Making sense of Enterprise UX

The closing keynote was entitled Making Sense of Enterprise UX, presented by John Maeda

John Maeda is a modern renaissance man.  He is merging technology, business, and design – as well as art.  In addition to his dual degree from MIT in engineering and computer science, he has a PhD in Design from Tsukuba University in Japan, as well as an MBA.  As part of his work at the MIT Media Lab, he founded the Aesthetics and Computation Group at MIT.  Later, he was named the President of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).  In addition, he has won the National Design Award, and he is the author of numerous books.  He currently works for a venture capital firm, and as part of his work there, he is the author of an annual report called DesignInTech.  He has evangelized our space in a way that has opened up executive-level conversations for many of us. 

John Maeda decided to run an experiment during his keynote, because, apparently, he likes to try new things.  He wondered, how much better could his presentation be if he could answer questions in real time?  So he installed an app and gave us his cell phone number.  And then he watched for questions on his phone and answered them during his presentation.  It was disruptive and funny and somehow he managed to make it all work.  It truly felt like he was just having a conversation with us, in spite of the fact the audience numbered around 450 people.

Maeda admitted that he knew nothing about Enterprise UX until he arrived at the venture capital firm (where he works now) three years ago.  He was in his first meeting, and people were talking about Consumer versus Enterprise.  He didn’t get it – he was thinking about the Starship Enterprise.  What is it, really?  So, he has been on a search to understand what enterprise computing means now, in part beause he came from an era when there was only enterprise computing.

Someone from the audience asked him about his work at eBay.  Maeda explained that he took two jobs after RISD, not realizing how far apart they were in Bay Area terms.  Besides the VC work, he worked with the CEO of eBay companies.  His work was around aligning roughly 350 designers.  As part of that work, there was a moment in San Jose when he was meeting the design leads.  He had to tell them that he was working with them because the CEO cared about design – but he wasn’t yet walking the talk.  A year later there was a big design and product event, and people were leaning forward while the CEO.  Following that presentation, he was mobbed by designers, because they were struck by how much he cared.  But leaders like that can’t help but lead someone who seek someone to lead them.  It was amazing.  Followers believe they don’t have power, but in actuality they have power with a leader who wants to lead.

Another person asked what he has learned by working in venture capital.  He said the influence of design is increasing.  After his most recent Design in Tech report (linked above), one of the partners said “You know this design stuff, it’s important.”  The partner had just been pitched by three engineers, and he told them to find a designer and co-founder.  But another team of two engineers delivered strong UX.  So we have to see the designer definition very openly.  That is important.

The main topic of his talk is about how to make the transition from individual contributor to a leadership role.

Maeda launched in to the main part of his talk by saying “A lot of you have wrinklies like me.” Everything we could imagine twenty years ago is coming to pass here.  There is a well known paper by a Carnegie Mellon professor that describes the history of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI).  It is an incredible history of people that have imagined things … many of which have since come to pass.  However, that paper misses a lot of women researchers.  How do we record the history of computing?  Of people in design and tech field?  He told us about a few key people, like his mentor Muriel from the Visual Language workshop.  She wanted to put Helvetica on the screen.  And Red Burns was a radical who believed that technology doesn’t matter so much as how we craft in technology.  And Gillian Crampton-Smith – almost every innovation in IOT came from her group.  And Joy Mountford, ex-Apple, who was influential in design education.  That was his revision of history for today, but there are surely many others.

His started by summarizing his key points:

  • In Enterprise UX, we have high job security.  The stuff we do is hard, and it’s material to technology.  We are not making another photo-sharing site; we go deep into complex problems, and we are playing an important role in the way things behave at scale.
  • Design as a discipline is meaning too many things.  He suggests that we should use the three definitions of design.  This was covered in his most recent DesigninTech report, but it brought out the haters (he didn’t discuss it in detail).
  • Finally, money is a medium of expression, and shouldn’t be feared by creatives.  He said that when he was the President of RISD, some alums were reticent to come back to campus because they were making money, and not doing their art any more.  It’s ok!

He is making a book.  He had a hard time, but right now it’s cards in a ziplock bag.  The key idea behind it is to share how we think about design in the business world.  What is computation in relationship to design in industry?  It is working at a scale and speed that is unimaginable.  Everyone doesn’t know that yet.  It’s not about UX or a specific type of design.

On December 6th at 4:30 am, he was jogging down El Camino Real, which he had been doing for two years.  It had been totally safe and ok.  But the sidewalk was uneven, and he tripped, and got crunched.  He was lying there, and it was bad, he was bleeding, and he passed out at some point.  He got up, when he thought he was going pass out he would lie down.  And he finally got home to his AirBnB (he stays in a AirBnB to “experience the millennial life”).  He called an Uber for a ride to the hospital; fortunately it was dark so the driver couldn’t see what a mess he was! The desk needed him to fill out a clipboard.  An hour later he got to see a doctor.  He said “you look bad”, and told him he was lucky he could move his neck.  “Man, I am lucky”.  And a nurse said “and lucky you weren’t hit by a car”.  As a result of all that, he has been in rehab, and he can see the world much more clearly.  He knows what his body will feel like in 10 years from now.  🙂  When he got the job as the President of RISD, he was in his forties.  His mentor called him, and said “you are only in your second quarter”, meaning that his life would be broken up into 0-25, 25-50, 50-75, 75-100.  Maeda pictured four lightbulbs.  And he realizes that most people don’t make it to the fourth quarter; even if you do, your mind and body have deteriorated so that you can’t do as much as you would like any more.

