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Laura Yarrow on Trusted Agitators

“If you’re not at the table, then it’s likely you’re on the menu.”

Laura Yarrow is Head of Design for HM Land Registry in the UK. She’s also a public speaker and educator. In this conversation, we talk about how designers can increase their effectiveness in organizations by becoming trusted agitators.

Show notes

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Transcript

Jorge: Laura, welcome to the show.

Laura: Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here.

Jorge: Well, it’s very good to have you here. For folks who might not know you, would you mind please introducing yourself?

About Laura

Laura: Yeah, sure! So, I work in UK Central Government for HM Land Registry. I’m the Head of Design there. That encompasses things like content design, service design, interaction design, and accessible design. And it’s a government organization that supports seven trillion transactions every year, so it underpins the economy of the UK. And we have many services there that we need to support. Public services are very important to keep the economy going. So, do you want to hear about my background? Do you want to hear about where I come from?

Jorge: That’d be great. You said that you’re the Head of Design. First, what does that entail at… you said it’s HM Land Registry?

Laura: That’s right. So, if you want to register some land, we hold the register of all of the land in the UK. My role is as the Head of Design is to make sure we have a coherent experience, consistent service design across all the different services we offer, and generally looking after that design team of all the different people that we have in it. There are something like 25, 26 people at the moment, and growing as well. So, we’ve got quite a lot of people in our design team. It feels like quite a large design team, and… yeah.

My background has been in both design and web development as well. So I came from computer science as my background, did that as my degree, and was definitely set on a course down the IT road. Been a developer and spent quite a few years doing that and really enjoyed the black and whiteness of computers, you know? It’s binary, isn’t it? And then came across a UX team who wanted to test my designs and test my work. And I was like, “Wow, what is this?” You know that there’s people at the end of this stuff that I’m building. And it just captivated me from that moment. That I was really interested in who these people are, and why don’t they get it? Why are they complaining about the things I’m developing? And then it just kind of spiraled from there.

That’s when I slid into front-end development to research to the design throughout my career. And that’s kind of how I ended up as the Head of Design. It was slowly making a career change across from tech to design. And, you know, humans are just so much more interesting, aren’t they? To design for, rather than computers. We shouldn’t be designing for tech anyway. But, yeah, humans have all those different, multiple shades… rainbow shades of color that you have to design for. And I find that fascinating and still do, and it’s never left me.

Jorge: I find that fascinating that the way that you’ve articulated the trajectory where you said that you were drawn to computer science in part because of the black and white nature of that work. And yet this people stuff tends to play with the gray areas, no?

Laura: Yeah, I think that’s maybe an experience thing as well as the safety and the binary-ness of something. Something’s right or wrong. You know how to fix something once you’ve learned how to do it, and it’s repeatable. But that same thing doesn’t work with people, does it? The one thing that works on one person doesn’t work on another. And I think as you get more confident in your experience as you get older — because I’m getting pretty old now! You become more confident in addressing gray areas, and working out what works for people is where that came from.

It’s a really common trajectory people take from tech to design. And I speak to people at the time that have started off in IT as a developer perhaps, or some kind tech background, and then come into the design. So, I think it’s a common trajectory, and I certainly took that route, and I don’t think I’d go back that way. I quite like where I

Jorge: When you were talking about your team, you mentioned that the goal of the design organization is to somehow drive towards a coherent experience. And you mentioned service design. Is it fair to say that some but not all of the stuff that you are designing is digital? Does it encompass more than digital channels?

Laura: It should. Yes. I mean, it’s the big problem with digital transformation, isn’t it? That everything wants to be digital and automated, but humans will never a hundred percent do that. You know, we have to think of digital inclusion, especially for public services, because ideally, our services that we have are for everyone. Therefore, every person in the UK who needs to register land, and if they don’t have the technical literacy to do that online, if it’s digital, if they don’t have the funds to do that, if they can’t afford to have the equipment to be literate and to have that experience, that digital experience, then we’re not serving everyone. And we have to serve everyone.

