Interview: Richard Dalton, Head of Design at Capital One

UX Strategy

Building a rationale to guide design

A column by Paul Bryan
August 28, 2017

Recently, I conducted this interview with Richard Dalton, Head of Design at Capital One, about his background, his recent work at Capital One, his vision of where their experience design strategy is headed in the coming years, and his upcoming UX STRAT speaking engagement.

Paul: Hi Richard! Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. Can you start by telling UXmatters readers a little about yourself—such as your educational background, professional path, specific areas of focus, and anything else that you think will help them get to know you a little better.

Richard: Hey Paul, I graduated from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, in England, with a degree in Software Engineering just as the World Wide Web was turning into a thing. I am eternally grateful for this synchronicity because I’m not really sure what I would have done otherwise! I was always a terrible coder. I was more interested in the things I could make the systems do rather than in actually creating the systems. After I graduated, I was employee #1 at an Internet design startup—this was in 1994. Soon after that, I co-founded another Internet design firm in the North of England. Then, I moved to the US in 1999, and 18 years and three financial services companies later—Vanguard, then USAA—I now find myself Head of Design at Capital One.

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Figure 1—Richard Dalton
Richard Dalton

Leading Design at Capital One

Paul: What are the responsibilities of your role at Capital One?

Richard: I joined Capital One to be Head of Design for their Commercial Banking division—which I was for nine months. I’ve grown that team from ten designers to 30—and 40 by the end of this year. (Email me, we’re hiring!) However, when my boss left four months ago, I stepped in as interim head of our ONE Design team, leading the 400 designers that serve all our lines of business. That change recently became permanent, so as I transition out of my commercial role, my focus is understandably broadening.

UX Strategy for Capital One

Paul: What’s are your main areas of focus this year?

Richard: In my new role, I’m focused on three things:

  1. Providing more support for our 400 designers—We’re giving them the training, tools, coaching, mentoring, and career paths they need to be constantly challenged and growing.
  2. Guiding ONE Design to be more well managed—We’re a 400-person business unit, with a budget to match, and expectations on us to deliver value to both our business partners and customers. As we continue to mature, we need to establish the management routines and dashboards to ensure that we’re scaling well and that, as a leadership team, we’re focusing on the right issues.
  3. Strengthening our relationships with our internal business partners—Our explosive growth over the past three years—from 20 designers to 400!—has naturally placed our focus on ourselves. Now, we want to build stronger bridges with our enterprise partners—particularly, Marketing, Brand, Risk, Compliance, Facilities, Legal, and the Technology teams we rely on for design tools. We believe that the power of design is cumulative, so the more we work across our organization with our partners, the more value we can add.

Organizational Structure of Design at Capital One

Paul: How are user experience, customer experience, product design, and service design organized at Capital One today? Are experience design professionals part of a centralized service, working on distributed product teams, or in a hybrid structure? How is this working out? Have you learned any lessons that you’d like to share?

Richard: We operate using what Peter Merholz would call a Centralized Partnership model. ONE Design is the central home—through which almost all designers report. However, most of our funding comes from our business partners, and more than half of our designers vertically align with one of our six business units—Consumer Credit Cards, Consumer Banking, Consumer Financial Services, Commercial Banking, Small Business, and Enterprise Technology. They’re co-located with their Product and Technology partners and spend 95% of their time with them—acting as the third leg of the Product, Design, Technology stool. We feel that this gives us the right blend of practice development and support for our designers, while encouraging them to form strong business partnerships and develop subject-matter expertise.

Impact of UX Strategy on Products and Services

Paul: Are you planning to increase or further develop the impact of UX strategy on the products and services for which your organization is responsible? If so, what are some ways that you plan to do that?

Richard: We’re constantly striving to push design activities and methods further up the product-design chain, helping to ensure that we’re not just solving problems right, but solving the right problems. This becomes much easier as our teams reach a strategy tipping point—that point at which a team has enough resources to keep the product- and technology-execution teams happy, and they can start to devote a percentage of their time to working on more speculative, future-vision, strategic efforts. Most of our teams have reached this point, with Commercial Design the latest to get there.

