Google’s Austin Knight: Why Understanding Economics Is Important for Designers

Austin and I talk about the importance of economics as a designer, why the change to distributed teams is inevitable, and why understanding the value systems of a company you're interviewing for is important before saying ‘yes’ to an offer.

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Photo of Austin Knight

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Lead Product Designer, Google

Austin Knight

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The UX & Growth Podcast

Austin’s newsletter

Selected links from the episode

Austin’s UX Design Process

Lean UX, by Jeff Gothelf

The podcast episode with Dan Patiño

Indonesia’s top healthcare app

Full transcript

Christian: Welcome to Design Meets Business, a show that inspires designers to think beyond pixels. I’m your host Christian Vasile, and on this podcast, I sit down with creatives to talk about their stories, lessons they’ve learned during their careers, and how you can use design to make a bigger impact in your organisation.

On the first episode of the show, we’re talking to Austin Knight. Austin is a designer at Google and previously the first UX Designer at HubSpot. We talk about the importance of economics as a designer, why the change to distributed teams is inevitable, and why understanding the value systems of a company you’re interviewing for is important before saying ‘yes’ to an offer.

Austin, thank you so much for joining the Design Meets Business podcast. Really excited to talk to you today about some of the things you’ve been working on and maybe how the future is going to look like for our industry. Your team at Google is influencing the future of Chrome, which everyone knows is the most popular browser out there. And you’re focusing on how to get to that next billion users in the emerging markets. So, I’d like to talk about how you manage such a mammoth of a task today, but also about your experience of HubSpot where I know you were one of the first UX Designers and how you helped the company grow so massively.

So before we go into that, it would be nice to start with a bit of a background so people get acquainted with you. What’s your story? What led you to the path or on the path you are on today?

Austin: Yes. Excellent. So I’m really thrilled to be here, Christian. Thank you so much for having me on. It’s fantastic to be talking to you about these topics that are actually really important to me at the intersection of design and business. But yes, just to give folks a quick background on myself, I am a Product Designer at Google based in the San Francisco Bay area.

Prior to that, I helped lead and established UX at HubSpot, and I actually worked remote for quite a sizeable chunk of that time. I was primarily based out of Rio de Janeiro, but then I was traveling around the world. I do some mentoring at Columbia and Stanford, advise start-ups at Sequoia Capital, do some speaking when we’re not dealing with a global pandemic, co-host a podcast called the UX & Growth Podcast and then another one called the Decrypting Crypto Podcast. Both are kind of about design and tech and stuff like that. So really passionate about this space.

I am fully self-taught, so I kind of came into this purely based out of that passion. I come from a place in the middle of the United States called Kentucky. It’s not exactly the tech centre of our country, and Design wasn’t really seen as a career. So it was more something that like failed artists did to pay the bills. So it was really cool over time for me, as I pursued this passion to realise that actually it was a career and it was something that real value could be derived from. So eventually, yes, made my way here to Google designing with immense responsibility for Chrome – over 3.5 billion users that we are serving now. It is incredible to operate at that scale. 

And yes, as you mentioned, starting out at HubSpot as an early designer; learned a lot about what it means to establish a design practice and what was already a very, very well-functioning organisation actually, they really knew what they were doing, but getting design off the ground when the company was already several years into its incredible growth trajectory was quite an experience. So happy to talk about that too. 

Christian: Awesome. Thank you for the background. I cannot even imagine how complicated it must be to have to design for billions of users, and that’s billions with a B. There must be so much going on behind there. And we’re going to talk about that in a second, but first I want to talk about something else that I’ve read about you; might be true, might not be true. If it’s on the Internet, it’s true. Isn’t that what they say? Tell me about unsolicited redesigns and getting jobs out of that. Is there any truth to that? 

Austin: Yes, there is some truth to this. So a big theme in my career is actually sort of self-initiative, which I think an unsolicited redesign is sort of one manifestation of that. I started my career really by launching a non-profit organisation, purely again as a passion project. It was fighting human trafficking. And did a fundraiser with a local business in Kentucky, and we raised way more money than we expected to. And as a way of thanking them, I wanted to kind of go through their digital presence, especially their website, to perform an audit and give that to them as an additional thing in return for the incredible work that they did for our fundraiser. 

And then I presented this audit to them, and they basically said, “Look, this is awesome. We don’t have the expertise in-house to do this. How much do we have to pay you to just do this for us?” So that ended up being basically my first job. And it was really just a fantastic opportunity to kind of explore all of the different areas of design that I felt I could be interested in and start to hone my craft and take things in the direction that I wanted to, because I have a lot of autonomy in that role.

And then that eventually led to — this was around like 2013. There’s a huge allure, as there still is, to the idea of joining a start-up at the time. So there’s a start-up out of Cincinnati, Ohio, that really caught my attention. I did an unsolicited redesign of the site, built a style guide, spoke to the CEO, and got a job because of that effectively. 

And then interestingly, that also was a big theme in my going to HubSpot. I was on Reddit doing anonymous design feedback on like r/designcritique or something like that. And one person whose design I critiqued happened to be a fairly prominent engineer at HubSpot, and he knew that they were looking to establish their UX practice. And so this opened that conversation to complete strangers behind random usernames. Ultimately, we became very close co-workers, and we actually started the UX & Growth Podcast together. That’s Matt Rowe – was the guy that did that with me, and he’s still at HubSpot doing incredible things.

So it’s really cool to see how when you have a passion, and you are pursuing it organically, it will lead to opportunities both intentionally, of course, and unintentionally as some of these were.

Christian: That’s a great story. The reason I wanted to talk about it is because I see a lot of designers nowadays, especially towards the beginning of their careers, really struggling with getting work. And especially in this time when nobody’s really hiring, or very few companies are, it must  be even more difficult than usual. And this story reminds me of the fact that whichever situation you find yourself in, there is always a way around it. Not a lot of people do unsolicited redesigns, and I guess not a lot of people will continue just because of this podcast. But I just want to put the story out there because it’s a bit inspiring of how you can start in a different way than most other people do. 