That service has to be analog and digital. It has to encompass some of that to make it accessible and not just for access needs, but for all the different digital access needs that people have. So yeah, it is both. And I think all experiences are! Is it’s not just with public services. There’ll always be someone who can’t access your service if it’s just digital.

People, Place and Space

Jorge: As part of this introduction, I don’t want to be remiss in not mentioning your newsletter. It’s called People, Place And Space. And as I was mentioning to you before we started recording, it’s one that I make time to read. Would you please tell us a bit about the newsletter? What’s it about, and with what frequency does it come out and all that.

Laura: Oh, well, frequency is a bit of a touchy subject because I’m quite tardy with it all the time. I find that I’ve missed a week or something, but I’m trying to get into a cadence of writing. I like writing, and I’m passionate about design, user centered design. Like we just talked about, services aren’t just digital, and that’s why it’s got the name People, Place and Space — because we experience the world around us as analog as well in buildings and in the streets. And when you do your online shop, it comes as an analog thing. It doesn’t just land with a drone or something. It’s … it’s not being too electronically. It is encompassing everything. It’s about user-centered design. I tried to include three main articles and then a few other bits and pieces that are interesting that might be shorter reads.

But yeah, it’s every month. It’s one of those things where now I’m beholden to it. I’ve got to keep putting it out there. It’s a good resolution to have, you know? To keep me writing and to keep me doing stuff. And I think I’ve done nearly two years of it now. So I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself, even though it hasn’t been exactly every four weeks, every month.

Laura’s Twitter thread

Jorge: As one might assume, given what I just said, I’ve been following your work for a while. But what prompted me to reach out to you was a thread that you posted on Twitter, and I’m not going to read it verbatim. I’ll quote parts of it to you just as a spark for the conversation here. You wrote that a common designer complaint is that no one listens. And user experience isn’t a priority or understood. And you go on to… in the thread, you go on to diagnose and offer suggestions for what to do about that. But I wanted to start by asking what do you mean by that? You know, this common designer complaint that no one listens. Can you elaborate a bit on that?

Laura: Yeah. I’ve spent quite a while in the industry and work at startups and medium and huge organizations and public and private sector and training and things like that. And in every one of those, there’s always people that have this problem with getting that proverbial seat at the table. It’s always the question, and different people react to it in different ways. And I was just musing on it, you know, that seat at the table thing. And I like to call it, “Are you at the table or on the menu?” You know? If you’re not at the table, then it’s likely you’re on the menu. And I think that’s how a lot of user-centered design folks feel, is that they’re on the menu.

They’re there, and they’re trying to do this good work that has a huge social impact for some people, if you work in public services, especially. But you know, really anyone who works in design is affecting something somewhere and changing things for better or worse for people. But there’s this still persistent feeling that design is undervalued, it’s underfunded, it’s misunderstood, is outnumbered by the disciplines often in organizations. And because of that sort of perfect storm, designers don’t always react in the best way. I think it becomes territorial, and people advocate for the wrong things.

So, they’d advocate for the design work just standing up on its own. It should just speak for itself and then come on collaborative or even to the rocketry about different disciplines they work with. And I’m guilty of this too! So my career has seen me move from, you know, IC — individual contributor — to sort of leadership roles. I was the same. And it can feel like that because your work is precious to you, you know? You’re affecting people. You want to do the right thing. You can become overly dogmatic, maybe. And I was guilty of that too.

So, you get this perfect storm of feeling undervalued, high social impact, and then dealing with it in a quite strange way. And I think the elephant in the room that I was trying to bring out into the open was that we have some control over that situation. We can affect things if we choose to, and it’s the way we affect things that will make a difference. And it takes courage as well. So in those situations where I’ve been told, “I feel undervalued. No one’s listening to me. No one understands what I do.” I ask questions like, “Have you explained design? Have you explained the process you go through? Have you explained what you deliver? What’s the jargon? How long will it take?” You know, “what are the roles of design, and when do we get involved?” Things like that. So that these are all questions I ask, and the answer is invariably, “No, I haven’t done any of that.” And then it becomes this very strange conversation where you think, well, shouldn’t you?

