Meet the dream team of strategic design

The DFFRNT Team member


By Shaun Illingworth, co-founder, DFFRNT

We are visionary, intelligent, funny and not afraid to speak out because we are backed by years of experience and knowledge. We are DFFRNT.

Let’s be frank – if you’re considering DFFRNT for the kind of high-level business strategy and design work at which we excel, then who we are is just as important as what we do. There are plenty of resources and former clients who can tell you what we do (strategic design at a higher level than your average UX solution, innovation programs and digital transformation), so I thought it was time to provide some insight into who we are. 

The four principals who make up DFFRNT – myself, Dominira Saul, Scott Smith and Hilary Little – have crossed paths many times in our careers. We have worked in the Ottawa UX community for decades for Shopify, Nortel/Design Interpretive, Akendi, You.i TV and Maskery & Associates, among others. We have experience with government agencies, finance, healthcare and start-ups. Finally, in 2020, we came together to build a different type of design consultancy that pushes the industry’s boundaries and operates at the strategic level. 

All four of us are strategic thinkers. We are creative and focused on innovation. And we believe in advancing the discipline of design. 

Who's who?

Dom will tell you he is the baby of the bunch and the wittiest of us four, but not the smartest. As the baby, with only 23 years of experience in applying user research, design and innovation processes to wicked problems, Dom has evolved into a strategic thinker through mastery of most aspects of the product/service design process. 

I could claim the title of smartest, but my defining characteristic is seeing connections and grasping how past solutions can apply to new situations. Also, you should know that I will always default to the strategic rather than the tactical. 

Scott brings encyclopedic knowledge: of the industry, of past meetings and discussions, of more projects than you can imagine. We joke that Scott has a case study for every situation. 

Scott truly understands tasks, information architecture and usability. He also has a real depth of knowledge in inspection methods and testing and user behaviour in a quantitative way. It’s not like Dom and I are slouches at quantitative testing, but Scott is at the next level. 

Hilary brings us a wealth of expertise in all things design, having delivered solutions from small websites to massive enterprise systems during her long career. She shares the team’s quirky humour. Witness her tongue-in-cheek post on LinkedIn, “Kids and the UX of Face Mask Management,” about the design requirements for a mask storage device, in which she concludes a lanyard with a plastic pouch is the best solution. 

Building our high-performing team

As DFFRNT coalesced around an idea for a different kind of design firm, we were able to be intentional about who we wanted to work with and build with.  


"It's not a coincidence that we're all nerds and we're all science geeks and we're all curious and we're all really personable."

– Dominira Saul, co-founder, DFFRNT

We hand-picked this team. Starting your own firm gives you the rare opportunity to choose who you want to work with. We were able to sit back and think about what it would look like if you could make a dream team to take innovation and service design to the next level. 

Dom explains it like this: “We knew what we wanted to build, so we sat down and thought about not only the skill sets that would help us build it but also the personalities and the depth of knowledge. It’s not a coincidence that we’re all nerds, and we’re all science geeks, and we’re all really curious, and we’re all really personable. In terms of having a high-performing team, we understood that the team had to gel well, that we had to trust each other’s skills, and we had to trust each other’s experience.” 

Strategic above all

Anyone can become a UX designer, but not everyone is a strategic thinker. First and foremost, that’s the kind of person we were looking for to create the foundation of this company. People may know some of the DFFRNT team members from their previous work, but I would suggest that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts in our case. 

We exist to support our client’s growth and success. We leverage our skills in behavioural science, design thinking, service design and system thinking to deliver actionable insights. 

Essentially, this means people are paying us to think about their problems. How do I improve customer experience? How can I encourage innovation? Why are users not happy with my app? Our thinking comes with a skill set, and we draw on decades of experience, both academic and practical. 

We are candid with clients because we’re committed to doing what’s right. When we work with an organization, we become part of the team, so we are as opinionated as anybody else on the team. We’ll substantiate our arguments with data and experience. That’s the value we offer. You can hire a monkey (or an AI) to create a wireframe. If you want somebody to think seriously about how your product can best serve your clients, you hire a firm like ours. 

We started this company with the hypothesis that there was an appetite for this more strategic perspective on UX and design thinking. We built the dream team, and in our first two years I think we have validated our hypothesis; organizations are more thirsty for this type of strategic thinking than for tactical execution. 

Now that you’ve met the team, say Hi! on LinkedIn or our social channels. Check out our case studies to see how we have applied strategic design to large and small challenges in the corporate and public sectors. And contact us if there’s a problem that requires a strategic solution. 

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We are visionary, intelligent, funny and not afraid to speak out because we are backed by years of experience and knowledge. We are DFFRNT.