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Confido Q&A: Scaling UX Teams and Mentoring Design Talent




7 minute read

Are you a UX Designer aspiring to lead a team one day, or a team lead looking to broaden your own horizons? We’ll be talking about learning, development of design talent and the scaling of creative teams in this Q&A.

We were excited to speak with Joe Shaffery, Head of UX, at award-winning Smart Pension. Joe has had an interesting career path, moving from freelance to a Head of UX at Capita, before his latest role. Outside of the 9-5 Joe has taught the Agile App Module at Pearson College Business school and based on his own experience is passionate about the value of industry placements for the next generation of talent.

As an advocate for Agile teams and nurturing creative talent and learning, we caught up with Joe on a variety of topics - moving from freelance to head of UX Design,  how to approach scaling design functions, how work experience enhances employability and why learning how to learn is crucial to impressing employers looking for in creative talent.

If you’re a creative looking to make a change from freelance to perm, an aspiring designer or Head of UX scaling a team, this Q&A is a must-read.

Hi Joe, great to speak with you today. Can you explain your background, how you’ve worked up to Head of UX, from the beginning? 

I guess starting at the very beginning, I always had a balance between Science and Art. I went to Thomas Telford School, which was a unique place with a focus on technology. I was very fortunate to experience industrial placements through the school and was part of the Engineering Education Scheme, another initiative set up to help students get closer to industry.

I had a year in industry with ARUP, a big architectural engineering firm, famous for working on the Sydney Opera house, the London Eye, the Millenium bridge, amongst others. I then went to Loughborough University to study Product Design and Manufacturing (BEng Hons). It was a good foundation for manufacturing management, design and engineering, all bundled into one degree.

I did several placements then too. I went to NY and worked for Jones New York, as an intern working on some of the Ralph Lauren lines. I also continued my relationship with ARUP – I tried to get as much experience through Uni as I could!

After University I wanted to get into product design. But, I hadn’t discovered recruitment agencies yet, so I taught myself how to build a website and showcased my work that way. I didn’t get any response on the product design side, but instead I received website build requests. This led me to working freelance for several years, on web design, web builds, photography, branding and print design for small companies. It was really good and I really enjoyed it, despite the usual challenges of working freelance.

So, how did you make the move from freelance designer to Head of UX?

A good friend of mine used to work in the City, we used to trade stories of his 9-5 software development job and my freelance work. One day he spoke to me about their need for a designer and asked me if I’d be interested… I thought why not, and applied!

I joined Bluefin Corporate Consulting which specialised in employee benefits, covering pensions and other employee benefit products.  I was tasked with building a team from scratch, under the premise the company would grow. I thought at the worst case I’ll give it a go and then go back to what I was doing, mid-case I’ll be a designer and develop 1 person. And, in the best case I’ll get to build a team and learn a lot as I go. Luckily it turned out to be the latter.

I very quickly got to build a team, with some fantastic support. When I joined, the entire Tech team was 17 people and in just over 18 months it grew to over a 100. My team went from one to half a dozen. We primarily hired people focused on front-end and design.

Capita then bought Bluefin and again we grew from around 500 to 2500 in our division, over night, with about 70,000 employees across Capita. It meant there was more room for growth, more room to work in and an area where we could build a design system that could field into different teams. It was amazing to be part of something that started small and grew into an enterprise system.

Just over a year ago I was given the opportunity to move to Smart Pension. This move meant I’d now report into the Head of UX, Harry Brignull, and this appealed to me, as I knew I could learn a lot from him and continue to grow professionally.

Harry now heads up UX Innovation and I lead UX Core. We both report into the Managing Director and Founder of the business, so UX really does have seat at the table and see things from a strategic level, which is a huge advantage.

How did you approach scaling out a team from scratch, when you were at Bluefin?

It seems like a long time ago now. But I think what I realised was there was too much for me to do on my own! I was well supported by the Head of Tech - he was all about team growth. Early on, I took the approach to hire people better than me, that can do things I can’t.

I initially covered front end development, UX and design. I was stronger at UX and design so my first hire was a front-end role (someone who was much better than me in this area).

As we continued to scale, the resourcing made sense within an agile framework. You build teams around the product i.e. you need a UX/design/ front end dev for each of the product functions and build the hiring around this.

We basically put front-end/UX/design hybrids into each project team and every team was cross-functional. It worked really well with the front-end development element, but the design side wasn’t quite as effective. My first hire became head of front end development and I focused on building a specific design function.

With UX, you tend to associate User Experience with a sexy B2C product, how do you approach UX for a product like an Employee Benefits platform?

On the surface you see industry’s that are glamorous or not glamorous. But in any industry, what you need to focus on is the definition of success.