You probably should! So, if others don’t know what you do or how you do it, or how long it takes, what you deliver… I mean, why should they trust you? Why should someone trust you if they don’t have a clue? If you haven’t brought them into your world, I think is what I used in the tweets and the threads that I put up there. That you need to expose your world and be transparent and clear about what you’re doing before throwing your hands up and saying, “Well, I can’t work with them. I can’t do my work. I’m not valued.” So, I think there’s definitely a meeting in the middle, and that’s where that trusted agitator came from is you can agitate in the wrong way, but actually there’s a whole load of invisible work needed to make design work before you do the design work, if that makes sense.

Designers as change agents

Jorge: You’ve pointed to the primary distinction in the thread where you talk about good and bad agitation, and also hearing you talk made me think that design by its very nature is about change. So, designers are some kind of agent of change. And what I’m hearing there is that there is some kind of tension between being in this role where you’re asked to be a catalyst maybe or help direct some kind of change, but also in some ways being powerless about the higher levels where that change is happening. So, does this have to do with the level of decision-making, perhaps, or is there something deeper than that?

Laura: I think that’s part of it. And I think you’re right about being change agents. We see ourselves as that, but to other people… and are they aware that that’s kind of what our role is, wrapped up in, right? Because design is this hugely loaded term, isn’t it? You know, design carries that baggage of being aesthetic. It’s quite a young… I mean, in the modern sense, it’s quite a young discipline: service design, things like that.

Although we probably see it as different things — it’s evolved over the years — but I think to a lot of people in multidisciplinary teams, it’s wrapped up in aesthetics and graphic design and tortured artists throwing paint at the canvas, you know? That sort of imagery. And it doesn’t come across as a strategic role, which it is. It entirely is a strategic resource to a team. And I think that’s where that trusted agitator comes in, is the pre-work to let people see what that role actually is, to communicate what your role is and what your remit is and what your benefit and value you will bring to that team is. That’s entirely what design is, to start with. It starts with all that communication.

Jorge: And it sounds like the tension here then might be coming from the fact that we have these people in these roles where they are tasked with leading change or helping be catalysts of change. And then you have the folks in the rest of the organization who they have to collaborate with in order to undertake that change, who perhaps don’t perceive the same degree of agency in the role. Like you’re here to make the logo bigger, you know? Or to make the thing more engaging or more usable or what have you. That’s the perception that colleagues have. And then it sounds like designers maybe have a different perception of the degree of… the degree to which they should be helping make strategic decisions. Is that fair?

Laura: I think that’s entirely fair. Yeah. And I think it’s just that miscommunication, isn’t it? That misrepresentation and then not correcting that in the proper way. And not being able to have the language to communicate what you actually do as well. So I think it’s just a common thing that happens, and it’s a legacy thing as well. Like I said, people just think of design or something else because they’ve had someone come and design their living room, for example. Or they see graphic designers doing logos on a sign outside on a billboard. So, it’s just misunderstood, and it’s up to us to correct that, I think, and then not get upset if we haven’t done the work to correct it, to communicate that, and build the relationship so that you become trusted. Trusted in that strategic decision-making.

Bad agitators

Jorge: I want to get to the trusted agitator and what that is, but before we do that, I wanted to ask you about the bad agitators or the people who are doing this poorly. In the thread, you have a list of instances or examples of bad agitation. And I’ve tried to summarize them here, but… I noted “complaining versus acting.” So, this notion that “things are all bad!” rather than taking action on it. Another was “expecting huge change overnight.”

Laura: Yes. So it’s not recognizing; it’s like a slow thing. Culture takes a long time to change. And that’s kind of the crux of the issue, isn’t it? Is that it’s all about culture. You’re trying to change culture first, then design.

Jorge: Yeah. And there’s an impatience there. Like, “We want to make this happen now!”

There was “being derogatory of other disciplines.” So, “those folks at engineering just don’t understand!” Or whatever, right?

