“I realised I needed to avoid preaching about user experience. So I had to balance my language to incorporate both user and business goals.”
So, that was an early introduction to the user experience then?
“I guess so, yes,” agrees Ronan, “though I didn’t know its name at the time. That initiative enabled me to move into a digital role, becoming an e-care specialist. It was a newly-created role which combined lots of threads, including digital technology, digital support content, customer context, and customer need, the challenge being to somehow put them all together in a way which would allow us to drive self-care adoption. I knew that our job was to help change the learned behaviour of picking up the phone to access support, and as a result we naturally started to explore user problems more deeply.”
At that time, around spring 2013, the concept of UX was beginning to push its head above the parapet and demanding to be taken seriously. Ronan recognized the need to champion it in a language which his colleagues could embrace, by aligning it with things which mattered to them and in Virgin Media, the KPI which mattered most was reducing the volume of customer calls. By now Ronan was starting to learn more about UX by reading books on the subject, watching video tutorials, and attending whatever impromptu courses he could find, realised he had two roles: to focus on the customer experience, and to inform and enthuse stakeholders about the process.
“Back then, much of our understanding about UX was rudimentary. We talked less about the value of digital and more about the KPI, but that single specific ‘reduce callers’ KPI provided me with a clear intrinsic understanding of the language I needed to use around stakeholders. I realised I needed to avoid preaching about user experience. Yes I had become really interested in the design process, but commercial stakeholders had commercial goals. So I had to balance my language to incorporate both user and business goals.”
“My focus at that time was on doing a good job for our users and on evangelising the process internally; not trying to be the genius, rather trying to be the genius maker, so to speak.”
Ronan’s early experience of balancing all the variables and understanding other stakeholders requirements provided an invaluable grounding in creating a positive culture around UX in Virgin Media, and one that he still draws on today at Analog Devices. In February 2014 he was promoted to UX Specialist, another Virgin role created specifically for him. His job was essentially to build a framework for UX within the business, which would incorporate other areas such as sales, online customer accounts, and support management. With restricted resources and a limited budget, Ronan and his small team began to engage with external agencies and look at how other entities in Virgin’s parent group, Liberty Global, were incorporating UX into their business models.
“We were looking at things like behavioural economics and nudge theory, which helped us to speak in a language familiar to stakeholders. During a particular conversation with our CEO we asked him to think about how we could grow our average revenue per user without spending much money on OpEx. The mentions of ‘more revenue’ and ‘little or no OpEx’ aligned exactly with his goals, and so he was happy to hear more. And as our approach wasn’t to trick or mislead people, but rather persuade them with things like price-framing and colour psychology and persuasive content, he got it. My focus at that time was on doing a good job for our users and on evangelising the process internally; not trying to be the genius, rather trying to be the genius maker, so to speak.”
The culture around UX has changed dramatically in the past decade, and many people who work in the industry today won’t remember a time when the techniques and tools they take for granted now didn’t exist. The fact that frameworks such as the principles of persuasion design are mainstream and tools like remote screen recordings are now commonplace, is due in no small part to people like Ronan and his fellow pioneers.
“We didn’t have an abundant UX toolkit back then and we still had a lot of non-believing colleagues who just wanted the issue or incentive, or whatever it was, to be sorted out fast, and a product to be launched. So we had to gently change mindsets not by preaching, but by presenting hard facts determined by research and user-influenced design, and show people what the product would look and feel like in the hands of our customers. Gradually our approach helped us to not just win over hearts and minds for live projects, but to build in an expectation of the requirement for UX in future project planning too. We became a team of pragmatists, buying credibility and trust with people and investing in long-term relationships with the various stakeholders.”
By the time Ronan left Virgin Media in April 2021, he had risen to Senior Manager Digital Platforms and Services, with responsibility for UX optimisation, user research, and digital performance.
“In my final years at Virgin, a Digital First initiative was launched that enabled us to join forces with other teams. The whole business shifted from a project focus to a value stream focus. This didn’t solve every problem, but it took our thinking on in leaps and bounds. We formed fusion squads with shared goals and shared KPIs, so teams were able to get beyond their own priorities and embrace the bigger picture, put their hands up and say ‘yes we’re committing to this’. This culture remains at Virgin to this day.”
When Ronan joined Analog, the company was already embracing UX, recognising how the digital customer experience can drive sales and simplify customer support. In his role as Director of Digital Customer Experience, he is responsible for driving and developing that conversion. His team includes UX designers, UX researchers, SEO specialists, content authors, copywriters, project managers, product leaders and syndication marketers. And their level of ambition means they’re on a pretty aggressive hiring path too. So what are the differences in the two organisations, if any?
