Scott Berkun is a best-selling author and popular speaker on creativity, leading projects, culture, business, and many other subjects. He’s a former interaction designer and project manager who worked for many years at Microsoft and WordPress.com. Scott is the author of eight books, including The Myths of Innovation, Confessions of a Public Speaker, and The Year Without Pants. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Forbes, Wired magazine, USA Today, Fast Company, National Public Radio, NPR, and other media. His popular blog is scottberkun.com.
For people who love their work as much as UX designers do, it can be easy to get “lost in the sauce,” tackling projects for the love of the craft as opposed to applying your craft to solving complex problems for the benefit of others. Design thinking helps keep us centered on our customers’ needs.
In this episode of the Product Momentum Podcast, Sean is joined by co-host Brian Loughner, a talented interaction designer at ITX, and guest Scott Berkun. For years, Scott has been a leader in the UX design space, having worked as an interaction designer and project manager at Microsoft and WordPress. Scott, Sean, and Brian tackle design-related concepts in this thought-provoking episode.
Among them is a discussion centered around design thinking. Design thinking presents a double-edged sword, Scott says. On the one hand, it helps us understand what design is and designers do. But on the other, it tends to oversimplify and trivialize an extremely challenging role that requires immense talent and experience to perform well.
What’s also cool about this pod is the way Scott takes time to examine some of the words we use in our space. Important, meaty words like design maturity, externalization, co-design, and design theatre among others. Trust and integrity play a role too, helping us understand the optimal environment for effective design.
Sean [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to the Product Momentum Podcast. This is a podcast intended to entertain, educate, celebrate, and give a little back to the product leadership community.
Brian [00:00:32] Welcome to the Product Momentum Podcast. My name is Brian Loughner. I’m happy here to be joining Sean today. I’m a product designer at ITX, been here about five years working on some great products. I’m super excited to introduce Scott Berkun. He’s a real industry leader and I’m excited to have him share his thoughts on a bunch of awesome things.
Sean [00:00:50] What a great conversation, eh Bri?
Brian [00:00:52] Yeah, that was great. He really had some really interesting insights about all things coming on the horizon and some patterns and some things that have been plaguing the industry since it started.
Sean [00:01:02] For sure. We zoomed in and we zoomed out. We talked about design thinking. We talked about capitalism and humanity. That was a great question that you asked him. I’m excited to get after this.
Brian [00:01:13] Yeah, I’m sure you’re going to enjoy it and let’s get after it.
Sean [00:01:18] Well, hello and welcome to Product Momentum. I’m excited today to be talking to Scott Berkun. He’s the author of, oh my god, I don’t even know how many books at this point. His most recent book, How Design Makes the World, is incredible. I’ve been following him for a while; I’ve see him speak at conferences. I know he speaks around the world. He’scChock full of advice for designers and ways to think about design and how design impacts the everyday things that we do. Scott, welcome to the show.
Scott [00:01:43] Hey, thanks for having me.
Sean [00:01:44] So what’s got you excited these days in the world of design?
Scott [00:01:48] Well, in the world of design, there’s never a shortage of things to complain about. I mean, just as we were getting started on this podcast, we struggled with a muting issue. “Hey, you’re muted.” “No, I’m not, you’re muted.” And we are over a year into this pandemic and still we don’t have basic tools that are simple to use. So I think it’s a professional, I wouldn’t say it’s a detriment, but people who think about good design always have things that they notice and so that one is on my mind. Why is remote work and the basic tools we use still has some basic problems with it? When are we going to fix that? Shouldn’t we be fixing that now? I think so.
Sean [00:02:28] I did see a feature not that long ago where it recognizes when you’re talking and tells you that you’re muted. I thought that was pretty cool.
Scott [00:02:35] Yeah. And often, I have to say, as a design critic, it’s often a lot easier to call out things that are broken than to know how to fix them. And as an outsider, you don’t know what constraints are really involved or what corner cases exist that make it harder to solve a problem than you think. But it does seem to me that there could be a visual indicator whenever your microphone has activity as a reminder or something, “you are still muted.” Because maybe you want to stay muted, but there’s some visual indicator of the state of things. That’s a basic usability principle. The user should always know the state that the software is in. So anyway, that’s been on my mind a lot, remote work and why it’s still so frustrating.
Sean [00:03:17] Cool. So you’ve spent your entire career thinking about, writing, studying design. What does design mean to you? How do you define it?
