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September 28, 2016
Diversity is more than Ethically Right: It’s Central to Business Success
By: Abbie Walsh

When it comes to workplace diversity things aren’t yet perfect, but I think most people would agree we have come a long way over the past 20 years. Creating a diverse business is, of course, the ethically right thing to do, but I also believe that it makes compelling sense from a business perspective too. In fact, I’d argue that in our new digital world only companies with diverse design teams will be able to compete effectively. Let me explain why.

As I’m sure you’re aware, there are two forces disrupting the business world today: first, the digitisation of almost everything in modern business; and second, customer expectations that are more fluid and demanding than ever.

We all understand this implicitly ourselves as consumers: we want the seamless experiences we enjoy with the likes of Uber and Amazon to carry through to everything, regardless of industry or sector. Consumers now hold all the power when it comes to design. We’re calling the shots and if design teams within businesses don’t listen then it’s a quick hop, click and a jump to a business that does.

For me, it is precisely this consumer empowerment that makes diversity so crucial. Customers are not one homogenous group: they’re unique individuals with unique desires, experiences and tastes. If we’re to design differentiated services to cater to said desires, experiences and tastes then it’s imperative that we have a diverse design team capable of reflecting as wide a range of experience and aspiration as possible.

I’d like to clarify here that when I say diversity, I think of it in much broader terms than the standard dictionary definition. Of course it encompasses all the nuances traditionally covered by the term – different ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, nationalities, etc. – but more than that, it includes mind-set and context. Certainly when it comes to building my own team I seek out people from a wide range of backgrounds, with different ways of thinking about life and work and with differing life experiences.

The fact is that the traditional approach, where design teams worked in isolation from the customer, is a thing of the past.  Your customer needs to be at the centre of the design process and for design to lead to elegant and impactful services you need a team that mirrors your customers. Design is a critical tool that relies on different mind-sets to do things the right way. Without diversity your designs – and therefore your services – risk becoming obsolete.

So how do you go about building a diverse design team? Well the first thing to note is that it’s not going to happen on its own. You need to create an internal culture which can embrace a wide mix of backgrounds and abilities. For junior team members you need to seek out designers from a wide range of design schools (not just those with the best reputation!).  You need to run internships and interviews to find out what people believe in, what they have experienced and how they want to shake things up.  These qualities are every bit as important as their university degree or school grades. I also think it’s important to involve your exiting junior team members in recruiting for these positions as they will have a better understanding of the cultural forces that have helped shape the potential recruit.

When thinking about the more senior positions, the key is to ensure you don’t fall into the trap of simply recruiting clones.  You need to actively seek out people with different views on design to your views, different ways of working and different past experiences. Whilst this can result in conflict at times, remember it is good conflict where ideas can be debated with doing right by the customer as the end goal. 

Of course, some companies are going to be better prepared to embrace this sort of change than others. It’s important to get the buy-in of the senior leadership team and we’ve seen that at some large organisations this can be one of the biggest challenges. After all some CEOs still have a traditional view on recruitment and favour education and industry experience to diversity that’s truly reflective of their customer. 

However, I’ve found that once they see the end results in terms of the services diverse design teams create they are quickly won over. These are services built on real human needs that drive productivity in business applications and stickiness in consumer services.

So my advice would be to take a look at your team today. Does it represent a wide range of backgrounds, beliefs and educational histories?  Have you recruited only from the tried and tested channels or have you plucked a few choice candidates from vertical industries? Ultimately: does your workforce reflect your customer base? If not, you need to rethink your hiring strategy because at the end of the day that’s what diversity in design is about: creating a better business and growing the bottom line.

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