Laura: Yes, them and us. Them and us situations are so common. And I think just taking the time to understand their challenges, where they’re coming from, and what they think design is. Because that’s the assumption that they just don’t understand. And not helping to meet in the middle, because you’re all surely working towards one goal, aren’t you? You’re working, and at the same place, you’re working on the same things, so surely you all want the best thing to happen. The best outcome.

Jorge: Right. I’ll continue with the list of bad agitation here. There was “being jaded and accepting the status quo.” So this is like the, “Oh, you know, I’m just not gonna deal with this.” It’s like, let’s just keep rolling.

Laura: Yeah.

Jorge: Then, “being territorial.” So, “Well, that’s not an engineering decision, that’s a design decision.” Is that what that’s about?

Laura: I think I threw out the, “Only I do the wireframes!” Or…

Jorge: Oh, right!

Laura: “Don’t bring me a design. Bring me a problem and an idea, and then I open up Figma, and I do my thing and whatnot.” That territorial-ness is quite a common thing, I think.

And I was like that too, you know? “How dare you step on my toes and do design work and think visually?” You know? I find that really quite strange that we’re visual thinkers as designers, and we don’t want to promote that in other people. I think that’s a fantastic thing to promote it in other people. It’s a great way to visualize a shared problem out loud and then come to a solution.

Jorge: When I was reading these things, I’ll just say there’s a final one here, “expecting leadership to be the ones who change the status quo.” So, it’s like, “This is above my pay grade,” or whatever. But what I was going to say here is two things. Part of why this resonated so much with me is that designers are ostensively about making things better for people. And we have all of these research techniques that we use to understand the people that we’re designing for. And I often find that when it comes to understanding the people that we work with, our colleagues from other disciplines, it’s like we cast all of that aside, and we immediately go to these knee-jerk dualities — you talked about the “us versus them,” right?

Laura: Yeah. Yeah, hugely ironic, isn’t it? That we’re supposed to be the experts in people, behavior, human beings, and then it comes to this crunch point, and there’s like a… it is like a blindfold on us, or blinkers. And I’m guilty of that, you know? I think there’s a lot of passion wrapped up in it that you’re passionate change-makers and you just see a blocker, you know? Rather than a person that could actually help you, an advocate. Or potential advocate there that you can work with. And then that amplifies the advocacy, as soon as you have someone that can speak for design and the work you’ve done because you’ve built that relationship with them to do so.

Jorge: One of the reasons why I wanted to focus on the bad agitation and kind of read off the list is that when I was reading these tweets… well, first of all, I was nodding in agreement, saying, “Yes, I’ve seen this.” And then also I was reading this in the context of Twitter, where I see a lot of the behaviors that you are calling out as bad agitator — I see them play out in Twitter itself.

Laura: Yeah.

Jorge: So I’m wondering if this is something that’s specific to design or if it’s more broadly part of the way that we have learned to interact through media like Twitter.

Laura: It’s like that territorialness, isn’t it?

Jorge: Well, all of them. Complaining versus acting. People go on Twitter to complain, and then it’s like, “what are you doing about it?” It’s like, “I’m complaining!”

Laura: It’s an outlet. Yeah. “It’s an outlet for me.” Yeah. And I think a lot of people came to that conclusion in the thread as well, which is that this could cross boundaries to any discipline. It doesn’t have to be design.

I think design does suffer from a lack of understanding what we do, and then it just manifests and festers away as this resentment that we’re not included in decision-making. We’re not getting that seat at the table on the menu. And, yeah. But I think it can be that it crosses all different walks of life and disciplines. And it’s basically a lesson in how to just build a relationship and build that credibility and trust, isn’t it? It’s everywhere, in everything you do, you know? No one is going to give you anything if they don’t trust you and they don’t understand you. So yeah, it just maybe affects design more.

Becoming a trusted agitator

Jorge: So, enough of focusing on the negative. What can we do about it? How do you become a trusted agitator?

