Experience Leader

An Interview with Jane Austin, Chief Experience Officer, Digitas UK

Architecture of school

Interviewed by Sam Aquillano, Founder, Executive Director, Design Museum Everywhere 

Design leaders in the C-suite are driving creativity and innovation across their organizations to generate new levels of transformation and growth. Our Founder and Executive Director, Sam Aquillano sat down with Jane Austin, Digitas UK’s Chief Experience Officer, to learn about the unique opportunities for design leadership in the C-suite, and how she strategically manages and motivates a large creative enterprise.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Sam Aquillano: You recently joined Digitas UK as their Chief Experience Officer — I love seeing creative-minded leaders enter the C-suite. Can you describe the role of Chief Experience Officer? What’s the mission of a CXO?

Jane Austin: I believe that if a business is going to be truly successful it has to do two things — find a problem worth solving, and then solve it better than anyone else. A truly successful product or service meets people’s needs so well that they are willing to pay for it. If you are not clear why you are making something, who it’s for, and why it exists, you end up with a muddled mess. If you frame it like this, you can see that design has the ability to enable success and to help a company be exceptional.

Having a designer in the C-Suite who has the tools to help the organization find these problems — big and small — and who also has the business ability to help frame the solutions in terms of financial return, can give a significant competitive advantage to a company. 

Organizations that want to have success by creating products and experiences that are 10x better than the competition can use design as their secret weapon by elevating design to where it can impact not just the product but the organization itself. Designers are often facilitators rather than doers, and using this skill internally to create structured conversation and bring alignment is very powerful. 

Design isn’t something that happens alone, but when added in the right way, at the right level, it can be an extra ingredient that helps businesses thrive and great work happen. We can elevate the everyday to something special. 

SA: What does a typical work week look like for you? If typical exists?

JA: My role is much more flexible and harder to predict than previous jobs, which I really enjoy. A lot of time is spent talking to the team, looking at the work, understanding what’s happening, and planning out what we’re going to do next. I have regular 1:1s where we talk about what the team is working on, how they are doing, career development, and reflections on how we can improve how we work. We have fortnightly team meetings too where we do visual stand-ups, which is a fast-paced, fun way for everyone to share their work. 

I also take part in our running workshops, looking at hypotheses and how to validate them, helping analyze some research, running a brainstorm, or writing and taking part in pitches. I really enjoy pitching. It’s an opportunity to find out about different businesses and sectors, understand how they work, their business models and challenges, their audiences, their plans for the future, and come up with creative ways to help them. It’s really satisfying being able to help these businesses understand new, lean, customer-focused ways of working. 

We also spend time together as an executive team looking at how the business is running and thinking about ways to fine-tune it. This could be culture, strategy, processes, how we develop and talk about our propositions, how we design the office or a whole load of other things. We are not a “design-led business.” We are a balanced business that gets design and understands the impact it can have, so the designers on the executive team have input into all the aspects of the business, and of course, design is our business. This means we have a wide range of viewpoints and skill sets taking a balanced look at what we are doing and how we work, and I think this makes us really strong as a team and as an agency. 

I love the different aspects of design this role entails. I’m helping design experiences and products for our clients’ end customers, designing new and better ways to work with our clients and deliver these products, and finally working with the executive team to design the business and how it operates. I’m really enjoying the breadth and scope of work and the impact I can have.

SA: You have an amazing career, leading design and user experience for leading brands like MOO, growing technology companies like Babylon Health, even a digital news site. Tell us a bit about your journey into this role?

JA: My main strategy has been to focus on working with people I like. After all, in a full-time job you can end up seeing your colleagues more than your family, and you can go through some stressful times together. I’ve focused on trying to work with people I like, that I feel I can learn from, and that I’m happy to see in the morning. Most of all, where I feel I can be authentic and be myself, and that I feel comfortable to speak and to be wrong. If you are somewhere where you feel judged or scared of making mistakes you won’t speak up or take risks. 

SA: In the six months or so that you’ve been in this role at Digitas UK, what differences are you experiencing from leading design and customer experience in-house, within brands, to now being focused on client success?

JA: For our clients, their success is to have successful products and experiences for their customers. By the time they come to us, a lot of the internal wrangling that goes on and that I’ve been part of has already happened and budgets have been assigned and projects have internal support. It’s really refreshing as we are often going straight into strategy and execution.

SA: Why is it important to have design and customer experience in the C-suite? What do you bring to that level of leadership that’s unique to others on the executive team?

