AAA16 – Design Anthropology

This year, the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropology Association was held in Minneapolis, MN.  Our session on Design Anthropology was organized by Christine Miller and Emilie Hitch, and sponsored by the National Association for Practicing Anthropology (NAPA).

Innovation, Human Understanding, and Design
in the Software Industry

Presentation Abstract

The software industry today is still largely imagined and led by male engineers, but over the past 20-30 years, there has been a growing awareness of the need for a more balanced view of the world to both build and bring those technologies to market.  As a result of these and other trends, the ‘end-user’ has been problematized in the technology industry – an unknown and unpredictable entity who needs to be understood in order for products to succeed.  In this context, social scientists have a unique role to play in helping technology-focused engineering teams to both understand people and the context in which technologies are being used. However, social scientists alone are usually not sufficient in this case; a partnership with specialized designers enables the team to bring research and concepts to life in a way that is consumable by everyone – including the engineers.  This paper explores one such collaboration, and how each cross-disciplinary team member (and ultimately, the product itself) benefit from the varied perspectives of the team.

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Lessons Learned at the Lost & Found

[This article was originally posted on ZS Associates’ CX Factor blog.]

I lost my phone at the airport on Friday night. In a classic story arc, I had a brief adrenaline rush followed by a wave of despair, and then a whole lot of frustration before things were set right. Once I was done being completely stressed and exasperated, I realized that it was a moment to reflect on how we deliver experiences both large and small.

lost and found - journeyThe Opening Scene

I was at the Enterprise User Experience conference last week, and when I landed at O’Hare on Friday night, I was still feeling that warm, happy buzz that you get when you spend time with your tribe. For the three days of the event, I had woken up early and stayed up late. I had been engaged in complex, energizing and thought-provoking conversations, and I was writing and blogging like mad about all of the exciting things that I learned, so it’s probably no surprise that by the time my plane landed back home, I was definitely running on fumes.

Once I landed, I stopped at the ladies room and then headed straight to the baggage claim, where I immediately realized that I must have left my phone behind. Yes, the phone is expensive, yes, it’s covered by insurance and yes, it has a ton of data on it, but there was also the feeling of shame and stress about explaining the situation to my IT group and my insurance company. And how was I going to call my ride home from the airport?

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EUX16 – Closing Keynote – John Maeda

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!

EUX16 – Opening Keynote – Greg Petroff

I’m so glad that the Enterprise User Experience Conference blog posts that I’ve written so far have gotten some good visibility.  It was a great event!

But for those that actually attended, they may be wondering why I haven’t blogged the keynote addresses.  I will confess that I had intended to sketchnote them!  I did, indeed, sit in the very front row (UX nerd alert!) and take good notes while Greg Petroff was presenting the opening keynote.  But there were too many ideas and not enough paper, and very quickly the whole thing became frantic, disorganized chicken-scratch … and not anything I’d post here.

But that gives me the opportunity to commend the amazing official sketchnoter, MJ Broadbent.  Once I figured out that there were tables (and, thankfully, charging stations) in the back of the meeting space, I moved out of the front row.  I had the chance to sit near her and see her set up:

OriginalPhoto-487185875.396882.jpgHere is her summary of Greg Petroff’s opening keynote, entitled Everything is about to Change: Software as Material:

Greg Petroff GE Digital Opening Keynote.jpg

Hopefully this will provide a nice reference as I summarize what I heard, below.

Greg Petroff was initially trained as an architect, and from there found his way to UX.  He helped to found the IXDA, and he currently serves as the Chief Experience Officer at GE.  He was at SAP for a number of years prior to that.

Petroff told us that it’s an exciting time to be in Enterprise UX – there is an ascendant community, and it something to celebrate!  However, we are embedded in a fast-moving environment, where technology and business conversations will change the way we work. If we want to contribute to our full potential, we need to be attuned to those changes.

