Turning a Tanker

This is a case study on leadership – a tale of vision, relationship-building, patience, plenty of hard graft and a whole lot of grit. If you are going to change a company set in its ways, with ideas of where they need to evolve, but not much experience in the areas they need to move into, like the saying goes: “It’s moving a tanker, not a sailboat.” But if you can stick with it, the overall benefits to the organisation, your team, and your customers can be remake your business.

SOME CONTEXT

When I started at Racing Post, it was still a very print newspaper dominant business. There was an extensive database of horse racing data, a website offering news, data and affiliate betting, two apps that did the same and a handful of white label data modules, digital retail screens and bespoke apps for B2B clients. There was a breadth of horseracing, news reporting and betting-related knowledge, but a dearth of digital expertise on most levels. The product management team was in the process of repositioning its focus and ways of working, the product design team consisted of two designers that had been with the company over 5+ years, the company’s research facility was non-existent. I was enticed into the company on the promise that the senior team recognised and were keen to make the digital offering far more customer centric. There was a long, long way to go.

THE SET UP

  • My role: Director of Product Design and User Research
  • Company: Racing Post / Spotlight Sports Group 
  • Departments involved: Product management, Technology, Editorial, Commercial, Marketing, Data intelligence, all P&Ls dealing with design or end user customers

CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES

The company had two approaches when it came to considering the knowledge:

  1. uThe editorial team, at the time, had a mentality of “we know best and are not beholden to customer opinion” (which is fine for creating content, but doesn’t help with usability or everything surrounding the content)
  2. Marketing surveys and quant data from analytics tell us everything we need to know

Yet the company was losing money and users year on year on their customer platforms. They had based their customer segments for the Racing Post customer experience on betting frequency – an action most users did not come to us to do – we were a data and news company that offered subscriptions and links to bookmakers. Betting frequency didn’t tell us HOW they used OUR product. There was little-to-no qualitative data about our users to fill in the big gaps we had from just the quant data.

The design team had been without a senior leader for at least six months. The designers who were left had little support or development, so were understandably beat down and felt like order-takers. There was no proper UX or UI rigour or processes in place. There was no research to inform or defend their design decisions. There was also little cohesion across the digital products in terms of UX patterns, UI components, styling or brand implementation. Nothing looked like it came from the same company. Design was never consulted at the strategic level, they were just told what to do. If there’s little insight as to what users are trying to do, it’s hard to contribute to the overall product strategy, much less designing a customer-centric product.

There was no interaction, collaboration or cohesion across any of the design departments – This included B2B, Editorial Content, Marketing. Design, even internal coms. Design quality varied department by department. All designers in the company felt they had little room to challenge design decisions made by those they reported into (who were not designers). Racing Post marketing ads looked alien within the Racing Post digital products and the editorial sections of the product looked like a world unto their own instead of part of the same site / app.

But there were some big opportunities coming up that allow for change:

  1. The company needed to launch its new rebranding
  2. The CPO gave me carte blanche to make, at least my department, the champions for the users
  3. There was a massive replatforming project in the works, which would lead to an overhaul of the overall user experience for Racing Post digital customers
  4. There were new senior leaders coming into and rising up in the business with more digital experience, including the new Group Racing Editor in charge of Editorial Content

APPROACH AND SOLUTIONS

My first 90 days

Getting User Research going. Qualitative research was seen as skewed, incomplete data due to the nature of its smaller audience set compared to analytics and surveys. But quant typically illuminates what is going wrong, not why it’s going wrong. I hired a great researcher and promptly asked her to work with our UX designer to put together an Ease of Use study of our site and apps. Then we followed up with studies around betting behaviour and user persona reassessment. These projects were a bit painful to present back to the company as the insights pushed back some very entrenched assumptions, internalised old data, and some personal world views! But they were all crucial for exposing the process and behaviours of our key customers when they engaged with our products. This helped shift the view of user research from being suspect to being a crucial part of the product and even larger strategy development for much of the company. And over the years the impact of research pushed beyond product to support initiatives and strategy for Editorial, B2B and the P&Ls pushing into the US market.

Growing the team, bringing in the rigour. To tackle making the product more user centric, we were going to need more people and we would need to bring in proper UX and UI rigour to the approach and processes. We needed design systems, UX pattern libraries, better briefing processes, more understanding of the business and the current business objectives (that would filter down into design), better communication with delivery and dev. Current products and product roadmaps needed to be interrogated, user needs assessed, KPIs understood. And people on the design and research team needed support, coaching and development. I was determined to get most of these issues addressed with my first 90 days.

Building bridges with other departments. This seems obvious, but the company was amazingly siloed. There was a rebrand on the horizon – something that would touch most departments, form editorial, to marketing, to product, to production, to even HR and facilities. There was the potential for the fractured nature of the brand implementation to get substantially worse, so I took the reigns and built relationships with marketing, editorial, brand and product to start coordinating design visibility reviews, cohesion workshops, release schedule coordination, and brand asset troubleshooting forums. 

One of the biggest crossover pieces between design functions, and the company at large, was working with editorial to choose a new typeface for editorial content for the rebrand. Print needed a typeface with a lot of styles and flexibility, digital needed something optimised for digital usage. I led the process by working with the Group Racing Editor, his designers and my designers to identify and trial out options in situ then put the top two choices to the full company for a vote. Through this process, the entire company saw the benefits of collaboration and that design was not just pixel pushing, but required thought, planning, contingencies.

