The Kate Rutter Hypothesis: Things Can Seem Simple and Still Be Very Hard

Kate Rutter is an adjunct professor of design at the California College of the Arts and a principal at Intelleto, with decades of experience in product design and management, infusing time at Adaptive Path and Luxr. In this episode of the Product Science Podcast, we talk about how to hire for right traits, work-life balance, and how to adapt a hacker/DIY ethos in your work.

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Questions We Explore in This Episode

The Kate Rutter Hypothesis: Things Can Seem Simple and Still Be Very HardHow did Kate get her start in product management? How did she first encounter Lean Startup methodologies? What are the hard lessons she learned at LUXr? How do they focus on who the customer is for each product? How do you share something you learned that feels obvious? How do you have hard conversations that build trust?

Why is startup culture so reliant on the founder’s attitude? What are the challenges of product coaching in a goal-oriented world? How did the LUXr founders meet? How did an emphasis on relationships fuel Kate’s work? Why did it make sense to work with a coach? Why are optics about being right so unhelpful? What issues does Kate run across in the students she teaches?

What stands out to Kate as something new in the startup ecosystem that wasn’t present a decade ago? How do you create more rigor around what lessons you choose to learn from? Can you you overuse Lean UX concepts? What is different about young designers and their mentality? What are design schools missing in their training? Why is isolated design so hit or miss? How do we adopt a maker/DIY/hacker ethos?

How does the constant feedback loop create a fundamental shift in thinking about product? Is it more important to hire a designer who has the right instincts and approach or someone who has more experience? Why is hiring for behavior more important? What type of work is hard for someone to do when they are new and how can you take advantage of their perspective?

How do we build a strong work-life balance in a culture that is constantly pushing us to perform? Why is sleep so important for high-functioning teams? What happens when you start saying “no” and establishing boundaries for yourself? How did Kate restore balance with an nontraditional solution? What can we learn from the concept of the peloton in competitive cycling?

Quotes From This Episode

One of the big lessons I learned is that things are true and not true at the same time. Paradoxical thinking is required. Sometimes the simple is simple but that doesn't mean it's easy to implement or use as a method. - Kate Rutter Click To Tweet A heavy learning process is an emotionally fraught place for teams to live and I think that's something that is hard for us to talk about. - Kate Rutter Click To Tweet Any good practitioner will tell you you have to almost make that product for one person and then see how you can scale. If it can't scale, that's one thing, but if it can't meet one person, it can't scale. - Kate Rutter Click To Tweet When I talk about working with adults, it's the people who can show up, acknowledge that things are hard but they're there to get it done. That we're all doing the best we can. - Kate Rutter Click To Tweet


Holly Hester-Reilly: Hi and welcome to the Product Science Podcast where we’re helping startup founders and products leaders build high growth products, teams and companies. They’re real conversations with people who have tried it and aren’t afraid to share lessons learned from their failures along the way. I’m your host, Holly Hester-Reilly, founder and CEO of H2R Product Science.
Holly: This week on the Product Science Podcast, I’m super excited to share with you Kate Rutter. Kate and I met, I guess maybe a couple of years ago now and it’s been a great pleasure to get to know her a little better. Kate, can you tell us a little bit about what you’re doing today and what your perspective is?
Kate Rutter: Sure, I’m super excited to be here, Holly. This is fabulous. I’ve been enjoying your previous episodes and learning a lot from people who I thought I’d already learned stuff from. That’s always nice when you learn a little bit more from them. I’ve been in the UX world, kind of the interface webby world for now, almost 30 years, and grown up with digital products and they got more exciting and the technology’s got more capable.
Kate: Then I spent some good years at a consultancy called Adaptive Path, which in the UX world was very pioneering. It was founded by pretty much seven fabulous people and they built a real culture around learning new things and trying things out, and trying to figure out what the possibilities of technology were in service to human beings, which at the time was more of a novel message than it is now.
Kate: Then I took a step back from that because in the consulting world it’s very hard to see the manifestation of your work and I wanted to have that closer relationship. At that point the product world was really starting to evolve and Lean Startup was starting to come to attention, so I joined a partnership called Luxr to productize an in-person offering and use Lean Startup methods to do that. Interesting it was very meta because Luxr was Lean Startup about helping entrepreneurs learn how to do Lean Startup methods and techniques.
Kate: That was a pretty amazing, crazy ride and I’ve got a lot of lessons. A lot of lessons learned. A lot of experience from those days, so I’d like to talk about that.
Holly: Yeah, I was going to say I will not let you go by without sharing those. I love that and I’ve shared with you before, Adaptive Path has a warm spot in my heart because I learned so much and enjoyed meeting people there when I went to the UX Intensive workshop and their sessions on research and how they think through the problems that they’re faced. I think it’s so awesome that you were a part of that team.
Holly: Luxr I’ve loved hearing more about and I want to know more about what lessons you learned and how you learned them. What are the hard lessons you learned? What comes to mind as your top couple of things from that?
Kate: Oh well, that’s rich territory for sure. Here’s kind of where I’ve come out with Lean Startup. Now think back, these were the early days, Eric had just taken the popularity of the Startup Lessons Learned blog and shaped that into a book, and the book had just, I think, been released. I went to a launch party that was hosted by Janice and Jason Fraser who are my partners at Luxr but before we got together in that regard.
Kate: So the messages were out there but within a very small, connected community. I remember the first time I heard the core concept of Lean Startup, so customer development aligned with this build, measure, learn loop, which at the simplest form is the molecule that makes up Lean Startup thinking. I remember thinking three things, one … and none of them I’m very proud of, which is why it’s a good message to learn and share.
Kate: One is, okay this is no different than what user-centered design has been doing for years, which is true and not true, which is actually one of the big lessons I learned in the startup, is things are true and not true at the same time. Paradoxical thinking is required. The second thing was this is too simple, there’s got to be more. There’s also a lesson there that sometimes the simple is simple but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to implement. It doesn’t mean it’s easy to use as a method.
Kate: Then the third one was I want to know more. This is interesting, it feels like all of the conventional wisdom is upside down, so there’s got to be something here, there’s a real energy here. Those were the three launching points and I moved away from my consultancy life and was out, talking to early stage companies about what they were doing, and then that’s when I joined in with the team at Luxr.