Scott [00:03:26] I define design as the process or the set of decisions for creating something. And so you can look at design as the result. So you have a remote application or you have an application on your phone for ordering food. It has a design. It has decisions that were made. It has a bunch of things you can do that interact with it. And so that’s design as a noun. So I think about design as a noun all the time, and that’s our experience with the world. And even things that weren’t designed by a person; an apple, a tree, a hill, or a mountain; it has elements of it that are designs. You can talk about them.
Scott [00:04:00] Then the other definition of the word, which is more interesting, is the verb. It’s the process by which someone goes through to create something, whether it’s rearranging their closet, whether it’s designing a piece of software, designing a bridge, designing a political system, designing a health care system. It’s the verb. And that means that everything that we use that was created by people went through some kind of design process. Whether they called it that or not, that’s a different story, but there was some kind of process they went through and that’s fascinating to me. I’m fascinated by how everything gets made. I’m fascinated by how good things get made and I’m fascinated by the process for which bad things get made. But that is really what a lot of my work has always been about, how stuff gets made.
Sean [00:04:41] All right, Scott, so that’s interesting, so you’ve contrasted the verb use of the word design versus the noun. And I think there’s often confusion in industry around what is design, what isn’t design. And there’s a fine line, or maybe there isn’t even a line, maybe it’s more fuzzy between what the product leaders do in terms of crafting future solutions versus what the designers do. And it can get confusing. Have you had any experience with that?
Scott [00:05:05] Just a little bit… I think any pursuit that involves multiple people and you’re creating something, whatever it is, you have problems around determining roles and who gets to make what decision or if you’re making decisions together, how you’re going to do that. What’s the design of your decision-making process? And I think, in general, in the software world and in the tech world, that’s really the problem, is who really should have the power to decide what the product is going to be? Who has the right knowledge, who has the right background? The problem, often, when we’re talking about ease of use and things like that, there are people who are called user experience designers who are trained, in school, to study how human minds work, how our psychology works, and how you can run a project so that you maximize your ability to design things well for people.
Scott [00:05:57] The problem is there are often engineers and product managers who don’t have that training, but they were there first. Like, they’ve been working on the project since it started. They like making those decisions. And so you have this invariable tension in many companies around who really should make those decisions. There’s a term for this, it’s called design maturity, and design maturity means, well, how mature is your organization at figuring out who is really the most qualified to make these decisions and are they actually empowered to do it? And so you have a lot of companies that hire designers, train designers. There may even be a VP of Design, but in reality, it’s the engineers and the marketers who are making the most of the decisions. So that would be called an organization that has low design maturity in this sense of the word. So anyway, to answer your question, yes, I think often it’s that tension and the design of a project team, the design of an organization, that has a lot more to do with success or not than the individual talents of the people involved.
Sean [00:06:55] So, who should have the decision-making power? That’s the key question.
Scott [00:07:00] Yeah, well, I know for sure that if I’m on the project, it should be me. That’s the only thing I know for sure. I’m kidding. I think most people tend to feel that way. I think that it really comes down to the sensibilities and the philosophies of who runs the organization and how much respect they have for that kind of training and knowledge. I think the best environments are usually collaborative, where you do have an engineering leader who may have opinions about user interface design, but they respect the knowledge that a trained designer has and they get into a room and they want the best outcome based on both of their knowledge and experience. That’s really the best kind of team where there’s trust involved, that I trust there are things you know that I don’t, and I trust that there are things I know that you don’t. And we’ll have a conversation about it with a shared goal and if we respect each other, then we’ll get the best outcome. And so that’s really the ideal.
Scott [00:07:51] I think that a lot of people have good design sensibility, regardless of the training that they have or not, but they should be open-minded about hearing different points of view. So that’s really what I look for. Whenever I visit an organization, I’m looking around in the room like, “Hey, who’s really making these decisions? Are they listening to other views? Is there a process they have to find for how decisions get made and how information about customers gets involved in that process?” It’s usually easy to recognize when you’re looking at a trusting team as opposed to a team with a lot of barriers and silos and dominant personalities.
Sean [00:08:21] Yeah. At the end of the day, we all know the customer is the only one that’s actually right. And whatever we’re going to produce, we have no idea until we put it in market how successful it will be. We’re just guessing, right?
