Irene Au’s name is synonymous with scaling design. In her first position, she helped launch the original commercial web browser at Netscape. From there, she’s grown user-centric thinking and design influence at large consumer internet companies like Yahoo (1998-2006) and Google (2006-2012). Now, she’s design partner at Khosla Ventures, where she works with CEOs, executives, and designers to make products and services people can’t live without.
Irene stopped by the Design Better podcast back in season two to recap some of the leadership insights she’s learned throughout her illustrious career. One of the key threads behind her success? A focus on early adopters.
For example, at Yahoo, she helped spread the idea that design is not just about how things look, but how they work. While this was successful, she felt limited by the conventional wisdom to target the widest audience possible:
“That really hindered innovation, in my opinion,” Irene said on the episode.
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At Google, however, things were different: The engineering culture was hyper-focused on how things worked, and it took some time for her to establish that aesthetics were important, too. But that internal culture shifted after the runaway success of the iPhone which married function with beauty. So Google began to target early adopters, knowing that this customer base was not only more understanding towards less-than-perfect products, but that they were also eager to inform later models through feedback.
That strategy worked, but as Google matured, they needed to take it a step further: To push the envelope and force people to upgrade, she said. The thinking was that by sacrificing user comfortability for a short time, they could work out any issues and eventually offer more customers better experiences. This mindset was apparent in internal operations, too. According to Irene, a cultural focus on execution and moving things forward—even if projects weren’t necessarily moving in the right direction initially—played a large part in the company’s continued innovation.
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As companies grow and processes become standardized, creativity can take a backseat to the other day-to-day complexities. But Irene’s story is a good reminder that well-designed innovation often presents more opportunities than it does risks:
“If you keep moving, iterating, and getting feedback, you’ll eventually move in the right direction,” she said.
Interested in hearing more about Irene’s time at Google, her opinions on the connection between decentralized organization and scalability? Read the recap on Medium or listen to the full episode. If you want more great interviews with design leaders, subscribe to the Design Better Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your audio.
by Eli Woolery
Eli is the Director of Design Education at InVision. His design career spans both physical and digital products, and he is a lecturer in the Product Design program at Stanford University. You can find Eli on Medium or on Twitter.