How design helped remake a centuries-old company into a digital disruptor

4 min read
Ben Goldman
  •  Sep 20, 2017
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Aviva is making history again. In Q2 2017, the centuries-old insurance giant once again exceeded growth expectations, posting an operating profit for the fourth year in a row. The news was the latest entry in what has become a remarkable comeback story for the UK-based company, which only 5 years earlier was embroiled in a shareholder revolt over declining performance.

Aviva’s resurgence represents a still rare but increasingly common phenomenon in the world of business: a large company in an age-old industry grappling with the challenges of digital disruption rises to the challenge by becoming a disruptor themselves—with extraordinary results.

“We want [Aviva] to be a 320-year-old digital insurance disruptor,” CEO Mark Wilson said in a recent shareholder call. “This is the future.”

Aviva’s digital transformation has included some surprisingly cutting-edge initiatives for a company whose history traces back to the time before King George I. In just a few years, they’ve opened of a startup-esque “digital garage,” hired high-profile digital executives, and recruited a new pool of world-class design talent from places like Google and Activision.

Related: How to grow as a leader and build a first-class design team

Neil Dodd is one of the newly recruited talents. He joined Aviva in 2016 as head of visual design and has since worked in the heart of Aviva’s digital transformation efforts, spreading design thinking and digital processes across teams, and overseeing the global overhaul of Aviva’s digital product design.

He recently spoke to InVision about what it’s like to help write a new chapter for an already historic organization.

From Guitar Hero to design hero

Before joining Aviva, Neil was Lead UI, designing the user interfaces for blockbuster games such as Call of Duty Online and Guitar Hero Live.

“Shortly after joining I asked myself, ‘What have I done?’” Neil said, laughing. “I came from Activision, so I was used to the design sensibilities of working in a fast-paced game studio. The way we worked when I first came here was completely different.”

According to Neil, however, it was precisely that opportunity to make a difference that attracted him to the position.  

“Companies need to have the courage to make design really important.”

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“I’ve never been able to directly help customers before,” Neil said. “When you make a game, it’s all about the fun and the immersion, and you’re never really helping anybody. But now we’re changing people’s lives and using the same design sensibility to help people, reward loyalty, and change the way the industry does things.”

Breaking bad habits

One of the first challenges Neil and his team encountered was from parts of the business that were more entrenched in the old ways of operating.

“We had to prove ourselves to the business and show them what we could achieve with a great brief and beautifully thought out designs,” Neil said. “Aviva is a 320-year-old company, and there are parts of the business that found it difficult to change. When I first started we were getting a lot of barriers put up to slow us down. I had to prove that we as a design team could stand up to these challenges and design pieces of work that are really clever. They had to be convinced that we’re all on this journey together.”

One of his team’s first steps was to bring all creative in-house. “We worked with an agency before I started, and they did all the really creative work leaving my team with the digital artwork. Everything we do now is created by my team in-house,” Neil said. “We’ve gone from having little control over what a designer does to using design thinking practices to figure out how digital tools, apps and individual pages would work for the customer.”

Aligning teams at scale

Neil said that another priority was to improve cross-functional relationships, particularly with developers.

“When I first started, we’d literally finish a project and the developers hadn’t been involved  throughout the design process. There would be this resistance that said, ‘We can’t do this or that.’ But you can’t work like that. Design, product, and development should never be separate things. To get the best results, you have to work as a team.”

To address this, Neil’s team implemented regular standups to align stakeholders earlier.

“We have regular design reviews where work will be presented, and we’ll critique the designs, and now developers are involved in those critiques. We’ll have the director of design, head of design, head of UX, head of strategy, and the lead developer all in one room. As a collective we will sign off the work together.”

Powering transformation with InVision

In addition to adopting new practices, Neil also made sure that his team was equipped with the right tools to manage the change. “One of the first things I did was to look at the tools that everyone was working on, like InVision. With mixed tools we weren’t getting the cohesion and level of quality I wanted. We had different parts of the business doing their own thing and it didn’t look like Aviva.”

According to Neil, adopting InVision to support their digital transformation efforts has been a game changer.

“What we’ve managed to achieve this year—our director of digital product and design said he’s never seen that much change happen so quickly. It’s really been massive, and InVision has been one of those tools that changed it—the ability to look globally at what everybody’s doing. Now we’ve got our global toolset so I can see the designs from Singapore, France, Poland, and Canada and see what the local designers are doing. It’s so easy for me to just give my comments and collaborate. For a massive company like us, that’s a total step forward. We had a meeting with [CEO] Mark Wilson and he told us he wants one global brand throughout Aviva, across the world—so that wherever you look we’ll see one look and feel across the brand. We couldn’t have done that before InVision.”

“InVision has been a game-changer for us.”

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Rising stakes

Neil says that Aviva’s digital transformation efforts haven’t been quick or easy, but that the journey has been challenging and well worth it.

“Doing what we’ve done in a year, it’s exciting, it’s challenging. We’re putting our customer first and thinking about design and how our customers feel about insurance. We’re trying to be the leaders in our field. If our competitors haven’t started thinking about design the way we have, we’re always going to be one step ahead of them. Design is so important to what we do and the way that we think, that if they’re not on that journey, they’re just going to get left behind. But if we’ve got the capability in-house to think outside the box and have the backing we’ve got as a company we’ll always be at the front pushing rather than trying to catch up to everyone else.”

The courage to transform

When asked why Aviva has succeeded at digital transformation while others have stumbled, Neil doesn’t hesitate to answer.

“It’s something that has to come from the top. It’s not just about a departmental thing. It has to be led from a board-level senior push as a serious and impactful thing. Having that senior support means you can overcome any blockers and barriers.

Companies need to have the courage to make design really important.Twitter Logo Then you need the tools to do the job.”

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