Kate: Weirdly enough, the hard part Luxr, and I think it’s true with other early stage startups that I see, is the principles and concepts of lean. Lean teams, agile teams, there’s a big swirl and mix of these concepts now. Why and how they exist in the logic is simple and the models are fairly simple. They’re not hugely challenging to understand. When you put those into practice, all bets are off. It becomes super challenging to build, measure, learn. To define what you want to learn. To figure out what you measure and then to build something with that experiment, if you’re taking the build, measure, learn loop and reversing that cycle.
Kate: The ability to see it and to know it and to do it is not a direct relationship. It was, again so meta but as three startup founders, Janice and Jason with the concepts and then I had been brought in to productize a lot of the ideas and to further the material to help entrepreneurs learn. The point of our product was to help early stage entrepreneurs who wanted to do the things related to Lean Startup, not just learn about them but to do them. They already recognize that they wanted to take this approach to building a more likely for success startup. How do you put those principles, methods into practice? That was the purpose of our product.
Kate: That was a hard challenge and doing it in a way that was also consistent and authentic with the intents and processes of Lean, living that Lean Startup life was also very, very hard. Now, just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, right? Always have a higher endeavor but I think teams that really decide to live in this space and function in this space, I know from talking to people, even with the external perception, is that they’re killing it and everything’s gone great, how painful it is to be wrong so much so, to learn so much. That heavy learning process is an emotionally fraught place for teams to live and I think that’s something that is hard for us to talk about, and I think we don’t always talk about that.
Holly: Oh man, you just said so many things I want to unpack. If you’ll indulge me, I will walk you through some of the ones that I want to unpack. Let’s start at the end, though. I think that really resonated for me because I have a team here at H2R Product Science now, it’s not just me anymore. We’ve got a handful of people who are all involved in doing consulting work for our clients and one of the things that resonated so much for me about what you just said is just even when you’ve done it before, you can still be amazed at how hard and uncomfortable it is when you do it again in a new situation.
Holly: Every time we start with a new client and we start learning a whole new set of things, and we get faced with the same patterns that we’ve all seen, still it’s never really just an easy thing, right?
Kate: Right.
Holly: I’m curious, tell me a little bit about what that was like in the early days at Luxr. Maybe in the middle of that meta-sandwich where … what was it like as somebody who was working on building out the productized offering? What sort of things did you come across that taught you lessons and you were like, “Oh yeah that’s why I do it this way, so I can learn.”
Kate: Yeah so one of the things that we wanted to do was, of course, be really focused on who is the customer for this? It’s more than just entrepreneurs, any good practitioner, especially an early stage one will tell you you have to be very, very, very incisive. Almost make that product for one person and then see how you can scale that and go up. Because if it can’t scale, that’s one thing, but if it can’t meet one person, it can’t scale.
Kate: When we were doing workshops, it was always the three of us, sometimes we’d have other practitioners that we knew, that would come in and offer different … just so it wasn’t the three of us all the time … but defining what kinds of people? What are the characteristics? What are the mindsets? The hopes and dreams? The behaviors? The goals? All of the types of things that you would do to create a provisional persona, which is a picture of an optimal customer that you think might exist.
Kate: So we’re doing this, we’re doing the sketches, we’re doing the sticky notes on the wall. I think what a big first learning was we realized that not all entrepreneurs are created equal. Here’s the thing about sharing messages and wins in the Lean Startup world, is so many times you’ll say something that the team has worked really hard to identify and trust and feel really confident about, and you’ll say something about what that is like, “Not all entrepreneurs are the same.” And everyone will look at you like you’re a fucking idiot and say, “That is so obvious.”
Kate: And it’s like you just spent the last month and a half, the last two weeks, the last five hours, whatever your commitment is, on learning something that’s super obvious. It makes you feel a little bit like the trees in Lord of the Rings. Where the Ents come and they sway and they talk for hours and hours and hours and they’re like, “We’re just saying hello.” And the little hobbits are like, “Get with it.” Right? Your audience and your parents are like, “Get with it! Launch something.” There’s a lot of pressure to do that.
Kate: So we figured out that not all entrepreneurs are the same but more meaningful than that was that we didn’t want a certain kind of entrepreneur who needed to be convinced that Lean Startup was going to be an effective way to work. We weren’t trying to convince anyone with our product. We wanted people who were already convinced who wanted to make it real. That was one of those early fundamental product principles that stayed with us and we often had to hip check our opportunities against that value statement often.
Kate: Because when you’re running against runway and you know your money is limited and you have to be as efficient or effective with your choices as you can, and there’s an opportunity to make some money, but it’s going to be dealing with a lot of people who aren’t convinced that Lean practices will affect their startup at all, then you have to decide if you’re going to take that money or not. That is a really, really hard judgment call. Always knowing that our product was centered on people who already were convinced, they wanted to make it real. That was a big breakthrough learning, and one that I’m really proud we hit out pretty early.
Holly: That’s actually fantastic. I think of that as well as not just a product principle but strategy, being able to say, “This is the segment, this is the incisive group we’re going after.” It requires that principle to stick with it and I’m curious to hear … it sounds like by the time you guys were building Luxr, all of you were significantly experienced and yet you still got tempted to stray from the plan, right? How did you bring yourselves back? What were those conversations like? Or what were the means you used to do it?
Kate: Well I think any company that has multiple strong personalities as founders is going to smile about this, but we had disconcerting and honest conversations, I think. I think over time hard conversations that are managed well build trust. We already started out with a lot of trust. We’d been friends for many years. But build trust or they can also erode trust, so trust is this constant … it’s like dusting. You’ve got to constantly keep it groomed.
Kate: To help us with those conversations, we had a founder’s coach. We had someone that we would meet with, all three of us and then individually as on a case by case basis and I highly, highly advocate that because there are things that strangely enough, feel unsafe to say to each other and that’s probably because they are unsafe to say. Because you don’t know if someone will turn off or someone will … I have a bad habit of getting fussy. [inaudible] I’m a fussy person but when my emotions are fairly raw, I don’t often know how to manage them because I’m really not that an emotional person in many ways. Except when I am and then I kind of flip out.