Scott [00:08:32] Yeah, well, I mean, sometimes the customer is wrong. That’s one of these phrases that always bothers me a little bit. I think the spirit of it is always right that they are paying, you are trying to serve them. And so the spirit of your attitude should be, “yeah, we want to learn about them, we want to study them, we want to listen to their feedback.” But customers are much better at articulating their frustrations than they are at designing solutions for them. And so when I worked as a program manager, a team manager at Microsoft on project teams, we talked to customers and they’d be great at telling us what was broken. But often they’d switch very quickly to telling us what we should do about it. And they don’t necessarily have the context to understand the consequences of those requests. So we would absolutely honor their complaints, but have a lot more caution at taking them literally about the best way to solve it, because they don’t know the other customer complaints. They don’t know how solving the complaint in that way might limit us in the future. There’s all sorts of other constraints that they don’t know.
Scott [00:09:30] Anyway, so that’s one of these phrases that gets thrown around a lot. I’m like, “I wouldn’t just always do what my customer tells me.” A doctor would never do that, right. You know, they want to diagnose you first, they want to study you so they can best decide what the course of action is. But if a patient came in and said, “I need heart surgery, I need heart surgery,” the doctor’s not going to go, “OK, customer’s always right, let’s open you up and operate on your heart.” There’s a similar kind of diligence required for designing, too.
Sean [00:09:55] Yeah, I think what I actually meant by that was whatever idea you have or future you build or tweak that you make, until you put it out there in the customer’s hands, you won’t really know whether it’s going to have the intended impact that you expected or not.
Scott [00:10:09] For sure.
Brian [00:10:10] Yeah, Scott, you talked a little bit about kind of roles and responsibilities in products and kind of who gets to kind of make the decisions. I’d like the pull the thread on that a little bit more with ethics and I have a kind of two-part question there. I think back to the example you wrote about Ford Motors in ’75 with adding the airbags and that was going to cost 750 dollars per car. And we obviously see that airbags are very important and beneficial to humans, but, you know, the CEO of the company at the time is responsible to his shareholders to make sure that his is in the black. And obviously, there were some people in the company that knew that saving people’s lives was good. But I guess one part is, where does the responsibility lie across the company with some of those ethical decisions? And it’s a little bit of a, you know, capitalism and business goals versus kind of altruism and human-centered design.
Scott [00:10:58] Yeah, it is a perennially challenging question, because on the one hand, if you are a corporation and you want revenue from your customers, it would make sense you want them to live. It would make sense you want to keep them around and you want them healthy. But at the same time, it requires an investment that’s going to hurt your bottom line to do things that make your products safer for people. So there’s a tension there. In the book, what’s explored is how there’s this thing that’s called externalization. And the basic idea is as a corporation, if you want to keep your bottom line, you want as much profit as possible. You want to take advantage of externalizing costs. You want someone else to take responsibility for things. And so the environment comes up as a classic example. Why would a company want to pay to make sure that their waste is dealt with in a responsible way? That’s expensive. Why not just dump it in the river where no one will see it? It’s a lot cheaper. They’re not going to pay the costs, they’re going to externalize that cost on whoever has to come around later and take care of it.
Scott [00:12:01] So it’s a fundamental moral question about what the role of a corporation is in society. Is a corporation a member of society, in which case they should be taking some accountability for the damage that their products do, or they this independent entity that doesn’t pay taxes and is sheltered in some other country in the world and gets by contributing as little as possible to society? I can’t give a specific answer to that. I think that we tend to want to play it both ways. We want to believe that companies are really out for our best interests. But at the same time, we want to buy stock in these companies that have prices that go up. So we want them to spend as little on society. So I think we have some cognitive dissonance there.
Scott [00:12:46] I wish we spent more time thinking that through. I think that we tend to underestimate how central this is to the future and what kind of world we want for our children and how our ethics personally and what we think is the right way to treat another person, how can a corporation be ethical if it doesn’t treat another corporation the way we treat other people? We have cognitive dissonance about what morality means in American society. And so that example about the airbags and the seatbelt just exemplifies that, that design has to be paid for. Someone has to pay for making things better. And if the corporation won’t do it out of their commitment to society, they could pass those costs on to the customer. And that’s sort of what happens now. Safety features in cars are now something they compete on. What’s the safest car? It’s this radical departure from fifty years ago.
Scott [00:13:40] But if the customer won’t pay, then it falls into the government and the government can mandate that things have to be in cars and force society to upgrade its thinking about these things. But if no one wants to pay and we complain about, “no one wants to pay.” You know, our health care system has problems, our school systems have problems. Either the organization has to pay, citizens pay, or the government pays. If no one pays, then we don’t get better things. So somewhere along the line, it has to be someone who’s putting up the money to make things better.
