Leading design at the Red Cross: lessons I’ve learned

Drawing of a hovercraft with a red cross on it
The Red Cross until recently had a hovercraft for some lochs in Scotland. I loved learning this.

Next month I’ll be leaving the Red Cross. Starting a new job based in Bristol, where my partner and I relocated to last year.

In my career so far, what I’ve been involved with at the Red Cross is the work I am proudest of. Copying Will’s example, I’ve written what I’ve learned in the last two years. Reflecting on the rewarding bits, the challenging ones and my mistakes.

These aren’t all the lessons, but the ones that stick out most in my head.

  1. Design as close to problems as possible
  2. Subject matter experts are amazing
  3. Deliver first, push for reforms after
  4. Means to production — “We need more devs”
  5. The Internet must be our operating model
  6. Sustainably grow a design community
  7. Be more patient, there is progress
  8. Design and management are different skills

Design as close to problems as possible

Helen, support line volunteers with early operator manual, April 2020

How people use Red Cross services is by speaking to other humans, frontline volunteers and staff. Meaning these people are our service. Therefore multidisciplinary teams’ aim is to give them the tools for the job.

Designing close to problems is why I joined the Red Cross and where I’ve seen design add the most value. Working closely to frontline colleagues and the work they do. Seeing the problems they face doing their jobs. Understanding which problems there is the most value in making tools for. Problems like helping caseworkers quickly know if the Red Cross can find missing family or how to equip hundreds of volunteers to operate a support line remotely from their homes.

I’m excited for when at the Red Cross multidisciplinary teams regularly work next to frontline teams, their problems and deliver Internet-era tools for them.

Subject matter experts are amazing

Laura, former Emergency Response Officer, talking about user research on early prototypes, January 2020

Working with frontline experts such as Laura, Christina, Lesley and Tom has been one of my favourite bits about working at the Red Cross. The insight and trust with frontline teams they bring is endlessly valuable. The organisation has invested in secondments of experienced operational people into multidisciplinary teams. This aspect of building teams is something that the Red Cross has done really well and the best I’ve experienced.

Deliver first, push for reforms after

Teams need to win credibility to push for organisational reforms in the first place. Without delivering real things to point at, it's hard to make an argument that doesn’t sound like theory.

As Vicky, one of the designers puts it:

“Design is something you do and see, rather than something you say.”

Family tracing tool currently being trialled with caseworkers

With this in mind, the other designers, I and our teams spent our first year getting our heads down to try to deliver some real things. Not everything worked out, but there are now enough real examples to start talking more loudly and credibly about the necessity for user-centred design, multidisciplinary teams and Internet ways of working.

Means to production — “We need more devs”

The biggest part of my job has been advocating to hire more people. Not more designers, but more software developers. “We need more devs” has almost become a catchphrase whenever I speak with anyone in management.

Service design is the reason I advocate for more developers. I learned that without software developers for designers to work with, service design struggles to get past the testing different options stage. Service design needs the ‘means of production’, to use Karl Marx’s phrase. Without software developers, good user research and prototypes rarely become the tools our service users and frontline teams need.

I regret not using more of my soft power advocating for content design, agile delivery and product management. I was wary about trying to advocate for too many things, the message get lost, resulting in no changes.

This advocacy work for non-design roles wasn’t what I was expecting to do, but its what is needed.

The Internet must be our operating model

The Internet is fundamental to how the Red Cross services function, in a pandemic or not. Regardless if our services are used face-to-face, over the phone or on a small screen. Along with user needs and our fundamental principles, we as an organisation must fully embrace the Internet as how we organise everything we do.

This sounds a bit grand, but it’s actually quite practical. During the first national lockdown, many of us in the Digital and Innovation directorate joined operations. Our new jobs were to help to quickly deliver new services and tools in response to the virus. Making existing and new services to work remotely. Coordinate the logistics for thousands of volunteers, essential goods and giving people emergency money. Tools for the Red Cross to quickly collaborate with other organisations, local and national.

Arguably the hardest bit for these new teams was trying to meet these challenges with outdated tools and ways of working. Repurposing “off-the-shelf” products to do basic service design. Getting operational insight out of closed systems. Volunteers struggling to use “out-the-box” software which has never been tested for usability. Only being able to share data with partner organisations manually with spreadsheets. Procuring external companies to build tools without user research. Operational updates published behind passwords.

Despite this, the teams still did a great job. Delivering whole new services. Continued to meet existing needs. Supporting thousands of people in the pandemic. Yet were we to use the culture, processes, business models & technologies of the internet era to respond to future crises, our organisation can meet more needs. Support more people. Deliver or adapt services in hours and days, rather than weeks and months.

Sustainably grow a design community

Listen to doubts when deciding to hire someone. Be these teammates’ doubts or my own. I learned in a previous job not listening to doubts, even small ones, results in pain later on. It’s kinder for everyone to learn to say no sometimes.

I wanted to put this lesson into practice at the Red Cross. It worked. We only hire designers the hiring panels had no doubts about. We’ve not always filled every role. That is ok. Someone doing a role not right for them is worse than no person at all. We also had a thoughtful and consistent hiring process to make our decisions as objective as possible.

This process has helped us hire some really brilliant designers, who showed the promise seen at interview. I learned another lesson, however. Hiring great designers is only part of the challenge. To sustainably grow a design community we need them to want to stay.

“The design community is great, but it’s not enough.”

This was feedback from a designer we hired who recently left the Red Cross. It’s a hard lesson. Design meetings, stickers, peer recognition, blog posts, meet-ups, posters, show-and-tells, visiting other design teams, side projects. It’s all secondary to the main reason why many designers take jobs — to ship great work on stuff that matters. If that’s too hard, designers leave. Simple.

If I was to have my Red Cross time again, I would grow the design community more slowly. Work with other managers to create enough of an environment in which design can happen.

Be more patient, there is progress

While some of my reflections are critical, I’m optimistic about what the Red Cross will deliver in the next year or two. Last summer, Ste Montgomery, formerly at the Red Cross and now Citizens Advice, said something that changed my perspective. Ste invited some designers and me to do a show-and-tell. Afterwards, he said:

“What was shown today would been impossible three years ago [when I was at the Red Cross].”

I saw I was only viewing progress over the year I’d been at the Red Cross at that point. Ste’s comment showed me a longer perspective. Before I let myself get frustrated when progress seemed slow. Making unfair comparisons between the Red Cross and organisations further along in their digital transformation journey. While Twitter and blog posts can give the impression transformation happens in weeks, the foundations can take years.

I’ve learned to look at my organisation’s digital maturity and gauge progress over years not weeks. In short, I’m becoming more patient.

Design and management are different skills

In a different organisation to the Red Cross, I was given my first management role. One of the bigger mistakes I made in that role was treating management as a design problem to be solved.

Managing design is different from doing it. I’m learning it is a different set of skills. I need to put time aside to think about management and do it. It’s now something I read about. Regularly I ask more experienced managers for tips and advice.

Humans are not materials like plastic or HTML. Every person is subtle, complicated and unique. Meaning a design approach doesn’t work for supporting teams of people to achieve their goals.

Weekly design meeting, summer 2020

I’ve not got everything right, but I’m learning what being a manager involves and making new mistakes, not old ones.

Come lead design at the Red Cross

The Red Cross is looking for two people to lead its design community of practice.

If you’re interested in reading about design management and strategy, check out these books recommended to me by my mate and mentor, Nat Buckley:

Head of Design, Made Tech, previously Red Cross, GDS, NHS