Kate: So I need some serious help with being appropriate when my emotions are running high. I think perhaps everybody has a major gap in their communication methods that they might need some management of. I learned a lot through that process too, it’s just about how to breathe, how to self soothe, how not to be threatened by things that pushed against my value system but instead to get curious about them. Those were a lot of major lessons that I learned. I learned those through these conversations on trying to stay true to what we’d committed to as a founding team.
Kate: I thank my co-founders, oh my god, for that. I mean Janice and Jason, we all threw each other a lot of slack. We were all at a high learning curve. Janice had been a serial entrepreneur so she knew much more about the lay of the land, but I don’t think any of us had been Lean entrepreneurs before and we were just learning that as we went.
Holly: Tell me a little more, I have an idea of why it would’ve been helpful to have a coach for some of that, but tell me a little more. How did you find a coach and why do you think that that’s helpful? This feels like a silly and obvious question but why didn’t you just assume you could all do it yourselves?
Kate: That is a great question. [inaudible] when the obvious becomes much more real. We did, I think at first, assume we could do it ourselves. As a serial entrepreneur, I think Janice had already been acquainted and aware of how startup teams and how entrepreneurs in general were using coaches, which I think … I mean I don’t know a lot about that world. I know some amazing coaches out there. I know some people, perhaps you’ve done part of this practice as well, who are incredibly good at asking good, pertinent, realistic but hard questions.
Kate: I’m going to relate it to the startup and to the nature of the work, and not only just nature to the founder themselves, if that makes sense? I think the difference between a startup coach and a therapist is that the startup coach is in service to the entrepreneurial part of that person. But as we know entrepreneurs are part of the people. You can’t separate the quirks and the conviction and the interpersonal behaviors of a founder from the human being that they are. That’s why I think we have cultures that are so founder personality related, is because the very first value system of a enterprise or a company or any endeavor is going to be the founder.
Kate: If you have multiple founders, hopefully those align really well but they’re not ever going to be 100% alignment, and that gives that founding team strength because now they have more surface area. They have more capacity but it also creates areas for dynamics, if you’re feeling good about the word. Or tensions, or just a shit show if it goes wrong, right?
Holly: Yes.
Kate: So you want someone who can see that system of those people from the outside and ask questions that I think prompt curiosity and reinforce connection instead of digression. Founding teams, I think, need a space created for them so that they can do that with privacy, with trust, with thoughtfulness and with care. And they’re not going to get that when they’re locking the doors to their company.
Holly: Wow, you said that so well. It’s actually true, I do coach as well and it’s one of my favorite things to do but one of the reasons why I was really curious to hear how you guys got to that is because I feel like in our American culture, anyways, it’s not very well accepted, you know? There’s just a like, “You should just figure this all out on your own. You shouldn’t need a coach.” And it takes a while for people to get to the point where they’re like, “No, it’s a healthy thing to create the space and have the coach, and set your goals and be accountable to them.” And all of that. That was really fascinating.
Holly: It sounded like Janice was more aware of coaches in the entrepreneurial world. Did you and Jason at first just go like, “Yeah that sounds great.” Or was there any hesitation? Did it take some time to build up rapport? What was that like?
Kate: I think we were both like, “Yeah that sounds great.” Just as far as the dynamics, I love hearing about how founders come together because sometimes they’re like, “We met at a startup weekend,” or, “We knew each other in college,” or, “We met on the street,” or, “We worked together,” whatever those relationships are. I met Janice and Jason through my partner at the time at Burning Man. They were not yet married and I was not yet married but we’re kind of in this camp together and so we were burners together.
Kate: As we got to know each other and became more friendly, Janice is one of the founders of Adaptive Path, that was how I came to join the team at Adaptive Path. And Janice performed our wedding. These were deep, deep friendships and so one of the things, when I was looking around … Janice and Jason were already doing Luxr as an in-person, entrepreneur, teams would show up once a week because it was a residency. Where they were helping teams do customer development, get out of the building, define experiments, validate those experiments or realize why they weren’t validating and really move from concept to problem market fit into product market fit in a short, 12 week time span. And help the teams create good, healthy dynamics and user centered dynamics.
Kate: That was the promise of Luxr but in order to make that scale, the productizing of it is where I came in. I was able to bring my digital and my actual physical product design skills into that equation. But we already knew we had a friendship that we wanted to retain and that startups are hard. I think I always was much more open to what is going to help this system of the company function better and be healthy for all of us because stakes were high, I couldn’t afford that relationship going sour.
Kate: Granted, things go up and down and up and down, and so of course there were hard times. There just are in that kind of company, but I think working with two adults was really amazing. I think they were patient with me, I was patient with them and so we had a commitment about trust and avoiding contempt. Like not doing the end run around each other. Also they’re a married couple so there was always this sense of them two and me, but that never happened. I never felt that dynamic.
Kate: We knew we had challenges going in, which I think made the necessity of a coach much more clear. I’m going to say something awful and probably sounds really judgy because it at its heart is, but I suspect that when there’s two people who are very similar, who met in college and maybe have kind of gone through the professional world together, and then they decide to start a company and they have really similar skill sets, they have really similar mindsets, that they perceive that their founder relationship is not going to experience challenge. Because they’re already so proven. And I would just sort of put out to people, if you’ve ever lived with your best friend as a roommate, then you might recognize that there’s challenges that you could never even imagine in that relationship. But I would highly advocate that every founding team find a coach.
Holly: That is awesome. One thing that stuck out to me about that was you said it was nice to work with two other adults. I’m curious, as opposed to what, Kate?
Kate: Oh we all know what that means, Holly. Come on, don’t … yeah, people who own their shit. People who take responsibility for their behavior, whether or not it was the best behavior. People who can apologize with grace. People who feel like they’re there for the quest and not for their ego. I think all of these attributes create people who are not interested in drama, that you might have to deal with it but it feels like an unwelcome experience when it comes. People can recognize the fallibility of other humans. And people who have that heart first and recognize we’re all doing the best we can at every possible stage and who are willing to be open and transparent in learning about it.
Kate: I think part of the tricky part in our startup ecosystem now, especially with this big wave of Lean Validation and then agile as far as a method of production, and that, I think we end up with a lot of almost optics about being right because you don’t get any trust or, I think, credibility if you just feel like you’re dorks and losers who flipped the bozo bit. Kind of just flailing along. Nobody’s going to give you capital if that’s what you’re seeking. I think that weakness comes through in how you deal with a team so you got to be strong but I don’t think you need to be impenetrable.
