Adrienne Tan: Hello and welcome to another episode of this is HCD. My name is Adrienne Tan and in my day job, I’m a product management practitioner based in Australia. Before we jump in however, as this podcast is recorded in Sydney, I’d like to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as the traditional custodians of the land where we meet today and pay respect to their elders both past and present.
I’d also like to acknowledge any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who might be listening in today.
In this episode, we caught up with Kirsten Mann, the VP of Product and Experience at Aconex. We discuss how organizations are not designed to value to design, a pretty large topic. According to Kirsten, in order to bring the benefits of design to be, organisation should expand their short-term horizons and look for other outcomes apart from financially motivated results. In order to do that, as designers and product folks, we need to influence the executive conversation. Be brave and lead from where we are.
Kirsten, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became involved in human centered design?
Kirsten: Well, I’ve been in this field for a long time now, I’d say over 20 years. I really got into this because in my first gig I had to actually start creating a system and I asked, “Who’s using this?” There was this blank look because in those days, when you’re working at a consulting firm you’re just delivering something for a client and I saw, “we don’t really know”.
It really started way back then, identifying who is the person who’s going to be using this thing, going and talking to them, seeing what their problems were. That’s kind of why I started off in the whole human set of design field. It was called HCI back then, [chuckles] Human-Computer Interaction. What’s fantastic is over the last ten years, it’s really matured into its own discipline. I think people have recognized the importance of having this focus in creating products and experiences. So, luckily I’ve kind of been able to go through that journey.
Adrienne: And so, it’s been a while, a long journey as you say, what are some of the changes that you’ve seen over this time?
Kirsten: I think one I just mentioned before is the recognition that it is an actual discipline. It used to kind of an afterthought and when I first started doing this more and more, it was always people, they would say, “Right, we’ve got to get this thing delivered, we’ve got to kind of go through this brief.” It was really when things went wrong that they thought, “Oh! Hold on. How do we fix this?” Then it was when they’d start the cycle of the people usability testing, it was kind of the first foray into that. But, they had involved the user after the build. It was really too late. So you were kind of doing these tweaks and it was a pretty shoddy experience at that time. For me, we have to be further up the decision chain. We have to be there when they are making the decision on what to create and why and help drive that decision. So I think that’s where I started to see the movement really happen, and all people in this discipline started to work up the food chain and proved the need for that thinking to happen up front.
We’ve seen other changes come into the industry with things like design thinking. I am sure user experience people would be doing this for a while so, hold on, [chuckles] “Isn’t that what we have always been doing, what the hell, it’s got this cool name”. Now everybody is thinking it’s a new thing. I remember thinking that. But what I think came with design thinking, it was kind of package for business people to understand. So then they started saying, “Hey we need to do this great thing, we need to put people at the centre of what we are doing,” because they are the ones that ultimately need to interact and use these things.
So there’s been tools that have come into play when people now have user experience professionals even people who aren’t necessarily designers can help visualize workflows and show the experience that people were going through when they are interacting with the system. So I think the language has evolved, the tools have evolved, the understanding has evolved and people were seeing the importance right across organisation, for things focused on user experience.
Adrienne: That’s a really good introduction essentially to the topic that we are talking about today. We have seen this incremental change over a period of time where design has been post experience when we put something out and we’ve discovered there might be a problem, but now we’re bringing the customer upfront and we are making sure that we’re considering their problems. But your topic is very intriguing. You want to talk about companies that are not designed to value design. We are at a point where we’ve made all these major leaps but yet, by the sounds of it, we haven’t really gotten there yet.
Kirsten: No, that’s where you- you got to come up this path. I was thinking about this a number of months ago where a gentleman by the name of Bernard had got a number of user experienced professionals together and said what do we need to do as a discipline for people, for fellow practitioners and for us to be able to spread what we do. There was this discussion and people were saying, “Oh you know if we kind of have better tools, we break down our process,” all that and I said, “You know what it doesn’t matter what we do, if people above who make the decisions don’t get it, then you can do all of these wonderful things in process and it would just be an aberration.” So what we really need to do is we have got to educate the Executives. They need to understand because ultimately, they are making the call on these big strategic processes and projects, right? If they don’t get us, then no matter what’s happening underneath with all the other people down below it would be kiboshed.
