Dark horses and mis­fits

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A Q&A with Airbnb's Jenny Ar­den

De­sign is hav­ing a mo­ment. For­tune 500 com­pa­nies are hir­ing chief de­sign of­fi­cers and in­vest­ing in de­sign and in­no­va­tion cen­tres, and even tra­di­tional cor­po­rates are get­ting in on the ac­tion. At the cen­tre of all of this is Sil­i­con Val­ley- based Airbnb, the on­line mar­ket­place for people to lease short-term ac­com­mo­da­tion. Founded by de­sign­ers Joe Geb­bia and Brian Ch­esky and co- founder Nathan Blechar­czyk in 2008, the com­pany is now val­ued at US $31 bil­lion and lo­cated in 190 coun­tries. On a re­cent trip to Auck­land, Airbnb's user de­sign ex­pe­ri­ence man­ager Jenny Ar­den (an I DEO, Google and YouTube alumni) had a chat with Elly Strang about all things de­sign. You have both a graphic de­sign and physics de­gree, and you’ve also done a busi­ness pro­gramme at Har­vard for

I do think pretty much all of my peers – all of those who are lead­ing large de­sign teams – have a left brain/right brain bal­ance. It’s pretty rare these days to find some­one who’s just into de­sign, or just into an­a­lyt­ics. There’s so many multi-faceted lead­ers right now. User ex­pe­ri­ence de­sign is both an art and a science and I think you have to have both taste and sub­jec­tiv­ity – those com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills in ad­di­tion to an­a­lyt­i­cal skills. You have to be able to talk about data with your data sci­en­tist, your project man­ager, with all these other very an­a­lyt­i­cal roles, and if you don’t have any of those mus­cles, you’re not hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion any­more. So, it may seem like these two de­grees are com­pletely dis­parate and they are, but when you blend them to­gether you ac­tu­ally have the skills needed to work with a multi-faceted team.

Yes, and I keep say­ing this over and over but I re­ally don’t see the dif­fer­ence any­more. When you’re de­sign­ing a busi­ness, you’re de­sign­ing a busi­ness. There’s no longer ‘build­ing’ busi­nesses, and what I mean by that is ev­ery­thing is com­pletely in­ten­tional. You don’t ac­ci­den­tally build a com­pany, you in­ten­tion­ally de­sign a com­pany. So the idea of de­sign think­ing merg­ing with busi­ness, that’s what we’re do­ing. We’re fig­ur­ing out in­ten­tion­ally: what is this com­pany go­ing to do, what does it look like and what are the play­ers?

Val­ley is en­ter­ing the age of the de­signer-founder, and

This is a hot topic right now – more and more de­sign­ers are as­pir­ing to be a founder. Al­most ev­ery per­son on my team says that one day, they want to start their own com­pany. These are all de­sign­ers – there’s 50 de­sign­ers say­ing this. The rea­son is not only do they now have some­one to look up to, they’re start­ing to see de­sign­ers who have achieved this. What they’re also see­ing is hav­ing the skill of sto­ry­telling and hav­ing the abil­ity to get a group of people be­hind you is the su­per­power of a de­signer. Brian Ch­esky, the CEO of Airbnb, is fa­mous for this. He is an amaz­ing sto­ry­teller. He’s re­ally, re­ally clear on his vi­sion, and that’s what makes him a great

There’s a lot of sim­i­lar thought that goes on in

CEO as a de­signer. More and more people are start­ing to re­alise that if they can tell that story of what is re­ally mean­ing­ful and pur­pose­ful, they can ac­tu­ally lead a com­pany.