“At Virgin Media we were selling broadband whereas Analog manufactures semiconductors, but when you set the two side-by-side, some of the challenges are identical, albeit on a different scale. At Analog we’re building on our e-commerce technology backbone, developing the customer experience mindset, and bolstering out the team to widen our skillset. So I’m still focused on hiring the right talent, putting the right processes in place, ensuring the team has the right tools, and working closely with internal stakeholders. What is different is the level of nuance and the importance of attention to detail. And of course the customer. Our core work here is to help the engineer’s journey, and it quickly became clear to me that in the semiconductor world people are hyper-sensitive to change. We have product detail pages on analog.com which may not win any awards for presentation, but customers know how to use them, and if you move a data sheet to a different location on the same page, you can cause some serious pain. So we need to be mindful of that, whilst also enhancing their experience and encouraging change.”
So, there is a different customer base at analog.com, with different user requirements, but what about Ronan’s colleagues. Do they see the potential for digital as an engine of growth?
“On the whole, yes, which is why I’m in the role I’m in. There has been good confidence in the digital journey throughout my time here, from CEO level down. The leadership are saying ‘We don't need to be sold on this anymore. Digital go to market is the way we reach our ambitions, and this approach is filtering throughout the organisation. Analog really value tenure, and there are many colleagues who have been here 30+ years. They are now seeing an injection of external talent arrive, and while this isn’t without its challenges, overall it has really broadened how people think about digital. It is challenging everyone to reimagine boundaries.”
“Building a strong bench at a junior level with roles for new graduates is vital.”
With UX still a relatively new discipline, the culture around team building and recruitment is still evolving, especially when it comes to identifying prospective talent with relevant experience or transferable skills. So who is Ronan hiring right now, and how have perceptions about who makes a good UX professional changed?
“We have a blend of skillsets on our team, with a customer-centric focus as the thread that runs through everyone,” Ronan explains. “But we have started to draw a more definite line between research and design. As we evolve our culture we found we were over-resourced in design and under-resourced in research, so getting a dedicated research resource was important, and it demonstrated our commitment to the process. As for where our people come from, in the roles that we've been most recently hiring for, it has been a full spectrum. There are folks who have a very linear progression from design role to design leadership, and there are others who have come from a broader range of backgrounds and industries. I see that as a strength because we’re bringing a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds to the table.
“And for me as a hiring manager, once someone can articulate their process in the right way, once they can demonstrate their thinking, their work, their story, and sell part of the journey, that’s a definite positive. And of course remote working has helped too. The culture around budget and resources has also obviously changed. I currently have a fairly big team, a far cry from my days as a UX Specialist team leader at Virgin. That is only possible because of the cultural change in how UX is perceived, and in turn that change only came about because of the results those of us who have worked in UX since the early days were able to demonstrate.”
“Personally I aim to promote a positive working environment, a culture where it’s okay to fail, where your team feels able to take risks and doesn’t get married to the first idea on the table.”
What about education and training, are there visible advancements happening there too?
“I guess you could say that’s the final piece of the recruitment jigsaw. Building a strong bench at a junior level with roles for new graduates is vital. Obviously that’s how I started, albeit not directly into UX as that opportunity didn’t exist then. But it does now, and it’s our job as UX leaders to let both educators and the students of today know about it. At Analog we’ve been speaking with the University of Limerick to explore how we can benefit from their talent pool, and also look at how we might be able to add some value back in. We want to make sure that new graduates coming into our environment are arriving into supportive teams with experienced people around them who have time and space to support and mentor them.
“As for training when résumés come in we can often see a lot of people trying to transition into the industry who are struggling to make the next formal step, the step that would ultimately get them further through the review process. This is where UX Design Institute courses come into their own. They provide people with a full toolkit and a viable steer towards employability. When junior designers come to us with that toolkit, knowing that it's not a finite one, knowing that they have room to grow, their resume is going to the top of the pile. Training will continue to develop, but right now I’d say if you are serious about a career in UX and you want to look at bolstering your chances with some relevant qualifications, you can’t do better than UXDI.”
And once someone joins the team, is there a stronger culture now around nurturing their talent and encouraging ambition; showing them how rewarding and exciting a career in UX can be?
“Now that the industry is more established, most definitely. At Analog we care about promoting a positive culture in terms of opportunity, be that career development or training, and are about to appoint a principal designer who will split their time 60/40 between design and mentoring. Personally I aim to promote a positive working environment, a culture where it’s okay to fail, where your team feels able to take risks and doesn’t get married to the first idea on the table. I think a good UX leader will create that safe space while helping their team understand their commercial boundaries, and will ultimately provide an opportunity for others to step up and lead, and even to move on. Establishing a culture where a person can be an advocate for you in their next role is the real prize, as whether they move to another team internally or to an external position, they will champion what you’re trying to achieve. They’ll tell their friends in the industry ‘you should think about working with Ronan Costello because that guy, he got out of my way, he facilitated my growth, he cleared blockers for me, and I was able to get this role because of him’.”