So for me it was, okay we actually need something which helps educate execs on the value of UX. Okay some of them get it, but all they think, “Hey, I’m Steve Jobs, I’m like here.” [laughs] I’m gonna have this vision and don’t really understand then what comes behind that and what that really means and think that user experience is about somebody having this great idea like the iPhone and everybody else falls into line behind the vision. We know it’s not that really, right? In some ways, apple and everything have done a great job of educating us around the importance of user experience. They have created things that are delightful. We’ve all heard about the ‘opening the box experience’ when people get their iPhone. I think what hasn’t really happened is our leaders and our executives do not understand what goes into this profession, what goes into these decisions to ultimately create good experiences.
Why is that? It’s because we are not set up as an organization to view the experience as important. Everything is commercialized right. What is the direct return for this thing that we’re investing and it’s hard to put the measure on something that’s a bit intangible, you know when it is not there? There was this great article that came out. I think it was in August recently. It was in Fast Company and it said that design is inherently in unethical industry. But, what they were really talking about was we’re in this crisis at this moment because the way that we value things is only through a direct commercial return.
So how much money we’re gonna get for this thing. That’s very hard to put a measure on. Well actually, are we designing for something, somebody, is it the right thing in the first place and have we actually made people’s lives better? So our obligation at the moment isn’t necessarily always to the customer, it’s to shareholders. It’s to employees and it’s to the company itself not necessarily customers. That’s the way the organizations are designed all the time, unfortunately.
Adrienne: But that’s bigger than organizational structure, that’s essentially the economic foundation in which we live in and that’s essentially capitalism.
Kirsten: [Laughs] And there lies the problem. [chuckles] Look it’s not—you’ve got to have a balance right. I was reading this interesting article around, how do you get CFO’s to value design and again, because a lot of these guys have come from tangible projects. They are implementing a system, right and we know what are the business objectives, we know the things that the system has to do, let’s work for this project. However, when you are dealing with products and experiences, you are dealing with behaviour. It’s customer behaviour and that is not a predictable thing. No matter what we say, no matter what, we can research things, we can give indications, you do not know behaviour until you see it in play.
So what you need to be able to do is be setup to respond to that behaviour. I think we are seeing a driving industry now become outcome driven, okay. To put measures in place that track towards behaviour. But again, how many organizations do you know which have real lines around that type of thinking?
Adrienne: Not many. Not many.
Kirsten: We think the behavior is predictable. We put something up there, we’ll know how much people will pay. We’ll know exactly what people will do and what happens, we release this stuff and it’s a free for all. So we can anticipate workflows and that’s what we do as a designer and try to take people through the best part. But you really don’t know what’s going on until you actually put something into play and it’s within an ecosystem of our interactions and our products. That’s what’s feeding into your product. Our product is setting people’s expectations. They’re going and using this and they come to your product and think that it should behave the same because that’s the standard that’s being set. But also these other distractions are our priorities. You can’t forecast that and predict that in the design. All we can do is be able to be set up to respond and that’s why I don’t think organizations are very well geared towards. Again, this thinking has been around for a long time, they loop right?
Adrienne: Ah, we know.
Kirsten: What was that always about? It was about saying, “Okay, let’s at least observe and orientate and then have to respond when something is going on. But, we somehow think that products and experiences are these boxes and tangible things if we put in teams or we set them off and we’ll have these defined delivery dates and everything will be fine. That’s not experience. I think for me that’s probably the challenge. How do we educate executives for the need to be outcome driven? Because we’re dealing in an unpredictable space and I am referring obviously to our digital environment. It’s different in some when you are dealing with certain products that are physical and things as well but I think they still have elements that play into that as well.
Adrienne: So we talked a lot about leadership and we talked a lot about structure and potentially restructuring our businesses to respond to change and customer behaviour. Are there other elements that we need to consider?
