Dane Howard is an entrepreneur and creative generator, designing momentum for world class products, services, and brands. He is currently Global Head of Design and Product Experience at Samsung NEXT. He has built, grown, and led teams in both start-ups and large companies. He also co-founded a start-up which was acquired by eBay. [Note: We spoke to him roughly one year ago, so don’t worry—we’re not spoiling the Christmas presents he mentions towards the end of the article.]
Eli Woolery: Tell us a bit about your role at Samsung NEXT.
Dane Howard: As Global Head of Design, I am responsible for growing, mentoring, and leading the product design and user research teams. I also help drive the full lifecycle of product experiences from very early-stage narratives, to the product design, and end-to-end delivery. The startups and products that need to be protected, cared for, and fed inside of an organization. This initiative is almost entirely software and services. The DNA of the group is a startup, in a way, serving other startups.
EW: You have some start up experience too. You founded a startup that eBay acquired in 2008. I started my career bouncing around to a bunch of different startups, some of which did not get acquired but rather exploded mid-flight as sometimes happens (including my own). What are some of the things that designers bring to the table as co-founders in a really early-stage startup?
DH: I have had the privilege to advise some startups, as well, and every DNA of a founding group is different. And as they build momentum, they almost always pass through this moment where they have to have product market fit. They need to know who they are, what their identity is, what will be their mission, and differentiation in the world.
I think design plays a key role in that—especially early on, when you’re making key decisions. Design has this luxury of being a unique skill, the ability to tell a visual story. As you ramp up, building and improving things, design can get ahead of the business in the form of a narrative. And, so although the cost of making software is the lowest it’s ever been, design plays a key role in helping a company rehearse its future.
EW: Coming back to your current role, can you talk about any of the recent projects you’ve worked on?
DH: I was employee number two of this new group and am building a team that’s purpose built for three products that are all entirely different. One is actually in connecting food experiences (Whisk.com). And the other is in distributed computing, where computation can be pushed out to all kinds of connected devices. And yet another is in augmented reality and spatial computing.
We’ve been building teams that allow each group to define their story, understand what their target audience is, and build prototypes and user interfaces. I’ve needed a very adaptive, cross-disciplinary team. We are internal but centralized, currently. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about not only the early stage advising and design of these groups, but also the best organizational structure to help serve them—short term and long term.
EW: What have you discovered on that front? What are some of the organizational tweaks that have been helpful?
DH: What we have now is a blend of both centralized and dedicated disciplines. What’s helpful has been this metaphor: An octopus with different tentacles. The tentacles are like the products. They need to be able to feel their way around the world and make decisions autonomously But you have to bring design firepower around key initiatives—[that’s the octopus’s head]. We have different designers that sit as subject matter experts, and they help advise those products.
But at the same time they can say, “Hey, we want to run a pretty massive design sprint around two weeks where we really need intense, broad thinking, into this one area of the product.” Or “We need to do a design sprint deep on what this brand could be.” That’s been very helpful.
Some of the products are also in Tel Aviv, Israel. The time difference in having a global team has granted some opportunities, but also some challenges. It was important really early on to put an extension of the team there, 10 hours ahead of us. We’re now about seventeen people globally and have a really interesting blend of cross disciplines between 3D design strategy, UX and visual design, as well as some emerging user research as well.
EW: You mentioned design sprints and we have a book out on Design Sprints for Enterprise, highlighting the particular challenges that you may face in setting up a sprint. What are some of the ways your team makes sure the right folks are involved?
DH: Sprint is such a great word, but, at the same time, it can be confusing—especially if you’ve got a software team that’s running their own agile sprints. We’ve actually made a distinction to say design sprints have a different output than your agile sprint. It’s also really important that the design sprint is plenty of iterations ahead of the agile sprint.
We’ve been working on getting to the heart of the GM or the product owner and having them prioritize the most important part of the experience. Within that, there’s a ton of features. We validate them through some data and customer insights, and then we get alignment from every group.
