The Audrey Crane Hypothesis: If You Don’t Hire Enough Designers, You Don’t Get No Design, You Get Bad Design

Unless you count that computer program Audrey Crane wrote on a TRS-80 when she was 5, she started her tech career at Netscape, where she had the extraordinary good luck to meet two of the most important mentors in her life: Hugh Dubberly and Marty Cagan. Since then, she’s worked both inside companies and as a consultant. Since 2010, Audrey has been a Partner at DesignMap, a strategic product design agency that helps ambitious enterprise software companies. She loves figuring out how to make helping people good business at places like Docker, Salesforce, and eBay.

In this episode of the Product Science Podcast, we talk about Audrey’s new book, What CEOs Need to Know About Design, and the changes organizations need to make in how they think about design.

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Questions We Explore in This Episode

The Audrey Crane Hypothesis: If You Don't Hire Enough Designers, You Don't Get No Design, You Get Bad DesignWhat was it like growing up in a house with Apple II software developers as parents? What did Audrey learn in her early career as a QA tester? How did her experience in theater and math help her land a job at Netscape? What did she learn from Hugh Dubberly and how he thinks about design? What was the Knowledge Navigator project, and what did it predict?

Why did Audrey write What CEOs Need to Know About Design? Why are designers often left out of teams that are building customer-facing products? Why is this problem more obvious when you’re consulting? What happens when business analysts try to make design decisions? What is the opportunity for design to make a difference in these companies?

How do you build an “on-ramp” for design? Why is there no such thing as “no design,” and what is the actual alternative to good design? How do disconnects happen over UX and design, especially when talking about B2B and internal projects? How do you write a job description for and interview designers? How do you separate process from the end result? What does Audrey look for when she interviews designers? What does she like about formally trained designers (even though she doesn’t have a design degree herself)?

What are some common misconceptions about design thinking? How do you deepen your understanding of design and integrate it into how you make products? What exercise does Audrey recommend to practice doing design research? How can charisma help you as a product manager or business leader but hurt you when it comes to product research? How do you approach user research as a tool for learning, and not for simply proving that you were right? When can user research become counterproductive?

Quotes From This Episode

The alternative to good design isn't no design. It's bad design. - Audrey Crane Click To Tweet Take off your charismatic hat when you're interviewing users and be as boring as you can possibly be, as not there as possible, and make space for that person to fill. And you will learn so much. - Audrey Crane Click To Tweet When interviewing designers, focus on the person's process versus the end result…any picture or screens in the modern world is a result of some kind of collaboration. - Audrey Crane Click To Tweet The thing I like about formally trained that they spend four years getting a thick skin. - Audrey Crane Click To Tweet


Holly Hester-Reilly: Hi and welcome to the Product Science Podcast where we’re helping startup founders and product leaders build high growth products, teams and companies through 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 Hester-Reilly: This week on the Product Science Podcast, I’m super excited to share a conversation with Audrey Crane. Audrey has just published a book with Sense & Respond Press on What CEOs Need To Know About Design, and she has a long history in design and product and even got to work on Marty Cagan at one point in the past. Audrey, welcome.
Audrey Crane: Thank you. Thanks so much.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Why don’t we start with a little bit of background and then we can talk about the book and anything else that we feel like talking about? So how did you get into tech?
Audrey Crane: Oh gosh. Well, my father was a developer and actually my mother was too, and nobody can see me, but I’m almost 50 years old. So I think I’m one of the very oldest people that grew up with technology in the house. So my dad wrote software for the Apple II, we had Apple II in our house and Apple shipped him an early version of the Macintosh computers. So he wrote software that it originally shipped with. They sent him stuff to write games, foreign things. So from-
Holly Hester-Reilly: Oh my goodness. What a piece of history. Wow. Sorry, I just had to say that.
Audrey Crane: Yeah. No, it’s super cool. I remember him writing the game where you play pool on the Macintosh, like a very, very early version of Macintosh and I can touch it. It’s pretty cool to remember that stuff. I actually remember before that, my parents bringing home punch cards for their homework. So punch cards that computer programs are written on. And so I go way back. I wrote my first computer program when I was five on a RadioShack, TRS-80. I tell engineers that story to get credibility with them when they look at me and they’re like, “Oh, she can’t possibly know what she’s talking about. Look at those freckles. She is not credible.”
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah.