Kate: When I talk about working with adults, it’s the people who can show up, acknowledge that things are hard but they’re there to get it done. That we’re all doing the best we can. Who respect people. Who call people on their shit. Who own their own shit, that’s a system of adulthood. And I tell you, I’ve been in multiple environments where certain people have been allowed to get away with just terrible, terrible inhumane behavior. I don’t think they’re adults [inaudible 00:24:30].
Holly: Well by that definition, how many people who are over the age of 22 do you think are adults?
Kate: Well I’m going to back that up. So [inaudible] I have seen some high school pitches from [inaudible] that were pursuing entrepreneurship and although I don’t spend a lot of time with them, so you can’t really tell, I would say that the potential adulthood behavior could go down as old as 12. And I don’t think it necessarily correlates with age. I [crosstalk 00:25:00]. I teach mostly and so I see people between the ages, traditional college, undergraduate ages of 18 to 23 or so, and then some older learners in the environment as well. And I got to say age does not always correlate with emotional maturity.
Holly: Yeah no, that’s totally fair. I was more thinking at the age where people tend to think someone is an adult. With what you’ve just described, I’m thinking a lot of them still are not.
Kate: A lot of us have non-adulting behaviors. That’s why the phrase adulting is so funny, right? If we all thought we were good at it, it wouldn’t be funny at all.
Holly: I think that it’s interesting, especially since you’ve been in the ecosystem for so long. You’ve probably seen many versions of it. Many reinventions and different feelings of different stages and I’m curious … you mentioned the wave of Lean Validation and agile production and the optics about being right. I’m curious how would you characterize the last couple years, the zeitgeist in the startup ecosystem. What really stands out to you as like, “This feels like something that’s very 2019 but wasn’t necessarily what it felt like to be in the startup ecosystem a decade ago?”
Kate: That’s a great question. I think about that a lot because as movements or bodies of thinking get popularized, I think part of that process is they get overly used, or they get distorted somehow. Ideas are fashion in some way and they catch fire and they get really big so I think one thing that feels different from … it would’ve been 2011 when we were kicking off Luxr … one thing that feels really different about it is there’s so many case examples of people who have taken certain parts of the overall management mindset and tried to do it, and they have great lessons to learn.
Kate: In fact there’s too many of them. There’s almost just a deluge of information that’s out there so I think it’s harder to find information that you feel like you can trust because there’s so much out there. I think the pundits are also poking holes in assertions just to make sure that they really have real validity. So I think in the early days there might be someone who wrote a blog post saying, “This is my experiment and have validated, here’s how.” That was meaningful content because you could understand how they framed the hypothesis and then what did they do for the experiment, and what was their success or validation criteria?
Kate: You could see them working but people generally did that about things that they thought did validate. Then I saw a trend of those posts over a period of time, and people who had written those posts a few years ago would comment and say, “But what about this? But what about this? But what about this?” So really starting to poke holes in other people’s assertions and some of that might just be don’t read the comments, people are jerks, but most of it is trying to create more rigor around the lessons that we learned from. I think that’s a developmental stage of a body of thinking.
Kate: Then the third stage, which I think we’re in now, is a lot of people are talking about it, a lot of people are using words. Sometimes there’s serious disagreement about whether those words are, “I do not think that means what you think it means,” kind of thing. The books are being written and there’s a lot more specialization and I like that phase of a concept, or a thinking method because it means that there’s just a lot of people who are doing it and trying it out. But I know a lot of longterm practitioners really hate that stage because thins haven’t settled out yet. Everything feels like hype. It feels like buzzwords so there’s this maximum adoption before the sorting out and we really figure out where it’s helpful.
Kate: I see, and you’d know more about this than I do, but when I talk to folks who are looking at really the enterprise adoption of some of this way of approaching unknown problems and high risk problems, they’re finding that that’s really much different than what they’d expected. That maybe we’re overusing Lean approaches for stable products and more traditional products or products where the risk of failure and the disruption isn’t so high. So I think that has had a backlash in our companies. I mean you can take a loot at where GE went with their big adoption and this dramatic pendulum swing back into a more traditional approach. And I think that we’re going to see that for a while until things really get settled down.
Holly: I definitely think the voices who complain about this … in the way you described it, perhaps the third phase of idea, proliferation but the phase where there’s a lot of people talking about it and you no longer feel sure that they mean the same thing. I hear a lot more voices basically complaining about that, but then that could also be a function of who takes to the internet to talk about it, as almost all social listening is.
Holly: I guess I’m a little curious, tell me more about the good sides of that. I think you have a particular vantage point. You touched on spending time with college kids, now tell us a little bit about what that’s like. How do you teach this to them and what does it look like to fresh eyes?
Kate: Sure, I have a few experiences from recent that have stood out that I’m still considering, well what does that mean? And how does that make … it feels like something is a shift, I don’t know. I’m not the world’s most intuitive person but sometimes I can smell the wind and feel like, hmm, something’s kind of a shift. One of the things that happened is I went to a UX book club which is hosted by [Duid Bari 00:31:25] in San Francisco and I don’t often get to go but they had read and were going to be discussing Build Better Products which is by Laura Klein who, full disclosure, is a close friend of mine and a co-podcaster.
Kate: And I had done the pictures in that book, some of the illustrations an sketches so I wanted to go to that book club and everybody said that was okay. Hope that wasn’t weird for people but they were pretty open with their thoughts, positive and negative, just corrective about what the book was. Anyway, in the very early points of feedback we went around the room and said, “What were your general thoughts about this book?” One of the practitioners who was there, who’s a long seasoned UX contributor said, “I just didn’t …” long with UX but not necessarily with Lean said, “I just didn’t get what was so different, why it mattered because this is the way we build products.”
Kate: What was so interesting is that all of the techniques and approaches in Build Better Products, yes they’re just good methods to build products but they’re also much more deeply integrated with what I would call modern software, modern product creation, including agile behaviors over waterfall and not a lot of big upfront research and design, but integrating that research and design through the process. And being an absolutely user research as a core fundamental part of great product. What I felt was interesting is for people who were coming into the product world now, Lean is so pervasive that it’s kind of like, “Well of course. This is not a big deal. Stop fighting the battles, the war has been won,” kind of thing.
