GV’s Daniel Burka on design leadership

Daniel Burka believes your designers are the key to solving your startup's fundamental business problems.

Daniel’s spent his career at the intersection of design and business leadership. He’s currently a design partner at GV, the investment arm of alphabet formerly known as Google Ventures, where he helps a portfolio of more than 300 companies solve their design challenges. Prior to that, Daniel spent more than a decade helping technology companies with product design, from Mozilla and Digg.com to Google+.

Daniel joined me on the podcast to explain the real meaning of design leadership, the role of sprints in a healthy design culture, why humility is a key to great design, and much more. If you like what you hear, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or grab the RSS feed.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the interview, but if you’re short on time, here are five key takeaways:

  1. Hiring and recruiting, moving into new markets, raising venture capital – none of these are the problems of design. But design can be applied to solving each of them.
  2. Design is only a fraction of a designer’s job. When a design doesn’t see the light of day or gets dragged sideways, it’s often because the designer didn’t put in the time to create relationships and credibility with PMs and engineers.
  3. A design culture isn’t built from giving designers immense power. Rather, it’s the product of everyone in a company considering design to be a part what they do.
  4. Two things define a successful design sprint: all functions within a business participate and, eventually, a successful product is shipped.
  5. Empathy is a key part of design, but empathy alone isn’t enough. What Daniel often sees designers lack is humility.

Stewart Scott-Curran: Daniel, it’s good to see you. You recently tweeted that you’ve been designing for 20+ years and you’re still blown away by how often people in the web design community are willing to share their knowledge, so thank you for coming here and doing the same with us. Can you give us a quick feel of what your role over is like at GV? What does a design partner at a venture firm do, and what are the type of portfolio brands that you’ve been working with?

Daniel Burka: I’ve got a very strange job in the design world in that I work in this fairly large venture capital company. We’ve invested in more than 300 companies at this point. It’s my job and my team’s job to work with all of the companies we’ve invested in on their design challenges. A lot of the time, that’s working with their design leadership to build teams and create more functional teams within their companies. Other times, it’s working with product people, entrepreneurs or founders on the product direction of their business. It’s using design in any way we can to leverage the business and help them be more successful.

Solving your startup’s business problems through design

Stewart: We’ve talked for a long while about designers looking for a seat at the table and being considered at the front of a problem rather than just being the last visual layer. What does that seat look like, and what’s expected of us with that responsibility?

Daniel: This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. A couple of years ago, a coworker and I went over to London. We were just starting to invest in Europe at the time. We sat down with a bunch of entrepreneurs over a week. We’d have coffee, and the first question that we’d ask is, “When you think of design, what do you think of?” Almost always, the pattern went something like, “Brand’s really important. We need great brand design.” Okay, that’s interesting. London has a long history of brand design. That’s not too surprising. Then they’d say, “The look and feel for our product needs to be great,” and so they’d move down the stack of design layers a little bit further. Then they might say, “Our product needs to be easy to use, and I think design can help with that.” When they think of design, they think of these top level areas of design.

While we were asking that question the entrepreneurs were often looking a little bit nervous. It was like we were putting them on the spot and asking them about something we knew a lot about and they didn’t feel so comfortable with. It was really telling that when we asked the next question, which was, “What keeps you up at night as an entrepreneur?” they visibly looked more relaxed. They’d sit back in their seat.

Then they’d talk about all these other things. They’d talk about hiring or retaining talent, they’d talk about moving into new markets – especially moving towards America. They’d talk about raising new venture capital funds. They’d talk about changing features and how that was going to affect their user base. They’d talk about all these things that didn’t have to do with “design”. But these were the things that were really important to them.

Design done right can be the scientific method for business.

We can apply design to all of those problems, but most people, including designers themselves, don’t consider these to be the problems of design. As designers, we argued for a seat at the table for the last decade, and in the past five years it’s becoming a reality. Entrepreneurs have heard that design is important. They’ve seen that companies like Apple and Airbnb are famous for leading with design, and they understand that there’s this pixie dust that can be applied that’s called design, but they don’t really know what design can do.

Frankly, a lot of designers show up at the leadership table, sit in the C-suite, and they bring a discussion of design craft with them. They’re talking about grid systems, design systems, brand. They’re talking about these things that are important, but they’re not the fundamental elements of the business. They’re not the number-one thing that will matter if you succeed or fail. I think that’s too bad. Designers are, frankly, squandering the seat at the table.

