Dave observing a usability study at Workday.

Driving human-centered design in a large enterprise: an interview with AC4D alumni Dave Gottlieb

Dave Gottlieb and I attended Austin Center for Design (AC4D) together from 2012–2013. We worked closely on a variety of design research efforts focusing, for example, on how schools and parents work to provide healthy eating options to middle school children, and how seniors at home utilize technology for communication with family, among others. Through all of the intense moments of the everlasting bootcamp that is AC4D, I will never forget Dave’s patience, deep booming voice and warm heartened-ness, nor his dedication to the process and improving his craft over time. In this interview, we explore Dave’s reflections on his time at AC4D, and how ultimately he has been able to facilitate the human centered design process @workday to drive the success of a large scale learning solution.

How did you find out about Austin Center for Design?

I remember — it was 2012. I was at my sister Chloe’s apartment in Brooklyn, who had just come back from a conference in Brazil with Jon Kolko. She mentioned Jon, “started something new and exciting that I haven’t heard of before, it’s a program in Austin that I think you would really love focused around, design and social entrepreneurship. It is something that I would do if I hadn’t already gone to design school.”

It was right at this time when I had tapped into the social entrepreneurship scene in Brooklyn, NY. I was facilitating Impact Sessions, a speaker series focused on the stories of people who were starting their own startups; in the back of my mind I didn’t know if I had the skills to start my own business or if I had the creative side to do it. So the concept of attending came right at a critical point in my life where I was like, “alright, let me apply, I doubt I’ll get in, but let’s give it a shot!” So I applied.

Funny story. The acceptance letter was sent to my yahoo email address — which I never check — so I didn’t even know that I had been accepted until a month before everybody was supposed to show up. Not even a month before, I think it was two-weeks before! Jon was like, “Oh, I thought you weren’t interested because you never got back to me.” And I was like, “I’m in! Let’s do this!”

I just remember going to that first, small building and meeting Jon and being like, “Oh my god, what did I get myself into?” But also excited at the same time. It just felt right since the day I got there. You know when you make a decision and it just feels like the right one, like the right path to something new and exciting.

What was your experience like during school?

I knew that I was coming in with very little design experience. I had never touched any of the Adobe products, I knew nothing about wireframing, I knew nothing about storyboarding. I knew nothing about sketching. So I was pretty much starting from scratch, but I think I came in with a lot of background in storytelling, and in building empathy and connections: I had a background in understanding people in different communities because of growing up on a yoga center or “Ashram” in upstate NY and being around a lot of different groups of people and always being passionate about social issues, especially environmental issues. So I knew I could catch up with the practical skills if I put myself to the task.

I kind of played catch-up early on but that added to the fun. I think as a designer, you always feel like you are catching up because there is always someone who is more highly skilled than you are in whatever tool you are using, but it was just a matter of getting a certain level of fluency in order to be able to present your ideas and get feedback. I think a lot of the course was making a thing and then presenting ideas — a lot of them bad, some of them good — and then getting feedback. A key part of the program is learning how to take the critical feedback and improve upon your ideas, it’s an iterative process. This process was definitely a new thing for me to learn.

Dave and other members of the AC4D class of 2013.

What was your greatest challenge at AC4D?

I think it was in the first quarter that I had a lot of doubt that I would be able to do it, but there was a point in time that I just broke through that and I was just working off of the improvements I was making. I went from feeling deflated to filled with energy. I saw that it wasn’t just design work in a sense that people think about design work as in visual design, there was so much more to the program — a whole process of discovery work and talking to people to gain insights into what they might actually need. It was that discovery piece that I could see myself doing in the future more than the interaction design work.

What do you feel was your greatest moment?

I think one of the best moments was when you (Eric), myself, Eli and Callie presented the second quarter. We presented our initial design concepts — at that point we didn’t have to decide on our final project — but we had a group of ideas that came together from research and synthesis that we had all done. We narrowed about 150 ideas into three concepts that we presented. I just remember us presenting to a large audience and getting great feedback, I could tell they were engaged and we received a really nice applause as well as a handful of thoughtful questions. At that moment it just felt like the hard work we had done over the last several months had paid off. I just remember so many high and low points in that process and then delivering a great presentation and it felt like a big accomplishment. That’s when I was like, ‘Alright, I can do this.’ Do you remember that moment?