So you’re self-taught. You didn’t have a college degree or whatever, you didn’t have that catalyst to start your career based off, but you found other ways of doing it. So I just want to raise that flag and say, there’s always a way to get in front of companies, and there must be, not Google, not HubSpot, not Facebook, not Apple. Probably that doesn’t work there, but if you are at the beginning of your career, I can imagine that starting in a smaller company, it’s probably even better than starting in a large company that might be a bit overwhelming. And maybe a way of starting in a smaller company is doing some sort of an unsolicited redesign or trying to just provide any value maybe without expectation, and someone might say, “You know what? We actually need that.” 

So that’s why I wanted to talk about this. I love that story and the Reddit story of how you got into HubSpot; that’s even better. So let’s  talk about HubSpot. You are the first UX Designer there working on the website, working on hubspot.com, and when was that? 2015 or when was that? 

Austin: Yes, yes, right around there. 

Christian: ‘15, right around there. So they were already growing massively, but with you being the first UX Designer, I can imagine that the role you came into was maybe a bit different than, or definitely a bit different than the role you are in today.  You were maybe seen a bit differently. I don’t want to say pixel pusher, but did the people at HubSpot really understand what you were brought in for, or did you have to do a lot of stakeholder management and a lot of transparency around the work, etc etc?

Austin: Yes, it’s a great question. I think that my answer is going to be a bit atypical, actually, which is that HubSpot was effectively founded on user-centred design principles. If you research really, like one of HubSpot’s greatest innovations is this concept of inbound marketing. And if you really sort of break down the fundamentals of it, it effectively is just human-centred marketing. It’s a beautiful thing, and because of that, it was quite a natural transition for user experience and human-centred design to become an established practice at HubSpot.

And I was in a nice position where my role was actually advocated for by the very engineers that I would be working with. So that’s not to say that I didn’t have to overcome plenty of things along that road, but what I will say is that if the right values are in place within an organisation, it’s much more straight forward to incorporate human-centred design within that organisation. And this is a big piece of advice that I give to designers that are looking to go into nascent roles and organisations is – what are the fundamentals, the values that the organisation holds elsewhere in its practice, and how well do those align with the values of human-centred design, but also with your values as an individual. That is going to impact your ability to be effective.

Now that’s not to say that there isn’t something really, really poetic about overcoming an extreme challenge against all odds. I think there’s a lot to that, but I also think that a lot of the time, to your pixel pusher sort of fear of perception that many fear that designers have being perceived as that. I think a lot of the time we bring this upon ourselves, and because of that it is also our responsibility to squash that perception and to prove to our cross-functional peers that we are not deserving of that perception. 

So yes, I think if you go into a company that totally doesn’t get it, of course that is a challenge in and of itself that may have nothing to do with your quality or abilities as a designer. However, if you go into a relatively well-informed, forward-thinking, open-minded company that is focused principally on success and recognises that success for the company means success for its users and for its customers, then the only way you’re going to get that perception, in my opinion, is if you do yourself and your peers the disservice of earning that perception.

So think about how do you work your way out of that in terms of using it as a design problem? Who are the people that you’re working with? What do they care about? What language do they speak, and how do you sort of speak in those terms in that language? In the case of HubSpot, if I ever ran into that, it was usually that folks cared about certain very specific metrics. So like the search organisation really, really had strong SLAs that we needed to help them deliver. And so it was important for me to speak about the design in terms of those metrics that mattered to them the most, for example. 

Christian: So that’s applying the same principle you would apply to designing a product or a website to designing maybe let’s say your role in your organisation; to figuring out who your stakeholders are, communicating to them the right way, and then applying whatever you need to apply to make sure that they start understanding that your success is their success as well, I guess. 

Austin: Yes, absolutely. You can view a lot of things as a design problem, that’s for sure.

Christian: Well, I guess that’s maybe why a lot of designers have gone on to build really successful companies is because if you do have this mentality of trying to understand everyone around you and make sure that whatever you do fits their mental model of an organisation, or fits their needs, then you’re much more likely to be successful. And we see this in the industry whether it’s Airbnb that started by designers or whatever other organisation, it’s kind of a pattern that keeps popping up. 

So you go into HubSpot, it’s already, as you said, a mature organisation. It’s already an organisation that understands design. Just because they don’t have a designer or a UX designer it doesn’t mean they don’t understand design. You come in; there must still be a lot of challenges to overcome. So what would you say were the biggest challenges to overcome when you started at HubSpot? 

Austin: Yes. So there certainly were. One of the largest challenges that we faced is that there wasn’t really any formalised UX practice or process. There were designers at HubSpot, they were principally visual and brand designers. And so we were looking to establish the UX practice, which was quite different to what was being done there. HubSpot was always, first and foremost, a marketing company. So it would make sense that they would have more marketing-oriented designers, but as the site started to grow and we started going from like 100,000 visitors a month to like 10 million, we really thought a lot about the role of the functionality of the site and the usability of the site and how that fed into the product and the sort of consistency of that experience across both of those touchpoints. From when you’re initially landing on this site, HubSpot was bringing in a ton of traffic through organic search because it’s just a content machine. That’s effectively inbound marketing. 

So what’s that experience like a first engaging with the content versus engaging with purchasing the software versus getting into the software. Establishing the process was something that I knew from the very start needed to be done collaboratively. Of course, I had an idea, a conceptualisation for a process in my head, but I also knew that both from a design perspective, but also from a marketing and sales and engineering perspective, there were already systems in place at the company. And it would not be very productive for me to come in and immediately say, “Okay, here’s what’s being done wrong. This is what we need to change. I’m going to institute these things, etc etc etc.” That’s a fairly egotistical way, I think, to approach design or to approach your role. 