Kirsten: Yeah, well, it’s getting the people ready to run. Probably one of the realization and I will give you an example here, I built a team in MYOB. That was done over a period of time — It was an investment of six years of my life. We had a great team, highly competent people doing great stuff. If you think about the maturity metrics that UX is sometimes measured by, we have gone up that chain. We’d all had embedded teams. We had teams in embedded with UX. They were right in the strategic decisions flowing through, so we kind of done the steps that you meant to get to organizational maturity. So I left and within probably 18 months, the whole thing had dissolved. They were left with one poor designer [laughs] the kind of UX who was paid very well to support a lot of product. Initially, I was like, “Oh what happened,” and bad me for not creating a sustainable environment. But I looked at it. Out of every organization I’ve worked, we’d created a really documented process. We had people who understood the rules of engagement, all of those kinds of things.
But what happened? There wasn’t a strong voice anymore in the senior leadership level to say, “Hey, this is really a key for us.” Then they tried with different incarnations and I know the people came in and had the same message but once you’ve lost that momentum, it’s very hard to rebuild that trust and that structure. So what is that?I think ultimately, we need people in there, who continue to drive these messages but are empowered. So that’s why it is important that we have leaders who will have a product, who have user experience in that suite, and in that executive. Because they balanced the decisions otherwise it is very easy to marginalize what it takes to build and maintain those disciplines. Unfortunately, I think that’s what happened there.
So what do people need? You need people who actually get these but you need the leadership right from the top as well. You need an organization to have bought into that.
Kirsten: Okay, where do you usually see that? It’s usually kind of in delivery teams or down the totem pole. Not many companies have got it.
Adrienne: Well, see, I think that design is like good exercise and nutrition. I think it is about behaviour. I think it’s about changing your mindset and establishing good rituals.
Kirsten: I agree but who’s gonna teach you how to do exercise? Who’s gonna be there, like why do we have personal trainers? It’s that constant tweaking and motivation and drive. You can kind of work out a program or you can get somebody to set your program and then you go along but exercises, it is one of the things that we should all do. I call it the broccoli principle. We all know that we should be eating broccoli and vegetables [chuckles] but do we do it? No. [Laughs] So people know they should be but if you haven’t got somebody there, like the dietitian, like the PT, helping to drive that message and change people’s behaviour and check in on that. Then it’s easy for an organization to just go, “Oh you’re okay, we all exercise, we’re going for a walk for two meters down to get our coffee, hey, we are great [chuckles].” Then not actually having the discipline that is required to get the benefit from that.
Adrienne: Yeah, I think you touched on a really good point which is about behavioural change and in order to establish changing behaviour you need to have people coaching you. You need to have someone overseeing whether you’re doing it. It’s not gonna happen through process documentation or training only and I see this change, I see that organizations are bringing in these coaches. They are embedding people to try and establish a change in people’s behaviour but yeah we’re still not there. So what else is kind of missing, is it that leadership?
Kirsten: It is 100 percent that. It’s that equal voice when we are making commercial decisions that we are thinking of the implications to the people at all levels. The people who use them are employees who need to support them, the customers who actually buy them. They’re like all different a lot of the time but you need that perspective otherwise it is about a return on a balance sheet. We’re investing this much and we’re getting this from it. That’s when I think user experience and product people bring that connection and without us and without that voice in there, it’s very easy to be quite commercially driven without thinking of those things.
Adrienne: I think it goes back to us being lazy as employees. I know sometimes [laughs]. It’s so much easy to just go, I’ll just quickly get it done. It’s not that—we know it’s not the right thing to do but let’s just do it anyway because it’s something else that’s on our list of activities.
Kirsten: The point there is too that the phrase we hear a lot of time, “Oh that’s not my problem or they’ll sort it out.” The mythical ‘they’ll’ or someone is going to come down from the mountain [laughs] with these tablets and fix everything. I agree with you, it’s got to be an element of the people there and the employees but they also need to be supported. That’s where having that leadership is important and I think the organization that are getting this. What’s kind of the differentiator, it’s probably that. They’ve got that leadership in there. We see things coming through like more recently there was the design value index that showed what design thinking was worth. That was a really interesting tool. But obviously, Ray Raisen was the person who did that. What was she trying to do? She was trying to put a valuation on design thinking, so it becomes a commercial balance sheet thing. Then people would start saying, “Right, we can value this, we can actually know this is valuable what we are investing here.
