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How the Design Better Podcast went from 0 to one million listens

4 min read
Eli Woolery  •  Feb 10, 2020
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Over the past three seasons of the Design Better Podcast, Aarron Walter and I have chatted with leaders in product design to uncover how they achieved success. We’re so tremendously grateful to the community of smart, talented designers (as well as their friends and colleagues) who have tuned in along the way. To celebrate, we’re doing two special things as a thank you as we hit this milestone: One, we’re rewinding to our episode with David Kelley, founder of IDEO and the Stanford d.school, in honor of David just receiving the 2020 Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering + Technology Education. You can listen below:

And two, we’re pulling back the curtain on what makes the show tick. As the podcast has grown and matured, we’ve learned some key takeaways about how design principles have helped the podcast find new audiences, highlight bold ideas, and continually engage such a wonderful community of listeners.

User empathy

As we know, good design doesn’t just follow trends, but solves for the emotional needs behind user challenges. For me, the lightbulb moment for podcasting came on my two-hour commutes to and from Stanford, where I teach. I wanted to use the time to level-up on some topics, so I downloaded a few educational podcasts. They were fantastic—not only were the conversations an engaging way to make the time go by fast, but listening to them made me feel productive.

I noticed that they seemed to be a relatively-lightweight format to produce, too. While there were podcasts that dealt with design in general, to my knowledge, there weren’t any that focused on product design leaders at the top of their game. When Aarron brought me onto InVision’s Design Education team and suggested starting a podcast, I knew that other designers would be interested in hearing the stories and insights these leaders shared.

Constraints can also inspire good design. We started with a small pool of potential listeners: Folks in a product design leadership role or motivated individual contributors that wanted to level up. While this focus limited some possibilities, it made decision-making easy. Everything we did would provide value to our existing listeners, or help us reach as many of our potential listeners as possible.

Practices

While podcasts have been around since 2004, they really hit their “golden age” in 2015. We started the Design Better Podcast in 2017, the same year The New York Times launched The Daily—which quickly became the number one podcast in the US. While not on the scale of The Daily, I think we were able to swiftly grow a sizable audience for the same reasons. Rather than spending our time on experimenting on things like form, we were able to learn from the podcasts that predated us—those both successful and not—and follow best practices. Because we were not defining the space, we had room to experiment on things that would act as differentiators. For example, we implemented a thematic arc in the first season to create some consistency between episodes. Once we found out that worked, we started to expand upon our format with things like roundtable discussions on timely topics.

As we went into later seasons, we tried to continually level-up in terms of constant, incremental updates so we wouldn’t fall behind as other podcasts evolved. We brought in a great audio editor (Brian Pake from Pacific Audio), and got next-level equipment as creating a high-quality listening experience grew in importance.

Partnerships

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” It may be an old adage, but it’s true—and we designed the podcast with partnership as its backbone. By choosing an interview format, not only could we introduce high-profile guests who had incredible on-the-ground insights to share with our listeners, but there was also the potential of guests sharing the episodes with their network, increasing our overall exposure.

While guests sharing interviews with their networks provided an early boost, this could only do so much as the podcast matured. We had to work on our internal partnerships as well—knowing many of our social media audiences and product users were untapped listeners. So we brought in someone who could help us focus and accelerate our efforts: Rob Goodman, who had launched a podcast about creative careers called Making Ways and taught podcasting at General Assembly.

Rob came in and professionalized our podcast from the prototype we had been working with. He saw a big opportunity to maximize the key insights in the episodes as shareable social media content to reach those who may not have heard about the podcast yet. He also sharpened our look and feel for greater visibility on podcast platforms.

This season, we’re taking that idea of partnerships and baking it into our podcast, too. We’re extending our audience to other personas: developers and product leaders, too. To me, this change doesn’t dilute the podcast for designers, but improves upon it. As the podcast has matured, so has the design industry, and the connected workflow is a front-and-center topic worth covering.

Patience

Podcasts are a long-tail phenomenon. There are many different types of content in podcasting and the very peak ones get the majority of listens. The ones at the lower end of the tail are getting very little of the audience share. While we can use design thinking to try and grow our audience, the “move fast and break things” approach doesn’t really work here. Podcasting is a long game and persistence is key. We knew having an existing brand name would help a bit up front, but it was still going to take time to attract our listeners. A few months after launch, we could see if listeners were engaged, but we had to be willing to invest a good amount of time and exploration to know if it was really working. It took us three years to get where we are, and that’s not uncommon.

Thanks so much for reading! Come back later this week for a sneak peek of our new season!