Design leadership and experience-driven organizations
Irene Au is a design leader and UX expert with deep experience in team-building. She’s currently an operating partner at Khosla Ventures, where she works with startup CEOs to make their designs great. Irene started her career at Netscape – then moved on to lead design efforts at Yahoo, Google and Udacity. This progression gives her a unique perspective on growing UX teams – and smart strategies for enhancing design in different situations. Irene brings a deeply humanistic approach to everything she does, and integrates her passion for Yoga and mindfulness into everything she does. Listen in and discover how a Silicon Valley legend gets startup CEOs to embrace iterative, user-centered design practices.
About this episode
[Amy Jo Kim] Welcome to the Getting2Alpha Podcast.
[Irene Au] Thank you for having me.
Thrilled that you’re here. For those who don’t know you, give us a whirlwind tour of your background. How did you get into design and tech, and what were those pivotal moments along the way that really shaped your career?
I was always a math and science geek, and I studied electrical and computer engineering in college. I went on to graduate school at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign originally with the intention of pursuing a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering. They had the best program in the country at that time. It was amazing, all their resources and all the research that was happening there. While I was there, I realized that in contrast to many of my peers, whom I felt were interested in building technology for the sake of technology, I was much more interested in the relationship between technology and people, how do you develop and design technology to support and augment what people are trying to do and how they naturally want to behave. Also, what is the relationship, the impact that technology has on people and society and so forth.
Coincidentally, the University of Illinois happened to have some really fantastic people studying cognitive engineering and human factors, like Chris Wickens who was, he wrote the book on human factors in engineering psychology and Penelope Sanderson who had a long background in cognitive engineering. Many other professors were this brain trust around this. At that time, a lot of this research was centered around how do you study human behavior, perception, and cognition so that you can apply this understanding towards the design of airplane cockpits, for example or emergency rooms or operating rooms in the hospitals so that you minimize human error? You minimize pilot error or doctor error. It’s exactly this type of research and this field of study that I wanted to apply and direct towards the design and development of software.
This was before it was possible to study human-computer interaction. There were some people who had done that, and IBM already had a human factors group. I pulled together a program of study that drew from computer science and industrial engineering and psychology to really pull together my own study of human-computer interaction. That was the biggest pivotal moment, was, “Ah, this is what I really want to do.”
The University of Illinois was a really great place to do that, too, not only because of the amazing professors and the research there, but also MCSA was there, and that’s the birthplace of Mosaic, the Internet’s first Web browser. The university was really on the forefront of bringing content to the web and using that to support the university and communicate with students. A lot of my research projects were related to that. I had the opportunity to think pretty deeply about Web design, for example, and content design and also browser design, even when I was back in school.
My first job coming out of school was at Netscape. I was the designer on client products. That was the browser, mail and news clients, page editor, things like that. It was a natural fit, and really exciting, because we were kind of bringing the Internet to everyone. These were the most key experiences in the earliest stages.
Did you get that Netscape job through the University of Illinois connection?
No! Actually, I didn’t. It was very hard to get their attention initially which was super annoying. I think because I wasn’t, I didn’t have a design degree, and I was applying for the user interface design team, I don’t know what they were looking for. I don’t have graphic design in my background. It’s certainly not design with a capital D, but it was pretty hard to get their attention at first, but I managed to land an interview. My fiancé at that time was also interviewing with them, and they were extending him an offer as a software engineer. That happened to, the universe just aligned. We were headed that way anyway.
Once I was able to have the conversations with them, what really intrigued them was the depth of which I shared my project work, my portfolio, that it went beyond static screenshots. I showed them all the different technical considerations and user considerations and bringing that together to create an experience that really met user needs, solved a real pain point, but was also designed in a way that could be implemented. I also wrote the software, so I think the story that I told around that and the depth with which I demonstrated that I understood all these different considerations and tradeoffs and constraints and requirements, they were like, okay. She’s ready for the job. That was a lot of fun.
That is really interesting, that you have that perspective that early.
