Josh Ulm, Executive Design Leader

Josh Ulm, Executive Design Leader

In product development, many organizations subscribe to the idea of a three-legged stool: cross-functional teams comprised of engineering, product management and design. Each with an equal say to strike a balance and create a stable product. This sounds nice in theory, but in practice, many designers have trouble calling the shots. Design is too subjective, too soft a business case, and so on…

Josh Ulm, an executive design leader who previously led the charge at Oracle and Adobe, encourages designers to step up and be bold. Design can absolutely be objective, measured and argued for. The emotional state of the customer, the EQ of the customer, getting to know their real motivations and drives are all critical to making a product stand out and crafting something that people love. Design solves problems for the customer, and it’s the designer’s job to advocate for that customer every step of the way.


Carl Smith: Hey everybody, and welcome back to The Bureau Briefing. Today, swinging by the Bureau's studios, we have got an executive design leader in San Francisco, a man who has led the charge for design at Adobe, Vodafone, Oracle; you know, names you may have heard, I'm not sure. It's Mister Josh Ulm. How are you, Josh?

Josh Ulm: I'm doing great. Thanks for having me.

Carl Smith: Now I have to say, we got to know each other a little bit at Design Leadership Camp. And my absolute favorite thing about you, was you just cut through the crap, man. Like you just, you don't let something sit there, and singing "Kumbaya." You're like, "Hey, wait a minute." So thank you for that, and we'll get to that in just a minute. But what I'd love to do is, for everybody listening, can you give a little background on how you got into digital? I know you were into film. So can you just kind of bring us up to speed, how you got here?

Josh Ulm: Yeah. I wasn't kind of like all of my other friends that were doing design when I started doing this. They were all coming from prints, back in the day, but I went to film school and thought I was going to be a filmmaker. But that didn't work out. And so, I gravitated very quickly into computers and computer design. And the internet was coming up at the time. And what I saw in the internet was just a way to do storytelling as I was doing in film, but in a very collaborative environment with the user, and myself, and the audience, and just all of this stuff kind of came together in a way that I couldn't get out of film. And I was so excited about being able to use this technology as a way to kind of have a conversation. And that just opened up so many doors for me.

And since then, the experiences that I had as a filmmaker have translated very cleanly into doing product digital work; the way that I think about a story, and the narrative, and pulling people along on a journey; the way that I built teams, and think about the collaboration of the team, and the roles that people play. A lot of those fundamentals that I picked up in film school translated really well into doing interactive design.

Carl Smith: Now, how long ago was that? So you went to film school-

Josh Ulm: Back in the early '90s. [crosstalk 00:02:11] And then, I got into doing interactive design right before kind of all the dot-com stuff came about. I moved out to San Francisco in '97, '98; started working for a startup called Quokka Sports, which very few people will remember. And then from there, it just kind of all took off. That was the beginning of all of it for most of us.

Carl Smith: I have to say, you're in good company for those who ... Did you flunk out of film school? Or did you make it through?

Josh Ulm: No, I did well for myself. But coming out of film school, it was one of those things where I didn't really know anybody. I wasn't in the industry. I was on the East Coast. I just didn't have any connections, so it was going to be a really difficult, uphill battle for myself. So I knew that I had to figure out something else.

Carl Smith: What I think is great, though, is that you had the gift of storytelling, and then you went to school to learn about how to share stories. And Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, he flunked out of film school in London.

Josh Ulm: Yeah.

Carl Smith: And then he came back and started telling the story of beer, right? So it's a beautiful thing when you get that skill.

Josh Ulm: Yeah, totally. I mean, again, that's one thing that I just think that a lot of designers that get into this craft, they get in, and they start looking at the screen, and the moments of whatever kind of layout or object that they're trying to build are, without really thinking about kind of the story behind it, and the journey that people are going to go on when they use that product or service. And the more that you can do that, I think, just top to bottom, the better the experience ends up being in the end.

Carl Smith: Yeah. And so the past few years, maybe a little bit longer than that, everybody's all about story. But you had that coming into your career, which helped you get into different areas. And I think you're right. It's like especially, I know working with designers on the service side, it's like sometimes the pressure's so great, you start from something you left that was totally unrelated because it felt kind of like this could be a start. And that's a disaster out of the gate.