So, as a result of his awakening, he is trying to build a start-up called  It is like a Second Life era building, and it was something he had intended to do by 2010.  He is searching for this design meaning.  In Italian, it means to designate, to name. But in English, something is lost.  In Japanese there are two words for design.  One means planning, it’s more of an engineering view of the world. And then there is the other word, which is much more about the heart, not focused on engineering.  Sort of like the difference between Spock and Kirk.  EUXy <—> Consumery.  There is no school where you learn this stuff.  In engineering school or design school.  So we are all technically mutants.  He was summoning unicorns and ninjas to MIT in the 1990s.  We’re the Island of Misfit Toys. It hurts, but it’s great.  As mutants, our job is important.  We embody the ability to go across.  Whether in design school or engineering school for those who are more design-minded.  These things don’t change.


At this point Maeda fielded another question from the audience.  The question was, “When the C-suite says design, what do they mean?”  He is trying to get them to say Experience more, but it’s going to take time. In his first week at the VC firm, a junior associate asked him to design a certificate to welcome people.  He tried to be calm, but later he did speak to the associate and said “How would you feel if someone asked you to create a spreadsheet?”  We have to make change one person at a time.

He got a physical letter, in pencil.  It was from an art teacher on the Cape, about a young woman in her class who is good at computer science and art.  Her father won’t let her study design.  He called the student and talked with her.  She got into RIT, where she could do UX.  She didn’t know what it was, but when he described it, he could hear a big sigh of relief.  She had just learned that she could do both what she wants and what her parents want.  There are young mutants out there who need to hear about us, and learn that our work exists.

During his design training, he had professors who would put him in his place. It’s good to have people tell you that you might suck at something!  His teachers told him that he would not know if he was good or not, until he taught people who could destroy him.  A very Japanese way of looking at the mentor / mentee relationship.

One project at MIT research group was called Processing.  He told his students to stop doing this, but sure enough he was wrong, because it ended up being important.  He had earned tenure at MIT, so he couldn’t be fired.  But he got bored fairly quickly.  He read the Audacity of Hope, and it inspired him to do something different, even if he didn’t look like other Americans.  He wanted to do something important for America.

He hasn’t been a department head or a dean. But he heard “yes we can!” in his head.  So when he was offered the job at RISD, he took it.  All the books written about the first 90 days of a new job recommended the same thing.  As a new leader, you shouldn’t have a vision, because the vision needs to come from the people.  But the first question people want to know is “what is your vision’”?!  In his first week he was presented with an ideal opportunity.  He addressed the fierce, t-shirt wearing students of the summer program.  He shared ideas, and they applauded the ones they like.  Building a justifiable case for creativity in the world scored off the charts.  An hour later he was in the alumni shop, and spoke with a student who had been part of that meeting.  She was moved because “you would fight for us”.  He was an active president, he hung out in cafeteria, helped kids carry boxes into dorms.

They had wanted Maeda in part because they knew they needed to integrate the digital into their curriculum.  But a few years later they wanted to kill him!  He made some mistakes, in particular around change management.  Among his many favorite mistakes, he called the top 100 acceptees to RISD.  As he was finishing the calls, he realized that 90% couldn’t come to RISD because there was no financial aid. One potential student got on the line.  She had wanted to go to RISD since she was 12, but another school gave her a full ride. So he focused on scholarships.  A few years in, he recieved a ‘vote of no confidence’ by the faculty.  He one of only very few to survive and thrive after that.  In retrospect, he realized that he had treated the students as his  customer, and parents as the investors.  But many other college and university presidents look at the faculty as the customer, and the Board as investors. The faculty union heads wanted to show him that he could fail; instead he needed to adapt.  In the end the faculty and the institution were all with him, and they were able to make bigger change together.

One of his other concerns was that art classes were disappearing, in part to fund STEM programs (for things like chemistry labs).  He was very involved in how do we turn STEM into STEAM.  Part of the reason that was possible is because Rhode Island is a tiny state, but it has two senators, so he was able to get to know them and get involved.  President Obama signed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) last year.

Another realization he has had is that design is attached to ego, because designers are risking failure with every decision they make.  So they have to have some confidence, and believe that they have something important to say.  But that not necessarily what is needed to be a leader:


How to supplement design education?  He got an MBA so he could understand what people were saying to him.  It is extra work, but recommended.  Alternatively, hang out with more business, product people.  It’s a new set of terminology, you can learn the symbols.

Why is he in the money world today?  The graphic design profession wouldn’t exist except for the law that requires publicly held companies to product annual reports.  The paper industry wouldn’t have grown, nor would have the field of graphic design.  He is interested now in where we can plant these ideas.  We are true, powerful, mutant leaders.  Things will change in part because of the insights we plant in the ecosystem.

I thought attendee Dan Romlein did a nice job capturing the main ideas from the presentation in his sketchnote:


Maeda’s presentation is one of those where you know there are layers of meaning, and it will take time to absorb them all … but I valued his broad and deep perspective on the role of design, and what he is doing to build “a justifiable case for creativity in the world” which will improve executive understanding of what we do, and pave the way for the generation to come.

In spite of the humor, the SMS experiment, and the wide variety of topics he covered, this closing keynote presentation was an inspiring and humbling view of our space from John Maeda.  It was a wonderful end to a beautiful curated conference!

1 Comments on “Making sense of Enterprise UX”

  1. Pingback: Natalie Hanson: #EUX16 John Maeda’s Closing Keynote #servicedesign #designthinking – Designing: service, customer service, customer management

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