Audrey Crane: So for my summer jobs, I actually did QA and stuff and I did a share waiting table, but I often would be doing quality assurance for whatever company my dad was running the engineering team for us. So that’s really how I got started in tech. I did not want to do that for a living. My mother did it as well. My brother is a developer and I was like, “That stuff is boring. I’m going to study theater.” So I studied theater in college. My parents said, “Well, that’s fine as long as you double major.” My mother said that to me and thank goodness she did because I picked up or I was actually studying also pure mathematics, which is super nerdy and totally useless in the real world. But having theater and math on my resume was what caught the eye of Hugh Dubberly. He was at Netscape at the time leading design and he saw this resume come by with his background in math and theater and I think it must’ve been, it was pretty early, so it was maybe in ’95 when that happened.
Audrey Crane: He said, “Oh,” he recognized a right brain, left brain person and brought me into interview. And so I had a tech job before that, that I moved to California to act for a living. And I wanted a day job that paid, so paid better than being a breakfast waitress, which is everybody should tip their breakfast waitresses better. So I was out there doing that work for a little company that got acquired by AOL and I didn’t want to work for AOL. So I interviewed at Netscape and that’s where I met Hugh and started understanding what this world of design is about. And I’ve been in tech ever since.
Holly Hester-Reilly: That’s amazing. So I know we do have a good amount of younger listeners who and product people as opposed to design people. So enlighten us all who Hugh is.
Audrey Crane: Yeah, no, thank you for saying that. And actually even design people don’t necessarily know him because he’s not a big self-promoter. But Hugh ran Apple Creative services for quite a few years. So he did many extraordinary things, including consolidating product names and logos. He was running that team when they came up with the Macintosh logo with the smile in the face in the profile. And then he went to run design at Netscape and then was running design for AOL. But he teaches at Stanford and he’s really a who’s who in the industry educated at Yale and I cannot stress enough how brilliant that guy is.
Audrey Crane: 15 minutes in a room with him and he’s going to blow your mind and it doesn’t really matter what you’re talking about. So he’s a luminary, he’s very interested also in concept mapping and modeling and seeing the big picture. And he also… Sorry, I should say, he ran the project, the Knowledge Navigator project, which if you don’t know what that is, you should look it up on Wikipedia. But it really predicted the future of computing and personal computing in a way that was amazingly prescient and really influential.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. Thank you for that. That’s really helpful. I know that you have a long career and I don’t want to make it sound like… And then she just jumps right over to writing a book. But I do want to dive into the book and why this is what you to talk about and then maybe we can go back to whatever stories are most interesting. So tell us about about your book.
Audrey Crane: Yeah. I saw it really honestly throughout my career, so it’s both inside companies running design teams as well as at consultancies. Like definitely design office and design up, where I am now, is there’s a really uneven understanding of what design for digital products is. What we mean by that is all over the map. And there’s really no level of setting. It’s happened for years and you would think that by this point we would have sorted it all out. Like designers would have explained to everybody sufficiently what it is that we do, and everybody who works with technology would understand it. But honestly, I was just having a conversation last month with a engineering manager and I said, “What percentage of your products that customers use have teams with designers on that or are made by teams that have designers on the team?”
Audrey Crane: When I asked the question, I thought it’s kind of cheating, right? There’s an obvious answer to that question, which is, no products that our customers ever get built without a designer being involved. But then in fact he said, “Oh, I think designers are on 60% of the teams that are building.” So this was just last month, and it’s really common… On the one I see that there are these two universes. There’s a universe that I’m normally living in, where we’re having PhD level conversations about whether design thinking is broadly applicable or how it relates to lean, and of course everybody knows exactly what lean is and the impact that Sigma has had. And the move away from illustrators since we have these like hybrid solutions and what it means for the world that prototyping is.
Audrey Crane: So but at the same time, it’s really normal for me to come across a team that works on software that has no designer on staff at all. And that might say, “Oh we don’t really have a UX.” There’s just like… People see stuff on screen, but it’s not really UX. There’s not a user experience. And so where we had a client recently ask us when we were delivering the design maps, because the name of the company is DesignMap, no designers produce a lot of maps. But so far we haven’t branded anything in DesignMap. Or don’t know the difference between a wireframe and a mockup, or are confused when we interchangeably use the word mockup in comps.