It helps that I knew how to code. That was actually how I was able to get this research assistantship with my advisor. She was looking for students to take under her wing who could code and help her develop the software that she was interested in designing. I lended my skills to the project, and she taught me what she knew. That was a really great, powerful combination. That was also helpful for me, because we were developing software to help students, which meant that I had to do user research for students, understand their needs, understand what they were really looking to do, and then design and develop software to meet those needs. It was a really great opportunity to apply a lot of cross-disciplinary skills towards building something tangible that people ended up using.
Wow. That is awesome. I actually had a parallel experience in grad school because I could code. I got a job at NASA Ames in the human factors department. Because of that job and all the software I built, I got a job at Sun Microsystems.
I think that there’s something very full-circle about what you’re doing now in your journey through Yahoo! and Google on this amazing journey that you have had. What you’re talking about is, you actually learned user interface design the way I did, which was actually research first. It’s like, “who are you designing for, or they’re here. Let’s talk to them. What do you guys need?” That’s how I learned it. I was coding scientific signal processing algorithms in labs for scientists. The monkeys were going to die. They had to collect the data. It was writing code and making an interface based on very tight constraints. I learned it the same way. I think it’s a great way to learn, but you have to have multidisciplinary skills or you work with a team who has those skills.
You started that way. Tell me, not every detail, but through Netscape, and then the other jobs you had, how did you transform and how did you leverage these interdisciplinary skills to transform from a hands-on designer to a manager and then really a company builder and leader, and now back to working with interdisciplinary teams.
I was really lucky at Netscape to have some wonderful mentors, Hagan Rivers and Mark Stern, in particular. When I went to Yahoo!, I had a boss who really believed in me, Dave Shen. He gave me a lot of rope to not only design, I was the first person with a background in human-computer interaction, so he gave me a lot of rope to help build the user experience, the human-centered design practice at Yahoo! I build our first usability labs there, ran the first couple of research studies, and started hiring user researchers and interaction designers.
Slowly but surely, as the company grew and we chose our projects very carefully, we could show the value that we were bringing to the company as they were transforming from just being a Web directory to offering interactive, Web-based applications like Yahoo! Mail and My Yahoo and so on and so forth, where they really needed people with skills like ours. We just grew organically by first establishing the needs for the skills and the value that we were bringing, and then creating more internal demand for that. All that we were bringing to the table also helped grow Yahoo! into a successful company. It kind of ballooned from there.
Then, how is Google different?
Google, I often describe as the bizarro-land of Yahoo!, at least during the era when I was there. During the time that I was at Yahoo!, that was like being at three different companies in that eight year period. At Google, by the time I joined in 2006, it was vastly different from what Yahoo! eventually became, but born out of very similar backgrounds. The founders for both companies came from Stanford, all four founders really cared about user experience and latency and had a really strong point of view around what they wanted to optimize for. Google has always been famously focused on technology first, whereas Yahoo! saw itself as a media company. Google, culturally, was very bottom-up, where the managers didn’t really have powers to tell anybody to do anything. Yahoo! had become extraordinarily top-down, with lots of focus on strategy and PowerPoint slides and decks, but limited ability to execute for a variety of reasons. They were really, really different. Going over to Google was like starting all over again and learning all over again how to operate in a different environment.
I know at Google they separate it out, user research from design, quite a bit, at least in the early days. I’m thinking back to the story you told me about merging them tightly.
Yeah. There was a usability analyst group. That’s what they were called when I joined. Then, they were the UI designers. That’s what they were called. They all ultimately rolled up to me, but the usability analysts reported to a manager. It was very old-school usability, it was like Jakob Nielsen, old-school user research. It was about usability testing. The philosophy at that time was to keep a very clean wall between design and research, that they should be very separate endeavors done by different people. The notion was that you didn’t want the people responsible for doing the research and the usability testing to be biased or influenced in any way by the designers and vice-versa.
