Harriet Wakelam, Director of Human Centred Design at IAG, grew up in a prototyping household. Her industrial designer father would line up eight kettles on the kitchen bench and ask her to choose one kettle to make a cup of tea.
“It was a prototyping household,” she explains, simply. Those early life lessons now inform the career she’s made helping banks, Australia Post and now an Insurance monolith innovate.
Hear how …
John: Today I’m in Melbourne where I’m joined by Harriet Wakelam – the Director of Human Centred Design at the massive insurance business that is IAG. Harriet is a Design Specialist with experience across financial services, fin tech, insurance and health. She’s worked with NAB, Australia Post, MediBank and some of the UK’s biggest banks as well. Today we’re going to hear from one of the best in the industry. Harriet welcome to Customers Matter.
Harriet: Thank you.
John: Your passion is obviously making complex things simple, understanding behaviour and making real innovative experiences that kind of enhance people’s lives. How did that come to be the focus of your career?
Harriet: That’s sort of a long story. But it starts with that my dad’s an Industrial Designer. So I grew up in a household where frequently there would be eight kettles on the bench in the morning and we’d be asked why we chose that kettle to make a cup of tea. All my friends would be given various hair dryers or things. So we were bought up with a curious mindset as to why something works, what problems it’s trying to solve, and what makes a good design. So I grew up very much embedded in the idea of affordances and I made a determined and concerted effort not to become a designer. So I decided that you know like everyone, you don’t want to be what your parents are, so I spent about ten years trying to avoid doing any kind of design work and taught. And what kept happening to me even in teaching was that I kept being drawn to a problem, how you solve a problem, what are the conditions in which a problem can be solved and what are the experiments that you can run to make something better. And so I think innately an idea that you never solve something in its whole and that design is a continuous state of incrementing on a current state to get to a future state was something that was just in my blood from a child. And I sort of finally gave in and went back to university and became a designer.
John: Now I’m so interested. So you said you had eight kettles lined up and your father was trying to get you to make what an aesthetic or a practical decision? What was the test here?
Harriet: It was a prototyping household. So if there were eight kettles on the bench he wanted to know why you chose the one you chose, which was often ‘it was closest to my hand dad’, and then it would be around well what was it that you made you choose it, was it the colour, how did it feel. And I grew up being able to tell immediately whether a teapot is well balanced or not and you know what’s the point in having a teapot if you can’t pour. So I know how to balance a kettle. He worked in small product development so it was hair dryers, kettles, car mirrors. We once had a lot of car mirrors in the house. Cables. He invented stretchy cables for hair dryers so that you could walk across the room and back. So we grew up with just this ongoing sense of what is this thing, what is it designed to do, what problem is it designed to solve and how well does it do that.
John: That’s just so interesting. Now how did your career land you in Australia and what happened? You’ve worked for some very big businesses. Tell me about where and when you landed in Australia and how you sort of trekked forward to now be where you are?
Harriet: I’m a kind of accidental corporate really. Through university I studied English and I missed the whole graduate career show thing. And I was never really intending to have a corporate career. And fell in love, usual reason why people move countries, while working in Macedonia. So I was working in a school in Macedonia, fell in love, came to Australia. And what my career took me to, because I had a career in education and then I went into web development and web design, it took me into the early days of the online learning development. So I was working with the Australian Flexible Learning Framework on the design of what they called Learning Toolboxes, modular components of online learning in the early stages. And that was in the days when UX was really a beginning career. You would rarely see UX type jobs advertised. But for me with an understanding of language, with how things were made and with a web skill it was a natural place to understand what were the interfaces between people and technology and as we started to use the Web much more robustly as a means of transferring value through different mediums it was naturally a place for me that I was drawn towards UX.
John: So just take me back to your first role in Australia, where and when, and then step me through what happened?