I remember that moment, I love that moment! Tell me more about your final project at AC4D.

So Eli, Callie and I — because you (Eric) ended up doing your own thing — we were studying baby boomers and how they were using technology. We did a lot of contextual inquiry where we went into people’s homes and talked to them, and every time we talked to someone they ended up opening up their photo books and showing us their family and they felt very distant. We live in this time where people are spread out across the world; it’s a global economy now, and so we wanted to figure out, how could we capture the wisdom and stories of the elderly and bring them together with their family and friends?

Out of our ideation process came the seedling for Spoak — which was an iPad based storytelling tool where people could utilize their photos and add audio stories to them and then share those with their family who, in turn, could add additional stories to them and share back. We chose the ipad as our form factor because we saw great adoption of it in the homes of our elderly participants, because it was easier to swipe and simply had larger fonts.

Dave, Eli, and Callie presenting Spoak at AC4D final presentations.

Tell me, what it’s like to be an alumni?

Well I always feel like I’m telling people about my experience no matter where I go — so no matter if I was in Austin, or California or Ireland, I just love to talk about my experience there at AC4D. I think there’s few points in my life where I felt like I gained so much from such a short amount of time — and AC4D is one of those. So, as an alumni, I remember being in Austin with other alumni and it was great because we all had each other if we felt stuck or had questions about our role or projects. Now, I can’t just walk over to the school or meet someone in person, but I know that I made such deep connections while I was there that I can easily email or call to get advice from anyone at any point because it’s such a close-knit community.

Being in Dublin, I just recently saw Jon Kolko and Jess because he was speaking at a conference here. My colleagues at work love Jon and are always watching his talks. So that was good — it just reminded me that no matter where I am, the AC4D community will pop in.

I just mentioned, I’m always talking about the program. I think I’ve recommended a bunch of people and I’m hoping that a few people I recommended for this year will apply because I’m constantly getting people coming to me in a very similar point in their life and I know that AC4D can be the perfect opportunity for them to kind of get over the hurdle where they are getting stuck. A lot of people get stuck in their life where they are sick of doing some job that they don’t like or feeling like they’re not moving in the right direction or in a place that they’re excited about. Or, they are very socially driven, and they want to make an impact, but they feel stuck.

They get to that point. I end up talking to these people about my experience at AC4D, and they get really excited about it. Given my experience abroad at this point — at how similar that point or feeling is across borders — I believe that AC4D could have different centers in different cities. That’s just how impactful it could be.

What are you most proud of related to design since you graduated?

The launch of Workday Learning, because it’s something that I’ve been working on for the last 2 and a half years. It’s a completely different style LMS product — actually we didn’t want it to be a tradition LMS — that has been driven ground up by design and design research. When we started, we focused on inspiring the product vision and capabilities, which came from talking with and observing employees using techniques I learned at AC4D and shared with the product manager, Nate, who I was doing the research with.

Dave finishing up his notes post usability study.

What we saw over and over again, especially with the millennial generation, is that it’s a group that wants to connect with their peers. They want to help shape the direction of their companies and share ideas to improve. And so we knew that we had to give people the ability to create their own content, to rate and recommend content, so you can search and learn what you want to learn like Youtube, not feel like your company is telling you what to learn (for only superficial or legalistic reasons). It’s a more connecting and inviting software.

It started so small with stakeholder interviews and contextual inquiries outside of Pleasanton, CA, then we travelled across the US and Europe — just two of us, with guidance from my design manager Eric. Our research led towards the strategic decision to build Workday Learning — and I was asked to go help build the design team in Dublin. And now we have over 50 people working on it. So that in it of itself — to know that 50 + jobs have been created and two companies have been acquired and ingested into it. We have 100+ companies now in the pipeline, and 5 have gone live. One large customer that will eventually go live with Workday Learning has over 500,000 employees. Potentially 500,000 people at one company will be using our product. That’s pretty cool. I’m proud of that scale, and of being one of its founders for a modern learning technology platform that will be used around the globe.

Dave in transit for user testing at Twitter.

How were you able to get the runway to build this product?