Brian [00:14:07] That’s a really great point. I think you said something about, “we’re just borrowing the world from our children,” type of situation.
Scott [00:14:13] Yeah. It’s, I think, a Wendell Berry quote, but yeah. And we know that, right, and yet when it comes to our practices at work and the way we make decisions about business, we pretend that we don’t really feel that way. It seems like if we want to be honest to ourselves, these are questions that we have to not dodge. We have to say, “shouldn’t we have a consistent way that we think about the future and have that work its way in some fashion into all of the decisions that we make?”
Brian [00:14:36] Yeah, and one more tiny thread on that is you said that it took us 30 years to admit that smoking was bad for humans. And we can kind of start to see how social media, long-term screentime, misinformation, people’s information privacy, may not be good for humans in the long run. Do you have any advice or compass that either designers or people in product can go to about this?
Scott [00:14:58] Well, it’s the same tension in a different way. I mean, social media and the popularity of it, there’s definitely fun, great things about exchanging information the way that we are able to now. But a lot of the mechanisms that they put into those products are based on the same ideas for slot machines in casinos. There’s a psychological principle called intermittent rewards that the most addictive experiences are not ones that just give you a reward every 10 seconds. It’s when the system of rewards becomes somewhat unpredictable. That’s actually far more addictive. And so slot machines work on that principle. You don’t win every time. You win every nth time and you’re not sure when you’re going to win. And when you do, it’s great and it feels amazing and you want that rush again and you continue. So those principles are built into Facebook and Twitter and TikTok by design. So where do you find the line between what is just you’re giving people pleasure, what’s wrong with that? Versus, you have an effect on society where people have shorter attention spans and you accelerate their ability to spread misinformation. I can’t tell you exactly where that line is, but it’s clear that we’re over it,
Sean [00:16:10] We’ve crossed it, for sure.
Scott [00:16:11] We’ve crossed it. I couldn’t tell you how far to walk it back or to try to, but clearly there has been damage and damage that the people who make it are responsible for. Like, they knew what they were doing to some degree. Or more precisely, if they didn’t know, that reflects an ignorance in how we teach engineers and who people start companies. Because like I’m saying, the casinos, like this is old stuff. We’ve been doing this a long time, taking advantage of psychological principles to work against people. That should be something that is taught in every computer science education. It should be something that’s taught in every MBA, some degree of awareness of what can go wrong, even if you think you are making the world better. And that’s part of what’s in the book, is trying to blend together a lot of information and knowledge about how to make better products, how to make an organization that runs better and better decisions are made, how to understand usability and esthetics. But at the same time, part of your responsibility as someone who makes something is to know what can go wrong and to understand some of that history so you are less likely to repeat the bad parts of corporate and product design history.
Brian [00:17:15] Yeah, that’s what I liked about your book, How Design Makes The World, so much is it goes from kind of very tactical to strategic to almost ethical on some levels and it asks a lot of really great questions there.
Scott [00:17:25] Thanks, yeah.
Sean [00:17:26] Let’s switch gears a little bit. Let’s talk about design thinking, one of your favorite topics. What do you think of it as a standard practice?
Scott [00:17:34] So design thinking, I am ambivalent about it. I think on the positive side, most people have no idea what designers do and they have no idea what design is. It’s usually a word that’s referred to mean the outside layer of something. “Oh, I love the design of those sneakers; that’s really a cool pattern on them.” “Oh, I love the design of that car, look how sleek it is.” People, in general, use the word design to mean something very, I don’t want to call it superficial because style is important. It does drive a lot of our decisions about things, but it is something that’s seen to be on the outside, something maybe you do last on a project. So it’s something that’s kind of tactical.
Scott [00:18:09] And the term design thinking has changed that a bit. There’s now a term that reflects that design is a verb. It’s a process. You start out by empathizing with people. You learn about them, you make a prototype, you get information about it, and then you repeat. There’s a loop you have to go through to design things well. And that’s what designers do, design thinking. So on the upside, I think it has elevated the perception of what design is and that there’s a profession that does it. On the downside, it has also continued to trivialize design because you can now go online and take a course in design thinking for three hours and get a certificate that says you have a certificate in design thinking.