Acquisition of Adaptive Path

Paul: Capital One made a high-profile acquisition of the design firm Adaptive Path. Is that acquisition still impacting the experience-design function at Capital One?

Richard: Oh, for sure! That acquisition was before my time at Capital One, but I know many of the Adaptive Path folks well, and the impact they have had on turbocharging our team’s journey has been tremendous! We’re still running the Adaptive Path-branded conferences and events, and our Service Design function—among others—has its roots in the acquisition.

The IA Community

Paul: You’ve been active in the Information Architecture community for a while, but your current role is in design leadership. How would you describe your professional evolution? What were the milestones and inflection points along the way?

Richard: Gosh, this is probably an article of its own. I don’t think I could do this question justice in a paragraph or two. Suffice it to say that I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the people in the IA community for the role they’ve played in my career successes to date!

Solving Complex Problems

Paul: When you are facing a very complex problem or ecosystem design, how do you get started? Do you have some standard processes you use?

Richard: I suspect my process is familiar to every designer reading this! I try to learn as much about the domain as possible—from every source, including both people and artifacts. I incessantly ask, Why? I tend to draw lots of diagrams and models. (You can find examples on my blog Mauvy Russet—though I haven’t updated them for a while.) Along the way, I seek out feedback and try to remain as receptive to it as possible!

Design Leadership

Paul: What do you look for when you are hiring design managers and other leaders?

Richard: Vulnerability. Attentiveness. Humor—mostly at themselves. There are other qualities, of course, such as technical expertise, the ability to influence, and vision. But I’ve found that the ability to laugh at oneself, the ability to be attentive—to really listen—and the humility and self-awareness to be vulnerable in front of others are great indicators of leadership success.

Paul: You have a book in the works. Can you tell us something about it?

Richard: Sure! Catherine Courage and I are writing a book for design leaders—and aspiring leaders—about how to integrate design into their organizations. It’s not a book about creating a design team—there are already excellent books about that—but a book about what needs to change in the rest of the organization to fully realize the power of design.

Keynote at UX STRAT USA

Paul: You are speaking at UX STRAT USA in Boulder in a few weeks. Tell us a little about your upcoming UX STRAT presentation, “Engaging the Organization for Design Impact at Capital One.”

Richard: I’ll be speaking about a topic I’ve long been passionate about: systems thinking—the marriage of design, business-process management, and experience quality. In a nutshell, I believe that the experiences we’re all striving to create are doomed to get worse, unless we augment the management systems and models our organizations use to keep themselves running.

Paul: Can you give us a few more details about your presentation?

Richard: Well, I don’t want to give too much away, but there is a well-established branch of business-management consulting called Enterprise Architecture, or EA, which forms the foundation of many of our organizations. Unfortunately, EA has a fundamental flaw—actually a gaping hole—that causes it to optimize for the wrong outcomes. Join me at the conference to find out what this gap is and how to correct for it!

Paul: I’m excited about your upcoming presentation at the UX STRAT USA conference in Boulder. What do you hope attendees will take away from your keynote address? Why should UXmatters readers attend?

Richard: Attendees will learn how to rule the world! Okay, maybe not—but they will learn how to have a lasting impact on their organization that goes way beyond typical product-design decisions like features and user interfaces. We need to use some of our design talent for making connections—among ourselves, with our organizations, and the way we work! 

UX STRAT Conference & Masterclass Organizer

User Experience Consultant at UX Strategy Group

Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Paul BryanPaul organizes the UX STRAT conferences and workshops to help experienced UX, CX, Product, and Service Design professionals continue to grow their skills, networks, and careers. A UX strategist and researcher, he also consults with companies to help them evaluate and grow their UX Strategy capabilities. He began designing ecommerce Web sites in 1995, in Barcelona, Spain; then founded Retail UX in 2002. Paul’s consulting clients have included some of the most successful corporations in the world—such as The Home Depot, Coca-Cola, SAP, Delta Air Lines, Philips, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Cox, and GE. Paul manages the UX / CX / Product / Strategy Group on LinkedIn.  Read More

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