Audrey Crane: So there’s this PhD level world that we live in and I think I’m just going to make up some numbers, maybe 20% of companies that develop technology are leaving over here in the lean, agile design thinking world with designers on every team that produces software that users see. And by user any user and not just the external user. And then there’s maybe 80% of the world that has software fundamental to the way that they make money, and yet have no idea what we’re talking about at all.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. I want to add a little there because I think that that’s a really interesting point. And I know that our listeners, a lot of them come from deeper in the tech industry and might not be as aware of that. So I just wanted to underscore it, I think for myself, and I don’t know if this similar for you. It wasn’t until I started doing consulting instead of working in-house on a product team, and I’m sure you know corollary in house on a design team that I started to really see how many companies don’t have designers or product managers. Now I’m at a point where I’m able to listen to you and I’m like, “Oh, I totally know what you’re talking about.” Yeah, there’s a bunch of people out there.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I was at this training, we were running a training for 25 people. We had to ask them to bring everyone in product and design and engineering leadership from the company, and there are no designers in the entire room. Like there’s just not, they are all business analysts and project managers and program managers and director engineering. So I now have seen this, but I think for some people it’s hard. It’s hard to even imagine because design is like really hot if you’re in the middle of it.
Audrey Crane: Yeah. Yeah. And even if you know it’s hot and what really… Like I think the spark that lit the fire was, I had a CEO of a small company call me and he’s like 200 or 300 employees. And he said, “Okay, so I was an engineer, I understand engineering, I got promoted, I’m CEO now. I’ve learned about marketing and HR and operations with all that stuff.” I get that and I hear that design is important and I think it would be really interesting to ask him about his product management function as well. But anyway, he said, “I know that design is important. I have seen these like analyst reports, but I don’t know what it is, how to build a design team, how to leverage them to have the best possible impact on my business, my employees and my company. So can you help me with this?”
Audrey Crane: And, “Jesus, how many CEOs must be in this position?” Like where they came from other places, maybe they haven’t worked with design in the past and either back in engineers or doing something in some other areas of business. And now I’m not going to hand them a copy of design of everyday things or teach them Photoshop. That’s ridiculous. So how is this guy supposed to know this stuff? And that was really the spark that lit the fire. But it was not two years ago that I met a company in Silicon Valley, in Silicon Valley. They’re companies started in the mid ’80s and they were a back office organization. So they started printing paychecks and then somebody at some point was like, “Oh we should have an extranet.” And then this person would build this code and that person would build that code.
Audrey Crane: And when we met them, not a single product manager, not a single designer, they had somebody on staff with a title webmaster. And when we said, “Are you guys agile or waterfall? Like everybody is agile but something, agile but we just started, agile but just as one team or agile but only engineering. They didn’t declare themselves agile. In fact, I didn’t even declare themselves in waterfall. They said, “We have an SDLC, we have a software development life cycle that we follow, and that’s our process.” That’s a word with a very rich history that goes way back, to say. In some ways I felt like finding a pterodactyl downtown mountain view.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Oh man, I love that imagery. Yes.
Audrey Crane: I’m like, “What are you guys doing here?” But at the same time, it happens all the time and we just happen… My mom works as a business analyst today. Just listen to her not wanting to go on a conference call over the holidays with six other business analysts trying to decide whether somebody should be pulled down on a radio button for like 20 minutes.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Whoa. Wow.
Audrey Crane: Not kidding. Yeah. So what’s exciting is that those companies exist and people like you and me and the people that you’re listening to the podcast can have a really positive impact on those companies. Really make things happen for them. They have history, they have revenue, they have great sales team. There’s just no on-ramp. There’s no way to get from, “We have no designers, we heard it’s important, but we don’t know what to do to having them,” because when you look out in the world, there’s lots of conferences of designers preaching to the choir, talking about really highfalutin, advanced things that are useful to that audience but really impenetrable to the rest of the world.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, I totally agree. I think this is something I’ve known in general since, and I’m sure many people have experienced this. Since getting into education and training, which is something that I have always loved throughout my life. Just wasn’t able to teach people in tech about it before. But there’s always this sort of wall, like these self-reinforcing ecosystems where people learn enough that they then spend time with other people who know enough and they get deeper and deeper and deeper. And then there’s people on the outside and it’s like crossing over, finding that on-ramp is really hard. So I think it’s so helpful that you’ve been focused on that problem. So tell us more about what that looks like. So if somebody is talking to someone or if they’re working with somebody who doesn’t really understand design, where do they start? What do you recommend for them?
