Kim Goodwin

UX leadership: An interview with Kim Goodwin

Gerry Gaffney Teams 1 Comment

Download (mp3: 5.5MB, 22:43) Kim Goodwin talks to Gerry Gaffney about UX leadership and organisational change. Kim ponders what makes a good UX leader, whether UX and leadership skills are aligned, and whether Steve Jobs has implemented cultural changes that will stick at Apple.


Transcript

Gerry Gaffney:

This is Gerry Gaffney with the User Experience podcast.

Today’s guest is author of Designing for the Digital Age: How to make human-centered products and services. She’s former vice president of design at Cooper Interactive, and indeed we had Alan Cooper as a previous interviewee.

She’s has worked on a huge range of design projects, including web, medical and mobile devices in large and small organisations. Of late, she’s been concerned with issues of leadership in the field of user experience.

Kim Goodwin, welcome to the User Experience podcast.

Kim Goodwin:

Thanks very much for inviting me, Gerry. My pleasure.

Gerry:

Now, you gave the keynote address at UX Australia recently in Sydney. Did you enjoy the conference?

Kim:

Actually, I thought it was a fantastic event. It was kind of the best of a professional conference and a community conference, right? It was very well run and thoughtfully curated, but it just had this very empowered vibe where you got a real variety of speakers. It was a terrific event. I recommend it.

Gerry:

I found your talk was very interesting, and other attendees that I spoke to rated it very highly as well. You gave the keynote and I think it set the tone for a lot of conversations that went on afterwards. I guess we could say that you spoke about organisations, leadership and change. Is it fair to characterise your keynote as being about those topics?

Kim:

Sure, fair enough.

Gerry:

To being with organisations. What characterises an organisation that has a strong UX culture?

Kim:

As in any case we can generalise a bit and we won’t be 100% right, but I would say that the organisations that tend to do UX well are learning organisations, they know how to examine their own actions and change them when they don’t work. They’re not risk-averse, they understand that you can’t always know everything before you do it. They understand that some amount of reasonable failure is inherent in doing innovative things. They’re usually pretty focused on quality, there’s a real pride in workmanship there. They’re willing to prioritise; this is one of the things that you see in great products is somebody who is ruthless enough to say; “You know what, we’re not going to do everything. We’re going to do a limited number of things and we’re going to do them well.” And obviously, of course, they’re end-user and customer focused, right? That one’s kind of a given.

Gerry:

Can you give us any examples of organisations that have a strong UX culture?

Kim:

I think there’s a real variation. I would say that it’s a lot easier to promote a UX culture in any organisation that has an “other” focus already. If you look at an organisation like the Mayo Clinic, for example, that has a very strong patient focus to begin with; if you look at brands like, in the US there’s Southwest Airlines for example. You know, they have their imperfections but for the most part they’re very customer-centred, and so they tend to deliver pretty good experience most of the time. Obviously Apple is a prime example where there’s a real attention to detail and a customer focus there as well.

Gerry:

You mention the Mayo Clinic. Can you tell us a little bit about that organisation and why it is that you feel it’s customer-centred or user-centred?

Kim:

Sure. If you’re not familiar with them they’re a very innovative medical practice here in the US. They have clinics in three different states in the US and they’re viewed as one of the premier clinical innovators in the world really. Like most healthcare organisations, they have doctors involved in a lot of IT decisions and things like this, and healthcare is known to be a bit slow to change when it comes to IT, and I don’t think they’re exceptions to any of those things. But they’re known as real clinical innovators. They do things like installing webcams so that when you register there they take your photo, so that when you wander down the hall to radiology, someone can look at you and greet you by name, so that you don’t have to re-introduce yourself to every single part of that organisation, so you feel known in this otherwise intimidating scary place where you’re being treated for cancer or other horrible diseases.

That focus, I think, arises because they have a very strong culture where if somebody says; “You know what, this is better for the patient,” that gets a lot of attention and carries a great deal of weight. And that focus, I think, allows them to cut through a lot of the garbage that most organisations have about turf and silos and things like that.

Gerry:

And does that focus have to… does support for that attitude or mindset have to come from the top of the organisation?

Kim:

Oh, you bet, if that’s not there at the top it’s very difficult to get a lot of traction. That doesn’t mean that you absolutely have to start with support for something at the top, but if you don’t generate that support pretty much universally among your senior executives you’re not going to get very far with a big change.