Adrienne: How do we demonstrate a value of design without speaking to a balance sheet or a profit & lost statement? How do we show value without talking about commercials and finances?
Kirsten: Look it’s one thing I’ll stress on I’m not saying that that’s not important [chuckles] in the sense that if a company hasn’t got any of that, they’ll not operate any way. I think sometimes you’ve got to have balance in that. So I think part of the way that we change the conversation is we have to start getting businesses to become outcome driven. Really—okay, here is your impact metric. What is it? Increased revenue, increase your MPS score, whatever it is and map back from this what’s the behaviour that would drive that and how would we actually know the outcome for that and then set up our teams to be tracking and talking about that and showing what’s happening in progressing relations there. I think sometimes we don’t do ourselves justice in this way either. Are we not having the right conversations? We think, “Oh, this is really important for us to do this.” All because the users have got a problem around this. “Okay, hold on what this is related to and what’s the ultimate benefit that the company would get from this?” But also the customer link the two together and saying that behaviours, we can’t predict it straight away but we can do is monitoring.
Say look, we think this demonstrates this behaviour and let’s track this over a period of time and we might be wrong. We right be wrong, that’s a hard thing to try to get people buy into. But hey, let’s shorten the loops so we can know really quickly if we are wrong or not. Be monitoring this and I think when teams do this and they show that they’re leaving it and they’re having that conversation, it changes perspective. I think one of the things is if you want to change the conversation with executives in management, you have to kind of lead it in a lot of ways and be showing them things that they want to see.
Again, we know these type of people are very dashboard driven and love to see what are the leavers and things that we’re measuring because they want to know that there is a bit of science too. So put it in their language. That is one aspect with that. There is an amazing toolbox that user experience and product people have to be able to facilitate conversation, drive conversation and block, where people are locked in thinking one way they can help promote a diverge and thinking.
So we have to as user experience and product people use tools in our toolbox for good right and not just in our little space and in the products we work on, across organizations. So that we can be change agents. You can help another person in a completely different area that’s got nothing to do with the product that you’re working on with your tools. I think that’s probably something that we have tackled here in Aconex. It’s not just a product and user experience team. We do stuff with all different areas of the business, so what happens is that changes the conversation for those people. They start saying, “Oh they are not just these people who are doing this thing that we don’t know anything about”. They start to see the skills that we bring to the rest of the business, and that’s valued.
Start using the skills that you’ve been given for broader mission and people got, “Oh how much we’re allocating to that? What will be the priority?” Don’t have a coffee with your buds on one day, go and use that time to deal with somebody else’s problem and collaborate with the business and bridge. Being the bridge between those areas using your skills because I can tell you now, they need it and they love it. When you can help another group unblock their thinking and come through with an outcome. You just kind of help them come to that. It’s very powerful, so I think use the tools we have for broader use not just in your domain of what you’re doing day in day out.
Adrienne: That’s a really good point, so what you are suggesting is that we essentially take some time out and be a part of the change, much like developers who have time off to go and tinker with new code. We have 20 percent time where we use our skills and tools to go and help other parts of the organization solve their problems. That’s a kind of grassroots way to start to showcase the value of design and essentially make a change from within.
Kirsten: Completely and people were saying,”Okay, once we get allocated 20 percent, we will do this right.” Show the value and then you’ll get the allocation. Go ahead and do it and that’s where I think if you want to make a change or you want people to accept a new way of thinking, sorry, you gonna have to drive it half of the time. I think people sit back and they wait for some– as I said early, some mythical person. Sometimes, I can be the design champion if they come in at the right level. But all of us can do that. I know this stuff is hard but people often will sit there and wait for permission or for somebody to tell them to go and do so. Somebody tell me to go and do which is kind of permission.
But you know somebody to unblock everything. Make it all work for me and then I will go and apply my stuff right. “No, go in there, it’s gonna be messy, they’re gonna need help. It’s not gonna have all the answers but that’s okay.” That’s your skill as designers and user experience, to sort through the chaos to clarity. We have that ability. If you are good designer [chuckles] you should like, if you create any more chaos then I question your skill but typically, that’s what we do.