Kate: Because it makes sense. It makes sense that you would ask a question and see to what degree you could prove that it’s true, or see evidence that it’s true. That just makes sense. People have been learning the scientific method for years and years. So for younger designers or newly minted designers coming into the world, they’re very comfortable with this sense of validation using research, using usability testing to gain insight to how they can improve their designs.
Kate: Now, some of them of course just want to make the thing and then convince other people that it’s the perfect thing but we’ve always had designers like that. What I’m really saying is we don’t have as many of those designers because now there’s so much more adoption of ways to ensure that your designs are in service to a human in a good way. That, I think is really different from the, “Let’s make a thing,” mindset, which was what was so pervasive when I was coming into the field.
Holly: Wow, one of the things I always like to talk to people about is their spot in the ecosystem and how that may be different from other spots. What you just said really struck me because I’m wondering where the young designers you are interacting with are learning because I still feel like I come across a lot of young designers that are still being trained in the old ways. The ones that are more of what you described tend to be just self taught, or at least it seems when I dive deeper with them that they were more self taught.
Holly: But people who come straight out of the New York City design schools, it feels like it’s more hit or miss about whether they’ll be aware of those things. And I don’t want to throw a blanket on it entirely because I have hired some fantastic people straight out of New York City area design schools, but I always use a litmus test of whether they ever talk about testing with users and it’s not uncommon to come across many people who do not.
Kate: That’s hard to hear but I think it is, yeah that’s probably still realistic in certain areas.
Holly: Do you feel out in the San Francisco area, is it even coming right out of college and design school, they come out knowing about the best digital design practices?
Kate: I’m going to say getting there. Making designs in isolation, making them feel polished and beautiful and then putting them out for the world to gasp over and celebrate, I think takes very little dependencies. All you need is the audience at the end that you hope will be like all, “Oh my god your design’s so amazing, it’s perfect.” Right? That’s what we all hope.
Kate: But all of the process before that, the coming up with the idea, the fixating early on one idea, designing the heck out of it, making it beautiful, polishing the pixels, all of that, you do not need another human in that equation. If you don’t have another human in the equation, you don’t have dependencies on another human so it feels like that’s an easier way to design. But it is, and I think always has been, the wrong way to design because there’s no feedback loop. It’s kind of like the phrase that a friend of mine told me, “I got my own apartment and it was amazing, all my annoying habits disappeared.”
Holly: Oh I’ve never heard that.
Kate: All right, because nobody’s there to see you. You’re isolated and so isolated design, I think, is ultimately it’s hit or miss. It’s either a win or it’s a waste but the likelihood, because it’s such an anechoic chamber, there’s no feedback, you don’t know. Throughout my progression as a practitioner, that feeling that I don’t know has become more and more disconcerting. At the beginning I didn’t care if I didn’t know if it was going to be successful, because I was just learning other things like the craft, or the mechanisms of the tools. There was joy in just that creation and I think for any person of any age, the entry into a new field of thinking or a new craft or a new skillset can feel like you just want to get oriented.
Kate: You probably don’t want a lot of feedback while you do that but that’s all … as soon as you start making something that is in service to someone else, you have to have the feedback loop of is it actually in service of someone else? That’s where I see earlier stage designers being so much more committed to that. Like, “Well how do we know that this is going to help this person? How do we know that this person’s going to find benefit?” A real joy and excitement about contributing to the world in tangible and immediately recognizable ways. I think that might be a generational shift but it’s certainly a good shift of the heart.
Kate: That’s the ethos that I think is infusing earlier stage designers now. Now, of course it’s not 100%, I’m not going to paint one brush with it. But that ethos is a distinctive ethos from look what the technology can do and look at the new tools that are coming out and how we can use them and hack them and break them and tweak them, which is much more of a maker DIY hacker mindset. That’s the ethos that I came into the field in. That’s the ethos that I expressed most earlier stages of my career. So ensuring that that ethos was in fact in service to human beings, that was a personal transformation that I needed to make and I know other designers have also been across that path.
Kate: Because in the beginning it was like, “Can we do this? Does the technology or capability exist?” Or, “Hold my white wine, look what I can do,” kind of thing. But now it’s like we know we can do it. The technology, although continuing to advance, is not as novel. Now it’s like what are the right things to do? Should we do this? What is the impact and consequences on real communities of people when we do? That’s where I think the whole Lean mindset of this constant feedback loop, it’s the ability to see the consequences and the impact of your work sooner and at lower risk that is a fundamental shift in thinking than what I think we’ve had in business and in design. I think that’s the healthy shift.
Kate: That’s why I think it might be easier to hire an early stage practitioner who might not have the craft, but who behaves like an adult instead of someone who is a long seasoned designer for whom they are just not as baked in in the methods of the modern world. I know I’m selling out my own people in that but I don’t give a shit because honestly, I am sick of senior designers taking “junior designers” and breaking them of all the good instincts and the different and unique perspectives that they have so that they fit into a culture that is frankly aged and is not going to be the future. I am sick of that.
Holly: Wow, yeah.
Kate: Sorry.
Holly: Oh man, you could get me started, there’s so many things I have to say about all of that. I guess one of the thoughts that I had in there, that I’m curious if you have any advice on, is if any of our listeners are … I guess making it a little more broadly applicable, I definitely talk to a lot of mid and later career people in product and design who are in hiring positions and just constantly tell me they need someone who’s been there. They need the experience. While experience is fantastic, I fall in the same camp as you that I would rather you find a person with the right mindset and approach and give them the opportunity to get that experience on your team, than hire someone who’s been through the experience but didn’t make the right outcomes out of it.
Holly: I don’t know how people … they look at the wrong things maybe but I just see a lot of like, “Well we hired the person who’d been in the industry for a long time and we assumed that because they had been, they would do it all better but a year later they’re gone.” What do you think is the antidote to this behavior? How do we help people move past that and get to something better where everybody is striving for this curious, learning, human-focused mindset?
Kate: That’s good, I want to be thoughtful that I haven’t been in a hiring role for a while. This is going to be pure opinion, take it or leave it. One of the biggest [inaudible] that I hear is this cap of three to five years experience as a hard qualification for people going into sometimes non-designated, either earlier or more senior level design roles. I think that using years as a proxy for experiences is unhelpful for everyone.