Laura: Yeah. So yeah, just going back to credibility and trust, isn’t it? And also, something you mentioned earlier about tension is finding a healthy tension. Because I think there’s like a… I don’t want to be — what do you call it? — “toxically positive”? You know that if you just follow this 10 step program, it’ll all be okay, and it’ll go away. I think there’ll always be tensions between people who want to make vast changes and people who want to concentrate on, say, technology or finance or budgets, things like that, and delivering work and schedules.

So, yeah, finding that healthy tension, for example, between product and design. There’s that tension, that product has to deliver, you have to get something out quick at the expense of the experience and the usability of something. And then, if it were up to the design, it would never be released because it’s got to be fully researched, and it’s got to be iterative through 800 times until it’s absolutely perfect.

So, there’s that tension there that needs to be found, that balance. And again, building that relationship with people to be trusted that you’re making the right decisions, that you can let go of some of the dogmatic ways maybe so that you can actually release something and find that balance where it would work there.

But yeah, it’s all about building relationships and not being defensive about your work. Some of the conversations I have are quite defensive or have heard in the past. So there, “please! I just need time to do the design. We just need to get this done.” And that’s a defensive stance, isn’t it? If you’re talking like that and the subtext is you’re pleading that you have to be included… please include me.

A better way is to move the conversation to be more… not offensive, but you know, “This is the way we’re going to do design, and this is the process we’re going to follow.” So, it’s much more confident and having that confidence in your expertise and the value you bring. It’s almost like, “Fake it till you make it,” you know? It’s like, just be confident about what your role is and that you are needed in that project.

And then I think nothing builds relationships like being curious about other disciplines. So, this is where that territorialness can arise is that you haven’t really been curious; you’ve not asked them what their challenges are. How are you going to work together? How do they want work delivered to them? How do they want design work handed over? How do you want to check the feasibility of this design, technically? Does this match the roadmap? Does it meet the business needs? So there are things like that as well.

And I also mentioned in the threads showing the science of design. A lot of people, like we said, think of it as an aesthetic discipline, graphic design. And actually, there’s a lot of science behind it. Gestalt psychology, visual perception, looking at cognitive biases, behavioral economics… if you can start to talk about these things really confidently and educate people and bring people into that broader sense of what design is and the psychology of design, that’s going to bring that credibility way up to let people trust you more.

And then just being respectful. Being respectful of other disciplines. Because anything you say is never private, is it? If you have a moan about a developer or, you know, “them,” “they just don’t get it.” It’s never private. It will get back to them. And then that relationship is done forever. That will never work.

And I think the last thing was just looking for opportunities in the overlaps that you have. Design is worked throughout the whole process across the whole life cycle of a project, a product to service. They work with all different disciplines. It’s just looking for the opportunities where someone might be thinking in a visual sense. They might be bringing you a design, a wireframe, and then turning that on its head from being toes stepped on to an opportunity: this is an advocate for design; this is someone that thinks visually. This is someone I can say, “That’s great. As an expert, I recommend we change this, but this is a great start. And I’m glad you brought it to me.”

It’s looking for the opportunities, not the challenges, isn’t it? So, I think it was a lot of things that we can do, but that’s all invisible work. It’s all invisible design. And it takes a lot of work.

Confidence

Jorge: One of the things that I’m getting from what you’re saying here is that perhaps the way to move past the situation that you were describing at the beginning of our conversation, this notion of feeling powerless or not having a seat at the table, has to do somehow with our stance and what we perceive our stance to be as designers. And you used the word “confidence,” which I circled here in my notes.

Laura: Yeah.

Jorge: Because perhaps what is happening is that, as you mentioned earlier, design is still relatively new in a lot of organizations, and maybe we are both seen and think of ourselves as interlopers of some kind, yeah?

Laura: I think so. And I think it’s any reform work. It’s that invisible, emotional, internal stuff that’s the hardest: to understand that you are valued. You should be at that table. That you’ve been hired for a reason, I think is the other thing, is that a lot of people end up in their roles and the hiring manager, the organization, they haven’t really understood what they want. They just know vaguely someone to design shape, and UX is a buzzword. And we kind of have to have someone in that shape.

