Movers & Shakers
Finding Harmony Between Designers and Engineers
Braden Kowitz, Design Partner, Google Ventures
Design is being seen more and more as an essential building block of a successful business. No longer just a department, design is now at the heart of many growing organizations, influencing key decision making and business outcomes. Evidence of this shift can be seen in the number of venture capital firms bringing on designers as partners. The role of “design partner” is a new one, and many people point to Braden Kowitz’ appointment as Design Partner at Google Ventures in 2009 to be one of the earliest, if not the first. In many ways Braden is defining not only what the role of a designer in a venture capital firm is, but the impact design in general has and can have in the new Silicon Valley startup paradigm.
Braden hopped on his Soapbox to share how he makes decisions based on data, why designers need to be storytellers and how to build communication and trust within your team.
Learning to Lead by Design
One of our first questions for Braden was about the role that a Design Partner has in a VC organization. What do they do and how do they help the startups they work with? Braden touched on many of the things we’ve covered in our blog recently, most notably about shifting from an implementer to a more managerial role. Google Ventures is the venture capital arm of Google and has roughly $2 billion under management. It invests in about 280 companies in the US and is expanding to Europe as well. All of these companies turn to Braden and his team of five designers to provide design leadership.
Braden brought out that his work is not to solve design challenges for these companies, but help their teams understand design, to know how to hire teams, work through design problems and build a design culture. In this way, the work of Braden and his team is not to solve short term problems, but give companies the skills and know-how they need to grow and thrive for years to come.
The team at Google Ventures does this through design sprints, where they work with their portfolio of companies on specific problems with a set amount of time. During this sprint, they lead companies through a design process and build on shared knowledge of the problem. After coming up with several possible solutions, they narrow it down to one or two and then quickly work to prototype and release the product. It reminded us of our rolling five day approach here at ZURB. These tactics keep teams focused on immediate results, but still give breathing room to try new things.
Until You Gather Data, You Don't Really Know
We asked Braden if he could give us an example of working through a problem with a company and what the results were. The first company that came to his mind was Blue Bottle Coffee. Blue Bottle Coffee was moving to sell coffee online, but the problem they encountered was figuring out how to best merchandise it. Analyzing the competition, they discovered that everyone merchandises their coffee based on region. The problem is: this isn’t necessarily the best way to sell coffee. He asked our audience if they had been asked which kind of coffee they’d like based on region, for example, Columbian or Ethiopian. Almost everyone raised their hands. He then asked how many people were confident they were making a good choice when asked this kind of question. Only one person in our crowd of 150 responded with a "yes."
Sometimes you see other people using a solution and you think it is the right way to go, but until you gather data, you don't really know.
Clearly, just because something is popular, doesn’t make it right. The best design decisions are based on data. The team brainstormed several possible solutions, everything from making the website look like the physical stores to filtering the coffee options in various ways, but the the biggest idea was to try asking people a different question altogether.
Instead of which region they would prefer, they asked shoppers “How do you make coffee at home?” After all, it’s a ritual everyone does and feels comfortable answering. This simple question was tested with shoppers along with a few fake brands to eliminate any bias.
... Doing something different than the way everyone is, is a big risk, and you can’t do that without data.
Designers are Storytellers
Braden brought up some great insights about the way both engineers and designers think. Engineers, he brought out, think about features or products in concrete terms, with limits and boundaries. Designers too think this way as well, only in a very visual way. They think of screens and images with bounds and an extent. The challenge is to view things the way users do, People don’t look at just screens or features, they take a pathway through a product. Designers need to walk people through that story.
Braden and his team often sketch out stories before they get into heavy design work so they have a framework in which to build from. Once this general outline is laid, they go in and look where the risks are and design those parts first, chipping away parts of the problem.
Build a Strong Team and Know When to Say No
Building strong teams was something our audience was really interested in. Braden likened his team to a group of super heroes. Everyone on the team had to have some sort of superpower. By having each member possess some special skill, the versatility of the team was greatly increased so that they could tackle a wide range of challenges. Some skill overlap is inevitable and can actually be desirable. Each member of the team must at very least understand what other team members do to eliminate friction.
The places I've seen it break down most are when people don't understand what the other people on the team do. I'm an engineer, I don't understand what design is. I think it's just making stuff look pretty. I don't know what you do all day. And honestly, communication and trust is the thing that ends up making that stuff work.
How is this communication and trust built? Working closely with each other both metaphorically and physically is one of the best ways to do this. Braden recalled a time when he was having trouble working with a team remotely in New York. He decided that he needed to fly out and work with the team directly. Just by working in close proximity to the team day in and day out, the major communication blocks were lifted. Working with each other and learning what is involved in the each other’s daily work builds empathy and understanding.
One of the biggest problems for both teams and individuals, according to Braden, is knowing when to say “no.” For a variety of reasons, people and teams may accept more design work than they can reasonably handle, leading to inevitably poor results. This causes people and organizations to lose trust in design, devoting less resources to it and thus fueling the “death spiral” or design. It’s admittedly difficult to say "no" as an individual, but it’s even harder when you lead a design team. But saying “no” allows your team to focus their efforts and do tremendous things. This improved work leads to growth and builds the trust and respect of others.
In the past, Braden has written that he’s a perfectionist when it comes to product launches. The reason for this? It comes down to trust in the product and the way customers see the product. Even if a product is usable and the engineering is solid, if the front end is sloppy or the colors are not matching or stuff is not aligned, they might assume the rest of it is built that sloppy. Trust is lost. Designers are the ones that must pick up on these small details and convey their importance to the team. Every decision they make must be backed up with a reason, a reason based on data. Braden called it the mark of a great designer, being able to articulate exactly why a decision was made.
... If you're doing really good design work you need to have great data on why you're making that decision.
Our chat with Braden ended with questions from the audience. We want to thank Braden for coming down and sharing his insights with ZURB and the ZURBsoapbox audience!