He started by providing a backdrop on some of the big changes emerging in the technology that will affect us and our work in the years to come:

  • Machine learning.  There was a tipping point in the Artificial Intelligence (AI) space not that long ago, where the Google AI beat a Go (strategy board game) master.  What’s fascinating about Go is that there is no way to win by brute computational force.  On a more humble scale, the Amazon Echo is learning extremely fast from it’s community of users.  It’s critical to not lose sight of the fact that things may be complex, but they can still be automated.
  • Internet of Things (IOT).  Cisco predicts that by 2020 there will be 50 billion devices with IP addresses talking to one another.  Given the growing sophistication of those devices, they will be able to describe potential futures based on scenario analysis.
  • Security.  The reality is that, under these conditions, the chances of something really bad happening grows.  Not necessarily “nefarious behavior, just dumb behavior”.  This context will require appropriate interfaces and experiences so people can feel comfortable.  And, of course, our lives will also become more transparent.
  • Edge computing.  In lay terms edge computing means that “applications, data and computing power (services) [move] away from centralized points to the logical extremes of a network”.  Today, the Edison Intel chip has the computing capability of a personal computer – in something the size of an SD card.  What happens when we can interact with machines that are so much more capable?
  • Block Chain.  Services such as BitCoin leverage block chain, which is “is a distributed database that maintains a continuously-growing list of data records hardened against tampering and revision”.  It allows for secure, peer-to-peer transactions (which includes devices).  This is a further accelerator along the trajectories outlined above.

There are also some trends that we need to be mindful of – and much of this is already here:

  • Disruptive platforms.  These allow increased speed to market.
  • The new tech stack.  It is increasingly componentized, and each contributing member of a team (e.g. product management, engineering, UX) is affected by these changes:


This has implications for how everyone works.  The work that many of us are doing on design systems fits well into this way of working.

  • Dev Ops culture.  The Dev Ops culture moves engineering further away from requirements documents; it encourages small, incremental changes and hypothesis-driven design.
  • Systems inversion.  We have moved from the idea of Systems of Record (e.g. on premise HR and Finance systems) to Systems of Engagement (e.g. means for connecting people such as CRM or Facebook), to Systems of Assets which are made possible by AI, IOT, and other conditions described earlier.  These assets are also relationship-based, but they are time and location (e.g. context) aware as well.  This asset-based approach is a recent one, as not all the necessary building blocks were even available five years ago …


All of these changes have implication for our work in UX; we must understand context first before we can begin work:

  • Algorithms will have a significant role in shaping experience
  • Future solutions will integrate disparate systems and data
  • We should leverage location and temporal services in our work
  • We must have a clear behavioral model of the users we’re designing for

The reality today is that no-one understands these new ingredients yet – not even he and his team at GE.  There is ambiguity and uncertainty, and our typical prediction frameworks don’t work any more.  petroff

What Petroff said is that a time is coming when how to build is solved.  At that point, what to build and why will become much more important.  Although we’ve been moving away from technology for technology’s sake since the dot-com crash, I would still like to hope that he is right.  He believes that of our abductive thinking skills, we are skilled at asking the “what if” questions, and that a result User Experience, will become increasingly core to strategy.

Greg closed with a series of three slides which depicted how he believes the role of User Experience professionals will evolve in this new context:


In reflecting on the curation of the Enterprise UX event as a whole, I thought the opening keynote presentation was a superb backdrop for the presentations that followed.  In particular, the progression from a session on Design Systems to one on Innovation beautifully reflected the trajectory Petroff articulated for us.

Additionally, for me, it was interesting to think about this framework as a maturity model both for the field, and for the teams I currently manage.  In fact – even though the technology backdrop Petroff describes is still emergent for us – over the past few years we have made some conscious decisions about where we’re spending our time in order to move to the right.

While we value our role as craftsmen within the organization, we have had some concerns about people focusing on wireframes and mock-ups as our primary value proposition to project teams and clients.  That is, in part, what prompted my earlier post entitled UX as Art & Science.  With our more mature clients (or in areas of the business where we’re better established), we are seen as a business partner.  And that is possible, in part, because we’ve committed the time and effort to establish UX patterns that accelerate our drawing work, leaving us bandwidth for dialogue with our clients, stakeholders, and project teams.  Finally, as we gain a deeper understanding both of the industry we work in, and of the users enabled by our solutions, we are able to contribute to a stream of innovation by providing ideas and inspiration that were not possible when we were mired in the day-to-day design work.

