Building a diverse design team… a year later

Dean Vipond
7 min readOct 23, 2020
A line of white men, smiling.

A year ago, I published a blog post about the challenges we face as a growing design profession in NHS Digital, and as an industry as a whole, when it comes to building diverse teams with an inclusive culture. It was difficult to write, but important to publish, and allowed us to begin the hard work on making this happen.

I wrote about how we were going to treat this as a design problem, and structure our work in a way that was familiar, so that we could identify the broad themes, and specific tasks, we would need to confront.

This isn’t one of those dreadful ‘how design thinking can do x’ posts. We know that this work isn’t going to single-handedly solve structural racism, or ableism, or homophobia. But we do know that we need structure and a plan. As educator and tech industry expert Kim Crayton says: Intention without strategy is chaos.

So what did we do?

Well, we got off to a great start. Myself and some colleagues from the NHS Digital graduate scheme — Emily, Matt and Harry, started looking at the different areas of work we need to cover. Initially, this was:

  • Awareness — how do potential recruits find out about NHS Digital? Where do we advertise? How do we advertise?
  • Application — what barriers does the process of applying for a job at NHS Digital put up? How might we remove them?
  • Belonging — what is the culture at NHS Digital like for colleagues from underrepresented groups?

We started by interviewing members of the different support networks we have within NHS Digital. We have some excellent ones, for women, people from ethnic minorities, people of different faiths, LGBTQ+, disabled people, and older colleagues. This helped us understand multiple viewpoints and experiences within the organisation already, and gave us ideas of things we might have to address as we make the design profession a more inclusive place.

I had some discussions with black designers on their views on the industry, and working in white-dominated spaces. Sincere thanks to Debs Durojaiye, Daniel Blyden and Julian Thompson for their time, and helping me uncover what my responsibilities are as someone in a managerial position, to people from marginalised groups.

We also had some recruitment coming up at the time, so it was a good opportunity to try out some small, tactical changes to how we promote design roles, and sort out candidates for interview. We worked to ensure the ads didn’t contain masculine-coded words, and we stressed that flexible working was welcome (not just considered — a tip I picked up from Doteveryone).

For CV sifting, we had three different people (mix of genders and ethnic backgrounds) pick candidates in isolation. We then reconvened and compared choices. Two out of three ‘yeses’ got onto a shortlist, ensuring different viewpoints weren’t shouted down by the most senior person in the room. We don’t all see potential in the same way, and diversity of viewpoint is critical at this stage. Sincere thanks to Afsa, Bharat, Wunmi, Nao and and Sam for donating their time to these efforts. I am keenly aware of the additional burden of labour on underrepresented staff, to do inclusion work, so I am grateful for this help.

Our invitations to interview recognised that office hours might not always be convenient, and that people have caring responsibilities, so if you needed to bring a child to interview, we would make arrangements.

These are relatively small, but important changes to the way we attract, and begin conversations with potential colleagues. There is more to do here, not least where we advertise — there are loads of great organisations out there who have job boards and ways of promoting jobs to different audiences. UKBlackTech, Evenbreak, Radical Recruitment, WeAreTechWomen, and Witty Careers, to name a few. We’ll be investigating how to get the most out of groups like this when we next have the opportunity.

Being the blocker

So we had a flurry of activity, from last October through to the new year. Lots of conversations, some action. But not enough. I had a lot of stuff in my head I needed to get down, but I was also very busy with other work responsibilities. Multiple projects, endless meetings. There was only a certain amount of time a week I could devote to this work. And I knew in the back of my mind, that I could let it slide. Despite my good intentions, I was not accountable to anyone to see it through.

I kept talking about it at our profession lead meetings, but mostly along the lines of ‘argh, I’ve been really busy and haven’t had time to do this or that, yet!” I kept resolving to do something next week. But another emergency kept creeping up. I could only dine out on my last blog post for so long, before I would become yet another privileged dude that says the right things, but doesn’t actually do the work. As this tweet succinctly puts it:

The thing is white people, we get to pick and choose when we care about racism. Our black colleagues do not. — David Smith

…and then coronavirus happened

Clear. Your. Diary.