So I spent the first couple of weeks listening and observing, and I think that that can be an uncomfortable thing to do because you feel this pressure, especially in a high-growth tech company, which that’s exactly what HubSpot was at the time; we called ourselves a scale-up. So call it like a start-up and then there’s a scale up and then you’ve got a mature organisation or a corporation or whatever you want to call it. We were still scaling up, which means we had found the wave, but there was a lot more riding and a lot more building of that wave to do.

So I knew that within those sorts of systems that were in place, it was important for us to collaboratively develop that process. And that began with listening and with not really contributing very much for a couple of weeks despite the fact that in these start-up and scale-up environments, people are contributing at just extreme velocity. So while everybody else around me was just running at full speed, I had to kind of just sit down a watch them. And you stand out because of that, but what that empowered me to do was to take in a lot of data and also to form relationships that could then be used to institute our UX practice and our process. 

Christian: You already touched upon something that I wanted to ask anyway, which is what is the first thing you should do when you join an organisation? What are you spending your first month on? And I guess it’s what you just said. It’s building relationships to people and seeing how the organisation how the organisation worked without you and trying to figure out how we do would work with you. 

Austin: Yes, absolutely. 

Christian: Were there any trade-offs you had to make in terms of establishing this design process? Because there are just — it encompasses so many things. There’s just so much as part of this design process. Were there any areas that you simply weren’t able to implement because of many other reasons, or did you do it the way you actually hoped you were going to end up doing?

Austin: You’ll never fully be able to do it 100% to plan. And I think it’s important to reconcile with that as early in your career as possible, especially in this industry that has at least classically been so aesthetically oriented. We are prone to the pursuit of perfection, but I will say actually to HubSpot’s credit more than to my own, we actually got pretty close to exactly what was we were shooting for, and I was really proud of that. 

It was a really nice experience to be able to devise something entirely from scratch and within a fairly short amount of time see it mature to actually something greater than we had originally envisioned. This process I’ve open sourced on my website at austinknight.com. You can go, or you can go to uxdesignguide.com and click on the process tab; it’s on there. I also have a case study on my site that sort of talks through how we put this into practice, but it’s the exact process we implemented at HubSpot. And it’s a derivation of Lean UX written by Jeff Gothelf and their crew.

And what I did learn through this process of creating a process is that these processes are intended purposefully to not be rigid. And that was something that we had to let go as we were developing this, is the tendency to want to create a rigid process that says “Every time this thing must be done in this way at this phase”, but Lean UX is ingenious in the respect that it is designed intentionally to be flexible and to be fluid and to be adaptive.

So I have a lot of people coming to me, and they’ll like — over the years, and they’ll ask me, “How do I incorporate a good process into my organisation? Or how does the X, Y, and Z thing work with Lean UX?” And the beauty of it, but also perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of it, because it really just comes down to the answer is, you’re going to have to do the work yourself, is that there is no definitive answer. Every process and implementation of the process is contextual, not just to the organisation, company, team, industry, but also to the project itself. So one of the things that we did really good was that we built this fluid process, and then we took it through several projects with the intent and purpose of iterating on the process thereafter. So we took an iterative approach to our iterative process. 

Christian: Very inception, isn’t it? 

Austin: Yes, yes. But it actually worked really nicely because we learned the things that worked well within HubSpot, and that didn’t work well, the things that were important to us and were not so important to us. And also, by nature of that, the things that we needed to change about our organisation to better adapt to the process that we had envisioned or the things that we needed to change about the process to better adapt to this beautiful organisation that had been around for years and it was already making all of this money and making so many people happy. 

Christian: Yes, especially the shareholders. 

Austin: Yes, that was one of the interesting things is that, like the company IPO’ed, when I got there. And so yes, we got to see this really awesome roller coaster ride of stock prices and emotions and everything like that. And a beautiful thing about HubSpot is that usually a lot of companies, when they IPO, the culture changes and the way things are done changes. Nothing changed. It was amazing. And that really — I mean, I sound like I’m a walking advertisement for the company, but I practically am, and it’s not intentional.

I think that the thing to take away for folks listening to this is that it is so important to scrutinise and to evaluate a company before you choose to invest your time, your most valuable asset, in that company. And that’s really the way that you have to think about your job, is that you are making an investment in that company of your most valuable asset. So when you’re interviewing, make sure you’re not just being interviewed by the company, ensure that you are interviewing the company as well, and making sure that there’s a mutual fit here. 

Christian: So I guess that’s a bit easier to do when you’re more experienced, but how about being someone maybe first job, maybe maybe a second job, earlier on in their careers. What’s an easy way for them to do this? To figure out if a company is a fit for them when they haven’t really got that experience yet to know — smell those red flags from a mile away or whatever the saying is. What do these people do, who just start in their careers? 

Austin: Yes. So I think it’s a matter of developing a strong value system as an individual and as a designer and knowing yourself and what you care about. And sure, that of course will be honed explicitly through experience, but it’s something that I think is also somewhat intrinsic to the individual. And something that worked really well for me with HubSpot is that they were very forthcoming about their culture. If you just Google HubSpot culture code, you’ll find a 100 plus slide deck that has been viewed over six million times. And it’s basically HubSpot just laying out, “Hey, this is what we’re all about.”

There were a few things that spoke to me. One of them being, we don’t care where you work, when you work, what we care about is what you produce. So here they’re talking about a results-only work environment. And as you sort of educate yourself on the company and its values, you can start to get a sense for how well you’re aligned with that company. But I also think that you can fall into this sort of tough situation where not all companies are going to be quite as forthcoming as HubSpot. I think that younger companies… more forward-thinking and adaptable companies are doing that more and more often. 

Google was perhaps famously one of the first companies to do things like this, to be so forthcoming about its slides and free food and stuff like that, but you may be like, “Okay, Austin, great thing about the culture code. But I’m looking at these very, very corporate, dry websites. What does that tell me about these companies?”