Harriet: Well my first role was a teaching role. And then I went back to university. I had a baby. Usually sort of another career, fall in love, have a baby, and careers change. And then I spent five years in Karratha in the far north west of WA. So I went from Central London via a roadhouse to working in Karratha, which was at the peak of the mining boom. I worked virtually for a couple of years building online learning components. And then I went to work for Telstra and my role there was for SME and for indigenous communities. And it was to work with in that stage Telstra had rolled out CDMA as a mobile network and they had rolled out satellite broadband into the indigenous communities. And my role was to find out ways to help people use that more effectively and different ways of working. And my role was also to help SMEs in a town like Karratha which was a mining boom town use the internet more effectively for business. So it was a really interesting role.
John: This is like Twiggy Forrest country?
Harriet: Yeah, totally. I had to learn how to do sort of advanced four wheel driving. I had to learn how to go out in the bush. And I was going out to places like Jigalong and Punmu and working with indigenous communities out there to look at ways. What did we do? We did hip hop via video conference. We did a range of things. We worked with art classes and we were looking at how you could actually start to use the early days of the internet. So a lot of that for me was about collaboration, about networks. You know everyone has a super power. Mine is systems and collaboration. So for me looking at the problem and looking at what was happening in indigenous communities, looking at all the services that were trying to work there and looking at the technology as a connecting point between those, because if you go in to design interfaces to exchange value you need to understand which people are exchanging value for what reasons.
John: Wow. So when was this? What year?
Harriet: 2002 or 3 I think.
John: Okay so the early 2000’s. So what happened from Karratha? Obviously a very interesting time, you’re collaborating, remote working, connecting with the indigenous community.
Harriet: Getting laughed at a lot for wearing hats and being the only person in the community wearing a hat yeah.
John: So what happened from there?
Harriet: Ooh you’re asking me to think back now. Where did I go after that? We went back to Perth I think. Yeah went back to Perth. And I went to work for a TAFE college. So it was in the early days of blended learning. So we were moving away from that online learning only and some of the big education institutions were starting to invest in new forms of learning particularly around apprenticeships, new ways of using technology to learn. And I went to a TAFE college to run their blended learning programme. And by this time I was fairly sure I didn’t want to stay in education, that while I loved the concept of learning it was the design part that really fascinated me. And UX by that time was starting to become a bit more of a mainstream career. I went from there, I went to a mobile technology conference in Melbourne in 2007, came back and said why did you never tell me about Melbourne. You know it was like I want to live in Melbourne. So he said fine if you get a job in Melbourne we’ll go to Melbourne. So it took me a year and a half and then I was offered a role managing the Flexible Learning Toolbox programme here in Melbourne. So within two weeks we packed up the family and come. I was like you said, I did Karratha, we’re going to Melbourne. So I arrived in Melbourne in 2009, day before the fires.
Harriet: So that was the sort of transition. Still did learning, did learning for a bit. And then I went onto it was, again agile was becoming really sort of a really key skill set in Australian business. UX was becoming more mainstream. And from there I went into what was then Census for a while into a producer role. And then I had an opportunity to go into NAB. NAB had invested in a service design lab, and they were building a brand new team, and they were looking at what the best way was to build design capacity within an organisation.
John: So now when did you realise that you were actually back at the kitchen at the bench looking at which kettle to pick up?
Harriet: I think it was, you know after several years of imposter syndrome and sort of well how did I end up here, I’m in a big corporate, and am I meant to be here. I think what really began to interest me, I had some very good mentors, and one of my mentors said to me, I said what I really want to be doing is working in a funky agency and what I really want to be doing is understanding, you know I want to be wearing black polo necks and being one of the cool kids. And she said well you know what it is that really interests you and I said what and she said misalignments. She said you love things that misalign and you love lining them up and you love connecting things to make things that misalign like that. And she said big organisations are full of misalignments.
John: What an amazing insight.