If it’s top of the funnel, it’s more marketing related. If it’s more about engagement, then it’st the [project managers]s running the data and the analytics.. We then agree that this is the area of the experience that we want to work on. Sometimes it requires some adjusting because if the team’s really technical, they’ll see it in technical terms. So they’ll say, “We need to refresh our database and schematic according to the blah, blah, blah.” In a way I have to reorient them and say, “Well, the customer doesn’t really care about your database orientation, but they probably care about how it feels in this moment. So let’s get to the user needs.”
We’re just getting to aligning on the user stories and those user stories have particular goals. That’s usually a good foundation to then say, “Okay. We agree on the area that we’re going to work on. We agree on the priorities. And now we can set the table with the insights needed to jam on a successful design sprint.”
EW: You mentioned that one of the projects you’re working on is focused on AI and machine learning. And there’s a fair bit of anxiety in the world around the robots coming to take all of our jobs. But there’s also a more optimistic view that AI can augment us. And I’m curious if you have a perspective around that, especially for designers. What potential augmentations might we see as the designers in that realm?
DH: Hollywood’s done a good job at scaring us about a dystopian future of AI. But when I dug into it, [I found that] what machine learning is, at a very granular level, teaching machines to do things quicker and more efficiently than how humans can.. A simple example is whether you’re looking at brain scans to search for tumors, or you’re teaching it to distinguish a cat from a dog. These types of tasks are very singular and they’re not necessarily bridged. So when you run experiments on massive amounts of data,, you can train a machine or an individual algorithm and tune it specifically for that task.
This is a story of efficiency. If you can imagine, as a designer, going to do your job and then [finding out] 80% of your job is in the meticulous, busy work of design, whether that be changing a bunch of file formats or whatever. Now imagine this is a tool that can help reduce massive amounts of time for data scientists so they can focus on the data part of it, the insights. Just like InVision creates a lot of shortcuts for us in design, that’s what is happening now for data scientists.
It’s been amazing to see how some of these customers have taken to it. The subject matter, as you point out, is still very nascent. It’s still very unclear when you say just “AI.” It took me and my team some time to understand “What do you mean by deep learning? What do you mean by this terminology?” There is an audience that understands some of the vocabulary,but the challenge or opportunity is saying, “Well, how do you create different versions of this messaging so that you can communicate with a broader audience what this product does?” And then, potentially, it synergies with other workflows.
EW: As designers, if we’re good at our job, I think we bring a particular sensitivity to bias in the products that we create. There’s a danger, I think, in machine learning, and I have friends that have worked in this field, that if they’re working with the wrong types of data sets, they might inherently have some amount of bias. Do you see some ways that we, as designers, can kind of counteract that?
DH: There are two sides that I think about:One is that classic garbage in, garbage out. Just understanding the experiments allow for a better data set on the other side. Let’s say when we run analytics on a webpage, it’s so valuable to understand the data points so that there is no bias, right? But you could basically use analytics data to serve your own purpose, and I’ve seen that done.
In a lot of the samples I’ve seen with machine learning, it’s pretty easy to see what goes into the sample sets. And when you train a particular model, you are basically looking, listening, or sensing different trends based on that data. That’s the part that’s really hard to distinguish bias. You can bias the interpretation of it, but the output is pretty undeniable. With a lot of our collaborators, designers provide the emotional position.
When you’re in a room where everyone’s wanting to make a decision around data, the designer always has the opportunity to put context into the situation, whether it’s the customer scenario, what happened previously, or what’s going to happen. They start to tease out the friction, pain, delight—things like this. And that’s usually kind of a shot across the bow to remind everyone that we serve humans at the end of the day. They go to work just like we do.s this going to help them or is this going to create more frustration? So that’s usually a grounding principle. The designer has the opportunity to put the emotional connection in whatever we’re building or making.
EW: Before we started the recording, we were chatting about the fact that we’re both parents. You wrote a really interesting article called the Designer Parent Mindset. Would you mind talking about that a little bit?