A lot of it is ex­e­cu­tion cen­tric, so the ba­sic un­der­stand­ing of op­er­a­tions, fi­nance, all the things that are in­volved when you cre­ate a com­pany – you have to learn all of that as a de­signer. Very, very few de­sign­ers have been clas­si­cally trained in busi­ness and they’re learn­ing on the fly. Luck­ily, de­sign­ers have great in­tu­ition and most of the de­sign­ers I’ve worked with have a hum­ble sense, so they know what they don’t know. The CEO of Airbnb [Ch­esky] in par­tic­u­lar is re­ally great at un­der­stand­ing ‘I need people for this, I need to hire the right people to fill the void and gaps that I’m not fill­ing. I can’t pos­si­bly do that job.’ And so, I ac­tu­ally think it’s not nec­es­sar­ily the de­signer founder who should fill all these roles, it’s up to them to un­der­stand what they can’t do and hire the right people to fill those holes.

The dark horses and the mis­fits are those who have a bit of quirk­i­ness to them. There’s a lot of sim­i­lar thought that goes on in tech in par­tic­u­lar, mean­ing people read the same books, get in­spi­ra­tion from the same people and you start to see de­signs re­cy­cled and re­gur­gi­tated through­out prod­uct. What I look for are the de­sign­ers who don’t pay at­ten­tion to that as much, they’re in­vent­ing their own thing – they’re artists. They’re bring­ing in­spi­ra­tion from very rare sources you wouldn’t typ­i­cally go for. They’re look­ing at pho­tog­ra­phers and writ­ers and physi­cists for in­spi­ra­tion and cre­ativ­ity to help them find so­lu­tions to the prob­lems they’re faced with. In a pre­vi­ous role that I held at IDEO, what was re­ally in­ter­est­ing about that com­pany is they in­ten­tion­ally re­cruited people who had re­ally unique, non-tra­di­tional back­grounds. You could be on a team with an astro­naut be­cause they wanted some­one who would think like an astro­naut on this project, or they would hire some­one that used to own a vine­yard, and that per­son would think like a hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ist as a de­signer. When we look at re­ally suc­cess­ful global teams with di­ver­sity, there’s people who have back­grounds that aren’t typ­i­cal and they would think about prob­lems in a re­ally dif­fer­ent way and cre­ate analo­gies from their past lives into the work that they’re do­ing right now.

Yes, this is def­i­nitely a com­mon trend right now. I’ve seen it be­come stan­dard prac­tice in the past six months. De­sign lead­ers, es­pe­cially as they’re join­ing smaller com­pa­nies – com­pa­nies that are about 100 people in size – say that they have to re­port di­rectly to the CEO. The ra­tio­nale be­hind that is that they want to cre­ate a bal­ance in in­flu­ence, mean­ing if you have a CTO, a CPO, all of these c-suite in­di­vid­u­als, you want one per­son that’s in charge of bring­ing up the user in all these con­ver­sa­tions when you’re mak­ing strate­gic de­ci­sions. So if you’re talk­ing about where you’re go­ing to go in five years, what’s the di­rec­tion of the en­tire com­pany, you need to have some­one that un­der­stands the user there to chime in and keep ev­ery­one in check. I think or­gan­i­sa­tions are be­com­ing more and more com­plex. Airbnb as it grows – we’re about 2000 people right now – as it gets big­ger and big­ger and big­ger, it be­comes more com­plex and more dif­fi­cult to nav­i­gate. There’s a great case study that was writ­ten in the Har­vard Busi­ness Review about the ‘Lego’ men­tal­ity. It’s this con­cept that when you’re a start-up and you have three people, you have a ta­ble cov­ered in Lego and you get to build with all the Lego and all the Lego are yours, and as you hire more people you have to divvy up the pile of the Lego. So now you only get your lit­tle pile, but you get to build any­thing you want with that lit­tle pile. It gets whit­tled down and whit­tled down as you hire more and more people, so the big chal­lenge is not to think, ‘I have a smaller pile of Lego’ but to think, ‘What amaz­ing thing can I do with that pile of Lego?’ Don’t look at your lit­tle world as be­ing too small for you, but in­stead think, ‘How can I trans­form this area I’m in charge of and make it re­ally in­spir­ing?’

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