For me the most compelling part of Petroff’s presentation were the ideas that in the future, (1) our ability to consider and contribute to thinking about complex contexts will be critical, and (2) as the path to build in a component-based way becomes more clear, what to build and why will be of foremost concern.  And UX, fortunately, is well placed to support answering those questions.  In principle, that will enable us to play an increasingly strategic role, and finally give us that seat at the table that we’ve been clamoring for.

Let’s hope he’s right!

EUX16 – The Politics of Innovation

The Thursday afternoon session was entitled The Politics of Innovation, facilitated by Richard Dalton.

These presentations were also a pleasure, but I appreciated them for a very different reason than I did the morning session.  These presentations before the closing keynote represented the penultimate stage that Greg Petroff described in his opening keynote, which to me was a great testament to the thoughtful curation that went into this event.  I really enjoyed hearing from UX professionals who are leading or guiding transformational change.  They are serving as innovators and catalysts for change in large organizations.  Their perspectives were all quite different, but inspiring!

Richard started out by saying hates the term innovation.  It’s a little vague, and it’s not very actionable, and it’s best used in the past tense.  It doesn’t work so well to say “you, go and innovate!”.  But he realized that our stakeholders fall in love with this words, so the terminology can serve as a Trojan horse to introduce design techniques and habits to drive change.  So, this set of presentations is really about the politics of cultural change, as much as innovation.

Steve is going to talk about how do people deal with change at a human level.  How do we help people overcome fear of change?  Maria will share some of the work she is doing at Autodesk to shift from entering to design mindset.  And Harry will share the challenges and some ways to address prioritization and decision-making.  

Breaking out of Ruts: Tips for Overcoming the Fear of Change

Steve Baty is the Principal at Meld Studios in Australia, and he is going to talk about Barriers to Innovation.  

[Note: Steve had slides but intentionally didn’t use them!  So if there are good ones, I’ll add them here at relevant points, once they are released.]

Innovation used to mean insurrection, so people are a little fearful, hesitant to really embrace it.  That notion is a radical departure from the established ways of working.  How do people and individuals get into channels or ruts that are hard to break out of?  How can we help with the methods and practices of design, to actively contribute them to think differently and get ideas out into the world?

Humas want to be good at things, have a sense of purpose.  We want to be able to control our future (with autonomy).  When we think about a radical change in what and how things get done, we are effectively calling into question those things.  Innovation programs are often a directive, pushed down.  So they foreshadow that people’s world is going to change, and they may be asked to do something completely new.  That can be challenging, because the uncertainty will create hesitancy and fear.  And in moments of change, we know we are not going to be any good at it, at first.  We get into habits in routine that enable us to be more effective and efficient.  We need those routines and techniques, and it’s uncomfortable and risky when they are disrupted.

Steve shared a project about a project to simplify government services.  The idea was to bring transportation, court matters, and other organizations into a single organization.  There were lots of differences in the two groups.  In court, everyone is in service to the judge, so people skills aren’t necessarily valued in that context; the justice department favors process efficiency and not people skills.  And the opposite was true for the transportation department.

These groups were part of a pilot, and at the end it would be determined who ended up with control of all the services, which meant that half of the group would have to re-apply for their jobs.  The three month pilot has now been running for over two years, without clear resolution.  During that time all the employees have been living with a significant amount of ambiguity.  They are not trying to be a barrier to change, or to be difficult, but that uncertainty puts their financial future in jeopardy.

In the process of coming up with new ideas, we have our own way of looking at the world – for better or worse.  That view also creates blind spots which informs how we frame the problem and the solution.  To overcome that, we need to bring together interdisciplinary teams.  You want disagreement, so you are not all seeing the problem the same way.   To get to a new way of doing things, you need all kinds of evidence, and fresh perspectives.