Audrey Crane: Buy the book. The thing that I see most often is that that person actually isn’t a CEO. They’re a business leader within an organization. Frequently, it comes from engineering for whatever reason. There’s some engineering manager, engineering VP who sees that a couple of problems are happening. And one is engineers are spending time doing design, frankly, because the alternative to good design isn’t no design. It’s bad design. Like there is design, design exists. So we need to just accept that. There’s going to be some interaction with the computer and there’s going to be some interface there. So if there isn’t a designer on staff, somebody else with perhaps less expertise is spending time and money doing that work.
Audrey Crane: And sometimes they like it and they’re skilled at it, which is great. And sometimes they don’t like it or they’re not skilled at it, which is a problem. And then on top of that, that problem of the individual, this is my pet theory of why these are often engineering managers, they see like, “Oh, we’re building this really rich powerful engine. It’s like a Lamborghini engine, but it’s being cured under the hood of a Pinto.” so people can’t understand from looking at it how powerful it is. They don’t have access to all the features. Maybe that Pinto gearshift only has four, but we actually built five in the engine, but we can’t even get to it.
Audrey Crane: And it feels untrustworthy. It feels unpowerful. And so imagine investing all that money in this great engine and then seeing the value of it significantly depleted by this user experience design that obfuscates it. So why not just if for no other reason than just to get the return on the investment that we put into engineering, get a better user experience design layer there that’s not covering things up. Anyway, I think the first step is recognizing that designing gist, and I really cannot tell you how many times we had people often in the rarefied tech world say, “Oh, there is no UX. It’s B2B.” I don’t understand the correlation with-
Holly Hester-Reilly: I know.
Audrey Crane: So there is no UX. It’s internal only. Or there’s this weird disconnect between… if it’s being perceived as important and it having user experience. So the first is just recognizing like, “Okay, there is design.” I would say is the first step to get started. And then hiring. And that’s a big part of the book is understanding that you can’t hire someone to design your logo. I mean, you can, but there are very few people in the world that are going to be great at designing a logo, and designing your stationary, and designing your marketing site, and doing visual design for your digital product, and doing the interaction design for your digital product, and doing the content strategy, the information architecture. Those kinds of people do exist, but they’re few and far between. And if you put that in the job description, you’re going to look like you don’t know what you’re doing and turn off people who are more skilled.
Audrey Crane: So recognizing that there is design and bringing someone in, and I recommend either hire a design partner or a coach or a friend to help you write a job description and then also to help you interview. Because you can interview for all the right stuff, right? Cultural fit and ability to collaborate and communicate and all these things, and certainly anybody’s opinion about the quality of a portfolio is valid, right, because the portfolio is developed to impress you, but it’s still very helpful to have a designer around to help with the interview process, to know what questions to ask, to know what answers are alarming.
Audrey Crane: And the other thing I tell… Sorry, go ahead.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, so I was just going to add on that one. That’s something I also see a lot both with design and with product management that you often have a business leader or an engineering leader doing the hiring and not knowing how to evaluate good versus bad or what challenges they’re going to face. So I liked that you suggested that they have like a friend help with the interviews, that they find somebody who can help them with that.
Audrey Crane: Yeah. I’ve also found when I’ve helped teams build their internal teams and then we talk about helping our clients build a core competency because the user experience design should be a core competency. Marty says that all the time and we totally agree with him. So if we’re helping somebody build a core competency, it’s interesting how surprised people are to hear my focus on the person’s process versus the end result. I think what they have in their head is like, “I’m going to look at this picture or these screens and then I’m going to either like it or not.” And that’s basically the assessment.
Audrey Crane: But of course any picture or screens in the modern world is a result of some kind of collaboration. Even though they did it in school, they got feedback from other students and their teachers. So understanding the story of how they got there that they might not even love the end result. They might have done things differently, but how they work with other people, how transparent and clear they can make their thinking process so that other people can engage with them in that thinking process, and then also for me really key is how they take critique. So I always say even if I’m mapping and in love with the end product, I always say, “Why did you choose that yellow?” Or, “I’m confused about this.”
Audrey Crane: And just seeing in that setting how they respond to something like that, because that’s what 50% of your conversations are going to be. And the one time I ignored my own rule with it, things went awry quickly. So I always look for people who are open to that. And I don’t want them to say like, “You’re right, I hate that yellow,” but I need them to say, “Oh that’s interesting. Can you tell me more about that?” Or, “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that.” Or, “Yeah, I tried and this is the best,” whatever they think is. Just something not defensive.