Stewart: If entrepreneurs find it comfortable to talk about the problems that they face and designers are comfortable to talk about what’s easy for them, which might be things like grid systems and typography, how do we start to bridge that gap?

Daniel: Designers should stop talking about their craft. Craft is a really interesting thing to talk about with other designers. These are the bread and butter parts of design. If you don’t have good craft, you’re just not a designer in my opinion. But designers need to stop talking so much and listen more carefully.

When an entrepreneur comes to you and says that their number one problem is hiring and retaining tech talent, I immediately can think, “Okay, the engineers who we’re trying to recruit, where are we looking for them? What other products have they seen? What other messaging? What other brands have they experienced? What’s our positioning? What’s the basic systems design between our approach all the way through enticing them, closing them, and retaining them?” This is design.

We can design a system that’s better at that. We can do some testing around what types of messaging work when an engineer’s looking between a small startup or a Google or a Facebook. There’s different enticements between these things. I can help test against that and figure out which messages actually resonate the best with an engineer. Design done right can be the scientific method for business. One of my colleagues said that phrase to me a few months ago and I’ve been chewing on it.

The really powerful thing is that designers can make prototypes, they can make designs, that look real. It allows us to test theories really quickly. We come up with a thesis around, “We’re losing engineering talent because of X. What if we design solutions A, B, or C? Which one is going to actually be a better design system for recruiting talent? How do we handle the phone screen? How do we handle our jobs page? How do we write our job descriptions? How do we close the talent? What’s enticement we can beyond a salary that will help us close a great candidate?”

I know I’ve been talking about hiring, but in a general sense I think the biggest risk to businesses, and we see this all the time in the startups we work with, is that there’s a great deal of uncertainty. There are all these questions floating around, and you’re saying, “I don’t know why we can’t succeed with this,” or, “If we did A or we did B, which one’s going to be more successful? Which one’s likely to fall in our face?” Design is at this excellent position between engineering and product to really go and test these theses really, really rapidly. Sit in a C-suite, listen to what everyone’s concerns are – what’s keeping them up at night, what is the major objectives for the next quarter or two – and then create more certainty about the direction you should take. That’s an incredibly high leverage thing to do for designers.

Stewart: You’ve said that too many designers see design as their whole job when in reality it should maybe only be about 20%. How can designers get away from that mindset and become more involved with core business, particularly younger designers that aren’t getting to sit in a C-suite?

Daniel: A huge part of design is politics. I meet lots of young designers, and they complain that in their organization they make designs in Sketch or Photoshop and they never saw the light of day, or they got dragged sideways and now they’re a wreck when they finally go live, or they’re not proud of the work that actually got released. That’s often because you didn’t do the hard work six months ago creating the relationships with your PM and engineering team, building your credibility.

As a young designer, I wouldn’t discount that. Working in design tools is really a pretty small percentage of your job. Even if you work in a company of six people, working with those other five people is extremely difficult and you should consider that to be part of your job.

One of the best ways to build your leverage within a company is to get into a prototyping mindset. That’s something I talk to young designers about a lot. You’ll get called into meetings and everybody will be talking about strategy and everybody will be bullshitting themselves about the best direction to go. As a designer, even a young designer, sit in the meeting, take notes about what everybody thinks is actually the best direction, and go outside the meeting and spend the next few hours prototyping that idea.

Even if you don’t think it’s the best idea in the world, the best thing to do is to go and give some edges to that thing that everyone was talking about. Instead of everyone talking in the abstract about which product direction to go in, give it some shape. Make a prototype in InVision or Marvel, bring it back to the product manager or the engineer who came up with the idea and say, “Hey, you know that concept you guys were talking about in the meeting, here’s how I see it. Let’s talk about it and build on that together.”

All of a sudden, you’re the person who can give the meat to something. You can put bones on it, and no longer is everyone confused because they’re all talking about an abstract concept. Now they’re talking about a real thing. That’s the sleight of hand of design. The side effect of this is now you’re the person holding the object. You gave that idea shape, and everyone feels bought in because they were suggesting the ideas that now you’re putting together. That gives you an incredible position within the company.

What makes a design culture?

Stewart: Is part of this that we need to think about how we build a culture of design, rather than just having design as that one function of the company? What does that culture looks like and how do you maybe advise startups in the GV portfolio to create and cultivate that?

Design is most effective when everyone considers their job to be design.

Daniel: That’s a really interesting question, this idea about a design culture. Sometimes this is misconstrued. One of my friends posted on Twitter that a design culture means that you come up with the ideas and then as a designer I go and solve them. That’s bullshit. That’s a terrible way to operate. A design culture isn’t that you give design immense power. Design is most effective when everyone considers their job to be design in some ways.

