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Grow in Your Craft or Your Leadership? How to Evolve as a UX Designer

UX leader, Ashton Snook, chats with us about the balance of UX research and design, securing design’s seat at the table, and his advice for getting started in the industry.

Words by Stevie Watts, Visuals by Allison Corr

There’s a misconception in many organizations that the only path for advancing your career is through management. But Ashton Snook, Head of Product Design and UX Research at Vodafone’s Smart Tech business, thinks the most successful organizations recognize the path for individual contributors (ICs) or practitioners as equally important.

Vodafone Smart Tech combines the connectivity of one of the world's leading mobile communication providers with the agility of an in-house team (across design, development, research, and product) with Snook’s team being a key component in the brand’s development.

Ashton has years of experience leading teams, but prior to doing so, harnessed his skills in UX design as an individual contributor. It was upon seeing design’s underutilized seat at the table that he decided to make the switch into leadership.

He and his team of designers and researchers run everything from initial ideation to final build alongside the product and front-end engineering teams at Vodafone Smart Tech. As a currently fully remote team of 12, we learn how working from home during the pandemic has both enhanced creativity and actually made the team closer.

We spoke to Ashton about his experience shifting from designing, to leading designers, how UX design and research elevate one another at Vodafone Smart Tech, and what opportunities lie ahead for this industry.

dscout: Can you talk a little bit about who your stakeholders are and where you’re located in the org? Help us orient your team’s structure.

Ashton: Our Design studio sits as a subdivision within Product which forms the larger Vodafone Smart Tech team. It’s the proximity of the related skills of Design, Research, Product, and Engineering that are enabling us to make incredible progress in the IoT sector.

Naturally, there are many other divisions such as Business Development, Marketing, Commercial, Customer Care, etc., that form that larger team at Smart Tech, all of which work closely with the Product function to create effective user experiences.

The real magic for our business unit is rooted in collaboration, transparency, and user experience. We strategically group together skills into functions with the talent required to imagine, create, and ship various initiatives.

Basically, the people who need to work together every day, do. Our Studio model is built with a semi-centralized mindset, this means we have a hybrid approach to organizing and coordinating talent—which is incredibly important to the design process and supporting an inclusive mindset with collaboration and ideation in the remote working conditions we are currently set up for.

The Studio acts as a creative community, fostering the skills, principles, workflows, and goals for Design and Research, but, we also embed a one-to-one ratio of design/research talent within the Product squads.

We find the balance allows us to effectively manage the holistic aspects such as design language, KPIs, etc. yet retain the momentum and speed within the Product squads.

Can you talk about the interplay between designing and researching as a practice for the folks on your team?

We've got a really simple one-to-one model. Our UX researchers handle everything from profiling our customers to surveys. They’re also running things like diary studies, which are hugely exciting and really important for this kind of product work, as well as classic usability studies and user interviews.

All of that work revolves around discovery and unpacking the needs of the customer. It also helps hold our designers accountable to make sure the design solutions are really hitting the brief and working to meet our users’ needs.

Now, the designers we have are multidisciplinary. They're product designers and they focus their work around strategy ideation and do a little bit of research. They’re mostly desk orientated, but they have an understanding of how to practice UX research. We combine that with skills for UX, UI, animation, and system design as well.

Ultimately, user research and design are one package, and that relationship combination works really well for us at Vodafone Smart Tech. They bounce off each other, debate a little bit, and keep each other in check.

There's always a need for us to learn and respond to our users’ needs and that’s our creative fodder. That's our source of inspiration as we go through that journey.

But of course, the research won't necessarily tell us what the best solution is. The designers need to bring a sensibility of craft and creativity. It's their job to really work with Product to imagine what the solution might be.

How long has this been the structure? And has this structure led to researchers doing more design work and vice versa?

Our Smart Tech function is a revitalization of a former brand called V-By Vodafone and when we first built the current structure, the strategy changed a little bit.