A lot of that was — in order to sell that idea, we had to sell the research, and through the research we found the pain points in the existing software. I think being able to bring the teachings of AC4D — the ability to go do discovery work specifically — into a large and fast growing company, was really exciting and has changed the culture internally and the UX focus. It’s brought the importance of UX to the forefront, that we should be involved from the beginning and not just at the end to make a product look pretty. I think a lot of times that happens, particularly in companies that are product management and development driven. We now have a seat at the table because of products like Workday Learning.

Dave, you’re a rockstar. Badass! (laughing)

Thanks. Honestly, I was worried a bit up front — working for a larger enterprise software company. But then you realize one company signs on, and your designs could be used by hundreds of thousands of people. It’s an incredible thing to realize. Ultimately designers want people to use their products and effect change — they want to promote their ideas. So with having access to that many customers and people using your products, it’s pretty awesome. And Workday is just growing and growing like crazy. The design team when I started in Pleasanton was 20–25 folks, now they have over 50. When I went to Dublin to help further build out the design team and the product, it was Bill and myself, and now we have another 12. It’s cool to be part of a company that’s growing like that.

Dave at the new office opening party in Dublin, Ireland.

Talk more about your beliefs about working for an enterprise software company vs a more consumer oriented software.

I haven’t worked on consumer software in a while, but it’s very easy to go out and talk to potential customers and come up with an idea that you can design for that group of users. It seems like you can go more blue sky with designs and you can design more for the consumer facing side of the product. With enterprise, for example, you have different groups of users. In Workday Learning, we’re designing for new hires, managers, instructors, course creators, administrators — it’s a much bigger thing. What helped us with this was creating four personas which drove our design.

You have to be able to create, deliver, and report on content and also have the end user experience. At the end of the day, you have a whole sales team that’s selling that product. So in a way, in order to go out and talk to your customers, you need to go through a variety of channels just to get the opportunity to talk to a customer. If I had a startup, I could go to the Starbucks down the street and test out a design. You can’t just do that with enterprise. There’s too much security, and a lot of complexity.

How does that make you feel?

It’s both challenging and rewarding. At AC4D, we were taught that if you have a design, you go out and test it. Get five people, get feedback, iterate, and move on to your next iteration. We can do that internally through hallway testing, but a lot of times there’s just layers of security that makes that tough. Navigating the world and thinking about how to sell your ideas is important no matter what company you work in.

In that context, I lead workshops often with product managers and developers to cover “what is UX”. I have a whole deck of slides covering the different phases of the design process, emphasizing why talking with us earlier is better: this is how we can help you. Then you have to do a project with that team and over time, they’ll learn — let’s get UX involved early. So now we’re getting a seat at the table early in the process instead of putting out fires at the end.

It’s great to see the evolution of design thinking at the organization. Right now we are testing products in our new state of the art UX Design Studio where we have the PMs and devs sitting in on product testing sessions; they’re writing down post it notes about participants and having debrief sessions. It’s really cool to see their faces when they’re seeing users using the product. I’ve heard it more than once: “oh my god. I’ve been working on this for the last year and I’ve never seen a user use the product.” Honestly, they’re just really loving this ability to see customers use the product and that has been not only really fun, but really inspirational towards the improvement of our products.

Sample user persona used in creation of Workday Learning.

Closing question — parting words of wisdom for students considering applying, or for those interested in doing more social impact work?

Now more than ever we need creative thinkers, problem solvers, and designers — especially given the political climate — we need to throw away the divisive nature and get people together to solve problems using design thinking, using statistical data, using behavioral economics — whatever it is — because what we’re doing right now isn’t working. Politics is dividing people and our country and the politicians aren’t solving the largest issues facing us today in a smart way. Seeing how AC4D enables you to take a big problem and take a chunk of that and really go out and learn about it and figure out ways to solve it — a lot of times people feel frustrated and are unsure what to do to make a change, and I think as someone who’s a social activist and passionate about an issue, it’s the perfect place to take that passion and connect that drive with methods that work in order to feel like you are making a difference and actually go out make a thing. I am excited to see AC4D grow and be part of an evolving creative community of rock stars. Thanks Eric for helping to spread the word.

Dave Gottlieb in Ireland (when not doing design work, Dave’s exploring all corners of his adopted country).

Austin Center for Design is a not-for-profit educational institution on the East Side of Austin, Texas that exists to transform society through design.