Harriet: And I was like yeah you know what you’re right. Love it when things don’t, I mean it annoys me a lot. And anyone who looked at my desk would laugh at me saying it annoys me when things don’t line up because I live in a chaotic environment in my desk. But what began to become really obvious to me was that, we can talk about design as design was becoming more mainstream in organisations, it was also becoming more siloed within organisations. So although we were building labs and we were building incubators and we were building design capacity we were locking it into design centres and design labs and innovation labs. And it became very clear to me that if we were going to fundamentally change the way that we designed for customers and the way that we designed for people then we also needed to fundamentally design the utility models of the businesses that serve them. And that took me really into the next stage of looking of what design should and could be in organisations.
John: So just explain to me what that looks like? I mean it’s a big statement to take it out of the lab and put it into organisational design. What does that mean in really practical terms and how do you do that?
Harriet: It looks like a lot of grey hair. I think I’m an optimist and idealist. It means if we look at how organisations are set up we’re set up very much in an industrial revolution model. We’re set up with the idea that you have units of production and units of production produce their things and those things get sold to customers in ways that make sense. But as we have entered a much more complex environment and a much more fast moving environment the units that produce those things need to be different. So while we talk about collaboration and while we talk about design the definition for me of design is about how do we combine and re-combine the knowledge of an organisation in new ways to build original thought. And that sounds like a relatively simple thing to do. But actually the practice of bringing organisations together in a sense of unknowing, to sit in the discomfort that is really good design, and to emerge meaning together is a fundamental shift in the way we do business.
John: Such a big concept really. And so little and so big at the same time.
Harriet: Like any good design if it’s done well the concept is simple. How do we help people work together more effectively and how do we help them tap into the knowledge they have in new ways. Doesn’t sound that hard. The practice of doing that within the organisational structures that we have today is very difficult.
John: So where does aesthetic come in and how does this actually ultimately translate to a transaction between an organisation and its customer?
Harriet: Right across the whole value chain. So for me if you are setting your strategy how do you help design works in bringing to life a strategy in a way that people can understand. So we’ve moved out of the world where strategy can sit in a PowerPoint deck. The concepts inside that strategy need to be experiential. How do we generate how do we use the capacity of design to frame problems to generate tangible scenarios? How do we use those skills to bring a strategy to life? So at that end of the value chain we are taking something complex that sits in a pack that people might not necessarily have access to and turning it into things that people can understand. So a lot of design focuses entirely on ideation or innovation. For me design is actually just about helping people to see problems and solutions in different ways. So at the very high level we’ve got service designers and strategic designers working with our strategy people to say well how might we help people make better decisions? And that might mean our people inside our business. Often what we do is we send people into a workshop and we ask them to brainstorm new ideas and I think there’s probably six. There’s always a robo chat option these days. There’s usually an app of some kind. There’s a dashboard. There’s some sort of service. And there are the same six ideas, because asking people to innovate is asking them to step into an area, which they’re not familiar with. If however we use our skills to generate scenarios that are tangible and we ask people what inside this scenario makes sense or what inside this scenario does not make sense then we are asking them to use the knowledge they have in new ways. And that’s a far less uncomfortable and far more practical way of using skills.
John: So you’re big into use cases and scenarios by the sound of it.
Harriet: And I think use case has probably become a bit of a burden around our neck. I think it’s time to look at the skills of agile and lean as methodologies and the skills of design as capabilities and to stop arguing about which one’s which. Is it a use case, is it a scenario, but yeah for me it’s more about how do we make tangible something that’s sitting in a PowerPoint deck, because humans don’t make things based on a PowerPoint deck human’s make things based on a need or a practice or a skill. So at the strategic level we’re working in that area. Then I think the other thing around design is how do we help support the development of new tools and frameworks. So really there are three metrics that we look at. Probability, how likely is this to reduce the likelihood in insurance of risk, or how likely is it to change the way that somebody approaches a piece of information. Productivity, so if we build something new how does that change the productivity of the individuals of the organisation, of our customers. And then obviously profitability. Because you touched on and I wanted to go back to that, earlier you said besides making money. I think we’ve done a great disservice to ourselves in terms of design. Why shouldn’t we make money? I think that often good designers tend go oh you know making money. For me if you develop something great that people want to use and that makes their lives better it should make money.