Gerry:

I want to go totally off-topic here for a minute, because you did mention Apple, and Steve Jobs died last week in fact, but one of the things that you’ve said is that it’s very strongly customer-centred and I guess most UX people would say that that is clearly the case.

Although Steve Jobs himself has said in the past that they don’t do market research because you can’t expect the customer to design what they want. I know that to you the distinction between those two things is quite clear, but often I think it’s not clear to people what the difference between market research and user experience is. Would you like to have an impromptu attempt at picking those two things apart? Sorry about the question without notice!

Kim:

[Laughter]. Not a problem. What fun is it if we don’t extemporaneously expand on these things, right?

Boy, there’s, like, three different things to talk to there. The idea that Apple doesn’t do any market research is… it’s a myth that Steve Jobs liked to promote because I think it added to the mystique a bit. They certainly do some market research. What they don’t so much do is they don’t go out and they don’t say; “Hey, customers, what should we build for you?” because they’re absolutely right; end users are usually not that great at specifying that. I think there are some exceptions when you get some real expert users in very technical fields, they can get a little bit more engaged. But most market research tends to focus on the stuff that gets people to buy products, you know, tends to focus very much on demographics, whereas design research focuses much more on behaviour and attitude, and it tends to get into real specifics that market researchers don’t cover.

I think the strength that Apple has is not necessarily in its design research, because many of the design teams don’t do much upfront design research. But what they do have is a shared focus on assuming that users are intelligent people, but who don’t have the patience to learn new tools. A designer I know at Apple put it this way, he said; “Assume that users are not stupid, but that they’re just too busy to care about out stuff.” And if you have that shared assumption and it kind of underlines everything, that’s very powerful.

When I was delivering my keynote at UX Australia on this topic was the day that Steve Jobs resigned because he couldn’t play that CEO role any more. And what I was saying to some people at the conference was; “How will we know if Steve Jobs was a good leader?” Well, we’ll know because we’ll be able to see if that culture at Apple sticks, right? Is it Steve Jobs who was making Apple great, or did he as a leader instil a culture that is going to carry on without him? And that’s really going to be the measure of his legacy, I think, at Apple. Did he create something that sticks? I think there are a lot of signs that he did create something that has stuck. The question is, is the leadership there skilled enough to carry that forward? We’ll see.

Gerry:

You’ve said that UX practitioners need to focus more on leadership, seeing you brought up the topic of leadership there. Why do you think they need to focus on leadership?

Kim:

I think there are a few different reasons. I think that as front-line practitioners, you know, the folks that are engaged in drawing screens and coming up with experiences and engaging with engineers and PMs every day, I think we need leadership skills just to get our jobs done. Because how often have you just plopped a sketch in front of somebody and said; “Here you go” and somehow that just magically gets built and you didn’t really have to do anything else, right? That doesn’t happen! [Laughs.]

It takes a lot of leadership skill to persuade people, that, yeah, this is the right idea, and to get them on board and help people get committed to an idea and carry it out. And so I think just on any average UX project, you need at least one member of that team who’s really good at leading, in the sense that they have to persuade people and keep them moving.

But I think in the larger sense we need leadership to build our practice, because there aren’t enough of us, and we also need leadership to create lasting culture change, because most companies aren’t shipping bad products because they don’t have designers in-house. A lot of them do. They’re shipping bad products because their culture doesn’t really value design yet, and doesn’t know how to carry design out.

Gerry:

Do you think that the average UX practitioner, if such a person exists, needs to consider being a leader? Is that a reasonable expectation? Because I can imagine working away in my little UX corner here and then somebody says; “Oh, Kim Goodwin wants me to be a leader now,” you know?

Kim:

Sure. I think that the skills that leaders have have a lot of overlap with the skills that the best UX practitioners have, let’s put it that way. Do I think every UX practitioner needs good leadership skills? Maybe not. But think about about a typical project, again I don’t know if we can say there’s an average project, but let’s say you’ve got two, three, four UX people involved in a project of various disciplines. Well, I hope that at least one of those people is pretty good at leadership. Otherwise that team’s going to have a hard time getting traction. And so I would say a significant fraction of us at least need to really work on these skills and developing them.

Gerry:

So what are the characteristics of a good leader? What makes somebody a leader rather than I guess a traditional manager?

