Episodes

Audrey Crane on Design in Organizations

“Perspective is the most valuable product in the modern world.”

My guest today is Audrey Crane. Audrey is a partner in DesignMap, a UX strategy and digital product design consultancy based in San Francisco. Audrey recently published a book called What CEOs Need to Know About Design, and in this conversation, we talk about the evolving role of design in organizations and why this book is needed now.

Listen to the full conversation

Show notes

Read the full transcript

Jorge: So, Audrey, welcome to the show.

Audrey: Thanks Jorge! Glad to be here.

Jorge: Well, it’s great to have you. For folks who might not know you, can you please introduce yourself?

Audrey: Yeah. My name is Audrey. I’m a partner at DesignMap. We’re a design consultancy that does UX strategy and digital product design based in San Francisco.

Jorge: And I’ll say right off the bat that I’ve had the pleasure to work with you all over the last couple of years, and it’s been a really great experience and the work that’s come out I think is fantastic, so kudos on that.

What is your background? Like how did you get to DesignMap?

Audrey’s background

Audrey: Well it’s kind of a long and winding road. I went to college and studied theater and math, specifically, pure mathematics. So, I wanted to get a theater degree, and my mother told me, you can do that, but you have to double major. So, I studied those two things, but my father actually was a computer programmer from the very early days. So, we had a Radio Shack TRS-80 in our house. I wrote computer programs on that. Very basic things, literally in BASIC, to play with as a kid. And so, I was always around tech. Like my summer jobs, I would do QA for Ashton-Tate or whatever company he happened to be working for.

So, I was maybe the oldest person to grow up, or one of the oldest people who grow up with technology. And he had a great relationship with Apple. They would ship him computers before they released them, and he would write software for that computer, so they’d have something to ship the computer with. So, we had Apple IIs and Macs and stuff.

So, after I graduated from college, I really wanted to get a day job that paid, and my dad was in Silicon Valley, so I went out there and I worked for a couple of companies, and this was in the early nineties, so kind of a long time ago now. And I ended up, through a series of incredible strokes of luck at Netscape and Hugh Dubberly, who we both know, was there and saw the double major on my resume actually, and said, that sounds ridiculous. I would like to meet this person. And so, I was, “Thanks mom!” Hugh interviewed me and brought me on actually as a producer there, but there I got the chance to understand “capital D” design. Which I think is a wonderful place for people who like to do right-brain and left-brain things.

And so, after Netscape, I left and took some time off and then he started Dubberly Design Office. So, I got to be employee number one there and worked there for seven years and then left. And worked inside companies, running design teams and freelancing and doing various things, and then came to DesignMap, 10 years ago now, actually. And became a partner, I don’t know, eight years ago with my other three partners there.

“Capital D” design

Jorge: You use the phrase “capital D” design, and I’m wondering if we could expand on that. Like what do you mean, “capital D” design?

Audrey: Oh, now that I hear it played back to me, that sounds kind of ostentatious. But you know, Hugh used to say, “everybody is a designer,” and he was right. We all pick out what clothes we’re going to wear in the morning. That’s a design challenge by itself. But I think meeting Hugh and all of the designers that he introduced me to, which was – some of it was graphic design, but some of it was HyperCard, and sort of processes and workflows and that kind of thing – really introduced me to the idea that you could do this for a living, not necessarily as an artist. And of course, we love artists, but there’s this, this other way of doing it. Which is to say, working within boundaries to solve problems or work on problems.

Jorge: I’m understanding it correctly, it’s the notion that somehow design work transcends any one particular branch of design or area of design or what people interpret as being an artifact of design?

Audrey: I think that maybe the distinction in my mind is, designed for yourself versus designed for others.

Jorge: Got it. Okay. Yeah, that’s an important call-out, right? What is the ultimate intent of the design process?

Audrey: Right. Decorating my bedroom is design. It’s for me. I guess, arguably, picking out what clothes I’m going to wear… maybe it’s for me, maybe it’s for other people, but certainly when we’re talking about service design or software design, experience design, we’re talking about others.