March onwards has been the most sustained period of intensive work I have experienced in my whole career. I’m not going to go into the details of that here, but it basically meant we had to suspend all activity that wasn’t directly related to the urgent design and delivery of new services in response to the crisis. We’ve worked non-stop. Evenings and weekends. Meetings at 7am. Stakeholder presentations at 9.30pm. You name it. So there was no time, or energy, to continue the work on diversity and inclusion, that we started.

Only it became apparent as things developed, that this was just the time when we needed diverse voices. This work could not wait. Coronavirus was having a disproportionate effect on people from Black, Asian and other minority ethnic backgrounds. Our opportunities to conduct user research with diverse groups was diminished, as research methods had to be quickly pivoted to remote-only, and speed of turnaround meant that we were relying on existing ways of sourcing participants, which weren’t always reflective of society as a whole.

Luckily, other colleagues were pushing things forward, both on their assignments, and in support of our profession-based work, whilst I and others were flat-out on the COVID response. The amazing Misaki and Amy started organising, and running workshops with people across not just design, but user research and content design. (Side note: Misaki’s post about her experiences on COVID response work is highly recommended)

…and then George Floyd was murdered

In the midst of all this, the uprising in response to the murder of George Floyd in America, and Belly Mujinga’s attack in the UK, brought with it another layer of grieving and pain for my Black colleagues.

In response to these tragedies, came a renewed commitment from NHS Digital’s executive management, to address issues of structural racism, and work closely with HR, to make the organisation equitable. Of course, it is very different to manage issues like that at the scale of the whole organisation, than it is to look at the specific needs of a profession, so our work continues, and will dovetail with their activities.

We arranged for user centred design staff to attend one of the amazing Hustle Crew’s online workshops on addressing racism in the tech industry. It was a good catalyst for reflection within specific professions, and my awesome colleagues Eva (content) and Nancy (user research), have run follow-up sessions to examine how to progress. I highly recommend reading colleague Micol’s blog post examining her own privilege, and what that means as a user researcher working in health.

More of us have joined NHS Digital’s EMBRACE network (for Black, Asian and minority ethnic colleagues) as allies. They continue to do brilliant work supporting marginalised staff, while educating colleagues at different points on their anti-racist journey.

Becoming accountable

So despite the renewed efforts, this work remained something we should do, but no one was saying we must do it. This was a problem. We owe it to our colleagues, and the users of the services we provide, to continue the work to establish an equitable working culture, and design services for all. Our associate director of design and research, Matt Edgar, now has equity as an entry on his annual work objectives. He will be judged on how we meet this commitment, and as a result, he will be making sure the rest of us have the time and resources to do this.

So, what next?

Thanks to Misaki and Amy’s workshops, we are now working across three professions, and have broadened the scope of our work. Alongside work on recruitment and belonging, we are doing more to improve our working practices. The user researchers are looking at how they can ensure seldom-heard voices are included much more in the design process (we don’t like the term ‘hard to reach’). Who should we include, and when? What different methods are needed, now that we are all remote? How do we factor in the extra time needed to gather all the insight we need, under increasingly tight delivery deadlines?

Content and design colleagues are looking at things such as imagery of conditions on different skin tones, and improved guidance on when and how to discuss gender.

There’s also a lot more going on, around welcoming new colleagues (which is being led by our newest colleagues), alongside continued training and work to ensure existing underrepresented colleagues have the support they need to thrive. This all needs organising, and we are about to start work with a delivery manager, to help us create roadmaps and milestones.

Keep pushing

I don’t think any of us can say we are currently in the situation we expected to be in right now. But the things I wrote about last October still remain. A lack of diversity in the design industry, structural inequalities that limit the growth of the profession, and the resulting work that risks excluding the people who need it most.

The work continues.



Dean Vipond

Design leadership and human-centred stuff in general. Previously lead designer @NHSDigital and lots of other things. He/Him.