Conor Ward at British Gas reveals his passion for UX unicorns
by Experience UX Team,

Conor Ward at British Gas reveals his passion for UX unicorns

In our latest UX Insider Interview, I had an in-depth discussion with Conor Ward, Head of UX & Design, who has big ambitions for UX at British Gas.

I’ve created a team of UX designers that value evidence about user needs and behaviours above all else.


Can you start by telling me a bit about your role and responsibilities at British Gas?

I’ve been at British Gas for almost two years now. When I joined I took over a UX team that had organically grown out of lots of different places. They’d do a bit of everything and there was a mish-mash of specialist roles. We had UX architects, information architects, visual designers, interaction designers, digital designers, creative designers, creative directors and a bit more. We were an internal creative agency that helped out areas of the business wherever needed.

I was hired because my boss and I had the same vision around what user-centred design (UCD) could be in our business, and how turning the team into multi-skilled specialist generalists (UX unicorns) could help achieve this. When it comes to UCD, too many companies out there are self-centred without realising it and when you are a very large company, it will of course be hard not to be preoccupied with everyone’s valiant internal efforts to do a great job. Companies like that, think they are the hero of the story they want to tell, instead of realising their customers/users are the heroes.

To paraphrase a fun example from Donna Lichaw’s book “The User’s Journey”: We aren’t Dorothy who is on an adventure that customers should care about, nor are we the wizard or a knight in shining armour here to save the day for everyone. The customers are Dorothy, the hero of the story. We are more like the ruby slippers helping Dorothy to achieve what she needs to.

My job is to ensure that as a business we are providing the best possible digital products and experiences to our users by solving their actual problems and addressing their needs in the most delightful way possible. A huge part of trying to achieve that is by ensuring we have the right user-centric culture and practices within the company to allow that to happen. We focus very heavily on always improving ourselves too, so that we can always improve our products and therefore our customers’ lives.

I’ve created a team of UX designers that value evidence about user needs and behaviours above all else. Behavioural Science coupled with empathetic data-informed decision-making is our daily bread and butter. The creative part of our day comes in when we try to push the boundaries, to come up with something new and useful that then feeds back into the reality of our customers’ lives. I’ve re-purposed the UX team within our business, and changed them from a creative delivery team into much more of a strategic voice of the user within the business. Our aim is to help everyone stick to the principle that if every effort goes towards solving your users’ proven needs and problems, we will continually achieve the most important goal, which is to win for our customers. The knock-on effect of this is that business benefits will inevitably follow.

I can’t think of any better way to create user-centred products than to have everyone in the team actually watching and hearing users while they’re using those products.

How have you gone about creating that kind of team?

When I started there was a core bunch of people who had a passion for learning, a real thirst for finding a better way of doing things. And it’s that culture of constant learning that I’ve really enjoyed fostering.

After gaining executive level enthusiasm from our CIO among others, and with total drive from our IS Director Daljit Rehal; our Head of Digital, Paul Roberts, basically rethought digital again from scratch. He created new agile teams, a beta release capability and had a complete rethink of our technology capabilities to name a just a few things, so that we could focus on the Lean Startup ‘test and learn’ mentality with tech as the enabler to creating great experiences.

I’ve been very excited about this idea of multi-skilled user-focused UX unicorns ever since I heard Jared Spool discuss them a few years ago and that’s the direction I’ve taken the UX team. I built a user research lab very quickly after joining the company and re-trained everyone in my team to be top notch user researchers. They’ve now proceeded to involve the rest of their product teams in this research so that everyone in the engineering, product and design areas stick to my minimum challenge of observing users, using your product at least six hours every month.

I can’t think of any better way to create user-centred products than to have everyone in the team actually watching and hearing users while they’re using those products. Reading testing reports from researchers just doesn’t cut it. These UX unicorns are also data analysts, accessibility & security analysts, information architects, interaction designers, user researchers, workshop facilitators, UI designers, etc.. They’re a very impressive bunch of people really, and even after only two years with them, I would pit them against any large UX department in the world, in terms of UCD maturity, breadth of talent and passion to do the right thing for our customers. We certainly don’t think we’re the best by any means, but we’re working our socks off every day to try to be for our users’ benefit!

