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4 min

Recap: The Toronto Design Assembly

by Jessica DeJong, Kat Kollett March 15, 2024

One North and TEKsystems recently hosted The Toronto Design Assembly, which brought together retail industry leaders to connect for an engaging panel discussion followed by a networking happy hour. We joined fellow panelists Adam Brace of Loblaw Digital, Shannon Chiarcos of Lululemon, Charles Goertz of Canadian Tire, and Lennie Lu of Staples Canada for an illuminating discussion on the design trends and strategies shaping retail today.

Our panelists offered insights into their teams’ UX strategy, UX research, and UX design experiences, delving into the role of design systems, accessibility, research alignment with business priorities, and forward-thinking perspectives on the industry and Gen AI. In this post, we will explore a few key themes discussed at The Toronto Design Assembly.


How are your organizations currently using Design Systems? What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in building, implementing, and governing your systems—and what lessons learned can you share with all of us?

Our panelists highlighted organizational examples of design systems that prioritize a long-term and aspirational approach.

A key focus of this topic was on leveraging microservices and shared design tokens to standardize experiences, with an emphasis on the importance of dedicated design system teams and ongoing evolution. Continuous learning, adaptive strategies, and robust support and documentation were underscored as essential during the early stages of design system implementation.

The discussion on governance and integration challenges within organizations quickly shifted towards highlighting accessibility as a key focal point. The panelists emphasized the broad range of considerations and the importance of shared responsibility across various roles needed to craft accessible experiences with design systems.

How have you built exploratory or generative research into UX strategy, and how are you supporting it within your organizations? How do you accommodate parallel research and design workstreams while balancing the use of qualitative and quantitative data to inform design decisions?

The speakers emphasized the importance of research in comprehending customer needs and dissecting problems. They stressed the need to balance quantitative and qualitative data by reminding executives of the distinct purposes and values of each and also the complementary nature of the two. They also noted that there are many kinds of both qualitative and quantitative research—and that both should be used across the design lifecycle.

As executives tend to be more drawn to quantitative research, the panelists highlighted potential pitfalls associated with a lack of exploratory research. Developing solutions unusable by key customer segments occurs when the design process lacks vital information gained only through direct interaction and observation of unspoken needs. They pointed to this as evidence that, while it seems like taking time to do research will extend timelines, it can actually shorten them, mitigating risks associated with the development of new products or features.

The panelists noted the significance of adopting a framework to identify and prioritize possible areas of exploration aligned with business goals, which is especially crucial as teams expect to face resource constraints. They also stressed that strategic work, including research, needs to be planned for and scheduled ahead of any design and development, ideally with at least three months’ lead time.

During this discussion, the panelists naturally veered into team dynamics, adaptability, and an observation that “unicorns” don’t exist.  They underscored the importance of recognizing, honoring, and developing team members’ individual skills and specialties—and making sure you have (or build) the right people and expertise to align to work to be done. Building a culture that respects UX is critical to both the strength of teams and retaining organizational talent in a fast-paced industry.

How are you bringing AI into your practice or thinking about it?  What have you already seen that’s working well?  Anything you can warn the rest of us against?

Like most people in UX, our panelists are generally still at the beginning of their exploration of the power of GenAI. They highlighted its potential in scaling asset production for increasingly refined personalization and mentioned its apparent suitability for automation. However, they cautioned that using automation in this way requires careful consideration, as it may not always be the best approach for user experience.

Beyond this, they noted that, as tools in the GenAI space continue to evolve, they’ll continue to explore use cases for them, likely starting internally. Overall, they emphasized the need to balance this emerging technology with human creativity.

As you think about the future of UX, what are you most concerned about, and what are you most hopeful about?

The concerns the panelists shared were mainly concentrated around external forces: the advent of new technology and increasing pressures to reduce costs. They pointed out that, during economic downswings, research and design are often among the first to be scaled down. This results in smaller teams with reduced support, making them less effective. Particularly, they highlighted concerns that Gen AI could worsen this, as some may view it as a miracle solution for user experience challenges.

At the same time, they remain optimistic. At their core, UX experts are systems thinkers and problem solvers, and they will adapt. Their focus on customer journeys and ability to see across touchpoints will allow them to continue to contribute invaluable insights and uncover new possibilities for their organizations. They noted that the upside of AI is its ability to take on the “boring work.” This will leave UX teams with more space to innovate and push the boundaries of experience with new interaction exploration, from voice to VR and beyond.

Thank you to our panelists!

Our four guests showcased a wealth of experience and wisdom. From the tactical aspects of design systems to the human touch in accessibility, and the strategic alignment of research with business goals, these professionals provided valuable insights into the multifaceted world of Design, UX, and Strategy. As the digital landscape evolves, their perspectives on team management and the incorporation of emerging technologies will undoubtedly guide practitioners and enthusiasts alike.

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Photo Credit: Declan Sun | Unsplash

Jessica DeJong
Managing Director, Design

As Managing Director of Design, Jessica leads One North’s Design and Front-End Development disciplines and helps facilitate the seamless collaboration between these teams. She partners with clients to deliver innovative solutions–including creative strategy, website design concepts and brand development–and provides unique perspective on the crossroads of design and technology.

If I were a vegetable: I would be a bhut jolokia (ghost pepper) because it’s the closest vegetable I could find to HOT SAUCE.

Favorite color: Maize. 2nd favorite color: Blue.

Kat Kollett
Senior Director of Strategy

Kat Kollett is the Senior Director of Strategy. She brings a multidisciplinary, user-focused approach to innovations in brand, digital, analog, environmental, and interpersonal experiences, and helps clients apply those innovations to meet their strategic objectives.