John: Yes. I was talking purpose beyond profit not before profit.
Harriet: Okay. And then so we work in that stage of how do we help build the metrics, the frameworks and the tools. And then we have designers working in the actual development of those flows. So back into the traditional UX sense where how do you design the components, the pieces, that make an experience real. So if you think about it in terms of cooking, that at the strategic end it would be what have we got in the fridge, what sort of equipment’s here and what might we do with it, and do we have to make something for twenty people, four hundred, five, is it a picnic, a takeaway, whatever it is. If we think about it in terms of the component design we’ve actually got the equipment out and we’re starting to go well these are the ingredients we’ve got to work with, what might we make. And then if we think about further down the track we’re actually into the chopping, the making and then the final bit is to assemble that into a recipe that makes sense.
John: I love this. But there’s another issue on the horizon today and I want to tease this out. User experience, design, customer journey mapping and so forth, the tool kit was sort of developed maybe a decade ago. And the world’s changed. Tell me how has the change in the rise of digital and data impacted the way in which we should go about thinking through customer journeys and customer experience design?
Harriet: Big question. And this is very much a personal output, I put one of those disclaimers, this is Harriet Wakelam’s personal view on journey mapping. I think that we have gone through a period where journey mapping was seen as a very exciting tool that was going to change the way that we could deliver to our customers. In the process of using that tool and using that skill we built it and applied it in many cases without the rigour required to really use it as an evolver of practice as well theory. So there’s an awful lot of journey maps sitting on the walls of lots of organisations, which look beautiful, which talk about an aspirational customer experience. But to me a customer journey map is a benchmarking tool. It needs to be tied to deeply rigorous data. It needs to help us understand drivers and where we might move and where we might apply effort. It’s a prioritisation tool. And even more importantly, I talked earlier around how do you build the scenarios that help people make decisions, it’s a tool to help bring a strategy to life from a customer perspective. Where we’re at right now, I think is that it’s the tool and flavour of the moment. And like all of those tools it is running the risk of being over used, poorly applied and weakly delivering results. We have an opportunity, and I talk about particularly here about the role of design, but design has an opportunity to take a tool, which started off as a design tool and to help it evolve in partnership with our data teams. If we don’t do that then journey mapping will become just another thing. Like any scrum board or agile board used incorrectly it’s just a bunch of cards on the wall, used correctly it’s a benchmarking tool that shows us the world as it is, the world as it could be, and helps us map a pathway between it.
John: And just explain the connection between deeply integrated data and a journey map for me?
Harriet: Well I can only talk to the way that I believe it should be done. So there’s a million ways and lots of people would have issue with this. But for me the very first thing is to help us understand where in an organisation needs to focus, what actually are our customers doing. Do we know? We often have little pockets and pieces. We have lots of data. And like any big data it’s only as useful as the framework that we use to interpret it. A journey map helps us apply a framework over the top of that data to understand what our customers are doing and where. It doesn’t help us make decisions. We still need to then work with the data to say right but how big is the opportunity, where might we put our focus, and then we use it to apply our work. So we should be able to quantify and size drivers of importance based on what customers say is important and based on value to the business, and we should be able to really rigorously move those drivers forward. So you should be able to say this is a priority for customers, what is then the value to the business, and then economically model how much value we would get from moving that driver. That allows us to then basically focus corporate spend on a journey map framework. And that’s how I believe we should be starting to… and when I talked earlier about being interested in how do we evolve the models of business, how do we generate better rigour, how do we actually generate the practices that allow us to come together to solve problems, for me journey maps are really key tools provided that they are firmly based in both the design practice and a data practice.