So use that in a completely different way because what it does is a showcase but you also build relationships and that is so okay for making organizations change. You never get people go, “if somebody mandates something from the top then we all change it or flow down on things.” No, things happen by people with relationships as well. That’s how you really create change because you get these champions who are connecting. Even though it’s a bit scary and I don’t know where this ends up. I believe in you because you helped me in a previous way and I know that you’re trying to do good. So that’s one of those key things. I think people kind of sit here and wait for something to happen and my message ‘is don’t’.
It’s very rare if you are doing something like that, that you’ll get into trouble or people will tell you off right. It’s obvious our intention is good. It’s rare that you’ll get into trouble for things like that. If you do, you’re probably not in the right organization anyway. So get out of there and go to an organization that appreciates you trying to make a difference.
Adrienne: I think this is really an important point, I mean I coach a lot of people and almost give them the permission to make a change and take the lead. How do you, as a product and UX leader give your team members the permission to go and make change?
Kirsten: I think it’s a really good question. I think the key thing is that you got to establish that foundation of trust. Then they know that you have their back [chuckles] so that they believe that they’ve got somebody who’s gonna be in the trenches with them. But it is also for me, I always say, if you see problems, don’t just bring me a whole set of problems. Go and help fix them as well and help identify how you solve them, okay. So it’s also having those constant conversations with my team, with the people that they are leading. We’re problem solvers, we’re not just problem bringers. People do not learn pretty quickly [chuckles] if you are just giving me your monkeys to take on my back, they gonna be passed right back. I want to know, what you want to do about it, how we going to solve this. It’s making people problem solvers throughout the organization versus thinking that the leaders gonna have all the answers and push that down.
I use an example of a submarine commander who spent all his time learning how to command a specific submarine. It was top-down command. What happened is he got put on the submarine that he did know how to operate. Suddenly, he was totally reliant on the team to be the people who were solving the problems and using him as a coach and mentor when needed, but they had the ability to solve their problems. They just needed to be empowered to do so. I think that is a really important message, that as leaders we need to give to our people the power and not just try be the problem solver and the saviour all the time. You need your people out on the ground being able to do this themselves.
Adrienne: I think in terms of empowering people sometimes as a leader, it is important to show and demonstrate humility that you don’t have the answers to the problems. You are not the all saviour, all singing and dancing leader.
Kirsten: The most powerful statement in this is I do not know and acknowledge that [chuckles] so we don’t know everything. But somehow people sometimes try to fudge that and pretend that they do have all the answers but I think as really good user experience people, they won’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know that I have few ideas how we could kind of work it out”.
Adrienne: That’s right.
Male: So Kirsten, for every guest that comes on we have, I guess three questions that we ask them. So what’s the one professional skill that you wish you were better at?
Kirsten: Oh, that’s a really good question. I don’t know if I leave it to one because I think there are always skills that we need to improve on and try to get better at. But probably if I had to kind of name one versus twenty, it would be at the moment, I am really, I am focusing more on the financial side actually and really being able to– getting back into understanding ratios and financial metrics to be able to have that discussion and do so with comfort but bring my context to that too. I think sometimes in certain professions we kind of go through stages when you got to focus on certain things. Now in my current role, I got to do a lot of predicting. So do that you really wanna be able to be stronger on financial ratios and things as well. So that’s probably the thing I think I have to brush up a bit on over the last couple of months.
Male: So is that a communication thing or just I guess a confidence thing for you to be able to talk the talk?
Kirsten: Do you know what, in all honesty, it’s an interesting one. I had to be more interested in it and have that curiosity around it where before, it is one of those things that you don’t have to worry about it. Now, I think the higher up you move in an organization, the more relevant it is to have really strong financial skills. It is not that I don’t have it but you have to be able to have really detailed conversations on those and predict scenarios and know the implications. It was more to your point about being able to communicate that more clearly but also just my comfort and interest. I had to become curious in it for it to really to be able to knuckle down and do it.
Male: Cool. So second question what is the one thing in the industry that you are sure able to vanish?