There is a moment of vulnerability when we generate ideas.  In his work, he has people generate multiple ideas.  If participants only have one idea, they feel like they have to defend it, even if it’s not a great one.  But that makes it uncomfortable when we need to critically assess, or evaluate how the idea could be pushed further.  We also may not like another person, and we shoot their ideas down because of that.  We conflate personality and idea, and the idea itself gets lost.  We have to break the connection between ego and idea.  That allows us to think more freely about the idea itself, so it is an important step.

We need to provide the space for innovation to take place. Maria will talk about organizational issues in depth.  But if you have change fatigue, with a shifting landscape and insecurity, you need to find a source of energy to push through that.  We do that by generating empathy for our customer – which is at the core of the design process.  But it has an important secondary purpose – it helps people start to care.  And it helps get things moving.  Our ideas are worthless until they get out in the world – which is where change happens.  When we start to care about them (not just intellectually), then we can take action.

Remaking the Making Company: Moving from Product to Experience

Maria Guidice has been in this space for more than 20 years.  She founded HotStudio in 1997, which was acquired by Facebook a few years ago.   Her most recent book is the The Rise of the DEO. She is currently trying to change the culture of the product and engineering culture at Autodesk.

If I reflect on the many wonderful presentations I heard at EUX16, this one was definitely my favorite.  There are a number of reasons for that.  She did a great job telling story!  It was aspirational, but she also offered a host of really practical suggestions about how to get things done.  I also really appreciated her positive outlook – I appreciated the ways in which she described her challenges as opportunities.  I just loved it.

Maria asked the audience “How many of you are change agents?”  She described herself as someone that runs to risk, to change.  She is not accepting of the system as face value.  She wants to know what she can get away with next!  And she is always up for challenges.

At Autodesk they are delivering amazing product.  They have been in business 33 years, they have 9K employees, about 130K (!) products, and over 100 locations. They are making creative software for creative people.  She celebrated her one year anniversary last week.  Maria’s presentation was about how she has helped the company shift since her arrival.

Are you ready for the messiness, the hard choices, and the chaos that come with change?  Traditional companies are starting to realize that they have to evolve or die, so the conditions are ripe for change.  The industry that Autodesk serves is changing, as are customer needs.  Instead of working at desktop for eight hours a day, they expect to be mobile.  From a busienss model perspective, the customer also needs to build relationships through subscriptions.  What is exciting for her is that the leadership team at Autodesk is ready (if your leadership team is not ready, you have an uphill battle).  This kind of change cannot be done by any individual person – it is a team sport.  They hired her to be that executive catalyst, so design was immediately put in the leadership role.  For her the pathway is open – and she recognizes that it is a gift.  They trusted her to start the process, but she knows that she will ultimately will be judged by the outcomes she is able to deliver.  Given the magnitude of change in play, you have to have quick wins along the way.

One of the things she likes at Autodesk is the nominal politics – there is just no bullshit, and a commitment to what they call “mature directness”.  She asked for three months to decide how to proceed, because she didn’t want to make the same mistakes she had made in the past.  She believes that everything in life is a design problem, so she traveled and listened to hundreds of people – from interns to the CEO.  She hung out with the team.  She asked for stories, prompted by a few questions like – Why are you working here?  What keeps you up at night?  What are your hopes and dreams?  How can I help you?  Once she synthesized all that data into bite-sized chunks, she found that the problems were pretty typical:

  1. There is an imbalance of power in product teams … and typically it’s the designer that is feeling marginalized
  2. Teams had fragmented access to customers
  3. There was an obsession over quantity of features over the quality
  4. Organizational silos presented challenges

One of the designers drew her a picture of the organizational culture at Autodesk:


Needless to say, she had her work cut out for her!  How do we adopt a mindset of inclusivity?  Designers are on different teams all over the world.  The goal was not for her to lord over 320 of them over all.  How do you create and foster communication and connections?  Out of her discovery process emerged three key themes:

Build community.  As a starting point, you have to build a solid culture. What does design mean?  This requires changing the prevalent mindset – design is NOT about making of artifacts.  It is not a noun, it’s an active verb, a multidisciplinary effort shared by the team.  Therefore, everyone is a designer.  Adopting that mindset brings everyone into the fold in an unthreatening way.  How do you teach people to design? The LUMA Institute training is so good for enterprise – it teaches people to fish.  The teach things like affinity clustering, which help to democratize design. They are not our tools, they are the company’s tools.  This approach encourages people to participate in the design process.  You have to teach people how to be designers.  She had money for a conference, and instead of calling it UX, she called it Experience Design, and she wanted it to be a Coming Out party.  What could design be?  The “X Summit” changed the temperature inside the company.


This was one moment in a short video about the event, which also included phenomenal praise from the CEO.  Through the Summit she created community and drove commitment at the highest levels of the firm.  I found that super inspiring!

Focusing on customers.  She wants to make Autodesk the most customer centric company in the world.  We all know that research is important but historically undervalued.  She hates the term user.  Only our industry and drug dealers use these terms!  People are not users – design is about being in service to others.  A user is a faceless, soul-less person without a body.  We get into the habit of using that term, and it kills our ability to humanize our customers.  We need change the mindset.  Part of the way she is doing that is by identifying pockets of excellence that are happening.  There are teams co-creating with customers – find those moments and recognize the greatness that is happening.  Then amplify them and bring them to scale.

Connect experiences.  What are those consistent touchpoints that exist through more than one product.  How do you make them more streamlined, simplified, delightful, cohesive?  Autodesk has been built on acquisitions – so there is no visual consistency. Rather than just assembling a team, she wanted to get people excited around the idea of building a shared design system, because otherwise there was the risk that it could be perceived as threatening.  She wanted to capture great ideas, so she organized a visual design global hackathon.  There were active locations all over the world, and it was great way to crowdsource ideas.  They are also identifying those signature product moments – things that must be consistent like SSO – or things that stand out as their most valuable assets.  They will then staff tiger teams to address those.

Ship quality.  How do you get to the people who are working on and shipping products every day.  How do they feel empowered, how do they know they are doing a good job?  We know the idea of MVP sucks – it just doesn’t work!  But what about moving the conversation to what is a Minimal Lovable Experience?


This resonated with many of us – it generated a ton of enthusiam from the live audience, as well as on Slack and Twitter.  The challenge is bringing this to life – how do you give people the benchmark for what makes quality?


Yes, they are committed to making things Easy to Use and Valuable … but at Autodesk they struggle with Well Crafted.  Designers want to be proud about our work – we want to make magic!  But engineers have similar aspirations – they want to create beautiful code.

Maria closed by describing where they are on their change journey.  The designers in the organization seem to share her vision and her confidence about where they are headed:


She asked the designer who had originally drawn the siloed organization (above) to draw what it felt like now.  This is what he sent:


Pretty amazing, right?!  There is nothing like that visual representation of change to bring it home …

Priority Zero: Some Things are More Equal than Others

Harry Max to be here at Rackspace, and he is currently a VP at AllClearID in Austin.  He speaks regularly around the globe, and he always has an amazing book recommendation if you need one.  He has also spoken at TEDX in San Antonio called The Problem is Not the Problem.  This presentation build on those earlier ideas, but he didn’t have time to get into them with us.

We have to make decisions all the time, and the better we do it, the better we win. In order to get there, you have to have some way of choosing – because priorities drive everything.  They don’t need to be in some kind of list.  Even if they are unspoken, they drive the work that is getting done.

When you think about it, strategy is deciding what you’re going to do in order to win.  Part of his work (as an executive coach and in his work) has been helping people make those choices.  With a way to select what is more or less important, we can have interesting conversations about what we’re actually going to do.  There are different levels we can solve for – personal priorities, team projects and programs, and organizational problem spaces.  He is going to focus on this last one today.