Kate: I think my hypothesis and where I would love to do a little bit more testing is if you remove the three to five years experience and you identify the role and opportunity and the ideal company participant or employee in behavioral ways, will the field open up more opportunities for people with less experience but people who might be great fits. I think that would be something I would really love to experiment. I’m going to to put these into hypotheses.
Kate: The hypothesis is the three to five years experience is a unhelpful proxy for actual contribution and potential, and that we should get rid of it as a hiring criteria. I think the second one, and I only want to get briefly into this, is when you said those three characteristics of someone who’s curious and able to think interestingly, and have good judgment, I think asking for stories about the last time that’s happened is really helpful.
Kate: There is a behavior when you’re learning something new and then I see this instinct in some of the students that I work with, that they want to watch and observe and sometimes be told directly what to do. I think in teams where there’s already a stable production base where you have people doing production oriented interface, like, “The interface needs to do this. Go make five interface opportunities and then validate them with maybe some usability testing to see which ones are the easiest to use, but this is the goal that it needs to perform. Fly off and do that, person.”
Kate: That isolated work I think is really hard for people when they are new to a field because they just don’t have as much of their own personal experiences to draw from for how to approach that problem. The good news is, is that I think the most rich and interesting product design is happening collaboratively, even if it’s remote or distributed teams. So people aren’t really isolated to go off and do their own thing for long periods of time and I think that’s the biggest risk when someone is given a bunch of time and put off into isolation mode to do something, if they don’t know how to do it, you’re not going to get a good result. They’re going to have a terrible experience because they’re scared and freaked out and probably going to hide their mistakes.
Kate: But if you’re in a collaborative environment where people are learning and seeing and modeling each other’s behavior in a very direct way, then I think that learning happens so much faster and it doesn’t matter whether or not one member of your team has a lacking skillset because they’ll pick it up quickly through the behavior that they’re participating in. Those, I don’t think it’s as helpful to hire an experienced practitioner who might have grown up in a very different culture, into that kind of collaborate thing. I think you could have someone who has interesting experience, has a lot of hustle, is personally involved and has enough craft and skill to be able to communicate and produce something. I think those are really good environments and hopefully we’ll have more of those.
Holly: Amen to that. Well I kind of want to switch gears because in our pre-conversation we talked about some other topics that I would love to cover. I’m wondering if we could switch over and talk a bit about some of the other sides of founder life and even independent creator life and just working in the tech industry in general. It’s kind of a pressure cooker. What has your experience been like?
Kate: Well I have spent many years without sleep. Turns out, as Arianna Huffington would know from when she passed out and almost died because of lack of sleep. I used to, like her in many ways, glorify like, “Oh I don’t need that much sleep,” but turns out everybody needs sleep. We know that more and more. Whatever, however it works, try and get sleep. That’s my number one mantra right now. It’s a mantra that I write down because I’m trying to do it myself, constantly too.
Kate: I wish I could attribute this thinking because it’s something I’ve never forgotten, that the four characteristics of healthfulness are nutrition and activity or exercise and sleep, but then also they added rest. So the sense of you’re not asleep but you’re also not just driving, driving, pushing, pushing. That there’s almost this breathe out moment in your intellectual mind activity where you’re just resting. I think that’s what draws people to mindfulness and to meditation, and to deep breathing and all of that I think is … scientifically they’re finding research that that lowers our cortisol and stress hormones. That that recenters us, kind of resets our body to not be in this fear behavior all the time.
Kate: I think those are just good human healthful practices to have because as you said, the product and the technology world is fast moving, there’s a lot of people in it now. If you’re in an entrepreneurial environment, even if you’re not a founder or an entrepreneur, you’re constantly on the hustle. You’re often fighting very, very real consequences of running out of money before finding product market fit and starting to scale. Anyone who’s lived with payroll in their stomach knows that that queasy never goes away. That you recognize that all of your time and all of your actions are going to be related to whether or not your team is going to get paid and therefore be able to support themselves and their families.
Kate: Those are not inconsequential things to live with. I think finding a place for safe thinking and rest in our own minds is important and that might come in the form of family. It might come in the form of exercise or sports or activity. It might come in the form of art or creative expression, but finding the place where you feel safe against those pressures … it might come in the form of golf. God knows executives have been doing that for years, but find that and I think create barriers and boundaries around it because you need it for the long haul.
Holly: I was thinking as you were saying that about calm and head space and how just mindfulness awareness in America has been rising, but at the same time everyone is over-scheduled and heck, I think about it a lot in these really, really long human history terms. Because well, I feel like we’ve designed a society that just perverts a lot of things. One of the topics in my family’s discussion lately has been around understanding what modern day hunter gatherers do and what the life was really like in the environment that humans evolved in.
Holly: One of the things you just said that hit me was about rest being separate from sleep. A lot of the times we picture early humans as having to be on high alert all the time to stay alive, but I think the latest state of understanding on it is that that wasn’t really the case. That they would have a big hunting party and then they would go out and hunt and bring back the kill. And then they’d feast, and then they’d play, and then they’d socialize and they’d all just spend time just being. We seem to have in many ways forgotten to do that. I don’t know if that seems like it’s happening in your circles but it’s certainly, in the young professional phase and in young parenthood, there is just a lot of just produce, produce, produce, perform, perform, perform. And good luck if you can get enough sleep.
Kate: Yeah. We make our own intensity and at least in the area that I’m in, there are significant rewards, financial and emotional and professional rewards for being out and doing a lot of things, and contributing in really significant ways, and very valuable ways. That is all great. And I know people leave the Bay area significantly for their, “I wanted a less of an intense lifestyle. I didn’t want to have to pay the high prices of things because then that put me onto the system of having to earn more and then that was more time. Then that was time away from the things I cared about and loved.”
Kate: We don’t have a good history of relaxitude. The American culture is built on commerce and everything feeds into commerce. If it doesn’t feed into commerce, then it’s somehow deemed less effective or less good, somehow. That said, I’ve been really surprised that when I started saying no … again this is one of those big breakthroughs, like, “Say no more often. Wow, who knew?” But when I started really saying … not to just the easy nos but the hard nos, like I really want to do that thing. It’d be really helpful. It’d be important but I just have to say no, I got better at it and the resulting more comfortable and non-hectic lifestyle that that’s helped me do has helped me be more involved and committed to the yeses that I’ve said.