Josh Ulm: Yeah. That, and I think that, at least for me, that one of the most important things about the narrative piece of it is that it stitches everything together. I think the problem with product development for a lot of designers, and really everyone that's kind of involved in that, is that they get really myopic on the part that they're focused on, without thinking about the whole piece and how it all fits together. And unfortunately for our customers, our customers don't have that advantage. They don't just come into one screen and then pop back out again. They have to sign up for this service. They have to get an account. They have to buy, you know, purchase all of those things. And then they need to get support at some point, on, and on, and on. There's a whole journey that customers go through. And unless you start your process by kind of writing that story that you want your customer to feel, then any one point along the way, if it doesn't feed into that story, it's going to be blocking against it.

Carl Smith: Right. And that's where design starts to become integral in business. And the thing that, over the past, again, 5 years, 10 years, whatever, how it's evolved, and this is where we got to the, "Josh is going to cut through the crap," moment for me, which was when everybody starts talking about, "Design's got a seat at the table. Design needs a seat at the table; the three-legged stool that is the seat that design got at the table," right? And then you basically just said, "Well, what are you going to do with it now that you've got it?"

Josh Ulm: Yeah, totally. Designers ... And this is not just, I mean, we are designers, so we talk about our perspective, for sure, but certainly, I hear a lot from designers that they're fighting for this seat at the table; and rightly so, because in a lot of environments, engineering, or product leadership, or someone else is kind of calling the shots. And so often times, designers do feel like they don't have a voice. But I would argue that they probably have more of a voice than they think they do. They just need to step up and communicate that.

And that's the thing about designers, is that they're really good communicators. They may be, of that group of individuals building the product, some of the best communicators, certainly storytellers, in that environment. And yet, they don't really take the opportunity to speak for the customer, to speak for the experience, to get out there and just say what it is that they need to do, that they need to represent. Instead, they kind of hem and haw. And they wonder why their screen isn't getting out the way that it should be, or why they're not being listened to, when they really just need to kind of get some balls, and stand up, and speak a little bit more loudly.

Carl Smith: What do you think it is that holds them back?

Josh Ulm: Again, I think it's a variety of things. But often times, I find that designers are just inherently insecure. And they're not used to being in an environment where they have to talk in the same room with all of these other objective kind of conversations going on. So in business, a lot of times it comes down to the business of the product, how we're going to pay for this, how we're going to make money on it, et cetera. And designers don't feel comfortable, haven't been trained to deal with those kinds of business conversations, those objective conversations. And design is inherently a subjective kind of discipline.

So we go in there, and then we try and argue why our color blue is the best color of blue, or whatever, right? I mean, they're hard conversations to kind of have and to fight for. But what I have found is that, A, design is absolutely something that can be objective, that you can measure, that you can argue for, and you can make good cases for; and more importantly, that overall, design has a valuable position to fight for. And even though the objective qualities of the experience are valuable and important to the success of the business, so are those objective sides; so are the emotional state of the customer, the EQ of the customer, getting to know what their real motivations are, and their drives, and what's going to make them happy; and really, what is going to make this product stand out and be something that people love.

Those kinds of qualities often are not things that you can objectively measure. And design needs to stand up and say, "I'm going to represent those aspects of the experience that are a little softer, that are still important, and that still will make this thing something that people are going to love in the end."

Carl Smith: So when you went through and were building your teams at the different companies you were working at, what did you look for in the designers that you were hiring? And how did you instill this in them?

Josh Ulm: Yeah. I think that there's lots of qualities that are valuable for design. I myself, because I didn't go to design school, I don't necessarily put a lot of weight on the tactile production efforts of design. Like yes, I expect that everyone knows the tools of the trade and they're good at those things. But what's far more valuable to me is when a designer, A, can step outside of design and see a broader perspective, to step outside of the, "I was trained on Photoshop, or XD, or Sketch," or whatever these things are, "and I'm going to do that," and say, "No, your real job is to understand the motivations of the customer." And you'll find that designers are often trained in that. There is a skill base for understanding how you understand the customer, how you talk to the customer, how you understand what their motivations are; and then, how do you translate that back into the experience itself. I'd kind of like to say that the designer is the literal interface between the development and the customer itself, because they're building the interface.