The next 275+ days…

Implementing a Design Sprint process. After the rebrand, we had the massive replatforming project on the cards. One of the project’s objectives was to overhaul the user experience to be more customer focused. It was also the nature of Racing Post, at the time, to include far too many stakeholders for the project. Stakeholders who still didn’t trust user research fully and didn’t understand or appreciate product design. By implementing a design sprint process and inviting key stakeholders to be part of it at the beginning, the larger project and organisational benefits included:

  • Forcing others in the business to reckon with the complexity of designing an experience 
  • Reckoning with the uncomfortable assumption-busting that can come with user testing 
  • Considering user needs before prioritising and briefing a feature or flow
  • Realising that designers and researchers can and should be considered as valuable problem-solvers, not just tactical “resources”
  • Witnessing that leadership can come from any level, any discipline, not just the top
  • Understanding the difference between giving an opinion and actionable feedback
  • Recognising that everyone is doing their best under the circumstances, and that focusing on blame and being stubbornly difficult helps no one
  • Appreciating that collaboration across departments and disciplines can produce amazing ideas and solutions

Establishing a cross discipline customer insights forum. We had data coming from several different channels, but we didn’t have a cohesive view of what all of it meant, no holistic view of our users, no visibility of the knowledge gaps of their behaviour. Within my first year at Racing Post / Spotlight Sports, I spearheaded bringing together key representatives from user research, analytics, market research, product design and product management together to start sharing insights with each other. This led to bi-annual reports about our customers in the UK and US markets that gave a “state of play” about what we knew about our customers. This also helped to inform our larger research and data strategy for the following quarters / year  to plug up the holes of customer knowledge that we thought to be business critical to both content and commercial.

Focusing and highlighting commercial successes from this new approach to design and research. Some of our most successful (and easiest to quantify) successes came through our B2B team – designing products for end users that would live on bookmaking and media partners’ properties (e.g. retail display units, data modules on websites and apps). These projects showcased the power of good qualitative research by showing our partners exactly how Racing Post’s products were being used within their ecosystem, the value they brought, and how a responsive, nimble , knowledgeable design team could fix or design new feature based off of user research and fundamentally turn the dial up on our partners’ revenue. Seeing video of a users’ reactions to a new product became a very powerful selling and upselling tool for the business. 

 

THE ORGANISATIONAL IMPACT

Over the 4.5 years I was with Racing Post / Spotlight Sports Group, here were some of the results of my creative leadership:

  1. Design consolidation: More consistency, efficiency, and better quality, more effective product design output. As the company grew through commercial expansion and acquisition, product design teams that had existed outside of my team became part of my department, in some cases, by request by the designers as they wanted/needed the design leadership support, saw opportunities to grow their skill sets, and were keen to collaborate with other designers. This also led to sharing of ideas and methodologies that save the company money (e.g. consolidated design systems), saving the company time (e.g. re-using features, components and insights from one business unit to another for similar features), and generating new, more innovative ideas with a larger, supportive design community to access.
  2. Research driving revenue: Qualitative research became a highly respected, highly effective, highly requested discipline by multiple departments as the company started to see the yields from initiatives that benefitted from user research. It got to the point we had to do research prioritisation and budget re-evaluation on a monthly basis to make sure we have enough bandwidth and the researchers were not being overworked!
  3. Comprehensive insights providing value to business stakeholders: More communication between design and customer insight departments started to happen, which had a great effect on how other departments interacted with both disciplines, especially around briefing and recognition. The output from these collaborations passed on insights and flagged blindspots with business stakeholders and P&L owners; important things to know when developing or regearing the business strategy for the year.
  4. Strategic inclusion: Research and design started to be included in strategic conversations much earlier in the process – ensuring priorities would include some user needs and parts of the user experience that should be addressed, even if the commercial uplift would not be immediate, as the long term benefits would help with engagement, brand loyalty and longer tail revenue streams.
  5. Trust and communication yielding more collaboration, more daring ideas: A markedly different atmosphere and ways of communicating started to permeate the business. This wasn’t just down to me – new people joined or were promoted up in the organisation, many with solid digital backgrounds and experience working in different work cultures – I harnessed these attributes where I could and pushed to ensure conversations myself or my team were involved in were productive, actionable, civil, respectful and focused on problem solving vs attributing blame, shared goals vs singular departmental or P&L goals. Modelling better leadership is the best way to encourage it in others.

THE RESULTS

By building relationships and collaborating with product management, developers, content creators, P&L owners, and subject matter experts in the company, our digital products started to become more cohesive in their focus, look and feel and usability. Research started to provide valuable insights that affected product strategy in real time and the benefits started to impact the bottom line. The silos between many departments started to come down and people started to working together in a more collegiate manner, leading to more innovative ideas, better knowledge sharing, leading to more effective, revenue generating products and more process and asset related efficiencies as a result.

In my last few months at SSG, I was asked by departments that had nothing to with design to give my perspective on:

  • What good leadership looked like and how I tried to implement that within my team
  • How to apply UX thinking to help other departments brainstorm and create atmospheres where people could challenge ideas “safely” or find opportunities to lead
  • How to structure a team to encourage diversity of thinking, mutual support, and opportunities for upskilling and cross-skilling while still delivering effectively and efficiently against business objectives

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