DH: I’ve been on a journey with my kids. I remember just being an individual contributor and going through being married and then having kids. Kids are incredible at grounding you in all walks of life, asking simple questions.We have an opportunity, I think, as designers to kind of look at the skill set that we have. It’s filled with empathy, taking your shoes off so you can be in the customer’s shoes. There are also ways that we work, like divergent and convergent thinking, yes and.
I looked at my kids growing up, I realized that their schooling was just kind of this pressure cooker of grades and getting into college. There’s a softer side that a designer has about creative problem solving. In the article I try to ask, “What can we do as designers to help transfer some of these creativity and problem-solving skills to our kids?”
It was just posed as a question to say “What if you brought the designer mindset home with you every day?” It’s not to say that you’re creating design problems in workshops and the home. But there are some really interesting teachable moments that I found to allow my kids to solve problems in a world that is sometimes ambiguous, and needs a lot of empathy. How do you find your audience? How do you visually communicate? That’s just kind of the premise behind this designer-father mindset. I was inviting people into that conversation.
EW: Well it seems to have paid off. Your daughter’s working on a really interesting project. She’s spoken at TEDx, and it sounds like she’s about to do that again. Maybe you could talk a little bit about some of the really cool things she’s working on?
DH: She was born with a foot deformity and has had several operations. She’s had to learn on her own how to be resilient, how to go through pain. That was her normal.
Unfortunately, she went through a difficult thing in her freshman year of high school. She was assaulted and bullied because of her deformity. That put a lot of us in the family through just a really difficult time of depression and sadness.
We had this opportunity to meet Bono, the lead singer of U2. He was a great leader and said, “Chloe, what happened to you is an injustice. And you have the opportunity to use your voice. And that voice could be a voice for those that have none.” That sunk into her.
This leader who had this moment for her. This inspired her to submit an idea for a Ted Talk. She ended up keynoting the day.She started to write the word beautiful over the scars of her foot. This series of events encouraged her to speak to kids all over the world: those with deformities, those that have been bullied.
And she’s now a 19 year old who has written two books, given two Ted Talks. She really inspires me. I get to moonlight as her dad and designer/manager in this journey of what has become StandBeautiful.me. It’s really just an amazing opportunity to see her and walk alongside her on this journey.
EW: That’s a really inspiring story. Thanks for sharing it with us. One final question for you: Are there any books, or blogs, or podcasts that have helped you in your work or your daughter with the project that she’s working on?
DH: A recurring theme for my kids, as it relates to resilience, is a book called Grit. My son is going to get that for Christmas. [Don’t tell him.] His mission, after he reads it, is to give it to his sister. My daughter’s going to get a new book called Joyful. In it, Ingrid Fetell, a great designer that used to work at IDEO, talks about the differences between happiness and joy, and how to look for joy in everyday life. When my daughter reads it, her mission is to give it to her brother.
I am inspired by this relationship between resilience , grit, and joy— how we show up every day and find joy in our lives. The book I’ve probably recommended most in my career, is Serious Play by Michael Schrage. [It’s about] how companies behave around the prototypes, simulations, and models that they make. It lives on that steep innovation curve usually where designers are as well. It’s chock-full of remarkable stories that you can pull out. I always get raving thanks on the heels of that.
EW: I’ve only read the first few chapters of Ingrid’s book so far, but it inspired my daughter and me to paint the office wall behind me. We did that together because, prior to that, it was just this boring white cinder block wall. And every time I come down to my office, it brings me a lot of joy just thinking about doing that with my daughter. And that book was definitely a part of that.
DH: Ingrid started as a designer. Her Ted Talk is also very visual. She shows visual patterns in our world that are naturally linked to the science in our brain, of how we find joy and why we have these recurring visual themes. It’s a good study for visual communicators as well, the topic of joy.
EW: Well Dane, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us. It was a real pleasure.
DH: Thanks so much for the opportunity.