Scott [00:18:51] And that allows people to think, “oh, I have a certificate design thinking, I can now go design software, I can now go design websites, I can now go design anything because I know about design thinking.” And that’s a trivialization of what is an experience-based profession. You become a good designer not because you took a three-hour course or read a book, including my book. You don’t become a designer from reading a book. You become a designer from the practice and the craft of designing something and learning from it, doing it again, doing it with different customers, different kinds of things. And you become a good designer over time.
Scott [00:19:23] And so you do have people now who think design thinking makes them qualified and they don’t need to hire a designer anymore. And so the joke in the book is you could do the same kind of tromping or clicheing of any profession. You could have something called surgeon thinking where you learn about the steps surgeons go through before they operate on someone. You know, you sterilize first, you know, study the anatomy, like, there would be a five step process. But no one would take a certificate in surgeon thinking and then go to their friend and say, “Hey, I’m ready to do brain surgery on you, I just got my certificate in surgeon thinking.” It’s a mixed bag. I think on the whole, it’s probably better in the long term that more people understand good design and how it happens. That’s why I wrote the book. But there’s always the danger of the continued reductionism that that’s all that you need and now you’re qualified.
Sean [00:20:11] Good summary of that whole diatribe. I agree with you that it’s really been a boon for the education of the industry and the education of business about what design is and how design works and the importance of empathy that was, I think, largely introduced into the business lexicon as a result of a push into design thinking. And that’s a good thing.
Scott [00:20:30] Yeah, it’s kind of funny, though. Some of the stuff is just, it’s very easy to be a little cynical about it because it’s sort of like, “you needed to be told to be empathetic to your customers?” Like what? Like what have you been doing? It’s sort of embarrassing that people need to learn, “Oh, I should actually care how my customers’ lives are. I should want to understand how my product fits into their working life.” From one perspective, it seems like a very elementary thing to need to be taught. I guess it’s reflective again of just the engineering business mindset that “I’m doing this because I want to do it; I’m making this product because I want to make it; I’m making it the way I make it, because I want to…. Me, me, me, me, me. They pay me money. That’s great but that’s because my thing is so great.” And so adding humility to businesses, in that respect, is maybe a necessary thing, even if it seems so simple.
Sean [00:21:15] How much of that do you think is because of your background? Is it because you’re a designer? I don’t think that everybody is as intuitive about empathy as they probably should be, to your point.
Scott [00:21:25] Yeah, you know, you’re right. I guess I’m just thinking just about the universality of the desire to want to make something good, just a kind of integrity I guess. Like when you asked me that question, I immediately realized you’re right. Like I’ve been thinking from this perspective for a long time. But the image that came to my mind, and I don’t know why, was being at a diner and watching like a short-order cook work, someone who cares about what they’re making. They’re working quickly so they don’t have the luxury of a lot of time, but they care about their customers. You know, like that kind of caring is not specific to software or technology or, you know, user experience design or any of this stuff. That’s just a trait that people who care about their work have. And maybe that’s uncommon generally. You know, how many people at work care that much? I don’t know.
Sean [00:22:12] I’ve been around software engineers pretty much my whole life, as you have. I think there’s a class of people that really derive personal value and benefit out of solving these really intricate problems. And for them, it’s like, “boom, magic, I solved this problem, but it’s ugly.” And it’s not necessarily going to solve all of the user’s needs. It may solve this one need to solve all the others needs. People are just wired differently. I think there are tools, and design thinking is one set of those tools that can help people sort of be a little more systematic about how they apply them. Because I’ve seen it doesn’t come as naturally to everybody as it does to you, for example.
Scott [00:22:47] Yeah, that raises another thread for me about, you said problem solving. I think engineers, they either love problem solving or they’re just very good at it and so it made for a good career because they’re good at it and they do it. But it’s easy to get lost in loving interesting problems as opposed to loving solving the problem that’s going to have the most value for somebody else. And so if I’m software engineer, I’m probably going to be always a little interested in, like, some specialized thing, some data model that I have to figure out or some new language that might be better to use here. I’m going to be interested in the craft for the craft’s sake.