Last year, during the pandemic, we started implementing a new strategy to develop a research department.

When I joined we had some really great talent, but our people were working in pockets with relative isolation. With all good intentions, people were abiding to an almost purest “squad model.”

However there is a big challenge with this model, when you have specific teams moving quickly to ship products, they tend to over-focus on their piece of the puzzle. This can be great for solving isolated problems and shipping features to a specific audience at speed.

However, this approach falls short on considering the big picture. Design is experienced in its entirety by the end-user. So we tweaked the structure, focusing on community, collaboration, and play. With talent from all over the world, working remotely across three different countries, the need for a semi-centralized (community and autonomy hybrid) approach was paramount to take our experiences to the next level.

So, a really big focus is connecting all of these different teams together with an overarching strategy to ensure that design and research are talking to each other continuously. You want to make sure that they’re consistently questioning how their designs or projects will impact other areas of the organization.

We coach our designers and researchers to thrive and grow in this structure; it's about understanding how each role complements the other. Highlighting where the boundaries are, what the other’s responsibilities are, and where there’s just the right amount of grey space where each can explore a little bit of the other’s job to better empathize and collaborate.

We want our researchers to be proactive in championing the customers and active in recommending solutions. We want them to push ideas forward, and drive that with insight.

Equally, we know that it's important that the designer has space to consume that insight, to come up with some ideas along with the product managers, and then get creative and try a few things. The coaching is really making sure that everyone understands their roles, the grey space, and that there actually should be a healthy tension between both entities in order for the function to succeed in shaping great user experiences.

What are the opportunities and the challenges of being a remote team? How has your experience been shifting to remote work?

Before the pandemic, I was at a different company and at that time I was very studio-oriented in the physical sense. It was important to have everyone together on a regular basis. We’d be together four or five days a week and riffing off each other, having coffee together, putting things on the walls, etc.

Then, of course, we were forced to stop that practice and we had to respond overnight. What we thought was going to be two or three weeks, turned out to be 20 months and we had to adapt really quickly.

In that previous role, it was a real challenge because we didn't initially have the right tools in place to make remote work easy. I had been very fortunate to work on a strategy that was all built around having people together in a physical environment, so it was tough to get used to being apart initially.

At Vodafone, we’ve invested in some fantastic tools and transitioned to a super-flexible model, enabling the team to work from home or the Studio. Initially, this was driven by the constraints that we’ve all faced through the global pandemic, but as a team, we’ve found that a remote working environment has been fantastic for creativity and collaboration (something I couldn’t have imagined pre-2020).

Vodafone has been incredibly progressive and very human-centric in managing and evolving how we operate. Collectively we’ve focused on our people—engagement, satisfaction, and productivity have all gone up.

Whilst there have been challenges along the road, for most people, it’s really been a positive experience. As a Design Studio, we will continue to work primarily remotely because it's better for people's lives and the work is constantly getting stronger. Naturally, we also provide facilities for those who need the space and for when we need to get together as a team.

The best thing about working remotely, other than the life balance, is that for us specifically, it has unlocked a need for new tools. These new assets have really democratized our team and made things much more accessible across the organization.

We're a global company and historically, we would've done most of our usability tests in our Berlin or London sites, limiting participation to those areas. But because of the remote pivot, our studies are significantly more accessible.

Now, we can access people all over the UK, Italy, Germany, Spain, wherever we need to meet them. Not only do you have greater breadth and access to people across demographics, but we can access more people due to the flexible schedule. They can jump in during their working hours and answer questions during lunchtime rather than making a day of it.

Plus, people are more relaxed at home so they're much more candid and honest. From this, we’ve found, for the most part, customer insights are much richer. I think it's been a really exciting aspect of it.

We initially thought in a remote environment team creativity would go down. But actually, having people design their own environments, creativity's gone up. And despite the actual distance, we've become very, very close as a team.

Tell us about your experience shifting from an IC to leading teams. What were some of the things that you were unprepared for?