John: So now Harriet you’ve applied this philosophy or perhaps an earlier version of it which has then been evolved at Australia Post, at NAB as we discussed, and now at IAG. Can you tell me what sort od difference has it made?
Harriet: That’s partly why I’m so interested in the changes of systems. It’s… In the early days of starting this practice and trying to understand what journey mapping could do we were learning and we were moving. If you look at what’s happened in terms of the practices a lot of the practices that we’ve talking about are now being applied at a system level. So for example journey mapping frameworks applied at a system level in the big banks. You see journey mapping now becoming a systemic approach that’s being used to evolve strategy. I think part of that work has contributed to a new body of expertise in our field and is still evolving and still emerging. So when we see the work that’s happening here which will be how do we actually develop the organisational structures and frameworks around customer to move those forward, that’s the difference it’s made. So for the first time instead of saying I like customers, I serve customers, I’ve been a customer therefore we’re going to do this, we’re actually now seeing the development of these really rigorous robust frameworks, and they are starting to become as essential as other frameworks like financial frameworks, strategic modelling etcetera.
John: You had a really nice metaphor around cooking earlier.
John: What are customers now eating as a consequence of your cooking?
Harriet: Well it’s still a bit botched up sometimes. I think as an industry an Australian business in where we are today in order to fully make the shift so that our customers get glory meals every time there are some quite difficult decisions that are needed to be made because the structures that allow us operate effectively on a journey based framework are very different from the business structures that used to help us operate. And we’re starting to see those changes. If you look at the changes that are happening in the structures of organisations we’re starting to see this change. I would say that we’re sometimes eating oyster burgers, and occasionally we’re having some quite odd meals turn up. But I think this is a… we talk about customer centricity and customer experience; it is much as an evolution for us as a business community as it is for our customers.
John: When you said before that organisational design is changing, can you give me some practical examples of how organisations have changed their design from the old industrial model to a more contemporary model?
Harriet: Yeah I mean we’re seeing now customer delivery departments. We’re seeing journey mapping strategy. We’re seeing organisations and innovation and incubators aligned to journey mapping opportunities. We’re seeing relationship journeys and marketing aligning their opportunities in terms of communication and channel to journey approaches and we’re seeing this increasing use of journeys as benchmarks. So what that’s meaning is that instead of people having MPS as a target which was perhaps happening four years ago, five years ago, we’re starting to see people responsible for a journey stage, or people responsible for a journey flow or an uplift overall of the performance of a journey. And that’s happening reasonably fast I think at the moment.
John: So Harriet my final question really is, reflecting on you know all that we’ve discussed, if you were to advise an organisation tomorrow as to what they should do to stay relevant in this very rapidly, evolving, disrupted economy, what’s the secret to innovating to staying relevant?
Harriet: That’s a huge question. Mostly I think be brave. I think that we in the past have been evolving business from a point of view where strategy defined exactly what needed to be done and we had less accountability. You have to trust in the fact that some of these frameworks will actually provide enough support for good people to evolve good solutions within constraints. I mean in design we talk about what is the problem, what is the constraint that you’re dealing with, and then what is the intentional solution that would solve that. In order to work like that we need to know what the problems are. So invest in that journey framework, invest in the thing that maps how big and where those problems are and those are the opportunities. And then don’t be afraid of the constraints. I think we’re moving out of this environment where innovation was all about coming up with something shiny and new. It’s proven it’s not worked. So how do we actually use those frameworks to map the constraints and then innovate within constraints? Good design operates best within tight constraints. And then how do we bring together the right people to intentionally design a solution within those constraints? And I think we’re seeing elements of that right across the business community. I think the next five years will be really interesting. I suspect we’ll look back in five years’ time and say wow that was the point where it really started to mature.
John: Thanks so much joining us today Harriet.
Harriet: That’s okay.