So when the designer goes and creates a bunch of screens, for example, in some digital product, that screen that they developed is the literal interface between the customer speaking to the business, and trying to get their needs met. And the designer is responsible for that translation. So the designer needs to understand both, at the same time, the motivations of the customer as a human being, and the capabilities of the business, technically; and then do that translation through the UI. So the designer, while, yeah, they have to know the tools, they really need to understand both parts of that equation. They need to be able to relate humanly to their customer and be able to synthesize what their needs are. And they need to understand what the technology can do and how to make that manifest for another human to consume that.

So those skills are really, really important. It really isn't the, just, "How do we lay things out?" It is really the, "How does the technology work? And then how do I translate that into something that a human can really love?"

Carl Smith: Right. And the tools, you're absolutely right. We had a conversation at one point at another event, where we said, "How many people have fired somebody because of their skillset in the last year?" And like, no hands went up. We said, "How many people have fired somebody because of soft skills?" And all the hands went up.

Josh Ulm: Yeah.

Carl Smith: And those soft skills are critical if you're trying to connect with a customer and understand the needs of the company, because you have to get outside of yourself, right? You have to understand those things. So with those designers representing the customers, and I think it's a dangerous slope, because sometimes I'll see a designer waving the customer flag, and they're hiding behind it, but they didn't really connect with the customer. So how do you ensure, as a leader of that team, that that's the true customer's voice, not just somebody kind of defending their stance?

Josh Ulm: Well, and that's not just a designer problem. I mean, how many product managers come to you and say, "No, I'm the customer. I know this guy, really." I mean, that happens all the time. It's that we always are hiding behind something in the end. There's always some insecurity that we're compensating for, either because we don't have enough time, or because we're just getting lazy. Who knows what the reasons are? I think in the end, like for me, actually having relationships with customers is really important. And I'll cite a couple examples.

So when you're doing design, I think it's really important for a designer to actually have contact with the customer themselves. And depending upon the company, this may be easy or hard to do, and different companies have different ways in which they facilitate the relationship with customers. But for example, at Oracle, one thing that I asked was, every one of my designers had to know one of their customers by name. They actually had to know another human being, their name, and they had to be able to talk to that person and get feedback from that person. Well, at a giant enterprise like Oracle, that's actually kind of a hard thing to do. At a smaller business, it may be a lot easier to do something like that, to have that kind of connection.

But regardless of kind of the scale of your business, having some one-to-one feedback with a customer that's actually using it, that you can see, without all of the kind of middle process of, "Well, we did a questionnaire, and it went off into the cloud. And then some product manager took that, and they synthesized it. And then I got some data back, and then I'm going to have to interpret that," that's really not good enough. That really separates you too much. And a lot can kind of fall through the cracks. You can hide a lot in that, kind of the fog of understanding your customer. And so, I make sure that that connection is as tight as possible.

Another example is, I'm really, I love Adobe's XD product, in part because of the way that they've developed it. It was a real change for them to develop XD, because at the time, we had never really done a product built by and for customers as deep into the process as we did. We always had CABs, and advisories, and things like that for all of our products. But with XD we said, "We're really going to do this differently. We're going to build it with the community in mind and have them participate." And so we built up this really rich community; go and interact, and design, and get feedback constantly. And that's part of the reason why it took so long to get XD off the ground, was because we really wanted to get that deep collaboration with the customer going from the start.

And if you can do those kinds of things where the customer is really involved, then they are the ones really confirming that you're on the right track, and you're making something that they're going to need and love in the end.

Carl Smith: So really, it's the customer that needs a seat at the table.

Josh Ulm: Yeah, totally. That's a great way to put it. I think that's absolutely true.

Carl Smith: And since they're not going to show up, design has to be the one to sit there and represent what it is they're after.