A few years ago, a woman who was an engineer in a company was talking to me about how wonderful the design team was. “They go sit in this room down the hall and sometimes I look through the glass and they’re so creative in there.” I was like, “Oh my God. Creativity’s isolated to this one aquarium room in your business. That’s so depressing.” It’s also very ineffective.

Where I’ve seen design be really successful is where everyone considers design to be part of their job, whether you’re an engineer or a designer or a PM. And when I say design I certainly don’t mean aesthetics. I mean, fundamentally, are we building things for our customers well, things that’ll make their lives better or easier? Everybody can do that. Working with engineers in terms of thinking about product quality and why product quality matters from a design perspective is something that’s important for your engineering team as well. This idea of a design-led organization where design makes all the decisions is a bit of a fallacy. Even the companies that are famous for being design-led aren’t really. They’re most effective when design is deeply integrated into all of the teams.

The role of the design sprint

Stewart: GV has written a full book about design sprints, which can be a fundamental element of design culture. At the risk of oversimplifying, all disciplines of a company coming together to research a problem, ideate on solutions, build a prototype and test it, within a five day window. What defines a successful sprint? Are there parts that teams undervalue or overlook?

Daniel: The most successful sprints we see are when we’re working with the most fundamental problem that a company’s dealing with right now. The first question we’ll ask the entrepreneur in the pre-sprint preparation is literally, “What’s keeping you up at night?” or, “What are your major goals for the next quarter or two?”

If the problem’s not pants on fire, it just doesn’t ship as often. We’re much more likely to work on problems that are deep, core, fundamental, immediate problems to the business. I’ve seen a lot of people work on slightly trivial projects in a design sprint and think it’s just for fun. We really do measure our success for sprints based on shipping successful products.

The other one is that a design sprint involves everyone from within the business. We are very careful that it’s not designers going and isolating themselves in a fancy-pants office with our Eames chairs.The designers so often want to retreat and come back with a genius solution, but it doesn’t work that way. In a design sprint it’s almost always two or three designers, one or two engineers, the head product person, and then some unusual people. We’ll get a finance person in, we’ll get somebody from customer service, we’ll get somebody in sales. These kinds of people who have direct access to customers and know the core business objectives of a problem are fundamental to succeeding in a sprint.

We were working on a sprint a year or so ago with a company called Savioke, which makes robots for hotels. It was critical in the first day of the sprint we talk to their Chief Operating Officer. This person is in charge of making the big deals for the hotels. That guy told us on the first day, “Listen, the number-one thing with this sprint is, if we can drive up the guest satisfaction index at hotels, we’re going to be very successful as a company.”

The rest of us were all like, “Guest satisfaction index?” It turns out there’s this really core piece of the hotel business that if you can drive up that score, you’ll sell tons of robots. Well, of course that’s important to us, but if we had been just sitting around as designers and engineers coming up with a delightful solution, we wouldn’t have solved for that problem.

The Savioke Relay, a hotel delivery robot, is one of the more unconventional technologies Daniel’s team has completed a design sprint with.

Stewart: You’ve worked in some radically different spaces – health, robotics, agriculture. Are there any interesting learnings you’ve seen there that can be applied to other industries?

Daniel: Just a couple of months ago I was working with a company called Quartet Health, which is in the mental health space. They’re based out of New York, and we did a design sprint with them. It’s absolutely fascinating, because you’re either working with primary care physicians or with behavioral health professionals or with patients. In this case, we were doing a test with patients and it’s absolutely eye opening to design software and then try to put it in front of somebody who suffers from depression or anxiety.

Designers love talking about empathy, but when you’re working in either enterprise businesses or things like healthcare, you really have to get well outside your own head, because the things that are pressuring a mental health patient or a behavioral health professional or an oncologist or a geneticist are very, very different from what we’re dealing with. So it’s very useful to do a process where you’re actually getting in front of customers rapidly. That’s why we’re incredibly bullish about using sprints in that context, because the decisions you make obviously have significant impact. These are critical things for people’s basic health, and it’s a way to test some of your theses in that area quickly and safely.

The need for humility in design

Stewart: You mentioned empathy. I worry sometimes that we use that word without necessarily understanding what it actually means and whether that just masks a broader set of traits and approaches that we should have as designers when we’re approaching a problem. Are there any of those traits that you think successful designers share in how they approach problems?