Go on Glassdoor and read about them. Go on LinkedIn and find people that are individual contributors, managers, whoever you think are going to be the best sources of information and reach out to them and say, “Hey, can I buy you a virtual beer? And we can just talk about what it’s like to work at your company.”

The design industry prides itself on empathy and on openness. So take up the industry on that. Go to events hosted by the company. When you’re in the interview process, again, make sure that you’re interviewing the company. I think the best way to do that in terms of understanding their value system is to ask very, very specific questions. Because if you ask a general question, like, “What do you care about?” most likely the interviewer that you’re working with is going — or the recruiter, whoever is going to have a fairly well-rehearsed answer. So ask for specifics and examples that are difficult to rehearse or to fake, etc.

I think a fantastic one that we have at our disposal at this point in time is – especially a great question to ask to the individual is, “Hey, how did your company treat you during COVID-19? When did you start having shelter in place orders in your region, and when did your company send you home? When did they send you remote?” That timeframe can tell you a lot about the companies’ values and how it approaches work and what it thinks of its employees and on that sort of spectrum of resource to human being. 

So yes, I think there’s definitely going to first be an aspect of researching the company, and that’s also going to aid you a lot in the interview process when you can demonstrate knowledge and expertise about the company. Because it shows that you’re not blasting out applications to as many places as possible. You’re actually excited and passionate about the opportunity, and you can fit in well with the area that they’re working within. But also, when you’re in the interview process, ensuring that you ask pointed and thoughtful questions to get a sense for where the company is at and what it’s like to work there and how you can fit into that.

Christian: So off the back of that, you been with HubSpot for a bit of a time, and then you moved onto Google. So I’m wondering what was it? I guess when you’ve helped scale HubSpot in the way it has, you probably have your pick of choices of where you want to work. So what was it that attracted you to Google talking about values and how the company was? What was it that made you think, “Oh, I want to invest my time here as you very well put it earlier?”

Austin: This is going to sound maybe a little silly, but when I — I’ll never forget in 1997, the first time that I saw that search engine and then typed something into it and got a result and how much it just blew my mind. I love the branding. I love the simplicity of it, but I love the power of it. The power to deliver information, to organise information for at that time what may have been millions of people and today, of course, there’s billions of people and I’ve seen this play out in my time at Google – the real-world impact that the company and its products have had. And I think that that is an immense opportunity, and of course, and this is the one that I tend to focus on more, an immense responsibility. But I grew up with Google from that moment on, and I honed my passion for design via the open web.

So view source on a website, deconstruct it, try to host something on my own, and pose like I’m some big design agency or something like that and see if I can get anybody to be interested in this stuff that’s that I’m doing. I remember I think I was like 11 years old when I built my first website and, of course, that was in Firefox. Chrome didn’t even exist at the time. And then Chrome — a lot of people don’t realise this, but Chrome was actually born out of Firefox. 

So I remember when Chrome came around, and it was just such a robust leap forward. I recognised the importance of it, because it was this collaboration between a company with such incredible reach and such depth of information and the very window through which people would reach that depth of information, which of course, is the browser, and that is Chrome. And I think it’s that journey for me of growing up on the open web – it’s what has specifically led me to — and very intentionally join Google and for that matter Chrome specifically. 

Of course, I love many other Google products, but this is the product that I always intended to work on for years. And actually, when I — very early, when I started my career and then especially when I was going to HubSpot, everything was intended to be a calculated move toward exactly this. So I have to say that when I actually made it the Google, I couldn’t quite believe it. I couldn’t… especially how quickly I was able to do it.

Oh, that’s not to say that I didn’t fail on the way because I did fail a whole interview process, and I’d be happy to talk about that as well. There were failures along this whole path, but when I did finally do it, I had kind of like this moment for — man, maybe like six months of just existential dread, where I was like, “Oh my God, what do I want to do next?” And I’m like, “Do I need to like go to MIT or something? Try to like — maybe I should get an education. What’s this next thing that I can do because I achieved my goal?”

So it’s a beautiful thing when you achieve your goals, but there is also this other thing, especially if you’re listening to this and you’re in that process of achieving your goals. It’s kind of better to be in the process than it is to be at the end of it, I have to say. And now, of course, a couple of years later, I’ve built up this whole new host of just lofty goals. Hopefully, some of which I’ll never achieve so that I can always chase them and just land on something else that’s interesting. 

Christian: I’ve heard you on your own podcast, actually, talk about designing for the next billion users. Designing for people in Indonesia, Brazil, all these countries that are just coming on the web and how these people are actually so similar to how we are too, or maybe to how similar they are to people in Midwestern America or, people in maybe more rural areas of Europe or… so, talk a bit about designing for that emerging market, and how does that fit in with the — let’s say overarching goals of Google as a company?

Austin: Yes. So this is a huge area of passion for me as an individual, but of course, it’s an area of passion for the company as a whole. There is enormous potential in markets like Brazil and Kenya, Nigeria, Indonesia, India, etc. And you’re right. I’ve been talking about this well before I was at Google, I’ll never forget on the UX & Growth Podcast.

I was living in Argentina for some time, and I met this incredible guy, Dan Patiño. And he came on the show with me, and we talked about emerging markets and the immense potential that is there. And that still remains very, very true today. Of course these markets shift, especially with political changes and things like that, but by and large, there is a lot of opportunity as we see millions of people coming online for the very first time every day. 

And what we have to note is that these people, their interaction with, their experience with the web is very different from mine and yours. Of course there’s maybe a couple decade or a decade and a half gap, but also most of the time they’re having these first interactions via mobile devices that may be lower-end devices, feature phones, maybe they have spotty connections. And these devices are critical for their access to information, their livelihood, their wellbeing, their entertainment, their communication with their family, etc. 