Jorge: Part of the reason why we’re talking about this is that you’ve recently published a book about design, and I was hoping that you could tell us about it.

Audrey’s book

Audrey: Yeah. So, the book is called What CEOs Need to Know About Design. The subtitle is, A Business Leader’s Guide to Working with Designers published with Sense and Respond Press. So that’s Josh Seiden and Jeff Gothelf. And this is one of that series of books that’s pretty short, you can read it in less than an hour.

But it came about because I got a call a couple of years ago now from a CEO of a small company, maybe 200 people, and he said, “I used to be an engineer, so I understand technology, and I’ve been promoted and over time I’ve learned about HR and finance and operations and marketing. I hear that design is important. I understand that it can move the needle for my business, based on reports that I’m reading and colleagues that I’m talking to. But I don’t know what I need to know about design or how to know it. So, can you guys help me do that?” And that call kind of hit me like a bolt of lightning. Of course, he’s asking this question and why aren’t more people asking this question?

I think we as designers – and maybe this is true of all professions, I’m not really sure – but we have conferences and we write blog posts, but a lot of it – and acknowledging the irony of me saying this as we’re in a podcast with that designer talking to a designer – like it’s a lot of like designers speaking to designers. And we’re talking about really good, important, PhD-level stuff, which is great for furthering our profession and making us better at what we do, but it’s not great for somebody who wants to know, honestly, what’s a wireframe? And we have had, specifically at DesignMap and other places where I’ve worked as a consultant, we’ve had clients say, why is it all black and white? Or, when are we going to get the design maps? Like thinking that, like, oh, there’s… there are maps. So many kinds of maps, but design maps are not one of them. And it’s great that they’re asking the question and I fret about how they feel when we answer it.

And I was at a conference sort of pounding my fist about this in a chat with Josh and saying like, what are these men and women supposed to do that really want to know how to apply it in a business sense and don’t even really know the basics? We can’t… We can’t hand them About Face. That’s ridiculous. We can certainly ask them to read The Design of Everyday Things, but that’s not quite it either. So, what are we doing to bridge the gap and to make it a little bit easier to work with us? And I think designers are doing a pretty good job speaking business more. And I also think that we can do better at helping them speak design more and understand, not just design for design’s sake, but design because it’s going to make a difference. It’s going to help them personally, their business and their customers be more successful, or it has the potential to. So that’s the genesis for the book.

Jorge: So, what I’m hearing you say there is that the question that this is seeking to help answer is, what is it for? Like what’s the purpose of this, right? Is that a fair take on it?

Audrey: Yeah, I mean, it’s certainly true, “what is it for?” is part of the book and there’s a section that’s just called the ROI of Design. There’s also the how, and so it’s not how do you design, but how do you build a design team and then work with that design team successfully as opposed to how do you design, which is what, so much of the content out there is about.

So, there’s a ton of material right now out there about the ROI design. And I guess I was lucky that I could just say point to a few reports and say, this is how it impacts the return on investment from my perspective. And here’s a couple of good reports just to prove it to you. And then beyond that, it’s how do you hire a team?

And as part of this, I talked to several business leaders that I thought of as really great advocates for design CEO’s, product managers. And it was interesting in those interviews that they had sort of 90% of the picture from my perspective. And then there’d just be these giant gaps. And again, this is my perspective, but they’d say, “I had a successful exit and I credit that to having a great design team.” “We had an acquisition that was fantastic, and that was a fourth hire than I made.” And then they would say in the next breath, “Of course, when the product managers make wireframes, they don’t look quite as nice, but…” and I’m like, “Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. What? What are you…?” And doing a little digging in there, it turns out the designers are only around for the first few weeks of the project and then they go away.