Kate: Making the yeses really strong, wonderful yeses makes it possible to get rid of all of the things that are nos, even though those might be hard choices. So yeah, that’s a habit, it’s a mindset but it’s mostly a commitment. That’s the other thing, how that goes back to our design practice is so many times we want to add all those features or, “We can do this,” or, “It would be great if we could do this,” but we don’t really have the validity or the confidence, or we don’t have the evidence to know that that might be meaningful for our customers. So we should just say no. We should just cut all of that out and really build what they need, and build what they will use and not build all the things that we think that they need or that we think that they will use.
Kate: When we talk about waste in the larger those of a Lean mindset, I think we make a lot more of our own waste. I know that was certainly true at Luxr. I over-designed the heck out of that very first release. And everyone says, “Don’t over-design your first release,” and you all say, “No, no we won’t do that,” and then you go and do it. That’s my fail/win checklist. If I’m extremely reluctant and even embarrassed to show a design, then I’m doing it right. That is hard. That is humbling and hard.
Kate: If I feel comfortable or proud of it, I should’ve shown it sooner and if I feel stuck, I try and go faster. Those are things that are just shaped how I thought about the world but I think those mantras might also help us in our personal lives as entrepreneurs, say no to the things that drive us so, so hard that we can’t get out from underneath the expectation and the worry.
Holly: Yeah I’ve always felt that saying no somewhat frequently was a core skill of a product person. Then saying it well and knowing why you’re saying it and therefore being enthusiastic about the yeses. I think it’s something that everyone has to come to their own terms with, what it means for them and how they do it. I’m curious if you have experienced or seen real, maybe not just exhaustion but the deeper effects. You know, burnout or depression or other struggles in the community that you’re in, and what that looks like?
Kate: If you talk to anyone who’s in high school or college level education right now, it feels like there’s this epidemic of depression and a lot of struggle, overstress, etc. I’m not sure if that’s just because I get to see it now from a different perspective or whether this is one of those, “Kids these days …” kind of statement that’s always been true, and it’s just coming to another light now. Peaks and valleys, but I think that the environments of progress or the environments of success that we built around school and then around work.
Kate: And this weird zero-sum game hierarchical, you have to fight to make your way up the corporate ladder, I think a lot of those myths are still with us and because the world works in different ways now … I mean it’s still part of out there, that’s never going to go away. This warring mindset of one must be on top and everybody else has to fight their way to get there. I think that’s still an organizational model that will be around, but there’s other alternative ways of collective grouping and more non-hierarchical organizational styles.
Kate: I think that the fact that the world isn’t one simple place is a very stressful situation for people who aren’t in it yet. We’ve got a lot of faculty support around identifying depression and finding appropriate ways for students to get the help they need. I think when we start looking at that as part of a function of a company, it gets really dicey because that also can relate to HR issues and productivity issues and it might be easier and more helpful for a practitioner to hide their depression and still stay employed than to try and be out with it and risk any kind of negative consequences for that. But we don’t really build a lot of places in our teams or companies right now for people to float for awhile.
Kate: I mean I get it, we all need to do our work and we all need to do our jobs but there’s not a lot of safe space for that and I see that affecting people too. I don’t have an answer for it. I know that when, in the last couple of years I have had some really pretty rough ups and downs. And working for myself I didn’t have a community to keep me more stabilized, which I have a tendency to stay more stable when I have a community with some structure.
Kate: So a very good friend of mine, when I was really … these were dark times. It was the darkest time of my life and it’s not great to talk about it, but I think it’s important to accept it and to admit it. A friend of mine said, “You know, because you don’t have any structure, you have all these smaller gigs and these other very different types of work that just pop up and down like whack-a-mole and you take advantage of them or not. That’s the nature of a sole practitioner sometimes, but maybe you could gain structure from doing something in a part-time way that would allow you some structure and a place to get out of your own head and a place not to be in these high stress situations all the time. Just while you reassess and heal and let the drugs kick in,” right? I know, it’s [inaudible 00:58:00].
Kate: Yeah, so yay drugs. This is weird because again, it’s amazing what you can learn if you don’t care about how important you look, but it’s still hard to admit. I took a part-time seasonal job at Michaels craft store for the holidays and it changed my life and stabilized so much. I thank those people for saving my life. [inaudible] a week, I could walk in and put on my red vest … now, this is not a lot of years ago. I’m an older lady doing this, and put on the headset, learn how to use the register, be part of that pecking order and make sure I clock in, timecard and everything.
Kate: Those hours on the floor I was responsible for being there, being attentive to customers and making sure that the felt was as tidy as possible. Or google eye isle or glitter cleanup in isle five. This was an incredibly restful environment. I was earning a little bit. I recognize that I had some financial safety that I wasn’t trying to make that my full-time earning, which was good because it’s really hard in a hourly wage to do that. I have a lot more empathy and social justice issues now around hourly workers but I tell you, for my sanity, it saved my life to be there and to be with people. I thank them for that.
Holly: Wow. Thank you for sharing that. I’m thinking about the-
Kate: [crosstalk] a sign at the flower shop that says, “Part-time help wanted.” And you’re an entrepreneur and you’re like, “Oh my god, I can’t possibly take anything more on.” You might want to just consider what a couple hours, or three or four hours working with living things and flowers would feel like, you know?
Holly: Yeah there’s this video game called Stardew Valley where the whole premise of the game is that your grandfather before you felt the need to escape corporate dronery and started a farm. Set it aside for you and said, “You’re not ready for it yet but one day you will be, when you feel like you just can’t do this anymore and then come open this letter.” So this video game, you basically just take care of your farm and meet people in the community and just go out and try to build friendships with them.
Holly: I play that a lot this year and I thought the beginning, it made a lot of sense to me. There’s times where I’m like, “Yeah it would be nice to just farm.” It’s so predictable, comparatively. Obviously there’s all these variables but the idea that you’re just going to plant your crops and you’re going to go out and you’re going to care for them every day, and you’re not worried about whether your rival company is going to come and corner the market on this land.
Kate: Right, or a major funder’s not going to just pull everything out and say, “No, we’re done with that, you’re out of work.”
Holly: It’s a very different feeling, right?
