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Nir’s Note: Irene Au is a design partner at Khosla Ventures and former Head of Design at Google, Yahoo, and Udacity. She’ll be speaking at the upcoming Habit Summit in April. (You can register here!) In this interview, she chats with Max Ogles about design strategy for startups.

Q: You have an impressive background as a designer at Google, Yahoo, and now at Khosla Ventures. Could you describe how your design role translates in venture capital?

Irene Au: As entrepreneurs start to recognize how crucial design and design thinking are to the success of their company, they are motivated to understand how to hire good designers, how to position them inside their organizations, and what this means for their product and development.

My role is to help our portfolio companies become successful, particularly as it relates to designing user experience. I wrote an e-book on design and venture capital that discusses this emerging role designers have at venture capital firms.

Q: At a VC firm, most of your work is with entrepreneurs. What would you say is something that they commonly misunderstand about design?

IA: Without a doubt, the most common gap for entrepreneurs is around the use of design research. Design research is all about understanding who you’re building for and what their needs are. With design research, we seek to understand “What are the users’ behavioral patterns and motivations?” and then “How can we anticipate their needs, solve problems for them, and build the experience in a way that fits with their workflow, mental models, and usage patterns?” Companies don’t invest enough in user research because they don’t realize how important and useful it is.

One misconception about user research is that it’s about asking customers what they want, but that’s not what user research is. It’s about actually observing people. Sometimes people cite the Henry Ford quote, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said, ‘a faster horse’” as a reason to not do user research. But user research is not really about asking customers what they want. It’s about observing how customers behave and think.

Another misconception is that user research takes time that companies cannot afford.  In fact, user research done well saves companies time and helps them get to the best solution and design faster than they would have otherwise.  User research benefits companies in so many profound ways that most companies cannot afford to not do research.

Q: What are some ways that designers might overestimate their ability or neglect the customer?

IA: For example, earlier today I was working with a start-up that is applying artificial intelligence and machine learning to network security. As a designer, I have limited knowledge about network security, though I’m learning more about it. But no matter how deeply involved I get, I won’t be the target user. I’m not a security analyst and I can’t put myself in the shoes of a person in that role. People need to be aware of that when they build products and that they are often not the target user.

Understanding user motivations, daily habits, and patterns helps create insight that informs and inspires teams to create better solutions for people. And it doesn’t only benefit designers, but it benefits the whole company.

If you’re looking for even more research on this topic, then I invite you to download our 18-lesson PDF course on Product Psychology:

Q: What do you do to help entrepreneurs improve their design sensibility?

IA: Just as it is important for entrepreneurs to have some working knowledge of technology, marketing, and sales, they need to understand design at many different levels.  

At the highest level, you need to apply design thinking and problem solving. You need to be able to empathize, ideate, prototype and, iterate. This is foundational. If entrepreneurs can’t do that well, then it doesn’t matter if they have the right first idea. Conversely, if they do this well, then I’m confident that they will eventually arrive at the right solution.

Another level after that would be behavioral design and interaction design. Once you understand what people are trying to do, you ask how you will help them meet their goals. Behavioral design is about how you move users through an experience so that it’s intuitive, easy to understand, and works the way people naturally think and want to work.

And then a layer after that would be aesthetics. Information needs to be presented to users in a way that is understandable, easily consumable, and helps them make informed decisions in an efficient way.  Entrepreneurs and designers need to understand how humans perceive stimulus and make sense of their world; they need to understand what actually makes something look good.  At this level, it’s about training people how to see.

Q: The title for your Habit Summit talk is “Design and the Self.” What do you mean by that, and what is the implications of it?

IA: You can think of the “self” as someone’s persona or worldview. At the deepest level, you might think of it as their soul or essence of being. In my talk, I’ll explore how what we make is related to the person who we are inside. And conversely, how do the things around us affect how we think and feel? There’s a dialectic relationship between the things that we make and the way that we are; they’re both informing each other.

Q: And, given that it is “Habit” Summit, what are some things you’ve learned specifically about helping users develop habits?

IA: I think about this a lot because I also teach yoga. I always tell my students that in yoga, you change your mind and body one breath at a time. Like the yogic breath, habits are about the daily micro interactions that you do that get you there eventually, formed by intention. And design is all about intent as well. If your intention is clear, then what you make effectively communicates your intention to the user. Then the product allows them to do what you’re helping them do. Designing for habits is really about understanding where you want the user to go and then making sure you progress them in that direction.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Learn more from Irene Au and many other behavioral design experts at the upcoming Habit Summit! You can register here.

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