And so the way that we designed for them is in many ways, very different than how we design for somebody that is in San Francisco. But interestingly, yes, to your point there are strong overlaps. For example, with folks that are coming online for the first time in emerging markets, as well as with folks, for example, that are coming online in Appalachia, a place very dear to my heart where a lot of people are dealing with living conditions that are… I think most people in the United States don’t completely comprehend or understand. So yes, and then of course you’ve got like the in-between too. Not all of these situations are dire, which is that, like running research with people in Brazil, I saw a ton of overlap with their use cases in their needs with my dad’s use cases and his needs are, or my mom’s or whatever.

So yes, there’s a lot right here in your backyard whether you’re in rural Europe or in the United States that you can learn from, but then also, there is this beautiful thing where you — when you start to design at this scale, and for billions of users and especially for billions of users that are coming online for the first time, you get an immense explosion of diversity at the same time. So some of the needs may — there may be some strong overlap, but then the specifics and the execution can be fairly different. So yes, this is a really interesting time where we are seeing just explosions of connectivity in places like India and Nigeria, their entire infrastructure changing over the course of a year or two. And the impact that that has on these people’s lives. You can especially see this in Southeast Asia as well. 

Before the pandemic I was Singapore and Malaysia and travelled around and got to meet a bunch of local designers there working at companies like Grab and Gojek, etc. And within like — we are used to as people in Europe and the United States, etc, we’re used to pretty insane level of — insane in a good way, level of stability. And the amount of change that we experienced over the course of one generation is like that amount of changes experienced maybe five or six times over the course of one generation in Southeast Asia right now. I mean, you’re going from literally like living in a hut potentially to having a scooter, a motorised scooter, and having access to Internet and working as what they were literally refer to themselves as digital entrepreneurs, which is fantastic. So there is a lot of shift happening.

Christian: Yes, so I’m based in Bali right now. And Bali today is very different than Bali was ten and even five years ago. I was hearing stories and seeing photos, shocking photos from Bali five years ago. And it looks like it’s a different world. So they — and if you look at five — at photos from five years ago in London, where I also used to live, there’s no change. They’re still the same shops. Everything’s the same. 

So you’re right. It’s really interesting. And that must come with a lot of challenges for people building products, I can imagine. Challenges that are wildly different than the challenges we deal with when we design for the, let’s say, Western world.

Austin: Yes. There’s a lot of things that you take for granted as a designer, which are really related to infrastructure, to device, tech, and capabilities, to culture, language, perception, that you have to just completely throw out the window when you’re designing for these population. And really the antidote to all of that is field research. User experience research is the most powerful thing that I think you can embark upon to empower yourself or your designers, your team of designers, to create for such an incredibly diverse population. So that’s something that I feel very fortunate to take part in at Google, again, outside of pandemic times – going into people’s homes and observing them as they interact with our devices and with our products and talking to them about that and learning from them. 

Christian: A few years ago, I designed an app. I had no clue what it was going to turn into. This was towards the beginning of my career. I designed an app for — a healthcare app for Indonesians. Back then, I had no clue that years later I would end up living here. And the app, looking back at it, even compared to like — obviously there were different trends back then, but even compared to the counterpart apps in the Western world was so rudimentary, so basic. There was nothing exciting about it. 

Three months ago, I get in touch totally randomly with the guy who hired me back then on LinkedIn. And he tells me this was — I think this is six years ago. And he tells me that they’ve had that version of the app until last summer, so that’s for six years, simply because it was so rudimentary that — and that’s what they needed. And finally, after six years, there was a need to kind of prop that up a little bit. It’s unheard of for a popular — and this is the leading app in Indonesia right now. Again, who knew what they were going to turn into. But it’s unheard of in the Western world for an app to not be redesigned for six years, top app, right? While here, it’s totally normal. 

So I want to segway a bit into — what you’ve talked about now, it’s a lot of designing for users. There’s also the other side of the story that you’re passionate about, which is designing for the business if you will, or to meet the business goal. So when you work, whether it’s a smaller or larger organisation like Google, how do you manage to marry up the needs to design for people like you and me, with the needs of a large faceless entity or a corporation or a start-up, whatever it is, to be successful?

Austin: Yes. So I do think that this is perhaps one of the most critical, yet overlooked aspects of design. And that’s why I’m so grateful that you are running this podcast and that you are starting these conversations, because they’re just not happening.

To be blunt, a lot of designers are just completely and utterly, economically illiterate. They don’t understand how a business is run. They don’t understand what makes a product commercially successful, and they don’t understand how that pay check shows up in their bank account every month. And I think that that is a huge disservice to our profession, to our users, and perhaps principally to ourselves and the organisations that we work for and care about so much, at least, I hope.

So to me design and business are inextricably tied. And I think — going into the design profession, going into design school, however, you find yourself entering into this field, it’s smart to approach it from as entrepreneurial of a perspective as possible. And to say, “I’m not just here to design something that looks really good, or is really usable, or makes users really happy, but I’m also here to design something that is going to be objectively successful. And if you think about it, that is sort of maybe one of the highest forms of design, because if you design something that is really nice and it looks really good and it’s really usable and makes all your users happy, but can’t sustain itself, then ultimately your users are going to lose that product at some point. It’s not going to be able to pay for itself if it’s not commercially viable. Or even if at some point it is commercially viable, and then you erode that over time through what could seem as like, well-intentioned designed decisions that ultimately hurts the economics of the product, then you’re going to get this sort of classic situation where it’s like, we built something that people loved, but we didn’t do it thoughtfully enough to make sure that they could continue loving it after the money ran out; after the venture capital infusion went away.

And I think that a lot of that responsibility actually falls on the designer. And we think, “Oh, that’s the suits’ job. Like that’s what the CEO does or the CFO or that’s what the marketing and sales people do. Their job is to bring the cash into the funnel. And it’s my job to create the product that people love.” But when you make design decisions, you make decisions on behalf of the entire business and your entire user group. 