And it’s usually, in their head, the mental model is, “We need someone to knock out some wire frames, like just continuously. To play around with different layouts and things.” And actually, you come into that with a different expectation. I think that’s where it comes from is that you, you feel that deflation. You’ve got an idea of who you are, but no one else understands. But that’s not where it ends; part of your role is to educate on what design is. And I think that’s going to be around for quite a while, while this discipline is fairly young and misunderstood.

I think there are positive changes. You know, it is changing. I know, particularly in the UK government, the UCD “scene,” for want of a better word, is quite mature. We have passionate people who understand, and we have the processes to assess work and assess that services are accessible to people they do work with. That they’re based on a user need. But, yeah, it’s not everywhere. It’s a slow cultural change across the world, isn’t it?

Jorge: Perhaps having both confidence and the patience that that entails, right? I’ll speak from my own perspective; whenever I feel confident in what I’m doing, I’m more centered. And you project that. People perceive that of you.

Laura: Yeah, that’s true. Yeah. And I think it’s probably worth acknowledging that this feels like quite a privileged sort of position to feel like you’re in, that you can say just be confident, just to be a trusted agitator. Just do the communication, just do the relationship building and build that trust, and it… it’s a really privileged position, and I just wanted to acknowledge that not everyone’s in that position. But, you know, some people are just turning up for work, and that’s all they can give. And that’s absolutely fine. We’ve just been through this really horrendous two years, and everyone’s feeling probably pretty worn out and… is assessing their lives, I think. So, I think it is worth acknowledging that it isn’t for everyone, and it’s just a thing to try if that’s where your interest lies in promoting design and being a change agent. But yeah, it’s worth noting not everyone is in that position.

Jorge: Absolutely. I’m so glad you called that out. And it sounds like, at a minimum, if we can talk generally, the idea is that we — one way or another — need to build greater awareness of our internal states and maybe allow ourselves to be more comfortable with ourselves and our roles and what we’re doing. And, to your point, we’ve been through a very difficult two years, all of us. And we need to have the awareness to let ourselves experience the things that we are going through and not add onto it.

Laura: Yeah, that’s right. We are the experts. We’ve been hired to do this and have that confidence, you know? That you can do this. You can provide the work that people need. But also, you can create the change that’s needed to elevate that even further. Definitely. I saw a really good quote that I think you’ll appreciate actually, because you’re into your pace layers and things like that.

And I think it’s actually Stephen Covey who said it. The guy that did his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, but actually came to me via Catherine Greys, who is our head of design in the NHS-X department over here in UK Gov. But she said, “Progress happens at the speed of trust.” And I think that’s great. You can only progress if you build that trust if you build that credibility. And otherwise, it just stagnates to stop. So, I think that’s a really good headline for all of this trusted agitator stuff is, “Progress happens at the speed of trust.”

Jorge: I love that quote. That seems like a great place to wrap up our conversation, Laura.

Laura: I knew you’d like that one.

Jorge: Well, I think that we should all internalize it. And it applies to more than just design. I’ll just say that. I think that working towards trusting each other is essential.

Laura: Definitely.

Closing

Jorge: Where can folks follow up with you?

Laura: Twitter, of course. I feel like I live there. So I’m @laura_yarrow. I’m on Twitter. I do have a website, but I don’t really use it much. But yeah, you can always find me on Twitter.

Jorge: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you to mention how folks can find your newsletter as well.

Laura: Oh, yes, it’s at Substack. So I think if you just look on Twitter, I’ve got a link to that too. I feel like I should know the URL by heart, but I don’t, I’m afraid!

Jorge: But folks can find it on Twitter, yeah?

Laura: Yes. So I’ll make sure I put a link on there for everyone.

Jorge: Well, great. Thank you so much for making the time to speak with us.

Laura: It was no problem. I can speak about this all day. It’s something that’s really close to my heart. I’m really passionate about it. So yes, thank you for having me.

Jorge: Well, thank you for sharing it with us.