Holly Hester-Reilly: So you just totally got me curious. What happened when you denied your own rule there?
Audrey Crane: I broke my rule in that situation, it turned out to be a person. This person, she did have an art degree, but it was a different kind of art with an English degree. And so the thing I like about formally trained designers, and I say this as not… I obviously take classes but don’t have any degree in design, is that they spend four years getting a thick skin. Right? Because you get some four years being criticized. And a theater degree is pretty good for that too. But-
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, probably.
Audrey Crane: … this person I got, well, she has an English degree so I should probably has that. And she didn’t take my feedback well, but she’s probably nervous about the interview or something. And yeah, she ended up not working out and was like very defensive almost to the point of hostility about feedback and then sort of like started this whole thing about like, “You can only give me positive, constructive feedback. I won’t accept any feedback that’s not positive,” or something.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Oh, boy.
Audrey Crane: Yeah. So she didn’t work out. Yeah. It was a rough time.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. Yeah. It’s the kind of thing… I think you’re totally right. You might have loved the end results that she showed you in her portfolio, but you have to work with her all the time. And you’re also like… One thing I’ve experienced for sure with both product managers and designers is anybody can… not like anybody, but it doesn’t take skill to look into something that’s a really good fit for market once, it takes skill to like get there repeatedly for different markets. And sometimes that means you’re building or designing something that you don’t even love yourself, but you’re going to have the market for it, so that’s okay. And you can’t always tell that from a portfolio.
Audrey Crane: Absolutely. And you, for all you know that the product manager or the CEO or the CEO’s wife was like, “I want everything to be green,” or whatever. I worked with somebody who hated triangles, for whatever reason. We were never allowed to be as triangles or anything. So who knows how that collaboration came out? It’s really a lot more about their thought process. Are they clear? Are they logical, are they organized, are they systems thinkers? Can they explain their reasoning? Can they hear other points of view and integrate that? The end result matters, and of course, but that’s the only part of the assessment.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. All right, so we got first you need to understand that design exists and is a thing. Even if you don’t think you’ve got design on your product. Second, you’ve got to find good design people and you might need some help with that. What else?
Audrey Crane: Yeah. Another sort of common mistake is thinking that design is either just colors and fonts or is design thinking. Really design thinking has gotten really broad usage. HBR is writing articles like business people hear this phrase, IDEO is brilliant at marketing stuff like this. And so there’s this idea that, “Oh, it’s design thinking,” which is, it’s a different way of thinking about coming up with a solution and trying it out. And then on the other end, and astonishingly, four years ago, at a conference for health care and I was at the opening night, I was day two keynote and there’s that opening night, having drinks in and talking to people and they’re very nice.
Audrey Crane: And they said, “What are you talking about?” And I had this sort of like really specific talk and how did you use a research in the healthcare arena given HIPAA and everything else, blah, blah, blah. But what I do, I’m a designer. Like that’s the shorthand. And everybody, to a person that, “Oh, design is so important color. I really don’t think… I think we could think a lot harder about color.” You know, that kind of statements. And it was so… I promise you Holly, every single person had that kind of a response. And to the point that I skipped a day one of the conference to rewrite my day two talk to be like a one on one, “Here’s what design in software means, here’s how you integrate it with your engineering process.”
Audrey Crane: Now, this was a covered thing sponsored by a specific EHR. And I think that the EHR ecosystem and the fact that it’s not SaaS twisted back in time 10 or 20 years behind everything else in the world, but still that I think people would be astonished to… And so what I talked to business leaders about is the Five Elements of User Experience Design, which is an old book. I think Jesse James Garrett published that in like 2000 or something. But it just says, “Look, it’s scope, it’s strategy, it’s structure, it’s skeleton,” and then surface. And I don’t think the model is necessarily perfect, although new models are perfect, but it’s very helpful in explaining to people that it’s not just this like underlying strategy thing, design thinking.