So this is no longer about you. As soon as you step into the role as a designer, you must remove your own, self-driven desires and motives from that equation and think about, “Okay, I have been given this responsibility. So how am I going to properly solve for both the users, which we love to talk about, and I don’t think we have any problem advocating for users in design at this point, but also how am I going to solve for the business and recognise that these are both very, very important stakeholders?”

Christian: So you’ve asked the question. I’ll let you answer it too. How do you do that? Because it doesn’t sound like it’s — it sounds like there’s a gap in knowledge there, you said economics. If a designer becomes a designer through school, or even self-taught like you are, where are you getting that economics, as you called it, knowledge from? Is it by working in companies? Is it by studying on your own because you know it’s important, just as important as visual design is or whatever other component of design… how do you get that knowledge?

Austin: I think the first step is intellectual curiosity. And that’s really what I’m campaigning for here. I think that the problem, the root of this problem that we’re dealing with, and the first step that we can take is actually very basic, which is to not shut the information out, to not dismiss the information. So to not say, “Oh, it’s not my job to take care of the business. It’s my job to take care of the user.” To recognise that actually the information about the business is very important. So when you’re talking to sales people about their pipeline, or when you’re talking to marketing people about how they are going to market and sell the product that you are designing, or you’re talking to your data analyst about how your revenue is being impacted by a product. And they may be telling you something that you don’t want to hear. Like, “Look, this feature that you designed is very nice, but it’s going to cost us $5,000 a month or something like that in lost revenue potential to launch this feature.”

I’ve been in that exact situation many times, and I have made the decision to not launch the feature in favour of the economics –– the economic impact that it would have on the product. And the beautiful thing about that is that constraints are the mother of innovation. So almost inevitably, with every one of those cases, it just took a little bit more time and tweaking and thought to be put into it, to find a solution that either kept those metrics at neutral or positive, instead of putting them into a negative space. 

Now with that said, of course, sometimes you’re going to get backed into a corner where you have conflicting goals, where the business may have a set of goals that are not directly aligned with design or not directly aligned with the user. And this is partially a big part of the value that designers bring to the table is this conflict resolution and helping to align your cross-functional team on shared mutually beneficial goals. I think that that really comes into play as you’re moving into leadership. So maybe not as much for somebody like a junior designer, but certainly something to be thinking about early in your career.

When you have those conflicting goals, sometimes you may be able to justify actually taking a hit in one direction or the other, if you can’t find a compromise or you can’t reconcile them. So for example I’ve also launched feature that cost quite a bit of money, but before we even designed the thing, we knew, we did our due diligence to understand and recognise that it was probably going to be costly, because we had conflicting goals, and we went into the project under that agreement and assumption. And then when we noticed and inevitably saw that the revenue metrics or whatever metric it is that you want to pick, a business metric, health metric, etc, was being hurt by the feature, we knew that that was actually somewhat intentional, because we had prioritised intentionally this other aspect of the design over that. 

So for example, you may be able to pick out a shitty piece of UI or a dark pattern in your product or like a modal that is like doing a really good job at getting you $5,000 extra revenue per month. But you notice that that is coming at the expense of NPS or user customer satisfaction or retention. And so you make the explicit decision to tank that metric, that little revenue metric, in favour of the other metric, which in the case of NPS or whatever would be a quantitative metrics. So, it’s very easy to see that comparison.

It gets more sort of difficult when you’re dealing with a qualitative metric, which is something like, look, this is about product excellence. This is about the fit and finish of the design. It’s a lot harder to argue that. And I would say that the way that you’re going to do that is by building rapport within your organisation, as a designer that approaches every design problem from a standpoint of humility and not from ego; not saying, “Look, design is like this thing that needs to be put on a pedestal, and designers are like better than you all. You all don’t have taste.” I’ve worked with people like that, and they’re very unpleasant, and they really — again, going back to the perception of design, they do the most work out of anything to ruin design’s perception cross-functionally.

So first, make sure that you build up the rapport and the respect with your cross-functional peers to show, “Look, these designers, they really do care about the business and the users on a well-balanced basis”. I can go back on a track record — on this person’s track record and see that they have made decisions that may go against like the aspects of design or whatever these aesthetics or whatever these things that we hold to be so dear in favour of the thing that maybe wasn’t beautiful but was right or what was better.

And then when you do take a stand, and you plant your flag, and you say, “This time, we are going to do the design-driven thing, even if it is in the face of our metrics.” You have this rapport and this respect to fall back on or to serve as your backdrop. This is built principally through an understanding and a mutual respect for your cross-functional peers’ roles, goals, and responsibilities. So understanding what an engineer does, what’s important to them, and expressing your desire to help them and to achieve those goals via the design. 

Christian: I used to work with someone who — he used to say to the business, very bluntly, “I don’t work for you. I work for your users or for your customers.” And I thought, “Oh, okay. I see what you’re doing. I see what you’re trying to do there, but if there is no business, there’s no customers either.”

So I see design or designers as a connector in between the users, which of course, everyone knows as you said earlier, everyone knows we design for users. There’s no – like who else would we design for? So the connector between that and designing for the needs of the business, because by designing with the business in mind, you’re actually having the best interest of your users or customers in mind at the same time.

Austin: In the ideal scenario.

Christian: Yes

Austin: I do want to say that person that you’re working with, especially if they’re an old school designer. I try to have a lot of patience with them. I think an inherent ego and a designer, “Oh, I’m the creative director and what I say goes” this like hierarchal bullshit and everything. I’m pretty allergic to that, and I’m quick to call that out and to defect against that. Like when people play hierarchal or experience games like “I have all these awards, or I was at this agency, or I have this education”. That’s all bullshit.

But I also think that in the spirit of empathy, especially designers that have been around for quite some time, they did come up in an environment where nobody gave a crap about the user. And so they’re sort of like battle-hardened, and they’re like, “Look, I’ve dealt with too many of you people saying that, like, we can’t do the right thing for the user.” And so, I understand where they’re coming from, and I think this goes back to the thing where it’s like, “Hey, it’s contextual.” You know what I mean?