And so, trying to just create a level playing field, and you would be surprised, I think, how often… With our clients, we sometimes say, “Hey, we have a suite of workshops we’d be happy to offer one to use as part of our work together.” And one of them is feedback. And it is by far the most selected workshop. And at first, I was surprised because, you just sit back and kind of give your opinion, right? But, certainly one could do better than just sitting and giving one’s opinion and it’s, how would a product manager know what kinds of things are useful in a feedback session? What kinds of things are appropriate in a feedback session? Are they thinking that this room full of people is expecting them to be extremely knowledgeable about design? I mean, we’re not asking them to do code reviews. Right?

So, it’s these kinds of things where I struggle with the book a little bit because it’s 15,000 words, and if you said, okay, write 15,000 words about everything that anybody needs to know about the law in the United States, it would be a ridiculous assignment. And yet I gave myself, I think, a not quite as rigid, but a pretty ridiculous assignment. So, there’s a lot that’s left out. There’s a lot that’s over simplified. There’s a lot more than I wanted to say. But at least we can have this basic shared understanding, which is how might a good feedback session look? What kinds of things might you ask designers in the interview process? And that’s another good example is, how often we come across companies hiring designers without a designer on staff, and they’re not doing portfolio review. They’re just interviewing them kind of for culture fit or I’m not even sure what. So just getting this kind of basic shared understanding can be really helpful. And then teams and individuals can build from that is my hope.

Jorge: Yeah. Having read the book, what it reminded me of – and I’m just going to try to bounce it back at you, because I think that this is the role that it fits – is it reminded me of how O’Reilly has these – O’Reilly the publishing house – has these very deep books on various technical tools and subjects and stuff, right? And, one that I always remember is, they have the book for GNU Emacs, this text editor. And it’s a thick book, right? Because that’s such a complex thing. But then they also have this other line of books that are like pocket references for these things that are… It’s not that they’re outlines – they’re more fleshed out than an outline – but it really is the essence of what you need to know to either refresh your memory or find out what the basics are for the subject. And to your point, there are other books that are the equivalent of the big tome, and that’s not what this is. This seems meant to be kind of an introduction for very busy people to the essentials that they need to know to understand both the relevance of design in their organizations, but also to operationalize it, right?

Audrey: Yes. That’s perfect. Thank you! Okay. I should have written that down. I’ll listen to the recording later.

Jorge: So, I’m wondering about a couple of things here. One is, the changing role of design. Because you and I have been in this industry long enough where we’ve seen organizations engage with design in different ways; like the way that organizations hire for operationalized design has evolved over time. And in the book, you cover several different ways in which organizations can engage designers. As you were saying earlier, they can build an internal team, they can hire a company like DesignMap, right?

And that mix has been evolving over the past few years. Like over the last decade, there’s been a significant move towards organizations building internal design functions, right? So that’s one thing that I’m curious about, and I know that you do touch it a little bit on the book, but this book is meant as an introductory guide, right? So, I’m wondering about your thoughts on that. And then, I’m also wondering how the role of design might evolve given the current situation, if any.

Design and the pandemic

Audrey: Yeah. Well, maybe we can talk about the current situation first. I mean, it’s really interesting how these tools that were business critical, like Zoom, but weren’t what the whole company was running on? Like the role of those tools has really changed and alongside it, the massive change in the user base for those, so the people using Zoom. My Zoom account in any one day is used by my four-year-old. Tomorrow, they’re actually going to the zoo; they’re going to have like a guided tour of the zoo. And then, it’s used by our office manager. It’s used by me, who uses it all the time. And it was used actually a week and a half ago by my grandmother and my husband’s grandfather to join our wedding.

So, there’s this massive growth in audience needs, audience goals, audience background and technical capability and interest level. And so, that’s huge. Actually, I was just talking to a friend who’s quickly repurposing a mobile ophthalmology tool to support a hundred percent remote doctor appointments with the ophthalmologist. So, these things are changing really dramatically. And I think, obviously, as we’re seeing features updated in – just again to stick with Zoom as an example – we’re seeing features updated weekly, so design can be really helpful. Research and design specifically can be really helpful in responding to that.