I think when I was in my early 20s, I had this idea of, "Oh, design director, that's going to be the most fabulous thing.”

Yeah, sure, it'll be nice to get a cool title and get more pay, but of course, you start to open up that conversation around management and leadership. You start to realize the amount of pressure, the amount of responsibility, as well as the opportunities that you have.

I think there's a lot of people who tend to feel that the only way to progress in your career is to go into a leadership position. Unfortunately, that isn't helped by most corporations pushing people into, "The only way you can make more money is by managing a bigger and bigger team," which isn't really reflective of what we need as a society.

Of course, there are some great companies that understand that, and you have design directors who are ICs and the same goes for research. You can be very, very good at what you do, but you may not be a very good people leader or want to be one. That doesn't mean you're good or bad at your job, it’s just important to have that diversity.

When I was getting into leadership, I really had to pause and think about it. At the time, I didn't have a seat at the table. I didn't feel like I had a voice that was being listened to. That realization was a main driver for me to take that step and get into it. I wanted to get Design that seat.

I later recognized that the only way you could really build effective solutions, and particularly in a corporate environment, was to get a group of people together and make sure that they knit, bond, and hopefully present themselves as one voice. Which again, opens up a bigger conversation at a larger table.

So that's really how I got into design leadership. It came down to saying, "I can see design opportunities." Another aspect of deciding to go into leadership is knowing that you want to only learn about design and research, but also about the business side. How do we actually talk about ROI and KPIs, and what's important to the CEO ultimately? That's what led me down that path.

There were definitely mistakes I made early on. One was how do you engage people and motivate them? I found that speed was an issue for me because I could see ways we could operate really fast, but a lot of people are uncomfortable moving too quickly, especially in the design and the research communities.

Then, of course, there’s stakeholder engagement. Particularly, when you go into a management role.

I went into a leadership role when I was in my early 20s, and I had to deal with some stereotypes and pressures. I would say I’ve experienced ageism in a couple of roles. I managed, and continue to manage people who are anywhere from five years younger than me to 15 or 20 years older than me.

In the early days, I had to do a lot of figuring out in regards to how those relationships work. How do you ensure that you're presenting your own ideas, but still listening and coaching people? How do you coach people that are older than you?

It's really about understanding that you have that responsibility to be more of a coach than a director in many situations. It's also about questioning and giving people the stage and support when they need it.

But leadership can be a very beautiful thing. Obviously, there are the stresses you need to deal with: You need to be good at listening and you have to fundamentally care about people. I also think to really make a good job of it, you've got to be good at the IC part as well.

There are managers of people, and there are design and research leaders. A good design or research leader, for me, has to be someone who's come from that craft and continues to be able to function and deliver work themselves.

Designers are a somewhat strange bunch. How do you manage them? They're creatives. They have a different outlook on life. They’re very critical and extremely ambitious most of the time.

They can be more interested in something that looks beautiful and is good for the customer, but sometimes less interested in what's good for the business. As a manager, you need to balance all of those things.

Leadership is an interesting path to walk, but when you get there, you can build great teams. I'd liken it less about being a leader, but more like a conductor of an orchestra. A conductor that occasionally gets to play in the band as well, and you're going to have a bit of a jam and play.

So that's really how I got into design leadership. It came down to saying, "I can see design opportunities." Another aspect of deciding to go into leadership is knowing that you want to only learn about design and research, but also about the business side. How do we actually talk about ROI and KPIs, and what's important to the CEO ultimately? That's what led me down that path.

Ashton Snook
Head of Product Design and UX Research, Vodafone Smart Tech

Could you talk a little bit more about the opportunity spaces for design as a practice going forward?

I would say in most companies, we've got to get the design practice a decent seat. It's there, but it's on the periphery. It's not recognized as important as marketing. It doesn't have the funding. It doesn't have the sway.

