How to turbocharge a cross-border digital design team

Suppose you had to connect multiple teams of digital design professionals who work in different countries, each of them tailoring products to suit the needs of individuals in unique cultures. Could you find a way to unite that talent and collaborate without losing focus on the subtle differences in each market?

There is a way to achieve that kind of network effect - through a "community of practice," an increasingly popular model for collaborative learning.

Sharing ideas among a group of specialists is hardly a new phenomenon, but in the past 25 years more organizations have turned to formal community of practice models. They foster fast, effective and creative solutions to real customer problems because they empower specialists to seek new solutions and share them speedily.

Digital designers may be particularly well suited to communities of practice because the nature of their work is inquisitive and collaborative – for designers, the best solutions may not come from following pre-existing rules.


"Design has a culture in and of itself," says Pamela Hilborn, Design Lead at Scotiabank's Digital Factory in Toronto.

"We're predisposed to being curious and open and interested in what other people are doing. When we’re working with other designers, even those in other countries, there’s a common thread that brings us together."

Cross-border insights

Scotiabank's transnational design practice is rooted in the customer's experience but scales all the way up, from the pixel-by-pixel details of a single button through the overall tone and "voice" of the bank's evolving digital presence.

The work done by the design teams starts with user-focused research into how people use existing products such as websites and apps, creating understanding of what customers want, what works and what needs changing. It also extends to creating the look and feel of a new product, from the general design principles to every detail of every interaction. On a higher level, this means developing a consistent "experience" for the product, including voice and tone, personality and relevance. And all this while working as part of the multidisciplinary teams that actually produce the code that brings it all to life.

All of this work – driving research, design and construction of new digital products – happens in five countries simultaneously, at Scotiabank's Digital Factories in Canada, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru.

"Our model of placing Digital Factories in five countries enables us to optimize the talent and capabilities of the people who live there," Hilborn says. "They understand the cultural nuances and the context of the local banking experience, and can provide us with the best insight into what's most important to the people who bank with us."

Fishing for experts

To leverage this local expertise, Hilborn relies on the community of practice, which brings the bank's leading designers from across countries together to share information and best practices, generate ideas and discover new insights that can be taken up by the whole group.

"Our ability to work, learn and create collectively across business lines and borders is a phenomenal advantage," she says. "We can learn about what worked or didn't work for us in a particular market, which helps us avoid mistakes,” she says. "It's an opportunity to talk about what we're working on, and often we'll say, 'hey, can you send us that prototype, we want to take a closer look and borrow something off of it'.

"Depending on the type of product we're working on, we can put the call out for a particular kind of project insight and easily find experts within the bank that can come to the table," Hilborn says. "We might host a call to discuss how to build it, and use the time to give feedback, which ultimately can be taken back to be built and executed in a way that appeals to the local market and culture."

Last week, the Design Community of Practice from Toronto's Digital Factory hosted an event that brought designers and students, professors and experts from Canada, Mexico, Colombia and Peru together to share insights and explore "the current and future state of human-centered design."

Communities of practice support the organization in other ways, too, acting as a mechanism to ensure that design practices are adopted consistently. "Work can be submitted from any source and then be seen and verified by people in the other countries, or fixed if necessary, and possibly deployed across one or two or all five," says Hilborn "This reduces duplication and contributes to our desire to provide a more consistent experience.

"What I really like about it is that by enhancing the way we work together, we are creating better experiences for our customers."