Audrey Crane: Although people would argue, and I would agree with them, that you could apply design thinking anywhere here, and it’s not just the surface what it looks like, but it’s these parts that go together. Like if you’re a mathematician and you show your work, right, there’s not like this strategy thing that you do over here. And then there’s [inaudible] and colors at the end, but rather there’s logic connecting each one to the other. And it’s all the way through. It’s pervasive, it’s what people are trying to do, and how we help them do it, and how those things are organized, and what’s presented the screen and the hierarchy of that information and how it looks. And it’s all connected. So helping people understand that it’s all of this stuff and not just one end or the other end-
Holly Hester-Reilly: I really, really love the way-
Audrey Crane: … just id really important and surprisingly difficult.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. Yeah. I was just going to say, I really love the way you described that. It goes really well with the reason why this is called the Product Science Podcast because I think that a lot of times in both product and design, I see people that think it’s magic to go from here to there and you just have to have this like great instinct, and I don’t think it is. I think it’s just that we don’t have enough people talking about the language of all those pieces in between and how you go from that beginning strategy to that end surface with something more clear than just, “Well, I found an expert who knows what to do and they gave me their output.”
Audrey Crane: Yeah, yeah. It’s like that New Yorker cartoon, right, of the mathematicians at the chalkboard and that this step and that step and that step and then they write and then a miracle occurs. And then that step and that step, like there’s no black boxes in this. There are moments where you’re looking at a blank screen and you have to take a breath and put the first thing on there, but there are no black boxes in this. Certainly there’s creativity involved, but there’s still a through line.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. Yeah. That’s really cool. So are there other things… Or I guess actually on that one, how did it go when you changed your content for the talk at this conference? How did people respond to it?
Audrey Crane: They were very positive. People are nice. So I appreciate that. I think the best thing about that though honestly was I kept a little thing from my other talk about research. I had given people a pocket protocol, so like a research protocol that literally anybody could use for research on any product from attitudinal to behavioral research. So I was proud of that piece and I handed it out and I said, “Look, you guys are going to go get on airplanes when you leave this conference, and you are going to be sitting next to captive usability research participants or research participants. So take this protocol, circle by questions that you can ask either about your product or if you don’t have a product yet, you can ask attitudinal things and then do a research session. You don’t have to be worried about HIPAA. If you’ve got a product, try to put in fake information.”
Audrey Crane: And three people tweeted to me that they had done research either in the airport or on the airplane on their way home. So the rest… Hopefully it hit home with somebody or it was the first of three times hearing that same message and then it took. I don’t know.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, that’s cool though. It’s good that people share that they gave it a try on their way home. That’s when you’ve sparked someone’s interest.
Audrey Crane: Absolutely. That somebody actually did something, they didn’t just say, “Oh that was really helpful. That helps me a lot.” But they did something different that impacted their product. That was really exciting for me.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Is there any other things that we haven’t covered that are sort of like major themes that you think are important when you’re trying to-
Audrey Crane: I do have one last soapbox. In the book I cover the overall design process and activities and deliverables that happen at different steps of the process. And also, I get into how to give feedback and focusing on intent and asking questions rather than saying, “I don’t like triangles.” But the soapbox that maybe is most interesting for your audience is about talking to users. I know all business leaders and product managers go out there in the world and they talk to users and entrepreneurs and founders and I think that’s great. But the thing that makes product managers and founders and entrepreneurs successful is that they’re charismatic, they’re great evangelists. People like to be around them. Because usually product managers aren’t the boss of anybody, right? The way that they get their job done is they excite and influence other people.
Audrey Crane: And certainly entrepreneurs and founders are the same way. So if they wear that hat and they go up there to ask somebody about their current attitudes, behavior or ask them to try to use the product, often what they learn is how charismatic they are, right? They’re the good looking people that everybody likes that wants them to like them. And then you end up with this garbage in, garbage out problem where they come back and they say, “I was right.” And a lot of more junior product managers, that’s the outcome that they’re hoping for from usability session, whether they’re conducting or somebody else is conducting it. They want to hear that they were right. That’s success versus learning. And so I talked to… And we run this workshop for business skills and again, product managers and entrepreneurs to help them learn to put a different hat on.
Audrey Crane: And I use a metaphor with them. There’s a great essay by a typographer Beatrice Warde called The Crystal Goblet and she’s writing about typography. But very briefly what she says is, if as a typographer you do your job right, it’s like being a great wine glass. You are thin, you are transparent, you’re creating space, nobody really notices you. Nobody notices the glass, right? Because the whole reason for the glass to be there is to make the wine the best that it can be so that you can smell it better and see the color better and taste it better. And so she makes this parallel to topography that nobody should notice the size of the gutters or the font you picked or the line spacing. They should just be able to take in the content that you’ve typed that at its best.