Kim:

Well, management is a job that somebody higher up the food chain assigns you. Managers tend to have administrative responsibilities, they have specific authority. A leader is somebody who could be at any level in that organisation, and you know you’re a leader if, for example, people come to you with their problems. Or if they look to you and see; “Hmm, what does this person think about things?” These are probably signs that you’re leaders.

I think that there are a few big characteristics that good leaders tend to have. One is that people trust them to have their backs. They tend to value other people, and return that trust to other people. Leaders tend to put forth ideas that people can believe in. They don’t have to generate those ideas, they just have to spot the good ideas and promote them. And I think they have to generally have an air of competence and be good communicators as well.

I think that most of those skills, those are the things that we do every day in design.

Gerry:

I think that many people listening to you, and certainly many people who listened to your keynote at UX Australia and some of your other talks would perhaps be inspired by you and then say; “Well, yeah, actually I feel I’ve got the interest and the drive and perhaps the skill set to take on a leadership role.” How would they go about doing that? What are the practicalities of doing that, do you think?

Kim:

Well, I hope they feel that way. That’d be great if they do. I think that… Hmm, tough one. Self-examination is probably the best starting point. Look around and see how people treat you now. Do they see you as a leader? I think you can ask people; you might not always get an honest response. Really knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, developing your own vision for where do you think your company should go, where should your team be, getting other people involved in creating that vision and building alliances and all of those things. But also working on very specific skills like are you effective at giving other people feedback on their behaviour or their skills? You don’t have to be a manager to be in a feedback situation. Are you good at reading when other people are, say, resisting change, and figuring out why, so you can help them get unstuck? A lot of it is very focused on the kinds of day-to-day conversations that leaders have. You know, mastering working with conflict and those kinds of things. All of that is really essential skill for leaders.

Gerry:

I guess something you’ve touched on there is understanding the motivations of the people whom you are leading. One of the books you mentioned and recommended during your presentation was Daniel Pink’s Drive, which I subsequently read on your recommendation and I must say it’s an absolutely fantastic book. Would you like to tell us why you recommended that book so much, or what it is about motivation that we should know about, or what does motivate people and how can UX practitioners leverage that information?

Kim:

I think what’s interesting about “Drive” is that Daniel Pink debunks some of the commonest assumptions about what motivates people. There’s this assumption that if you pay us 10 cents more we will somehow be 10 cents more productive, right? Really it looks instead at what drives people is the ability to solve problems and to be creative, and to have some semblance of control over the work that they do. One of the challenges I think we have as UX practitioners just in day-to-day projects is, you know, to what extent do we own design versus facilitate design? And that’s going to vary a bit by culture but if we think about motivating other people to want to achieve a certain vision, how can we involve them in generating that vision and engage their own problem-solving brains, versus just saying; “Hey, we have the solution, we’re the designers, we’ve got the answers.” That’s just one thing I think we can take from that book.

In a leadership context in particular it’s looking at what makes the people around me tick, and how can I work with this person versus that person, because maybe they’re in different places and they have different needs. Just as we would design a product differently for different types of users, as leaders we need to behave differently in different contexts. And that makes us more effective.

Gerry:

One of the important themes of your keynote at UX Australia was around change. What’s the relationship between leadership and change?

Kim:

It’s a very close one. I think that if you look at any company that’s undergone successful change, any organisation, you can probably find pretty good leadership there, because one of the things that good leaders can do is they can say; “We need to be in a different place,” and then those leaders can model the change. They can build alliances around creating the change. Leaders can… one of the things I think is challenging as a leader is, can you pull yourself up out of the culture that you’re in enough to understand how it might be holding you back. If you’re in an organisation that thinks and works in a certain way, you’ve worked there for 10 years, it’s very easy to get focused on how things have always been done. And one of the skills that leaders have is the ability to say; “Hmm, does that mean we should always do things that way?”

Gerry:

I guess in recent years organisational change has often been something of negative thing, it’s meant huge upheavals and staff being relocated or laid off. I remember years ago on an SAP project somebody telling me; “I’ve been BPR’ed,” meaning they’d been Business Process Re-engineered out of a job. [Laughter.] It’s an expression that’s stuck with me. In many big companies new changes are announced to the groans of the staff. Is change just a necessary evil or do we need to recast what we’re talking about when we’re talking about organisational change?

