need to humanize yourself, you know, to make it, you know, not of them in us and to to show that vulnerability that you are just doing your job as well and you're there to help them do their job. So, yeah, during the pandemic, it's, it's much harder. You do have to overcommunicate. So setting up more meetings with people, that's why was they mostly meetings for me in my role. But it's useful because that is humanizing and it helps you connect with people and and keep that conversation going rather than maybe meeting every time something goes wrong or meeting every time you have a major release or something, that that's when the stakes and tensions are the highest and you don't always get the best of people, you know, and yourself. So I think another thing that that the pandemic to sort of see the silver lining is that the the friction for doing research and design has greatly decreased. So you can do remote interviews, you can quickly spin up a research project and deliver that back really quickly with the collaborative tools we've got as well online. And and I think you can deliver that back really quickly as well. You can record it, you can let people watch that and then answer questions in their own time. So I think there's definitely pros and cons. It's not the same as having someone in the room with you and watching their real time research unfold and the penny drop moment that you get. But yeah, there are definitely good bits as well.
S1: Yeah, I know. Absolutely. There's a whole load of other pieces in here that we wanted to I wanted to cover off. But, you know, we're we're at the point where I'm unconscious the time and stuff. But you've also spoken recently at UX Glasgow you were talking about before when we were trying to venue their talks coming up, the people might be able to to follow you and join in on.
S2: I don't have any at the moment, none that I can talk about yet. But you can always look at my newsletter. So I do that every month. If I'm if I'm good enough to remember, it's it's a little bit sort of fun. Yeah. Delayed sometimes, but. It's called the People Place and Space Newsletter, all about brilliant design. So I do that every month. Okay, nice. Me on Twitter. I'm very vocal.
S1: You're definitely on Twitter here. You're an active tweeter.
S2: Definitely there.
S1: Which is which is great. Like, you know, so I'll put a link to your your Twitter in the show notes, put a link to the newsletter in there as well, and also maybe a link to your LinkedIn for people who want to connect with you and kind of follow you and what you're doing. But Laura, look, it has been absolutely brilliant to connect with you today, really enjoyed a conversation and like those threads that you did on on Twitter. Like I'll also put a link to that one as well so people can read the full the full thread because there's an awful lot to be learned from other people's perspectives in that thread alone on how people are, you know, seeing different things and people might get an awful lot from that as well. So thanks for creating it. Thanks so much.
S2: For your time for having me. Thank you so much. It's been great. It's been a bit like therapy.
S1: Maybe that's a podcast. We should do a USC therapy podcast. Who knows? Maybe. Maybe. Absolutely. Have a great weekend. Thanks so much.
S2: Thank you. Bye.
S1: So there you have it. That's all for this episode of Bringing Design Closer. If you like this episode, feel free to visit this. A sitcom where you can access our back catalog of over 100 episodes with episodes related to service design, product management, design, research, and much, much more. If you're interested in design and innovation training, feel free to check out our business. This is do income where you can join online classrooms and learn from the world's best design and innovation leaders. Join that. This is eight city newsletter where you receive updates from the network and also, if you're interested, apply to join the Slack community. And this is HCD.com. Stay safe. And until next time, take care.
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