Audrey Crane: I take that analogy and apply it to conducting research with users. And I say, “You guys need to be the crystals goblets. You need to be present as little as possible.” And there’s all these specific tips about how to do that. Like be quiet, count to five in your head. If there’s silence to see if they’ll fill that space in. Don’t use your own words. Use their words. Don’t ask leading questions. In fact, don’t ask questions. They ask these trailing questions. “So would you say that experience of using this product was…” See, that’s awkward and you want to say something right now instead of saying, “Was it good? Was it bad? Was it good or bad?” Right? And so I have seen, every time I run this workshop, the first thing somebody says is, “That was way harder than I thought it was going to be.” Which is great because it’s not rocket science, but understanding that you really need to apply yourself to take off your charismatic hat and be as boring as you can possibly be, as not there as possible, and make space for that person to fill. And you will learn so much.
Audrey Crane: And what’s great is that I definitely has seen entrepreneurs switch flips and they’re like, “I totally get it.” I’ve been fundraising and talking to potential board members and customers and in all these things, I’m pitching and staling and getting them excited and I just have to turn that off and be just about silence and learning, and they can do it. Unfortunately, people who are terrible at it are the people that don’t know they’re terrible at it. The lack of self awareness that makes you terrible at it also makes it hard to understand that you’re not doing a good job at it. But-
Holly Hester-Reilly: That’s tricky.
Audrey Crane: Yeah, it is tricky but I ask product managers if they don’t have designers or researchers that can do research for them or they really want to test something out, I suggest that they swap. So like get a buddy and like you test your buddy’s product and have them test yours. Because you don’t really have an agenda, you don’t know anywhere near as much. It’s like engineers testing their own code. Right?
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah.
Audrey Crane: So let’s just trade and then bring what we learned back or bring the recordings back. You don’t even have to write anything down. By getting entrepreneurs out of the room with users when they’re doing research, whether that’s literally or figuratively is I think really important because there’s all this time spent and it might not only not be productive but be counterproductive.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. I love that soapbox.
Audrey Crane: Thank you.
Holly Hester-Reilly: It’s such a good soapbox. Yeah. I’m a big fan. I think what you were saying reminds me a bit of, in the first season I had an episode where we interviewed Caitlin Bergin. You can talk to the hundreds of users and still be wrong. That was the hypothesis for hers. And she basically learned the lesson you just described when she was an entrepreneur and now she teaches others how to stop being that charismatic and be a-
Audrey Crane: Good looking.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. And how to be more invisible. Yeah. I totally agree. I think I like your story about the goblet. That’s really cool. Being-
Audrey Crane: It’s a great essay. Yeah.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. Being the science angle, for me, I’d say you want to be a scientist. You’re observing, you’re not participating. The point is not to be disrupting it by being there. But yeah, that’s such an important thing and a lot of people… Also, you started the whole thing with, “I know that product managers and founders and people are all talking to users,” and I debated whether to interrupt you and be like, “No. Many of them pretend.”
Audrey Crane: I was trying to be nice.
Holly Hester-Reilly: You were.
Audrey Crane: All the [crosstalk 00:40:47], they’re all good looking and charismatic.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, that was so kind of you. You’re so kind.
Audrey Crane: Well, maybe there’s some anxiety about talking to people and maybe we could clear that up just by saying, “You’re not supposed to talk.”
Holly Hester-Reilly: Right. Yeah. Yeah. I think so. The other piece of what you’ve been saying that I think helps clear it up too is just like, “You’re supposed to learn.” It’s okay if what you learn is your idea wasn’t great,” because your job is to learn fast and change the plan.
Audrey Crane: Yep. Yeah. You’re going to learn it now or later, then would you rather learn it.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Exactly. Exactly. It has been so much fun to talk to you. I always like to wrap up with just like if there’s one final word of advice you have for your people, whoever your people are. How would you encapsulate what you think is most important?
Audrey Crane: I guess I would say that design exists profoundly and impactfully and you can use it to your advantage or not.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Audrey Crane: I know that’s not very quippy.
Holly Hester-Reilly: No, it is. You’re right. That’s awesome. Okay, well and where can people find you and where can they find the book?
Audrey Crane: Yeah. So the book is on Amazon and people can find me at, or you can also find DesignMap and stuff about the book and other things at
Holly Hester-Reilly: Awesome. All right. Well, thank you so much for your time today. This was fantastic and I can’t wait to share it.
Audrey Crane: That’s a pleasure. Thanks, Holly. Happy new year.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, happy new year to you too, Audrey.
Audrey Crane: Thanks. Bye.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Bye.
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