In ecommerce for example, the metric of success is how much you sell. But in the pensions industry, it isn’t quite so clean cut. If someone invests more in their product, it doesn’t mean they’ve had a better user experience.

We’re not trying to make something ‘flashy’, but something streamlined. Also, you’ve got to balance this within a heavily regulated and compliance driven industry.

We were keen to have some good content designers in our team - the people that put the whole user story together. I think that’s really key.

We’re talking about people’s lives here. If we do something right, you could actually be helping people with their future. And, the catchment of users is significant – everyone has to retire.

To me that sort of potential impact is very exciting.

What are the main areas you’ve seen the design landscape change in your career?

There have been a few key areas where change happens:

  • Tools obviously change all the time. Design software has  gone from Fireworks, to Photoshop to Illustrator to Sketch and now Figma. They’re always changing! There will be a better tool in six months!
  • The job titles in the industry seem to change a lot. Through the years disciplines such as ‘Human Factors’, ‘UX’ and ‘Product Design’ contain individuals with very similar skillsets. This makes it difficult to know what the correct job title should be.
  • The Tech we work with – when I started, it was designing for desktop and a second thought was mobile. Then it went into designing for both or ‘mobile first’.

One thing hasn’t really changed, that is starting with the users' needs and building from that.

Moving onto your mentoring and teaching experience, how did you get involved with teaching an Agile App development course at Pearson College?

While I was working freelance, I did several bits of teaching, including some work at pupil referral units teaching art and photography.

An opportunity arose through a company  ‘Connect to Teach’ to teach at Pearson College London. Pearson is the only FTSE100 company delivering degrees in the UK. They focus on getting students as aligned to industry as possible. There are 3 courses in that part of the school – Law, Accounting, Business.

The module I have taught is ‘Agile App Design for Business’ within the Business Management BA (Hons) degree.. My background in Agile, building digital products and design thinking seemed a good fit to them. I’d recently done some talks in industry, so that helped.

It’s been brilliant. For one semester a year (for 2 academic years now), it’s been 10 weeks of lectures, seminars and workshops and coursework for the students.

There were around 60 students in total and I have taken them through design sprints – from concept, to prototype. I’ve really enjoyed it and I’ve kept in touch with several students and one student had a placement at Smart Pension too.

It was great to see them transition from student to real world!

Do you think that’s how education should evolve – to include more real-world experience? Is that the best way to facilitate the transition?

I think it really helped with me.

A lot of people do not know what they want to do and even if they think they do, it may be very different when they get there.

Learning how to learn is an important life skill. Things aren’t always going to be given to you on a plate and you have to learn as you go. At school people are taught and then tested. In industry we are more concerned about the outcome and you have to learn how to get there. University is a chance to bridge that gap in the way people learn.

When it comes to software, it changes every other week. The skill is to pick up the software and use it as quickly as possible and go through that steep learning curve.

I tried this with the students in one session – I asked them to design a prototype, introduced them to InVision, gave them 3 hours to ‘learn it’ and was there to answer any questions. A couple of students at the end said a step by step guide would have been easier, but I said, that’s the point!

You need to learn, how to learn!

At school it’s all step by step, but in industry you’re the most valuable if you can adapt quickly.

When you’re in an agile environment, you need to be someone who is self-managing.

How do you manage your team’s development? What do you think is the best way to learn?

The best thing that’s often missed, is that if you employ good people you can learn from each other.

We employ great people and encourage them to teach each other.

We have a lunch and learn every week. We brought someone in with experience leading UX courses around the world and he’s a UX lead in our squad day to day. Most weeks he’ll deliver a talk, he’s experienced at this, so he did this for us. He brings the conference to us each week and now different people are stepping up and sharing knowledge.  Often, they’re workshops and hands-on rather than just presentations, that works really well. It also encourages people to develop their presentation skills.

At Smart Pension there is also a learning budget for books, conferences etc. The idea being you learn and then present the key findings back to the whole team.

One thing I learnt at Capita, is having a strong coaching culture. As a team leader I see my key role as a coach, not a line manager (although I do that as well). Coaching is all about the team member driving their own development with the coach helping where needed. When all this comes together, everyone benefits.

A lot of places have skills matrices to compare individuals against key objectives. I’m using that in a slightly different way. I have asked the team to plot where think they are vs. where they want to get to. We use that together, to facilitate professional development.

As with all our Q&As if you're interested in any of the topics or questions we touched on and would like to discuss in more depth we'd be happy to speak with you. We're helping startups and scaleups hire into their design teams everyday, so if you, like Joe, have a team to scale, please do get in touch and we'd love to chat through your options.

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