We want to come in every day and feel like we’re solving our users’ problems, pushing boundaries and keeping our trusted household name not just up-to-date, but ahead of the game.

It sounds like you’ve got top-level support, but how do you deal with other people or stakeholders who are resistant to a proper UX process?

It’s not that we believe there is a single proper UX process, whether you take the approach of Design Thinking, Lean, Agile, Lean Startup, Growth Hacking, JTBD or a flavour and mix of all these, but there certainly are a number of core things to ensure that everything you do is driven by user-centricity.

I’m just back from a great Design Leadership conference where I had some really good discussions with two people in particular who inspired me in this area; Mike Davidson (VP Design, Twitter) and Julia Whitney (Executive Creative Director/Group Head of UX&D, BBC) and they were reinforcing their experiences to me around the proven value of design thinking, as a fantastic origin for the best possible business strategy.

When you start talking about digital and business strategy, there is always this tense feeling of risk versus wrong decision. Part of my job is to convince anyone at any level that being agile, being lean, being user-centric actually reduces the risk.

Making small bold bets more often, focusing on continually getting less wrong – that’s all part of the fun working environment we want to create for ourselves and our colleagues. We want to come in every day and feel like we’re solving our users’ problems, pushing boundaries and keeping our trusted household name not just up-to-date, but ahead of the game. And if we do succeed and the whole company becomes truly user-centred as well as customer-centred, we’ll have won for everyone.

You’ve obviously made some bold changes in your team a lot, are there any company-wide changes that affect your team?

Since I joined there’s been a complete digital mind-shift in the company, and the desire is around growing the UX team to have much more of an influence on everything we create digitally as a company. UX now extends across the B2C side of the company, the B2B side, in our FieldEngineer apps, our Call Centre Agent screens, our internal data applications that we create; and this is growing more and more every day. It’s great to be a part of all of this happening and helping everyone to create the best possible experiences for their users. I go home at the end of the day feeling like I’m making a positive impact to humans’ lives and doing some good in the world in my own small way. (Although we do have over 11 million customers at British Gas alone, so I guess it’s not too small).

You’ve mentioned UX unicorns, and I know you’ve written about it too. Can you talk about the pros and cons to these roles, and what you’ve experienced to date?

There are definite cons to this approach, and I understand that people who are against it, think it’s a watering down of specialisms, a kind of jack of all trades and master of none, but it’s not supposed to be that at all. It’s about aiming to be an expert in all areas of evidence-based design to provide the best experience to our users, and that’s a lofty and heroic goal to have.

I can see in certain environments that a unicorn approach absolutely wouldn’t work. There are people in roles, whatever they may be, who are better at a single area of perhaps UI design, user research or whatever, than you, and should absolutely specialise in that. But the part where this falls down for me is the need for a handover stage between these specialists and the lack of broad understanding, persistent knowledge, true deep empathy and ownership of a single thing. That’s where specialist-generalists win – moving from specialists to T-shaped people to square-shaped people.

For example, when someone does a heavy piece of research, and then knows so much about that product, why wouldn’t they themselves turn that into a customer journey diagram? They know all the moving parts included on it and can answer anything needed, instead of having to try and pass that knowledge on. So somebody who does the research, also does the analysis, does the journey design, maps out the experience map, creates the wireframe. They attempt to craft a new behind-the-scenes service design to remove the complexity from the user that was identified in the research, crafts the visuals, tests the prototype with customers, and so on – the whole thing.

But this isn’t just one person, you’re still collaborating as part of a product and engineering team, and everyone on that team has to come and observe the research sessions, contribute ideas, test things, learn together, develop true, shared understanding and iterate together.

I think UX unicorns need to know about code too but not code themselves, because development is a very special kind of skill. It’s a bit like designing a car – you absolutely need to know how the engine works to design the car effectively, but you’re maybe not going to be expected as a designer to put the engine together yourself. So being a specialist-generalist definitely needs to have its boundaries too.

