Joanna is Head of Design on the Internet of Things team at Amazon. She was previously the Chief Creative Officer for IBM iX. In this interview, we chat with Joanna about how to design more magical IoT experiences, getting more young women into design and technology, and learning to “speak design” in the language of business.
Eli Woolery: Joanna Peña-Bickley, welcome to Conversations on DesignBetter.Co.
Joanna Peña-Bickley: Well thanks for having me.
Eli: I wanted to talk about some things you’re working on right now with Amazon. You recently joined as the Head of Design for the Internet of Things, and in one of your bios, you list yourself as a “maker of things that are useful, usable, and magical,” which is pretty awesome.
I wanted to get a sense of some of the biggest design challenges—and also the opportunities—for magic as you call it, as we have more and more connected devices in our lives.
Joanna: When we think of the Internet of Things, we often forget that IoT is not something necessarily new. We just tend to want to increase the amount of connectivity we have, or the intelligence in these connected devices. The Internet of Things, if we think about it a little bit, started out as the industrial Internet of Things. Little by little what we are seeing is a democratization of that technology in a way that, in the right hands, can actually transform a hundred-year-old business or upstart a completely new industry.
One of the things I couldn’t be more excited about at Amazon is the democratization of the IoT. We’re essentially creating those platforms that allow us to create connected devices, to improve our customer experience or transform a part of our business, or become a little bit more data-centric in the kind of revenues that we’re taking in.
To me, the next part is what’s really interesting—that sense of interconnectivity and intelligence.
When we think a little bit about the platform we’re designing today, it’s very much a place where a maker—a mid-sized to a large enterprise or government—can come in and connect one device or connect billions of devices, and do so in a way that they’re not only able to create that interconnectivity, but also secure those devices. Because it cannot be magical unless it’s secure.
The next part is trying to reason on top of all of this new data that is being produced. Traditionally when we thought of the IoT it was very B2B. The idea that a smaller business or a medium sized business could get into this space was actually something that was really unheard of because the cost was so high.
When you combine that with an AWS model, the technology that is stellar in terms of connectivity and our computing capabilities, and then toss on top of it a pricing model that allows you to go from prototype to building in a way that really scales with your business, it’s a big part of that magic.
It’s remembering that we have moved from this idea that we need B2B design, as if that was a thing, and going from enterprise design to realizing that it’s individuals who are using our platforms every day. It’s really translating what used to be very hard and very technical into interfaces that anyone can use.
Eli: Obviously, Alexa is one of these breakout successes in this world. I think of my daughter who loves to play with Alexa, and The Magic Door, and ask Alexa to play songs, and that type of thing. She’s connecting to that technology in a way maybe she wouldn’t have prior to those types of interfaces being available.
Joanna: One of my favorite things to do is sit down with youngsters who are playing and actually in that space of creating IoT devices for themselves. During the summertime, one of the things I spent a lot of time with was with the Girl Scouts of America. What was really exciting was to see STEM programs really focus on—not necessarily just teaching me my traditional science, technology, engineering, and math—but what I loved about it was this idea that you could bring the art and design into it and create new projects and new products.
To see kids in this space, whether you are five or 15, have the tools to be able to create a connected doorbell, a drone, robotics, things like that. It’s a real opportunity for us to say, “Where does this go? How much of our connected lives do we anticipate? Will everything be connected?” We probably will be in a very connected place in the world in about 10 years. But that means managing billions of connections.
The challenge moving forward for individuals and business is, how do you manage that? How do you protect those billions of connections? How do you actually utilize that connectivity to simplify your life as opposed to complicating it?
Eli: You did a great transition into my next question. You served as a chief digital advisor to the Girl Scouts of America. I have a seven-year-old girl and I’m always looking for different ways to get her engaged in science and technology. What are some of the ways you’ve found to be effective to get more young women and girls interested in things like design, technology, STEM, or STEAM-related endeavors?
Joanna: First of all, it’s about being present in your community. I fundamentally believe that a young girl needs not only to be able to see it, to dream it, but to realize that there are other women in the field. I think that’s so critical. So often, no matter what study I have ever taken a look at, the reduction happens right at about middle school when you start looking for peer validation, and there are no women. All of a sudden you go, “Hmm. Maybe this isn’t a field for me.”
