Self-Reflection is the Key to Good Product Design

Written by Jordan Rosenfeld, contributor for Lean Startup Co.

Editor’s note: We’re offering excerpts of talks from select speakers who delivered keynotes at Lean Startup Week 2016 in San Francisco. These pieces are a combination of tips from their presentations and interviews with Lean Startup.

Design impacts more than product aesthetics. It also saves time, increases efficiency, and offers a competitive advantage with minimum effort. This was the case made by Irene Au, Design Partner at Khosla Ventures, during her keynote talk at Lean Startup Week 2016 in San Francisco. Au, who has also worked with Google, Udacity, Yahoo, and with various startups, says it’s important to bring mindfulness and self-reflection into the products we create — because in the end, these apps and objects are really just manifestations of the self. “When we’re making a product, we’re creating an outward expression of who we are,” she says, in an interview after her talk. “What we make embodies our values and virtues.” These values and virtues range from empathy and connection, to patience, resilience, focus.

Au sees self-reflection as both crucial to any startup’s success and part of the larger process of experimentation, empathy, and iteration. “This practice of self-awareness is only cultivated through testing a product,” she says, “gaining empathy for users and going back and iterating.”

Add Value Before Revenue

The most successful startups solve a user need first, says Au, and monetize second. She recommends companies operate with the intention to “contribute and add value,” over simply trying to bring in revenue. Customers are not fooled by fancy design with big price tags. “When we are fearful, greedy, or attached, our actions are manifest in our design,” she says, adding that our creations reflect our inner states. “We pass on our intentions, values, and principles in tangible form and pass this on to other people.” Self-reflection, which can take place at the individual and team level, can help a business bypass unnecessary design, development, or distractions and cut to the heart of what customers really want.

To emphasize this point, she discussed her time with online tech learning platform Udacity. When cofounder Sebastian Thrun’s computer science course became an overnight success, he accepted business development deals with a number of organizations and universities, Au says, because he wanted to “democratize higher education” for everyone. He also overextended, to the detriment of his company. “All these side deals kept getting in the way. It was completely counter to everything we stood for,” Au says. She realized that her job as designer was also to help Thrun come to terms with his fear of letting go of side projects — letting go of that fear would help Udacity pare down its offerings and become a success. The company did just that. Just as Steve Jobs cut 3,000 jobs at Apple in 1997, and reduced the product catalogue from 350 items to 10, Au says self-reflection allows a founder to make tough decisions. “In that sense what might be perceived as ruthless elimination starts to become an act of generous compassion for the users,” Au says.

Empathy for the Customer Helps You Design Better Products

Self-reflection also allows startups to have empathy for their customers, which Au describes as “more than just ‘I know how you feel’ but really internalizing ‘What are their problems?’” This helps a company generate the necessary interest and curiosity in their customers’ needs that leads to successful product iteration and innovation.

Given that customer feedback is so crucial to strong product or service development, Au says the most important thing a company can do it listen. “Listen to your customers and listen to yourself,” she says. She believes that most founders have an “inner knowing” that will lead them toward the right decision, if they can just find the courage to follow it.

This empathy for the customer allows companies to meet specific needs. She’s seen startups where the culture is “launch, launch, launch and move on to the next feature,” but that process bypasses the important step of listening. She says some companies avoid engaging in user research because they didn’t feel the product was ready yet. “That’s exactly the best time for user research,” she says. Their resistance suggests that “maybe the founders just don’t want to hear negative feedback.” However, she emphasizes, “You can’t really design effectively for people unless you understand them.”

Enjoy what you read? You can watch Irene Au’s full talk here, along with all the main keynotes from Lean Startup Week 2016 (for free!). You can also purchase full video content from the last three conferences, including Ignite Talks and breakout sessions, right here.