Kim:

Like anything, I think that change can get overused. There’s kind of a change fatigue that happens when you have a lot of leadership turnover in an organisation. Every new leader wants to put their stamp on things, and you kind of get the “flavour of the month” going on.

One of the things that characterises effective change is that it’s a focus that’s maintained over time. Part of the problem that you see with most change initiatives is, you know, this is the year that we care about user experience, and next year we care about something else. Change doesn’t happen that fast. Real cultural change is… The story I like to equate it with is, I used to have this very scraggly plum tree in my backyard. It was poorly shaped and it dropped fruit everywhere so we cut it down. And what happened was for the next two or three years at least we found little plum trees cropping up all over the yard. They were sending up shoots from the roots. And we had to keep uprooting those darn things, because once they got established, boy! it was hard to get rid of them.

And an organisation’s culture is just like that. You think you’ve chopped it down, but the roots are still there, and they’re ready to pop up any time. And so organisation change at the cultural level takes years. It’s easily a four- or five-year effort, often more than that, because some of the people who are most tightly tied to the culture, well, sometimes they just need to leave. And you have to establish new norms, you have to put in systems, you have to do behavioural modelling, you have to help people understand, “Hmm, what’s expected of me in this new culture?” And that takes a while. So the “flavour of the month” really doesn’t work. So you’ve got to have senior executives who are very committed to, for example, making user experience important. And that’s got to be embedded in the shared values. That has to be how you start to make decisions, and how you keep making decisions over time.

And most of the change people undergo is not really at that values levels, it’s pointless reorganisation. Reshuffling the org chart and so on. Culture change is much deeper.

Gerry:

You spoke about shared values. Tell us about founding myths. What’s a founding myth in a business context?

Kim:

Well, a founding myth is kind of a legend. Not every company has one that’s very clear, but if you think about Hewlett-Packard or Apple or probably half the companies in Silicon Valley for example, you have the myth of the two guys tinkering in their garage. Basically the founding myths says; “Today we’re successful and it’s because of this one thing that we did back in the day.” That relationship might be entirely false, but it’s the story that gets told, and so people assume that that one strategy that supposedly got them to the point of success should continue.

I was conversing with a CEO once who told a story about himself as an engineer/entrepreneur basically writing the code for the original product for this many-million dollar company. And I realised that that’s the founding myth. The founding myth is that engineers run the whole show and engineers are sovereign inventors who don’t really pay attention to anybody else. And as long as that guy’s the CEO, that’s going to remain the assumption at the core of the culture, is that that’s the engineer’s job, and so if designers want to succeed in that environment it’s about giving engineers tools, it’s not about trying to drive the process.

If you understand the founding myth, you can start to figure out if it’s something you can use, or if it’s something that’s just going to make success impossible, or if it’s a myth that you can change.

Gerry:

So, what, create a story around it and move it forward, I guess.

Kim:

Yeah. I think it takes a lot to change a founding myth. I think it’s possible. I think Steve Jobs probably changed the founding myth at Apple, right? Because they definitely had the two guys in the garage vibe going. But over time, once he left Apple and returned to Apple, I think that that changed. I think it became much more about prioritisation and attention to detail and design became a part of that. And so it’s not just, oh there’s these two guys. There’s still a bit of can they do it without Steve. There’s still a little bit of the Steve Jobs myth in there. But I think Apple’s founding myth got morphed into something more complex, and I think that’s going to serve them well in a way that it wouldn’t if it was just, oh yeah, these two guys are the whole thing.

Gerry:

So what’s exciting you at the moment in UX?

Kim:

What’s exciting me? I think that this leadership stuff is exciting me. It’s my big focus right now. I think that it’s something people are starting to pay more attention to. I think it’s a sign that we’re growing up as an industry, and I think that if we pay more attention to it, it’s only going to mean good things. That’s probably my main focus right now.

Gerry:

Kim Goodwin, thanks so much for joining me today on the User Experience podcast.

Kim:

Thanks very much for having me, Gerry.

Published: October 2011

A note on the transcripts

We make verbatim transcripts of the User Experience podcast. We then edit the transcripts to remove speech-specific elements that interfere with meaning in print (primarily space-fillers such as “you know…”, “um…”).

Gerry GaffneyUX leadership: An interview with Kim Goodwin

Comments 1

  1. Amin

    I really enjoyed the interview and I specifically loved this quote: “Users are intelligent people, but who don’t have the patience to learn new tools”

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