Kate: I think we find places when we can get those moments … first of all I’m fascinated there’s a game. That is so brilliant and so interesting and I also recognize, probably anyone who’s ever farmed is like, “It’s not that easy. What are you talking …” you know?
Holly: I know.
Kate: But the [inaudible] is not necessarily whether or not the reality is easy. It’s the perception of something different to offer an alternative to the thing that is so stressful and so intense right now. I think that context switching of one environment to another environment, there’s something about that that I really hope, in the longterm future, gets integrated into our working environments. For people who are on all the time, I think they deserve mini sabbaticals. I think they deserve to not only be the sole decision maker in certain situations, and to build a trusted team to help with that, all those things.
Kate: For people who are doing more direct hands-on, day to day work, an opportunity to make some choices with some real consequences and feel like it’s not easy to be the person making choices that affect so many other people and that that’s partially why they get the big bucks.
Holly: It’s easier. Everyone has challenges in every spot, right? But I think that the best thing is just to take some time to understand the other spots. Whenever I come across tension or conflict or dynamics as you put it, I always start with, “Well, let’s see if we can understand the other viewpoint here.”
Holly: I do think I would be remiss if I didn’t say one of the reasons I wanted to talk about that is that I share a lot of those experiences too, and my first decade of being in the workforce, I struggled with some of those things. Back then … it sounds silly to me to say, “Back then …” but I remember talking with my therapist in let’s call it the mid to late 2000s about, “I’m struggling showing up to work every day and should I tell my employer that I have a mental illness or do I hide it and let them think I’m a slacker? What do I do?”
Holly: My therapist said, “Do not tell them. There’s too much stigma in the workplace and it will not go well.” I look back on that, because I do think things are changing and I’ve read some articles about some people who have decided to tell their employers and how that’s gone for them. I think it’s still a super tricky subject and I couldn’t possibly claim to know what one should do. I just want to normalize that more people suffer and struggle with these things, and it’s not just like, “Oh feeling sad.”
Holly: No, it’s like actually you start not being able to get out of bed or people have different versions of it. But you stop being a fully functional human and it’s very hard to keep an intense full-time job when you’re in that state.
Kate: And family, and relationships and all of those things. All of the [crosstalk 01:04:45]. It turns out in my experience, hiding it did not make it go away. That would’ve been really the easiest situation. You hide it, you deny it, it goes away, it’s fine. But turns out attention must be paid.
Holly: Yes, another one of those, “Oh duh, seems so obvious now.” But no, it is quite true and I think the nuance is figuring out what is the right form of attention for every person and how do you deal with that? I do se a lot more acceptance and awareness around now, where you can take a medical leave or just take a leave of absence from a job without getting a whole lot of like, “What the heck?” I’ve seen people do it at least, where I just didn’t even come across it in some of the environments I was in a decade ago, so I’m hopeful.
Kate: I think there’s some models out there. My sister’s a bicyclist and she introduced me to the concept of the peloton which is when you’re biking long distances, there’s like eight of you in a row. Now it’s of course a workout equipment thing because that is what all of our good concepts do, is become workout equipment names, or a car name but the peloton is … there’s someone who’s at the front of that line and the intent of the peloton is to stay together and not to race each other.
Kate: The first person at the front sets the pace but they’re also bearing all of the brunt of any wind, of all the air pressure, etc. and they’re making space for the people behind her to be in line. Then when tiredness happens and the pace starts to go down, the person leading the peloton moves aside and falls to the very back. Now they’ve got the benefit of all the people in front of them shielding the way and they can recover. As that happens, people move back up and their intent is when they’re refreshed, they’re back at that head, taking on a different kind of responsibility for pace setting in the brunt of the environment.
Kate: I’ve always hoped that we could find some type of organizational response that would mimic that so that when people have these intense crazy experiments or you go through this validation cycle, or you go through what they call sprints, not marathons because they’re supposed to be short and not just constantly boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. When we burn down in exhaustion, our people … before it gets to that point of real harm, a way to kind of fall back, regroup.
Kate: I think some cultures are good, like, “Oh you’ve been on an intense project, why don’t you draft for a while?” But those are few and far between. We really expect our people to be at the front of that peloton all the time, peddling like mad and I don’t think that’s healthy for the community.
Holly: I never knew that that was what a peloton was before the bike. I totally agree. I totally agree and just want to be one of the voices that helps us create those communities for people in the workforce.
Kate: Well I think you are. I mean I think spreading the word and talking about the way that people work and having people be open about things they might’ve done differently if they’d known, I think that’s adding to the base, the communal knowledge set and I think that’s admirable. Thank you for doing this work.
Holly: Well thank you for coming and sharing. It takes a lot of people. Well I feel like we should probably wrap up so I wonder if you have any final thoughts or messages you want people to take away?
Kate: Oh gosh, I think avoiding mistakes is impossible so just capitalize on the learning. Getting rid of right and wrong in our thinking and more of what did we learn? I think the only mistakes that I fully, fully made as part of a Lean Startup team was the mistake of not being able to integrate what we learned. The results of an experiment is not a mistake or what we chose to do may or may not have been a mistake, but really not being able to integrate and learn from our evidence of our mistakes, that was huge. I hope that more teams do that.
Kate: And take care of yourself, people. Everyone out there is amazing and has unique things to contribute and has freak flags to fly wide and high, and we need all the good peoples making good software for good societies. Take care of yourselves. Stay healthy. Get rest.
Holly: All right, well where can people find you if they want to follow you?
Kate: I’m on the Twitters at @katerutter. I have a podcast as well with the extraordinary and very opinionated Laura Klein. It is called What Is Wrong with UX? You can find it on the podcasting platforms. We also have a Patreon if folks want to help us out and do that for a little bit. I’m out at conferences and events in the San Francisco area so, love to meet new folks.
Holly: Awesome, well thank you so much Kate. I really appreciate it and I’m sure our listeners will, too.
Kate: Thank you Holly, been a pleasure to be here.
Holly: The Product Science Podcast is brought to you by H2R Product Science. We teach startup founders and products leaders how to use the product science methods to discover the strongest product opportunities and lay the foundations for high growth products, teams and businesses. Learn more at Enjoying this episode? Don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss next week’s episode. I also encourage you to visit us at to sign up for more information and resources from me and our guests. If you love the show, a rating or review would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.