Scott [00:23:25] And you can get lost in there. You can get lost in the love of the building part and care less about the effect that what you build is going to have on other people. I think that’s just people with skill and craft who just like it for themselves. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. But it’s sort of like, you know, going into that diner and you want a hamburger and the person behind the counter is a five-star chef who wants to make you some really fancy and esoteric thing. You know, like he wants to make you a tasting menu that’s going to take three hours and requires special equipment to eat. And you’re like, “I just want a hamburger.” And so some engineers get lost in that. They like certain kinds of problems and want to solve things in certain ways because it appeals to them as opposed to saying, “I’m being paid to solve problems by this customer, I should focus on trying to solve the kinds of problems they need, even if they’re problems that are boring to me.”
Sean [00:24:18] I take it you’re hungry right now because the last analogies have been short-order cooks and chefs.
Scott [00:24:24] Actually, I’m not, but whenever I’m in discussions like this or I’m trying to explain a concept, I try to find other domains and try to use that as a metaphor and see how it works.
Sean [00:24:36] Food is a good one. Everyone likes food.
Scott [00:24:38] Yeah, well, everyone likes food, but there’s an engineering process by which your food is made. There’s a design process for your lunch. If you go to Chipotle, “what do you want?” and you get to construct your burrito, right. That’s a design process. The fancy language for that would be, you know, codesigning because you are designing your meal with the person behind the counter. But I think about that a lot, about what are other kinds of design processes and how does software compare and contrast with how those decisions get made? There’s a product, there’s engineering, there’s costs. There’s also ethics, to get back to Brian’s point, there’s ethics in food, there’s ethics in software. And so that can often be an interesting way to explore your side of the argument. Does this work for some other kind of work?
Brian [00:25:20] We talked about design thinking and how the language is becoming a bit more common vernacular kind of all throughout product in general. I remember pulling into a parking lot and the sign said, “enjoy our new parking lot experience.” Everything is becoming an experience now. It’s a customer experience manager. You also talked a little bit about, too, about how people are good at saying things they don’t like, but also if they’re having problems with certain software, you also mentioned that people are like, “hey, I like this.” And I’m hoping that as experience is becoming a bit more front in people’s minds, it’ll be a bit better for them to talk about why. Why this is good, why this is bad. I’m curious to ask you, are you feeling more optimistic about this in the future or more pessimistic?
Scott [00:26:06] Well, I think it depends. I think that on the one side, your example, which is funny, I’d love to see a picture of that sign about the parking lot. I think it’s sort of like design thinking in that these things can be trivialized. “Welcome the new parking lot experience.” I mean, you’re taking this language that, you are using it correctly in one sense, that, yes, we have experiences with everything we interact with, but that implies that there’s actual new value that’s being given to you. And it’s kind of just a kind of shallow marketing, you know.
Scott [00:26:41] I could be someone who, I’m going to use food again, sorry Sean. I could, you know, work at Burger King and say, you know, “sales are down, you know, what can we do as a cheap way to…” And we could, “OK, let’s say instead of coming to a fast food restaurant, we’re going to market ourselves as having the best lunchtime experience in fast food.” And just make a marketing campaign where we say that’s what we have. We’ll change nothing. We won’t change the stores. We’re not going to change our menu. We’re not going to change the prices. We’re just going to start calling it the best fast food experience. So what is going on there? It’s sort of using the idea of experience and good design as a marketing tactic and not actually doing anything that really validates that. So that’s part of what I see going on.
Scott [00:27:25] And so design thinking can be a part of that, where I can be the CEO of a software company and just proclaim, “we’re going to care about user experience; that’s what we’re going to do, everyone should care about the user experience.” And everyone in the company will go, “OK, great, we’re going to care about user experience more.” And that CEO could change nothing, would not hire more designers, would not train his staff to learn more about what good usability is and how it’s done. Just proclaim it and then everyone will start using that language but change nothing. Specs are written the same, code is written the same, decisions about features are the same.
Scott [00:27:56] So there’s some element of what’s called design theater, that you’re doing this stuff just for show. And to be fair, the software industry has plenty of its own kind of theater about methodologies. “We’re going to be agile now” but change nothing of significance. But on the positive side, I know that I’m old. I’ve been involved in the software world, in the tech world, in the design world for a long time. And there’s more professional designers, user experience designers, than ever. It’s now standard practice that most companies have one or a team. And so just in terms of the sheer numbers, there’s definitely validation and signs of progress. But when I look at the things that we use, like remote apps that confuse you as to whether you’re muted or not, I know that we have a long way to go in terms of how much influence and decision-making power those trained designers get. So I feel better, but I also know we have a long way to go.
Sean [00:28:50] Good answer.
Brian [00:28:51] Yeah.