I felt like it created too much of a waterfall process. There wasn’t enough generative research being done to help inform and inspire what was being built and designed and why. That’s when I wanted to bring research and design closer together, which some people really championed, and others were a little bit uncomfortable about it. I think, now, research is completely decentralized at Google, along with the design team. Research is embedded within the design teams, which just goes to show how far along they have come in really integrating research into the product development process instead of cordoning it off into a separate thing that is like a design QA.
Yeah, that never made sense to me. That was just from my own experience and seeing what worked best. I understand that. It is old-school and waterfall-style, but it’s also an evolution. Companies evolve, and what’s right at one scale isn’t necessarily right at another. You’ve seen that. You said Yahoo! was three different companies. You saw what worked at one scale and then what worked at another.
I think in the case of Yahoo!, it wasn’t so much about scale, but leadership. These days, you’ll see CEOs who are founders and they’re product visionaries. I don’t want to say visionaries, but they think product first. Back then, there was the shift, after Tim Koogle left and Terry Semel became CEO, there was definitely a cultural shift and a shift in the way the company was run, etc. They’ve had so many CEOs now, and I don’t want to get into that. I think it was really less about the scale and more about just leadership.
Then there’s Google, who have actually had very stable leadership over time.
Yeah. Everything they do at Google is all about scale. There is not a single decision that is made without considering scale first.
Fast forward to today. You’re working with startups at different stages, but mostly early stage, right?
It’s a range. We have a huge portfolio, so it really is a range.
It’s even more interesting, startups at a different range of their development. You’re also seeing pitches of new startups, right?
Here and there. I deliberately step away from the pitches as much as I can, just because, to me, first of all, it’s super hard work. You are listening to 100 pitches for every one investment that you’re making, if that. Sometimes the hard part is saying no, and sometimes it’s hard to know what’s good. For me, it’s just not as creative and generative in the way that I want to contribute. I love working with teams and I love working with them to make stuff and to build organizations. I’d much rather be on the operating side instead of the investing side. I’d much rather work with companies once we’ve decided to invest in them.
Got it. You’ve said generative a few times. I have a sense for what generative research means. What does generative research and generative work mean to you? How do you actually apply that, if you could tell us some stories? Not necessarily with details, but just, how you do that. Where it gets interesting and powerful.
I think of it as the difference between formative and summative. Generative is, you’re creating stuff. It’s all the activities directed towards the making of something. That’s how I think of it. Depending on what stage the company is at, different startups need different things. The earliest stage startups, the conversation often starts with, “do you know somebody I can hire?”. The market is just really hot for designers right now. Everybody wants to do the right thing by hiring designers, but it’s incredibly difficult, especially for startups, because they don’t necessarily have the brand or the network or the ability to pay what they need.
Even though the conversation often starts there, it often can veer off into a variety of other activities. There are different categories, ways, in which I work with the startups. Sometimes the most tactical, direct way would be helping them build design capabilities, whatever that means. Sometimes the right answer is to get them to outsource design, even though they want to hire somebody in-house. Sometimes the right answer is to get them to build a team. Sometimes it’s to get them to up-level the team that they have. There’s a whole host of activities around connecting them with the right kinds of resources and skills that they need to be successful.
To go deeper into that, and of course, this depends on what stage the company is at, the early stage companies, sometimes they have technology that is looking for a purpose. They have something interesting, they put it out there, and there seems to be some traction. Now, they have more funding, and now they have to turn it into a business, so what does that look like? Figure out what is the right intersection between what they have to offer and what the world needs is one area where there’s an opportunity. That’s product/market fit and things like that.
Then, further down the line, there’s just the act of how do we make? How do we design? How do we build a culture inside a company to allow design to be successful? There, it’s really about establishing user research as a key part of what they do, and then using that to inspire and inform whatever it is that they’re making and building. Then, prototyping, then testing it out, then iterating. All of that, which is really the essence of design thinking, building that in as a practice is essential.