Daniel: I agree with you. Empathy is one of those things you see in conferences and on posters. Everyone feels very good about themselves for talking about empathy. What’s really lacking often among designers is humility. I’ve been designing for 20 years, and all I’ve wanted is to be wrong faster. I can be empathetic with somebody who suffers from anxiety and think I understand their life, but really what I need to do is design something and then see real people using it and figure out what’s working and what’s not working.

Just trying to put yourself in someone’s shoes is not good enough.

Just trying to put yourself in someone’s shoes is not good enough. Life’s not that simple. Humans aren’t that simple. It works fine if you’re designing a weather app. “What’s somebody worrying about at 8:00 a.m. when they’re about to head out into the city?” That’s okay. It’s certainly better than just designing an app just for yourself, but the real secret weapon of this stuff is user research. We have a researcher on our team, Michael Margolis, who’s excellent. He’s our secret weapon working with any of the startups, because almost always what’s creating uncertainty within decision making is a lack of knowledge about how users will respond to something. Research is a very effective and still very underappreciated tool in the design arsenal.

Stewart: Are there any research methodologies or tools that you’ve found particularly effective?

Daniel: Easily the most effective thing we do is one-on-one user interviews. We’re not using retina tracking or any of that crap. We use video chat software, GoToMeeting. It’s someone in front of a laptop being recorded, and a very good researcher. In our case, we use Michael. Just asking the right questions of somebody and watching for their reactions, having them be able to react to a prototype, we do this type of research all the time.

A simple, prototypical testing setup for GV research sprints

The real effectiveness of this is we get direct feedback from actual customers. We’re very careful about who we select so we get representative customers. The other thing, and I think this is still surprisingly lacking in the research world, is we take immediate feedback and notes from these interviews. This isn’t Michael disappearing for two weeks and writing us a report and then we all have to digest a PDF. We get as many people in the room as possible watching these interviews live. We’re taking structured notes, and then we’re creating an analysis immediately after the interview of what worked, what didn’t work, what things did we hear that we didn’t expect to hear – not just from one customer, but in a pattern from many customers.

I know this doesn’t sound like rocket science, but it’s surprisingly lacking still. At most startups, it requires effort to schedule user interviews. Researchers often want to do things in a much more academic way, as in, “I did this long-form research. I created a long report. Everyone needs to digest this.” Frankly, in the startup world, even larger startups, this kind of research often gets ignored. Michael has created this very rapid form of research that’s very, very effective.

Breaking out of the Bay Area bubble

Stewart: You lived and worked in the Bay Area for about a decade or so, and you’ve recently relocated to New York City. Admittedly, the Bay Area can be a little bit of an echo chamber when it comes to tech and design and startups – at least that’s definitely the polite way of putting it. Has leaving the bubble of the Valley changed your perspective on anything?

Daniel: It’s been healthy. In the Bay Area everyone thinks that everyone else in the world cares as much about technology as they do. When I first got (to San Francisco), everyone’s talking about user experience design and code and these things. It’s exciting. Then you start thinking that everyone in the world cares so much about this stuff. That’s why you see apps do big release notes when they update. It’s like, “This app got updated. Here are all the things you should care about that are new.” No one gives a shit. They just want to open the app and get their thing done today.

When you’re inside the bubble, all these things seem to matter a lot because your friends are going to read this and they’re going to tell you they’re excited about this new feature. It’s been nice living in New York, where it’s a much larger, diverse population. Frankly, you get on the subway and no one’s talking about tech. It’s pretty nice. You start thinking more about what everyone else in the world gives a shit about. I think that’s healthy.

Stewart: In terms of people that are doing really great design work or pushing design thinking forward, who do you think we should be taking notice of outside of San Francisco and the Bay?

Daniel: Diana Mounter at GitHub. She’s been working on design systems. I think that’s pretty great. I’m trying to think. I don’t think of this stuff geographically very much. Mia Blume is great, but I think she still lives here. She used to be the head of design at Pinterest. She and I were speaking at a conference recently about building healthy design teams, and she’s got a very unique and thoughtful perspective on that stuff.

Jeff Veen is great. He’s in London now and a design partner at True Ventures. He was one of the most thoughtful designers as I was learning design. Jeffrey Zeldman, of course. He’s in New York. I’ve recently spent some time with him. Jeffrey to me is like the godfather of web design. His perspective on the open web and what it means to run a design agency are still provocative in the right way.

Stewart: Thank you so much for spending some of your time with us today, Daniel. Safe travels back to New York City. We’ll speak again soon.

Daniel: Thanks so much for having me.