Sean [00:28:52] So quick question we ask all of our guests. How do you define innovation, Scott?
Scott [00:28:56] Well… So one of my earlier books, I think, you know this Sean, is called The Myths of Innovation. And I took a really hard critique of how we use that word and how organizations use that word and how misguided it tends to be. So that word, historically what it means is that you have elevated the field. You’ve done something that has significantly improved how something is done. And so we would call Edison and the light bulb and his system of electricity that made the light bulb valuable changed the world. It changed how work is done. It changed how lives are lived. That’s an innovation. We could look at Marie Curie and her discovery of how radiation worked. Like that transformed everything. That’s really what the word should mean, whatever heroic invention or inventor you have. And it could be, you know, Tim Berners-Lee and the web, it could be the folks who worked at ARPANET on the Internet. Whatever the grandest thing is in your field, that’s an innovation.
Scott [00:29:54] We’ve trivialized the word, though, and now it becomes what I think of as just doing your job. Like if you’re an engineer and you add a new feature to your product, that’s your job. That’s not an innovation. You’ve added a feature to your product. You’ve written code. Great. Like you should be proud of that. But you did not change the industry. You probably didn’t even change the product that much. So we’ve trivialized that word terribly and we don’t have a word anymore that we should aspire to do like that word used to mean. So the advice I usually give about that word is it’s a word you should never use about yourself. If you do something that’s really great and moves things forward, your peers will say, “you are an innovator.” And you can take that as a compliment from your peers who recognize the contribution that you made. But to use that word about yourself: “I innovated today,” “I’m on the innovation team,” “I’m the VP of Innovation,” I think is terribly hubristic. It’s so arrogant because you’re basically saying, “I am as good as Edison, I am as good as Marie Curie; I have changed the world.” I think it’s misguided. But I’m cranky and I’m old.
Sean [00:31:01] I won’t take offense to that. That’s your definition of innovation, I love it. Cool.
Brian [00:31:06] Yeah. Just curious, what books are you reading nowadays?
Scott [00:31:09] I am reading books about different subjects. So I tend to move between things, between books. And so the thing I’ve been thinking about a lot now, and it’s because of my other books I’m thinking about it, is the difference between being an expert and being influential. You could have a great deal of knowledge, including knowledge that could be an innovation. You could have this great concept and idea, but what good is it if you can’t convince anyone to do anything with that idea? And part of it, too, is thinking about even like the pandemic and the CDC and their expertize and how many struggles they’ve had at explaining their expertize to people so people understand it.
Scott [00:31:50] So influence, I think a lot about influence. And that word has a sketchy meeting. It’s like sort of manipulative. “I wanna be influential, I’m going to influence people.” But I’m thinking more about society and what do you do if you’re really that smart but no one listens to you? How do you gain people’s trust so that your opinion has weight and value? And I’m trying to learn more about that as a science and maybe that’s something I can write about in the future. That’s what I’ve been thinking about, expertize versus influence and why one without the other is dangerous or problematic.
Brian [00:32:21] Yeah, I agree. I think you wrote about it well. You know, you said, “the success of people with ideas has always depended not on their creative talent alone, but their ability to persuade.” And I think that’s really important. I think it’s a really important part of being a designer, too. You can have this beautiful interface, but you also have to present it. You have to convince people that this is a good idea. You have to say, you know, “you should buy into this.” There’s an art to persuasion, too. So that’s something I’m really curious about. I’m looking forward to what you come up with that.
Scott [00:32:48] Yeah. I mean, a lot of people with ideas who are experts really feel like it’s beneath them to have to persuade people. But part of what I’ve written about and part of what is in all the books is whatever legendary story you have about someone who had a great idea, part of why we know about them and they were successful is because they were persuasive. They were good at it, or they had a partner who was. And that’s another kind of mythology that if your idea is so good, you shouldn’t have to argue with anybody about it. I’m like, “nope, history says the opposite.” History says you have to persuade. You have to be convincing. You have to learn about the people you’re working with to be effective, so…
Sean [00:33:25] Interesting. Well, thank you for joining us. It’s been an awesome conversation. I’ve really enjoyed it. Got some good insights.
Scott [00:33:32] Hey, this was fun.
Brian [00:33:33] Take care, Scott.
Scott [00:33:34] Thanks, guys.
Paul [00:33:37] Well, that’s it for today. In line with our goals of transparency and listening, we really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get. So please leave a comment or a rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch, and inspire the world, just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.