Research is very interesting right now. I personally feel that when you’re doing generative research, certainly in my experience, fundamental insights that really changed how a product was going to succeed or not, those insights were about how the product fit in with people’s larger lives, and it’s hard sometimes to get to that point in the conversation with people. There’s a kind of a give and take of trying to build intimacy without the moderator putting themselves too much in the conversation or being in any way inappropriate, but also keeping the research participant comfortable.

And now we’re all looking in one another’s bedrooms all the time. We’re seeing each other’s kids. I’m sure some kid will be wandering in here during this podcast – I can’t believe it hasn’t happened yet – kids and dogs and whether or not we make our beds in the mornings. So, there’s a literal vulnerability. And then, there’s an emotional vulnerability that I certainly am seeing in every meeting I’m in, regardless of what we’re talking about. There are a few minutes of, how’s it going? Oh, you guys just found out that your kids aren’t going back to school this year. How’s your mom doing? Are you guys seeing her again? Are you guys still saying away from…

You know, there’s that kind of personal conversation and vulnerability that suggest to me that in a research setting we can get to more meaningful conversation more quickly and understanding what really matters to people is how we make products more successful, right? Supporting those things. So that’s kind of my thoughts on design right now. I don’t know. I’m curious if you, what your thoughts are too.

Jorge: Well, the thought that is on my mind as you are describing that is that it might not be clear to our listeners, because we haven’t stated it explicitly, that when we’re talking about design, we’re talking specifically about the design of software. One of the effects of our response to the pandemic is that we have greatly accelerated the move to doing work and interacting with each other in various ways through software.

Audrey: Hmm.

Jorge: I wrote a book called Living in Information, and I could not have expected just how literal that would become and how much of our lives would actually be spent living in these information environments in such short term. And I think that their design has become much more pressing and urgent and important as a result of this situation.

With that in mind, I’m wondering about the other aspect to the shifting role of design, this notion of the relationship between design as a function of the organization and design as something that organizations bring on board through an external actor like DesignMap.

Design as a core competency

Audrey: Yeah. So, my perspective is that design is a core competency and a company should always hire internal design teams. So that might sound crazy coming from a consultant, but I really believe that. It’s sort of like if you were a software company, but you didn’t have any engineers on staff, that would be ridiculous, right? So why would you not have any designers on staff? Design will be happening; it’s just a question of who and how much you’re paying to do that work and how skilled they are at it.

Having said that, I believe that consultants and outside partners will always be useful in the same way that there still exists engineering consultants out there in the world, right? It’s sort of impossible to imagine a world, in fact, without vendors that would sell you engineering services. And there’s a reason for that. With design in particular, we believe that the pairing can be particularly powerful. So, if you have an internal team and then you have an external partner coming in, those two can work together in a lot of really effective ways. The internal team can provide a glossary, serve as subject matter experts, be guides to whatever political issues there are inside the company, and of course, be part of the team so that when that outside partner goes away, the internal team is better stewards and so the company basically gets better value for the work that they paid for. Because the internal team knows why that decision was made and has some skin in the game on that.

Having said that, having a trusted outside partner can help people hire if they’ve never hired design teams before, as I alluded to earlier. And an external partner can point you to great recruiters, they can be part of the interview team, they can help put together processes and org charts and consult on compensation packages. And if you’re actually paying an outside partner to do design work, that makes you a more attractive employer.

I believe this with my whole heart. Designers do not want to be the only designer in the whole company. It’s a miserable place to be, because you get stuck and there’s nobody to turn to you and nobody really understands what you’re up against, what’s being asked of you, and so saying, we are truly investing in design today, and this is how, and it’s now, and its tangible, can make employers more attractive to potential employees. And then of course, having a partner means that sometimes you’ve got to swallow an elephant, right? Like there’s a new product launch. It’s not going to always take as much time to design as it takes right now.