Harry introduced the Eisenhower Matrix, which a way of thinking about time management that I had never heard of:


This framework helps us to consider What is Important begging to be done, needing your attention?  What is Important but not Urgent?  You don’t typically have to do them right now.  What are the long term things that require investment?  Urgent and Important is the burning platform – you don’t do it and you’ll die.  These things always compete with the Important ones.

Harry spoke about the journey he is on at AllClearID.  They are the leader in breech response.  When Home Depot got hacked, they were afraid they were going to lose customers.  Their lawyers tell them to call AllClearID.  So, by the very nature of their work, they are an urgent response business.  They have been very successful, but unfortunately haven’t addressed those things that were defined as Important from the outset.

The S curve … when do you get to the point of diminishing returns.  Apple is brilliant about starting a new S sure before the earlier one runs out of gas. Like this:

The ideal state is to manage this as a portfolio of investments over time.  You are constantly innovating, creating new forms of value, and connecting that value to people who want it.  But priorities and investments are very different as you move through these stages of Mature Business > Rapidly Growing Business > Emerging Business.

In his current role, he co-created a white board with stickies by engaging with the organization about process, technology debt, defects, features:

He mapped the inputs to stages of evolution – getting their house in order, reinforce the foundation, and finally, create the future.  Through that dialogue he was able to get everyone aligned on organizational priorities, and then they did a force ranking of each area.  That has now made it’s way into a spreadsheet, so he could elicit and document decision criteria.  They got to about five criteria (not included here), and they prioritized based on resources, too.  How do they reduce heroics, delivering on contracts well?  The stresses on people were extraordinary, so the team had to know what we were going to do to address those challenges.

None of that focus on the NOW (the Urgent and Important) allows us to focus on the business / market opportunities they first identified twelve years ago.  So then he focused on the What rather than the How. What things will make the biggest difference when we get there?  There are a set of long poles.  Which things are required for Horizon 1?  Those are the weighted most heavily.  And then Horizon 2.  That enabled him to put together a roadmap to explain what it was going to take.  He could clearly show the current state and where they are trying to go.  And because of that, the Board wrote a big check to enable them to achieve that vision.  So they are now actively removing barriers that would have prevented them from launching their next product.

This value of this approach is that it allows you to get people to agree and move forward, because they have been included in the process.  He recommends being blunt but optimistic at all stages.   Show them the future, and inspire them!


Facilitated by Richard Dalton.

Maria said that you can measure lovability or goodwill through things like reduction in customer complaints, improved satisfaction scores and sharing. Just be sure to benchmark where you are – and what it looks like where you want to be.

She also described the importance of creating a movement not a mandate.  For that, communication and inclusion are so important.  There must be multiple ways for people to provide feedback; that kind of environment allows for a healthy exchange, and minimizes the detractors.  You have to enable people to have influence without authority.

Someone in the audience asked a question similar to one I wanted to pose.  He said that each of them had told wonderful and inspiring stories, but for many of us, that’s not the reality.  He asked  “What do you do when your best plans fall to shit?”  Steve said that he organizes the two camps into a workshop.  They have to prepare a business case for the idea, and the team has to defend the idea.  But the trick is that you make them critique their own idea.  In that way, they are forced to look for the positives in the ideas they were denigrating earlier. When at an impasse, that often helps them find a third way.

This is similar to something that Disney does, called Disney Creative Strategy. (With a shout-out to the conference attendees on Slack who had that URL posted and pinned within moments of the discussion!)  In that model, you have someone present a vision.  And then you break out into two separate rooms.  In one, you critique the vision.  And in the other, you figure out how to make it real.  That technique enables people to surface the issues and actually work through them.

Someone in the audience asked about brainstorming, and how it fits together here?  Harry has done more creative constraint bound work.  Maria feels like her whole life is a brainstorm – divergent and then convergent.  Steve recommends that you enable people to work independently first (to allow people to be quiet with their own thoughts, and to avoid group think) and then align.  Most important is to make sure all those voices are heard, because that’s how you achieve alignment.