Kirsten: I think contractual commitments are actually very dangerous. They create the wrong behaviour. So ideally again, just exactly as we’ve been talking about driving experiences around outcomes. I think organisations need to operate in a similar way and treat these as learning cycles and what are the outcomes they are driving for. Otherwise what happens is you get a list of things to leverage. But you don’t really know the value that you’ve got from those things. I think as an industry we have to move away from contractual obligations and contractual commitments linked to dates is what I should say versus outcomes because I think it creates the wrong type of behaviour with people.
Male: Okay, cool. Last question, what is the message that you give to an emerging HCD talent from the future?
Kirsten: I have this discussion with people a fair bit who are looking to get into the industry. I think in recent times different training institutions have made user experiencing quite glamorous. [Chuckles] So they say, “Oh it’s really cool to be a designer,” or it is really cool to be a user experience person. They are doing cool stuff, they are doing lots of pictures, they are using whiteboards, they are doing customer journeys. Everybody is involved and participating. Sure there is a really great and fun element to it.
But designing experience is hard, it’s tough work and you have to be able to work through the experience and design out of it. What I mean by that is people like doing the workshops and the glossy stuff and pulling the findings together and saying, “Hi this is what we got from this workshop, what you gonna do about it?” The ‘whats’ and the ‘why’ are equally important, right. So you have to know why something is going on and the recourses behind that but you also have to be able to lead through and so what you gonna do about it and I think sometimes people see designers one of those boxes, I am gonna do research. I am gonna do this and I don’t need to worry about this other stuff. I think really good designers can do the end to end there. They can identify why something is going on, what the issue is and what’s the problem we’re trying to solve and all that side but work through and come up with something that actually then meets people’s and user’s demands.
That is challenging for people to understand. I think people got, “Oh I am not very good at drawing or so I don’t want to do that side” and it is not about that. It’s being able to work through what a workflow is, what is the experience that you need to support and map that out. So I think key thing is knowing that, doing that you have to have a point of view. This is the other thing I think people kind of miss. They think other people will come. I get feedback from this and I’ll get all these input and “Hey, it’ll be really cool.” But you have to have a point of view through this because you get conflicting input and you hear for one person, you hear from the other and you go, “Sheesh, what do I do?” So you have to be able to have a point of view and know where you gonna take this as well. I think to junior designers it’s knowing that this key, it takes while to get your head around it. It takes a while to get the skill to do that.
So don’t just think because you’ve done a course and you’ve done this end to end process that suddenly you’re gonna be able to do all of this. You need to be able to take the time to work through these areas and master them. It will be frustrating and you’ll think that you don’t know what you’re doing and you probably won’t for a while but it’s a progression. I think people who know that it’s gonna take a while to get there are the ones that do really well. The ones that just wanna be creating kind of cool stuff straight away and everybody is gonna accept that. The business is going to be fantastic. I don’t think they survive. Because they might go okay in maybe in a small place where they can create a few absolutely cool and things. But if you want a sustainable career in this industry, you have to be able to design experiences that support people and help them achieve what they need to do. To do that you have to understand what their needs are but then work through and keep validating that and testing that and taking input. So this is probably the key gap sizing.
Male: The follow through, working through it I’ll suppose yeah. That’s very good. Thank you.
Adrienne: Thank you so much for your time today, Kirsten. You shared some wonderful insights with us. Do you have any final words?
Kirsten: Look, I think ultimately if this wasn’t a such a great profession, it might have sounded a bit scary to some of the stuff I talked about but I have been doing it for a long time. It attracts a really good type of person. I think it is a rewarding career because it is people oriented and ultimately, we are doing things that help people. I truly believe that my best moment is when people give feedback and say, “Hi, I just love this that you guys did,” or “This has just rocked my world.” That’s the type of stuff we live for or I live for. Don’t be too scared by some of the things I have said and really let’s make a difference, that’s the key thing I ask people in my team, the people I work with, let’s just try make a difference and if we’ve all got that attitude, we will. So thank you for talking.
Adrienne: Pleasure, thank you. [Background music] So there we have it, folks. I hope you enjoyed this episode. If you like to be a part of the conversational community, hop on over to thisishcd.com where you can request to join the Slack community and help shape future episodes and connect with other designers and product people. Thanks for listening. See you next time.