And I guess another point that’s certainly not in the book, but when there’s uncertainty and you don’t have head count, you don’t want to have somebody with benefits on your payroll, because you don’t know what’s going to happen next quarter, but you need to get something done. They gave you some flexibility. They can level up your team. You know, there’s lots of good reasons to do it, which I think apply to pretty much every other job in a software company. It’s sort of curious that question is being asked so much of design right now, and I think it’s just because maybe two years ago there was such a spate of the consultancies being acquired. That there was this conversation about, oof, you know, it’s the end of the era of design consultancies. But again, nobody is saying like, is Accenture going away? Like Accenture’s not going away. They’re around. So that’s kind of my two cents is the best, is a combination that gives you a lot more flexibility and a lot more capability in both kind of tangible and intangible ways, if that makes sense.

Jorge: One other argument for. Having this mix of internal and external design teams is that as an external partner, by definition, you’re exposed to different problems and different spaces that give you a different set of lenses when approaching a challenge, right? Which is something that you don’t get when you’re an internal designer focused just on the one organization.

Audrey: Yeah. I think that you have two different perspectives, right? When you’re internal, you have a deep understanding and you certainly have the perspective of history of what’s been tried in the past. An outside partner has the perspective of maybe having tried the same thing at a different company or a similar problem in a totally different space, or the perspective of being totally clueless and really needing to start from the beginning. You know, in a way it’s a hallmark of Hugh Dubberly, this like, let’s just start from scratch, pretend I don’t know anything. And it’s not that it needs to necessarily take a long time to ramp up, but to be able to ask the dumb questions and call out opportunities that maybe other folks aren’t seeing because you know, their perspective is different, they’ve been there a long time, you know, that opportunity opened up slowly. It seems obvious to someone new, but it was frog boiling from the inside. And then you combine those two and I think it can be really powerful.

I think perspective, by the way, is the most valuable product in the modern world. If you think about like what people pay for, people pay crazy amounts of money for art and therapy, and you know, management consultants, it’s all this like magic, which is a fresh perspective, the same information, but a new lens. And I think that’s what Hugh does so well. But I also… like if I ever wrote another book, which I won’t, so maybe you can write it! I think that this perspective thing is a really… You know, acid trips that help people in hospice expecting to die, they don’t have any new information, they just have a new perspective. I think that people will pay any amount of money for that.

Jorge: You’re reminding me of this quote, I think it’s by Alan Kay, where he said something like, point of view is worth 80 IQ points.

Audrey: Hmm.

Jorge: Right? One of the previous guests in the show, Andrea Mignolo, talked about the role of design in business and design as a way of knowing. You know, not just as a way of making, but as a way of knowing. And the conversation that we were having earlier about research points to this notion that one of the benefits of initiating a design project, like there’s this very obvious tangible benefits is like you get a new product or experience or service or what have you out the other end… or an improved one, right? And that’s kind of the thing that you’re hiring design for, but there’s a lot of less tangible benefits that have to do with, “You know, we had to do all this research to get to this point. And that research generated a bunch of new models, which sparked a bunch of insights that maybe lead to the creation of a new product, product line, or a new way of engaging with customers or what have you.” Right?

Audrey: Or even just a shared understanding that changes the culture from being adversarial to having a shared goal or understanding.

Closing

Jorge: It makes a lot of sense, and that strikes me as a really good place for us to wrap the conversation. So where can folks follow up with you?

Audrey: Yeah. I would love to hear what people think and chat about this stuff more. They can find me at DesignMap.com. My email address is audrey@designmap.com and pretty much everywhere else I’m audcrane. Or, the book is on Amazon.

Jorge: Well, I will link to both in the show notes. So, thank you so much. It’s been fabulous catching up with you.

Audrey: Yeah. It’s been really nice to talk to you too Jorge. I was mentioning before we started recording how lucky I feel to be able to continue to be working and, it’s really nice to have people like you to have these conversations with and move things forward, hopefully.

Jorge: Feeling is mutual. Thank you so much.