Having women designers and engineers out at the elementary and middle school is so critically important. I’ve been able to go to different parts of the world, and as I came back from Sweden, one of the things that I thought was really interesting was that design was a part of the core curriculum. Not design just in the artistic sense. It was design in the doing. System doing. System thinking. Teaching that at every single year from K to 12.
When we think a little bit about that and the challenges that face our societies today, and how our children will be able to be armed and equipped to apply system thinking or system design, is going to be really critical. We need to see it moved down into the curriculum and not just a STEM program, but something in the same way that we have taught mathematics and the same way we have taught English and the arts. But every year as a part of that curriculum so that it’s reinforced.
Number one, be present. Be out there. I am a second generation designer. I had the luxury of growing up at the knee of one of the best designers in the world, which happened to be my mother. She just happened to practice her design in a very different medium. For me, it has been ensuring that my girls had the opportunity to see what design was all about, but more importantly, being present with other girls and volunteering my time with organizations where it would impact.
The Girl Scouts happens to be one of those organizations. Not only was I a Girl Scout, my children were Girl Scouts. They help shape leaders. I think that we’re at such a deficit right now for female leadership whether you are in engineering, or like myself, in design.
I kind of come at the middle. I came up as what we are now calling a design technologist, which is a designer who can code. I really then focused on the area of user experience, and I would say high design of front end. What I realized was, there are many pathways in, but there aren’t necessarily enough women out there making a concerted effort to welcome new and younger fresh voices into our ranks. It is so critical that we do that. Or we will continue to have the same problems we do, because women designers offer a unique point of view to different industries that haven’t been heard before.
Eli: You’ve been in leadership positions at several companies you’ve worked with, including IBM where you were a Chief Creative Officer. For designers, whether they’re women or men who are aspiring leaders, what are some of the ways that they can learn to speak design in the language of business?
Joanna: Never stop learning. That’s so important. One of the things that has been an incredible help to me is that I have an insatiable curiosity. To the extent that I would say probably drives people a little mad. But I treat every single day as an opportunity to learn something new.
Rochelle King from Spotify speaks about how to make sure design has a voice. Read more about Forging Alliances in the Design Leadership Handbook.
As we get to a place where business is relying upon us, where we are in the C-suite, the importance of understanding your customer’s business and the challenges they’re having is really important. To bring that level of craft and systems thinking to the C-suite in a manner that is challenging this idea that we’re all innovation companies, and really focusing in on, what does this customer do? What do their customers want? What are the challenges they have to invent on behalf of their customers?
That requires a humble approach to understanding and empathizing at the C-suite level, and then really connecting at the customer level. Trying to understand what their customers are doing. Where their pain points are. Are there opportunities for design? Then bringing those back and weaving them into a narrative that plays not just in the C-suite, but the board. I think that’s the larger visioning that designers are naturally born with.
That has always kind of been the secret to my successes. Really stay simply and laser-focused on the customer, and have the humility to learn something new every single day. If we don’t approach things like that, we often miss the largest opportunities that sit in front of us to help someone grow their business, transform their business, or start something new.
Eli: One final question. In the spirit of learning, are there any books or other resources that you’ve read recently that you’d recommend?
Joanna: Absolutely. I just have, a couple of special reads for me have been, one of my favorites. Actually, I’m going to share two recent ones because I tend to be a voracious reader. The first one is The Alphabet Versus the Goddess. It is truly a book about the conflict between word and image. It feels like an art book, but it’s not. It is absolutely a philosophical look at how we form arguments and how societies actually craft culture in word and image. I think that’s so relevant today.
Not in just what we’re experiencing from social media, but more importantly, completely net new innovations. How will they be received? How do you want to frame them? How does that framing truly go toward solving your user’s problem? That’s kind of number one.
The next one is one that I will tell you, it was very inspiring to me, which was The Woman Who Smashed Codes. This is about the untold stories of women in World War II who were code breakers. It is a phenomenal story of how teams of women who were essentially computers back then, not only for the Manhattan Project, but they were truly the unsung heroes of the Allies.
Eli: Joanna, thank you so much for being on Conversations. It’s been fantastic to have you.
Joanna: Absolutely. Thank-you for having me.