Would you say that if your team have come up with the ideas, implemented those and are testing them, that there’s a danger they’re not going to be able to quite see reality?

There absolutely is a danger of that and it’s a really good point. It also covers research bias, getting too attached to things, and even giving your own spin on what you’ve read and heard. For me, I think that just comes down to a level of maturity and you can put processes in place to help stop that.

Things like, if you write a moderator script you ensure it’s based on Behavioural Science not attitudinal market research, sticking to the script and learning fantastic poker faces as a moderator so as not to react to anything. A good tip is to always sit behind and to the side of the user, so they can only focus on the screen when carrying out the testing tasks, therefore reducing the influence of the person in the room too.

Once you perfect that skill and setup, it really doesn’t matter who does the moderating, so we are training up the rest of the product team to do this too. This means that the UX designers can focus on facilitating the observation room with all of the product team members and any interested stakeholders, which means research bias is actually reduced rather than increased. After each session, the full product team shares their behavioural observations and together, the team affinity map these into emerging patterns of behaviour and identified issues. This type of objective research is working fantastically well for us.

Coming back to forming a team, how do you tell the difference between a good UX person and a great UX person?

The three Ps – Portfolio, Portfolio, Portfolio. Anyone can talk a good game, anybody can write up a good CV, anyone can write down being a contractor for six amazing companies for a month at a time and it’ll look great, but if you haven’t got a portfolio I’m not interested.

For me a portfolio allows you to show the evidence that links to the theory. You can’t just show some UI designs, some sketches and some post-it notes (I mean, of course I want to see those, if you haven’t got any post-it notes in your method steps then why not? We all love a post-it!) but you need to show the final product too, proof of the value you created for both the customer and the business and how you got there. Numbers and impact, not just pretty visuals. It has to show that you genuinely have some understanding of all those things.

And even if your visual artistry isn’t that great, but you’ve got a solid grounding, then that can be improved, or if you don’t do a lot of research then that can be improved. But you have to cover all of those areas in a portfolio somehow. Tell me your UX story, show it, prove it. That’s how I approach conducting interviews.

One of the things that I hear constantly is that there’s a shortage of good UX people, is that something you’d recognise?

UX people? No. Top-class UX people? Absolutely. The top tier of UX talent out there are worth their weight in gold, but there are very few of them. That’s why the term ‘unicorns’ is so appropriate. I mean, I think I’m getting very lucky in that the message is getting out there, what we’re doing, that you can come to our company and you can do everything you ever wanted to do, in user-centred design and you won’t just get handed something to launch and leave.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that the ratio of female applicants we’re getting through is rising, which is great. It’s so important to get as much diversity as possible on the team. For example, I think we have people from at least ten different countries now, across our 90+ people. Different viewpoints of different humans are definitely needed, to design for different humans with different viewpoints.

If we’re achieving the right outcomes for our customers and we are also going about that in the right way, then we’re doing the right thing.

How do you measure your success, or know you’re doing a good job?

There’s a million metrics I could keep an eye on and get lost in, but we have stunningly talented data scientists here who do that for us instead. Most of the important numbers I deal with every day aren’t exactly measuring whether I’m doing a good job internally, but are more about if we are creating the right solutions for our users. Those are the important numbers, not whether seven million people downloaded an app, but what our data and research can tell us about how good that experience was for them. Trying to be data informed, not data driven.

My job in a design leadership role is about “Designing the Design”, which sounds pithy and something you might read on a fake Jony Ive Twitter account, but it actually means trying to create the right environment and culture for UCD to flourish through creativity, respect, passion, empathy and enjoyment. That is how I know I’ve created a successful user-centred design culture at my company. If we’re achieving the right outcomes for our customers, and we are also going about that in the right way, then we’re doing the right thing. No single metric can tell you that, but when you add them all together the picture becomes very clear.