Right now, I’m working in a company that really priorities this and values this. So I can — we have like everybody — we’ve got rules of play.  So you have to have this mutual respect in order to develop a product at the companies that I work at. And as soon as somebody drops that mutual respect and kind of the whole system comes falling when one function puts their priorities above another’s, and they stop taking into account the legitimate needs and goals of the other functions, which is what I think a lot of designers especially of the past are used to, but certainly those organisations still exist.

So if your organisation doesn’t understand or respect design, obviously you’re going to be in a different situation than that. And you can’t give as many concessions as you — you can’t be as kind as you may be able to be in a more well-designed scenario. 

Alright. We are running out of time. I have two more questions. I ask everyone on the show these. So first one is what is one thing that you wish more designers would know?

Austin: Yes, this is an interesting one. So I think that there’s a few things that I would — pieces of advice that I would like to give to somebody who is interested in design, who is wanting to get into design. And a lot of them sort of follow this very similar theme, which is that we all face imposter syndrome. And I’ve especially noticed that this is a common phenomenon as I’ve been working with junior designers, career transitioners, people laid off by COVID-19.

I did mention this at the beginning, but a few months back I made a post on LinkedIn after seeing that so many people were being impacted by COVID-19, offering to do free mentoring sessions, 30 minutes a piece, one-on-one, as many as people need for portfolio reviews, interview prep, coaching, or just being somebody for them to vent to.

And this caught on. It became a huge movement within the design community. We got over 30 people from companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, etc, that became mentors. It spawned off into this thing that Felix Lee and James Baduor created called the Adplist. Companies like PayPal and Zendesk ended up creating their own versions of this and systematised it. And we ended up conducting over 500 one-on-one reviews, like 30-minute portfolio reviews. 

Over 85 jobs have been land ed already by individuals that have taken part in that. And I’ve sensed a lot of patterns in the people that I’ve talked to and the people that have gotten jobs and what advice worked and what didn’t. And one of them is sort of just this bringing down the expectation and the anxiety around what it means to be a well-contributing designer. And I think that what we all experience to a degree is a form of imposter syndrome, especially as we seek this pursuit of perfection within our work.

We did a really interesting study at HubSpot on imposter syndrome, and we found that the people that tend to experience imposter syndrome the most, it’s sort of on this interesting curve where the most junior folks experience it at like say, on a scale of one to 10, they’ll experience it on average at like a three or a four. And then mid-level folks will experience it on maybe like a one or a two, and then senior-level people, principal level of people, people that are very experienced will feel that at like a six, seven and, eight.

They actually experience the most heightened forms of imposter syndrome. And there’s a bunch of things — psychological science that goes into this. But basically, the principle is — I think that if you want to Google something around this, I believe it’s called the Dunning Kruger effect, which is that the more that you know about something, the more self-aware you are and the more you realise you don’t know. And the less you know, the more you actually — you don’t realise how much you don’t know.

There’s a famous philosopher quote about this, probably that’s like, “The more you know, the more you realise you don’t know,” basically. And that’s what people are experiencing with imposter syndrome. And when you get to a well-experienced position in your career, you really have to confront this, and it becomes a part of your daily life. And what you learn from it is that nobody really knows definitively what they’re doing.

Ultimately, there are no true experts, especially in a field like design. This is a very open and creative field. And I think that everything that I’ve said in this podcast is totally open to debate and disagreement and being debunked. I recognise that really what ultimately makes the person right, is that they are just less full of shit than the last person. And that’s really what you’re striving to be – recognising that at the end of the day, to some degree, there’s still so much to learn, and you’re always going to be full of shit to some degree regardless of whether you’re a student or a seasoned professional.

So what this means is actually something really beautiful that really, when you’re early in your career, you actually have a lot to contribute already. I did a segment of cloudflare.tv today where we talked about this stuff as we’ve been mentoring people. That these students that — a lot of the students that I was mentoring, they’re saying, “Hey, thank you so much for doing this mentoring or whatever.” And I would tell them my one condition is that you, as soon as you are in the position to mentor other people, do the same thing because we need more of this stuff. And obviously, I am like these other amazing people that volunteered to do it, can’t take on 100% of it. So the more people we have doing it, the better.

And then usually the reaction is like, “Oh my God, it’s going to take me so long to get to that point.” But what they don’t realise is, they just graduated from college. There’s total — totally new people, freshmen coming into design at their universities, that they have a lot of perspective and insight that they could share with them.

And then beyond that, coming into design with a totally fresh perspective and set of eyes is extremely valuable. I remember when I joined Google, we were like — on my first day, we were in a design review, and I said, “Hey, I can’t believe this, but I actually have like a piece of feedback that I want to give.” And I’ll never forget, Alex Ainslie, my director of design going, “Please, please do that. It’s exactly what you are here for right now. We need your fresh perspective and your external influence at this point.”  Because I was still effectively operating from a sort of uninformed point of view. 

So you always, always have something to contribute to design, to the design community, and you should never feel like you need to get to a certain level or position or amount of years of experience or accomplishments or whatever before you can consider yourself to be a strong contributor or a good designer, somebody that can do well at your role and somebody that can give back.

Christian: I love that. That sparks a lot of thoughts into my head as well, because I can relate to a lot of the things you’re saying around imposter syndrome and all that, and thinking that you don’t necessarily have a lot to offer when in fact you’re right, everyone has something to offer. So that’s really interesting. I hope a lot of people listening to this also got to this point where it makes them reconsider how much they want to help or how they can help others coming in. I always said that I think, as an industry, we need to do more for the people coming in. We’re not doing enough. 

Austin: Yes. I agree

Christian: And since the world is becoming more and more dependent on technology, therefore there’s going to be more and more of a need for people like us, that we, as an industry, need to do a bit more towards this cohort of people that’s coming in every year or every, every day.