As a company grows and becomes more successful, inevitably, there are going to be questions around scale and consistency and coherency and how do we keep up with engineering? Some of the more interesting companies will really want to engage in how do we create an entire company culture that focuses on the customer? What are the right questions to ask up front before we execute on anything. That really gets to the core of what it means to be design-centered. It’s not about how many designers you have or what skills you have, it’s really about the way the company thinks and operates.
It’s good to get there and ask good questions to get to the right place. Others are struggling just to make the technology work. It’s the right thing for what the companies need in the right moment. It can be a full spectrum.
It takes a lot of contextual skill to figure out what somebody needs in the right moment. You have that rare set of experiences having worked with startups and then through growth and then into struggling with growth.
It sounds like a great opportunity for you to really exercise your skills in this range of ways.
I love it. I think it’s super fun.
I’m really interested in the thread that goes through everything you’ve talked about, which is focusing on people rather than technology. That was part of the genesis story of how you got into this, are the people’s relationship to technology. What are some of the most common mistakes that you see really smart entrepreneurs and really well-intentioned teams making in the early stages when they’re testing their idea? You go through, like you, I really embrace the very iterative prototyping and testing process of developing ideas and actually testing them. What are the really common mistakes the teams that you work with make that you then help them overcome?
I would say, if i had to pick one thing, it really comes down to some disconnect that they have between the company and people, who they’re developing for. Maybe it’s difference in understanding between what they think people want to do and what people actually want to do. Maybe it’s like there’s a whole swath of different kinds of people that they can be building for, but they just haven’t chosen, these are the people’s problems really inspire us, and this is how we want to direct our technology to solving their problems.
Sometimes it’s just they’ve got really great instincts, but they’re still a little bit off because they’ve just never watched people use their products. Those are just a few examples in which I’ve seen people be a little bit disconnected from their users. That seems to be one of the biggest pitfalls.
You recently wrote a report on designers in VC firms. I think in that report, you said many design partners find it challenging to get entrepreneurs to embrace user research and rapid iterative prototyping. Is this what we’re talking about here? Did you also hear the same thing? Hitting the same roadblock with some of the other design partners you talk to?
I think everybody sees the same challenge. Part of it is, some entrepreneurs just don’t even know that this is even possible, that you could actually implement this in a very methodical and organized way. Then, how do you incorporate that back into everything the company does. I think others have a misconception that user research is about asking users what they want, which is absolutely untrue. It’s about observation and understanding people, which is different from asking people what they want. As you and I both know, what people say they want or do can often be different from what they actually need or do.
Yeah. It’s tricky, because it is about observation. One of the things that I’ve developed are called five magic research questions that are not asking them what they want, but are revealing of what they do. You’re right. It’s what people do. You can get at it different ways, but they are revealed through their actions. I think that’s the punch line. No, just because they say they want the big green button, doesn’t mean you build the big green button.
Often, also, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. If you’re just optimizing for one particular metric or one particular action, I can design a Web page to get people to press some button by making it really big and red and blinking and things like that, but that’s going to be at the expense of other things. User research is also like this way of being able to see the whole and keeps things in balance, too. It gives you perspective.
Do you have any ninja tricks for user research or maybe even a frame of mind that you use and that you help people you’re working with use for getting into the right mindset?
I don’t know if these are really ninja tricks. It’s really about doing whatever it takes to engage the companies. They have to want it, also. I often talk about this Trojan horse. For any given organization, there’s got to be a Trojan horse, something that they value that you can ride off of to get the foot in the door. For example, at Yahoo!, people had never watched users use their products before up until I implemented our user research program. This was just wonderful, because Yahoo!’s just ate it up. They love watching people use their product. We could ride off of that and engage them through user testing. Then, once we got insights back from user testing, then the designers could come back and say, look, here might be a better way to design the experience, or these might be the features that we want to prioritize first.