JA: So far a lot of my role as an executive has been as facilitator, leading conversations about culture. We all know the Peter Drucker quote “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” We all know the kind of business we want to be – a balance of kind, supportive, and fast and focused on results. That’s a delicate balance, so I’m helping design different ways to support this culture. At my time at Government Digital Service (GDS), I loved how they actively designed the culture. It had that delicate balancing act of being human and working quickly and getting results, and you just “knew” what doing things in a GDS way meant. 

At Digitas we are actively designing the culture to make the change we want to see, and are being very intentional about how to make this a great place to work, where great work happens. Being in the C-suite allows me to combine design and culture, and working with clients at a senior level allows me to help them design their culture too, by helping them be customer-focused, remove silos, and experiment with fast, collaborative working. 

SA: In your role you are driving strategy — how do you use design and creativity to craft strategies that grow Digitas UK and transform your clients’ businesses? And how do you design processes to enact those strategies?

JA: I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever really designed a new process – but what I do is remix techniques that help frame the problem. What do we know? What is an assumption? What is the risk? Why should we do x instead of y? What should we work on that makes people happy and makes the business money? Why should we invest time and money to build this thing? There are a lot of techniques and methods to help you find the answers to these questions. I try to find the best way to find the answers — and when I say best I mean what is the least you can do to have the most certainty or to take the next smallest step. 

A lot of businesses, and a lot of designers too, have failed by spending too much time and money creating overblown business cases, designing things that didn’t have the right reward for all the effort put in, or rushing to market without validating all the assumptions that were made. For design to be impactful, it should design not the end product, but each small step on the journey, to find out if you are doing the right thing. This way of working is called “lean,” but I just think it’s common sense. Break your work down to the smallest unit of work you can do to remove risk and know the next step is right. Find your answer, do the next step, stop what you are doing, or pivot to a new idea. 

Design like you might be wrong, and be open to being wrong, because it’s still valuable, you have learned something, closed down an unprofitable avenue, saved time and money and heartache. And you can try the next thing and get closer to being right and building something that solves the right problem better than anyone else. 

Working like this is one of the things that makes startups disruptive, and every business — from charities through to healthcare and government — can learn from the philosophy of minimizing waste and maximizing learning. First you learn, then you use this to make a better product or experience, and then you try the next thing.

SA: What’s your advice for companies looking to elevate design and customer experience to the C-suite for the first time? If you were the CEO, how would you do it?

JA: Throughout my career, I’ve been surprised at some of the naivety about what design does and the impact it can have on the C-suite. I have observed that many senior C-Suite people perceive design as being almost coloring in, adding polish on something the other teams have come up with. However, if you only allow design to come at the end then you aren’t getting the full value from the team. 

Don’t do what every other business is doing – think about how to compete by offering an amazing experience, and how you need to be set up and organized to make this happen. 

Allow design to be as upstream as possible, helping design ways of working, design the culture, validate business models, experiment and impact strategy as well as executing to get the full value from what we can do. And I mean help, not lead. Digital businesses need different skills collaborating together to be successful and the design team should be one of these collaborators. 

SA: You oversee a creative enterprise — what’s your secret to building, organizing, and motivating large teams of creative people? And how do you get everyone moving in the same direction?

JA: Having two kinds of visions — one is what the product is for. Some call this the value proposition. I would call it the mission; why something exists and does what it does. Everyone should know this, and understand who they are designing for. This is a little more challenging in an agency but we focus people on one product or company for a period of time so they are able to get this depth of knowledge, but also tap into what we are doing for other clients so we can share our body of knowledge. 

The second thing is to have a unifying philosophy of how we work. At Digitas our particular team is focused on balancing customer and business impact and delivering inspiring creative work. This means you don’t need a set, prescriptive process; instead you need a clear framework for how to approach things that everyone understands. Once you know why you work and how you work, you can overlay rituals that build team spirit, such as team meetings, sharing work, outings and offsites. 

The final thing is to be very clear about what kind of culture you want and to make this visible. Possibly one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of this was Government Digital Service. They were masterful in sharing values and a view of the world that was human, supportive, and enabled good work to happen. The culture drives behaviors and decision-making. 

Great work happens when people feel safe, supported, and inspired, so I try to be intentional and thoughtful in creating culture. Just try your best to give people the opportunity to be their best. 

Cover of the Education Issue

From Design Museum Magazine Issue 021