I read in a previous interview you did, that you were quite excited about the zero UI trend. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

We’re always looking to help our customers in different ways. Things move so fast these days. So we’ve been tinkering and testing for a while now, using VUI, AI chatbots, Natural Language Processing etc, as a better solution than the standard call centre approach. We are always thinking about how far we can get away from forms, how far can we get away from any UI in general, looking at the conversation that needs to be had at the most human level to get what you want done. And if we turned our whole site into a bot and just did stuff for you (the customer) and nothing else, would that be useful for people? I have no idea, that’s what experiments are for.

I think the zero UI conversation is interesting because it reminds us as a digital department, that we don’t want to be here just to create user interface solutions for things. You’ve got to interrogate the problem not the solution, explore into the depths of service design and not just accept that this is the way it has to be. We challenge assumptions and never accept the status quo towards the best possible user experience, because we know that everything has a user experience whether it is intentionally designed or not.

I’m more interested in challenging any service we deliver, realising that our product isn’t the website/app, but that our product is the service someone gets in the real world and the effect of that experience they have. If we admit that all of the products that we’re creating in a digital world are about a service and an experience, then why are we assuming it has to have any type of GUI or VUI or any UI on it? Or if it does then should that be the last thing we consider?

We should craft a service based on how, where and when customers need it, then there might be some sort of interface needed in one form or another to interact with the service. If it can be smart enough that there is no UI at all and the user never has to interact with the product to make things happen, then is that a good thing also?

We are constantly asked to predict the future, and the best answer I have always found for this is from Peter Drucker – “The best way to predict the future is to create it”. That’s why we value MVP and the Design Thinking approach so much. Importantly, Peter also said, “The purpose of a business is to create a customer” and so if you believe that, then you have to believe that customer centricity is the only sure path to the future and to true innovation. As the saying goes, “want innovation?.. talk to your next customers, not your best customers.”

What we need to look at, is becoming some sort of partner in the micro-moments of our customers’ lives – giving them useful things.

What do you think will be different in five years in the way we interact with energy suppliers?

I spend a lot of time telling people not to think that far ahead! But I guess my idea on what strategy is getting to is a point where we can admit that nobody specifically wants any digital product, they just want the service it provides for them. So in that case, how do we get out of the way? How do we, instead of trying to improve the things they can do in our products, help users not do the things that they don’t want to do? It’s a bold statement but it feels like a correct one.

So the fact that smart meters are coming in means that you don’t have to submit a meter reading – brilliant, but that’s a general change in the industry. So we need to look at other things that we can change that remove a step or a task and work out how we can actually use technology to get out of their way. We’re a utility, I think in two senses of the word, and if people see us and our app, well then, that is just a utility in terms of a task that they need to do, like check a bill or pay a direct debit.

What we need to look at is becoming some sort of partner in the micro-moments of our customers’ lives – giving them useful things, like giving advice about when it’s cheaper to do your washing; because we’ve changed things for you so that it’s actually cheaper to use electricity at this time, for example.

We want to be of some kind of assistance, but it’s a difficult balance to strike, getting to that point where you’re creating gains for someone without adding more complexity to their life. If we could move from spending all of our effort trying to be a ‘painkiller’, and instead become a ‘vitamin provider’ where we add benefit instead of reduce frustration. That’s a future world for us that would excite me, and hopefully our customer too.

Is there anyone you look to as a benchmark or anywhere you go for inspiration?

What I’ve found by going to conferences, training events and just meeting people, and what my colleagues are telling me as well, is that because of our new way of doing things over the past couple of years in digital at British Gas, we’re finding ourselves at the forefront of what’s going on. We’re now measuring ourselves against companies like Google, Spotify and Netflix in terms of technology setup and working practices.

We hear from these cutting-edge, fast-moving companies about the best UCD approach, and it’s blowing us away to realise that we’re already doing those things. We still have a long way to go and because we’re doing so much of a digital service shift, it takes a while for this to affect very visible things fully, like our main website. We value quality and value to the user above all else, that kind of thing takes a little time, even at the breakneck speeds we are currently changing. We’re getting there together and we’re loving every step of the journey.


Thanks for reading. If you would like to be interviewed, or you’d like us to interview anyone in particular please get in touch.

You can find Conor on Twitter: @UXMuch, or check out more in our UX Insider series

UX Consultant Emma Peters

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