At Yahoo!, user research was the Trojan horse. At Google, there was an abundance of usability testing. People kind of took it for granted, but what was really lacking was the functional prototype. The Trojan horse there was to prototype experiences and to make ideas tangible. If there was ever a debate over should we do it this way or that way, some of the best designers would design and prototype both directions and have them both come to life. Then, it became immediately clear and obvious, oh, we should go with concept A.
I’ve carried that over in my own work here at Khosla Ventures, just looking at what’s going to be the hook that draws them in. For example, there was one startup that I was working with where they had a redesign planned, and they contacted me because they wanted me to weigh in and give feedback on the new design. It’s like, I’m not necessarily the target user. I can give feedback based on my own experience and knowledge around human-computer interaction, but what would be much more effective is to run this in front of users before they took the big plunge of spending three months to build this thing and then launch it.
They didn’t have any user research. I actually flew to their city where they were located, and I personally ran a couple of sessions just to show them it can be done. You can be very guerrilla about it. You get so many amazing insights coming out of it. What we discovered on the other side of it was, wow, the company was missing out on all these conversion opportunities, because people couldn’t figure out how to add a particular item to the cart. It was obvious to them, but it was really not obvious to the people who were using the product. This just shone a big flashlight on this area of opportunity that needed improvement.
That’s just one very obvious example of something that came to light because of this very simple thing that we did together.
How did you find the research subjects?
This was a consumer facing product, so it was very easy to do that.
It wasn’t real early stage.
That’s a good point, because for enterprise companies, the struggle is real.
We’re finding participants to be involved in that. It’s still possible.
It is. It’s interesting, in my own work, finding the right five to seven people to test something on turns out to be this really high-leverage thing. Do you find that?
Yeah. I think the companies that are the most successful are the ones that want it the most. They’re just really motivated and they care a lot about their users. They’ll do whatever it takes to connect with them. Some of them got really creative in doing so.
You’ve got a lot of creative energy, and you’ve also got a lot of synthesis energy where you take your experiences as a designer and as a manager and as a technologist, and you synthesize them. How do you express creativity outside of work? What are your creative outlets?
Most of my creative energy has gone towards the design and construction of my new residence, which should be done anytime now.
Yeah. This is the second house that I’ve designed and built. They say the first house you design and build is really not for yourself, because it’s just the test run. You’re learning along the way. I’ve taken all the learnings and lessons learned from the first experience and applied it towards the second experience. That’s been a ton of fun.
I also teach yoga, so that’s been another outlet for creative energy. Increasingly, by the day, I’m getting sucked into various volunteer efforts related to my daughter’s school. Outside of my commitments to Khosla Ventures and the startups that I work with, I do have a lot of outlets for energy and creativity. I’ve also been writing and speaking a lot. That’s always fun, connecting with a lot of different audiences.
Wow. You have a deep well. I think it’s generative. It sounds like it actually is the thing that gives you energy.
Yeah, it’s fun.
A couple of other things. What do you like most about working with startup teams?
I love working with the CEOs. They are so curious and eager to learn and quick to implement. I just see the impact and the results, for me, personally, it goes a lot further, a lot faster, by working directly with CEOs than by working as an operator inside a large company, trying to change design culture from the inside, which I’ve done. That’s a job that needs to be done as well. In terms of working with the CEOs, that is one of the most rewarding things. I also really love mentoring and advising the people in my orbit, whether it’s the CEOs or the executives within the company or individual designers, sometimes students who will reach out to me. It’s really rewarding to see that and to have that connection with people.
I feel like I spent so much of the earlier years of my career at Netscape, Yahoo!, and Google working at scale. Everything I did was thinking about how do we build this for the millions of people out there. The opportunity to work with individuals, whether it’s through my work at Khosla Ventures or in teaching yoga, it’s a very different kind of experience. I’m connecting with people one on one as individuals. It’s nice. It’s not like one’s better than the other, but it’s a nice complement.
What do you see that’s new and exciting in design and tech these days? What trends, long or short term, but preferably long term, what are you following? Where is your attention?