There are great companies that understand the importance of design and I think Vodafone is definitely up there as a more progressive corporate organization. We have a pretty good design and research community, but we know that we need to keep developing and working on that to make sure the customer's voice is really coming up to the board level.

But it’s very rare to find that at organizations and I don't really know why. Because if we look at the world's most successful businesses, every tech giant puts design and research at the heart of what they do in some shape or form, and they make a lot of money.

If that's not a motivator, I don't know what is. I think it may be because it can feel quite intangible. It can feel a bit mystical to more traditional backgrounds like finance or commerce.

So, how do you open up those relationships, and how do you make it easy to understand what you're bringing to the table? I would like to see more Chief Design Officers and more Chief Research Officers at the top. So there is someone who's a real expert in their craft sitting up there and making board-level decisions.

[Design leadership] is an interesting path to walk, but when you get there, you can build great teams. I'd liken it less about being a leader, but more like a conductor of an orchestra. A conductor that occasionally gets to play in the band as well, and you're going to have a bit of a jam and play.

Ashton Snook
Head of Product Design and UX Research, Vodafone Smart Tech

Advice that you have for someone who's either thinking of starting a design career or someone who is currently an IC?

Variety is key in your career. I think too many folks work for a company for what I would say is too extreme of a period. A five-year investment in your first job is too much.

I think it’s important to bounce around and experience different cultures, different types of environments, and different industries. You want to take those risks before you've got too many responsibilities in your personal life.

Look at the cultures wherever you work, look at what people do well, but also what people do wrong in terms of the way they conduct and operate themselves, from creative processes all the way through to how they speak to each other on a daily basis.

It's very important to understand that spectrum early. It also allows you to move up the ladder “the food chain” and increase your salary. If you sit in the same company for five years initially, you will financially regret it. No question. Unless potentially you're very lucky to land a job with one of the big tech giants, in which case you will be set up very well, or particularly good at corporate. There are some fantastic ones which pay very well.

I would say in terms of networking, meetups are not great places to get organizational insight, but they're a great way to connect with people. Connections are very important.

LinkedIn is a super important platform to meet people. Most people are willing to connect and have a conversation. Plus, it gives you great access to senior leaders who will typically give up an hour or two every week just to speak with young people, and give them insight.

I would also say read a ton. Most of what you need to know is in books. Getting a broad understanding of design philosophies, theories, looking at usability metrics, pouring over stuff, even if you can only consume 30% of it, will give you a broader and deeper understanding of what you need to do.

Outside of books, definitely read blogs and look into podcasts. A shameless plug, I host The Design Podcast, naturally, I’d encourage anyone in our field to give a listen.

Short-form articles are a very good way to consume a lot of information in quick settings. Personally, I'm dyslexic, so it took me a long time to get into reading, and that's not uncommon for designers. But when you start to realize it helps you paint a picture of things that we will want to do in the future, I think it makes it a little bit easier.

Absorb a lot of knowledge from different places. You don't need to go and get a degree in it. If you want to get a qualification, there are some great qualifications online now, particularly around user experience and user research from a number of different academies and certified organizations, which is awesome.

One final recommendation beyond just getting into the industry is knowing that to succeed and grow in the field you're going to have to work hard and may need to put in some long hours. But, make sure to balance what's important to you in life.

Don't over-commit to too many projects. Don't sweat the projects a great deal. Things change on a knife-edge all the time in the industry. So, if you're going to give up 80 hours a week, be sure it's going to be something that's actually going to pay dividends. If not, it's okay. Give an extra 10 or 20% initially and don't give an extra 50% to something that isn’t benefiting you in the long run.

And, just remember, if you're passionate about your craft, you're going to do well.

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Stevie Watts is the Brand Marketing Manager at dscout. She enjoys telling compelling (rhyme alert) user research stories, growing social channels, and exploring all things video production. As a newer Chicagoan, you'll likely find her at a concert or walking her corgi, but undoubtedly heads down looking at Google Maps.

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