Right! Last question. How do you reckon the future of design looks like?

Austin: My answer to that is distributed and diverse. Something that I didn’t mention here is that I’m extremely passionate about remote work, but I’m even more passionate about flexible work arrangements, so being able to go into the office if you want to, being able to work from Bali if you want to. 

And Christian, I’m sure that you can speak to the incredible opportunities and challenges and inspiration that comes from doing something like that. But I think that the future of design is very distributed and it is diverse in perhaps an even broader sense of the term than is typically discussed today, which is to say like diverse in terms of — very diverse in terms of geography, in terms of background, in terms of perspective. We are seeing more and more people from different, interesting, bizarre backgrounds coming into design and making such an impact, and I love that. I love people coming into design from non-traditional backgrounds. I love people designing for the community that they live in. Maybe they didn’t grow up in it, but maybe they did grow up in it. But I love the idea of saying, “Hey, I’m going to take on this.”

We’ve had several people do this at Google recently, which is so cool. “I’m going to take on this product that is going to principally be a next billion users’ product.”, say, “And we’re going to be focusing on Indonesia first. And because of that, I am moving to Indonesia, and I am going to work from Indonesia, and I’m going to hire designers in Indonesia that grew up in Indonesia. And this creates this like beautiful fusion where you’ve got somebody that’s like coming from the U.S. that can bring this sort of American perspective if you will and then these people that can bring this Indonesian or a Southeast Asian perspective to the table. And it creates really, really interesting forward-thinking products.

So diverse in every sense of the word, I think, is really where this industry is going. And the distributed aspect is precisely what’s going to empower that to occur. In fact, I think it is absolutely essential. I don’t think that we will ever, really truly reach any form of meaningful diversity, as long as we are saying, “Hey, we love diversity, but you need to move to this country and away from your family and your culture and live in this city, which is inevitably expensive. And you need to drive two hours a day to come to this office to sit at this desk. We’re all going to be in the same environment. And this is going to all – minimum subconsciously influence our thoughts in the same direction, because we’re in this very sort of homogenous place.

I think that by breaking through that outdated formality, we are going to have the opportunity to create a serious explosion of diversity in design, and I’m so excited about that. 

Christian: And I think COVID-19 has accelerated that trend and talking about, we were talking earlier about great power and great responsibility. I don’t know if I can necessarily say it’s their responsibility, but whenever I look around and I see these big companies over the past couple of months that have announced — Atlassian, one of them, Facebook until June, whatever. I think Google until — Shopify, all these big companies that everyone as an industry looks towards. When everyone sees that these big companies are moving towards that distributed way of working and diverse way of working, they’re going to be more incentivised to do so themselves because otherwise they’re going to lose talent to these big companies.

So I don’t want to say it’s the responsibility of big companies, but I think when big companies do it, it helps the whole industry move into that direction. And that’s really, really awesome. 

Austin: Yes. I agree in my thought on that, especially to anybody from the big company that’s listening to this, is don’t worry, it’s not your responsibility. It’s an inevitability. It’s not something that you actually have a choice in. It’s happening. And the question is, are you going to use this as a differentiator, as an accelerator, as a way to reinvent and innovate on your organisation, or is it going to become a threat?

Christian: Yes. Awesome, Austin. I know that there are a couple of things you want to talk about. I want to plug your podcast in here, your email list. So let’s take a couple of minutes to talk about those things that are important to you as well. 

Austin: Oh, yes. Well, so yes. I’ve got this email list where I sort of once a month, one email a month, share out everything that I’m working on. So a broad range of things ranging from mentoring slots that I share out with folks, so a host of mentoring slots every month where you can get one on one time with me to talk about anything from your career to portfolios to design problems that you’re having at your work. 

I share out essays. I share out resources, tools, processes, everything. Plus, every now and then, I have an interview on the podcast with a great designer entrepreneur from around the world and share when new opportunities are coming up, whether that be my team hiring or other great companies that I respect. So that’s sort of like this hub that people can go to at austinknight.com/updates. If you want to sign up for that, completely free. Just my personal email list, no spam, no B.S. Just one email a month with some good stuff to read and to interact with. 

And then, yes, you mentioned the podcast. So I’ve been doing this for about five years. It’s called the UX & Growth Podcast. Actually, it has a lot of overlap with what you’re doing here in terms of — I think if you’re — if folks are interested in UX & Growth Podcast, they’re going to be interested in this. And if they’re interested in this, they’re probably going to interest UX & Growth Podcast, which is sort of this merging of design with business, design with entrepreneurship, design with growth and marketing and stuff like that.

So, yes, we’ve had some really cool people on there from the household names that you would think of all the way to folks that are people that you’ve literally never heard of that are doing very, very interesting things in remote corners of the world and have great perspectives to share. So if you want to check that out, you can just search for UX & Growth Podcast or go to austinknight.com, and it’ll be on there. It’s on all of the major podcasting platforms.

Christian: Great. Yes, we’re going to put all of those links in the show notes so people can find them very easily. Austin, really, really grateful for you being on the podcast. Thank you so much for taking the time. I hope this will be, or I know it will be inspirational for a lot of people. And I just wanted to reiterate that there’s more content like this on your podcast. So hopefully people will go and check that out as well. I really appreciate you taking the time. Thank you so much for being on Design Meets Business, and I hope we’ll catch up soon again.

Austin: Yes. Thank you, Christian. This has been fantastic. 

Christian: Thanks, Austin.

That’s it for today. Thank you so much for listening to the show. Since you’ve made it this far, I hope you found this useful. And if you did, you should know there’s much more content just like this on the way. So if you want to learn more about how designers can impact businesses, please consider subscribing, and maybe sharing the episode with others. And before I say goodbye, remember that you can find show notes and links for this episode and others on our website, designmeetsbusiness.co. Catch you in the next one.