For a while, it was Internet of Things. Even that, I think, is starting to play out. What’s getting more interesting now is artificial intelligence, machine learning, computer vision. The development of new technologies or as technology advances, that creates new opportunities for new design and new kinds of human experiences. I think that’s especially intriguing and interesting.
Cool. What do you see as your superpower? What is it that really lights you up?
I was so afraid that you would ask me that, because that is one interview question that I always ask candidates. I’m not-
Why do you ask it?
I think it’s a really interesting question to ask people, because it reflects how people see themselves and how deeply they’ve thought about themselves. I don’t know. I think I always learn something when I ask people that question. I think, it’s just going a little bit deeper with somebody. It’s, who are you?
Ironically, I’m not even sure I can describe that for myself right now. It’s like, how can I sum that up?
I’ll tell you something. Can I try summing up how I see your superpower?
I don’t know you all that well, but we’ve been friendly for a while. Listening to you, it’s fascinating because there are threads that run throughout your whole career. To me, you are a synthesizer. You’re also a mentor and coach-like person. As a manager, that’s a big part of your role. You also built entire departments anew, which is really impressive. I keep seeing you synthesizing these different threads. You have to have been great at communicating with engineers, to succeed at Google.
I’m pretty nerdy myself.
You seem like somebody who can speak these different languages and synthesize them into something that’s large enough that other people can get into it and understand it and get behind it.
Thank you! That is very nice of you to say that. I think of it as integrated, left brain and right brain, although it’s not as simple as that. There’s the nerdy, technologist in me and there’s also the humane humanist in me. This is why I teach yoga as much as I work in technology. I think that we have to stay connected to ourselves and each other and understand the human spirit and what drives us as much as we need to understand technology and develop it and serve humanity. What good is the technology if not to serve people and not have it be the other way around?
I say, I spend a lot of my time trying to help companies design technologies so it’s in the service of people rather than the other way around.
Totally full-circle with what you started with at the first place. That’s beautiful. Is there anything coming up that you would like to let us know about?
I don’t know. I’m kind of at a point now where I just see what happens and see what the universe brings to me, and where my interests and curiosity take me. I’ve been contemplating a lot about the relationship between the human spirit and design and what we make. I wrote an essay, and it was actually my talk for UX Week a couple of weeks ago. I posted the essay on Medium. It sort of went viral. It’s called “Design and the Self.” It’s really crystallizing all these ideas that have been floating around in my mind for the past couple of years.
If you’ve read previous blog posts, I gave a talk at the Khosla Ventures CEOs Summit a couple of years ago called “Design Is.” It’s explaining at a high level to CEOs what you need to know about design. The punch line there, really, is that whether you recognize it or not, everything you create is designed. It may or may not be intentionally designed, but there is a design there. I wanted to raise people’s consciousness around the fact that there is a design, and that it’s better to create with intention than not.
Then, there was another blog post I wrote about UX as a canary in a coal mine, which describes how what everything that a company is and does, whether it’s the talent, or the priorities, or the principles, or the ability to execute, everything that the company is and does manifests itself in the design. That’s why looking at the morale of the design team is such an indicator of where the company is going. It’s a leading indicator, because the designers see all of that happening first before anyone else does. It all reaches a nexus point in the design.
If you look at the arc of what I’ve been writing and what I’ve been thinking, it’s really about this connection between who people are and how clearly they envision what their intention is and make that come to life. It manifests itself in what is created. Then, that, in turn, is shared with the people who are consuming whatever is made. My hope is that whatever people make is directed towards wholesome action, and that people are consciously thinking about what are they making and why. I don’t know exactly where this is going to go, but this is the message that I’m spreading now. That’s my focus now, influencing or designing how people make.
I love it. It’s simple and profound, and it has a lot of ripples.
I hope so.
Where can people find your essays?
They’re posted on Medium. I put everything under a publication called Design Your Life. It’s all interconnected. Design, life lessons, the act of creation. It’s all there.
Irene, thank you so much for taking the time to share your perspective and lessons learned and insights with us. It’s making my heart explode.
Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.