Josh Ulm: Yeah. They really need to be an advocate. And if you get back to the three-legged stool, the reason why I think that's so important is because the other two legs of the stool, product and engineering, they have other completing goals. On the product side, they represent the business. They have to represent the business. There has to be somebody at the table that says, "No, wait a minute. We're not doing this because we're doing it for fun. We're not a charity. We have to make money doing this, so how do we make sure that that happens?" That's product's role.

Someone has to say, "Yeah, but we need to ship something. Someone has to get out the door, and we need to build this thing. It has to be performing. It has to work." That's engineering's job. And design, their role is to say, "Yeah, but people have to love this. They have to be able to understand it. They have to interact with it. It has to be meaningful to them." Design's role is to really raise the flag and say, "Yeah, but if the customer's not happy, then this thing isn't going to be successful." And they have to stand up and do that.

Carl Smith: And that gets to where you were saying before, about, you know, that designer has got to be ready to fight, because I remember we were working with a huge financial institution. And they were getting their ass handed to them, and they didn't know why. And I went out and spent about two weeks talking to their customers and came back. I was supposed to deliver this report. Instead, I said, "I'm just going to play you three quotes from customers, and I think you'll get it." And I did, and the head of the department was so furious. I thought I was going to get tossed out. And he goes, "I'm not mad at you. I just can't believe we never talked to our customers."

Josh Ulm: Yeah. It's kind of crazy, right? I mean we get away with a lot, without really kind of going deep, and especially now. I mean, I think that ... So I've spent a lot of time working with these larger enterprises. And for a lot of them, they, you know, not just the ones I've worked for, I think it's indicative of most of these businesses as they get larger and larger, is that they come into it with a real technological mindset. They're really trying to solve this very deep problem that's very difficult to solve. And that works for a while. But eventually, as these things become normalized, as they become simpler, as they become broader in scope, you realize more and more that the experience and the way the customer interacts with it is more and more important.

And you know, the way in which consumer products have already gone through this transformation of saying, "The consumer is really important, the experience is important," we recognize all of that. But in these larger spaces, in the platform spaces, in the enterprise spaces, it's just as important. We just kind of haven't gotten to it or recognized it yet. But there's, you know, people that use large-scale software, they want great experiences, too. They want to love their job. They want to love what they do. They want to be efficient. They want to be productive. They want to focus on the parts of the experience that are going to bring value.

One interesting thing that I think people don't realize is that most of the time that people spend in software is about getting back up to speed, maintaining things; figuring out where I was last, figuring out what I need to do next; instead of actually doing the thing. And I think that that's a really important design problem, is to say that design came come in. It can remove a bunch of the cruft that gets in your way and let you focus on the value that you bring as individuals. And so at all levels of development, that's a really important factor for design to take note of, is to say that we're trying to move people to where they can bring value to the company, not just be checking the clock and moving along.

Carl Smith: So in a lot of ways, design's job is to get out of the way.

Josh Ulm: I think it's certainly to help the customer get the things out of the way that they don't need. I mean, I certainly believe in the ... Design should be simple, and not put a lot of things on it. I mean, we also kind of say that. I got that very directly when I was in film school. I had my professors coming in, and looking at the stuff that I shot, and pointing at frames, and scenes, and props, and saying, "Why is that there? It's not helping your story. Get rid of it."

So I got that shoved down my throat from the very beginning, and I very much believe that. But at the same time, too, I also think that if your goal is simply to make something as simple as possible, you miss out on the notion of this experience being powerful, and being something that is exciting and something that is moving to people. Just making something simple isn't really interesting, in the end. I think that making something that is focused is much more valuable, and that's the word that I like to use; is just make sure you are focused on what the goals of the customer are, and then remove stuff to get to that. It may be that there's some complication that's necessary, or it needs to be intricate in some kind of way in order to address the needs of the customer. That's fine, just make sure that it's focused on what the purpose is.

Carl Smith: Well, and that gets back to being in there with the C-suite and saying, "We've got to be focused," because they've got so many thing scattering them as well.

Josh Ulm: And what are we doing? And why are we doing it? And why are our goals for that? I mean, I think that, again, the biggest question ... Like, when design says, "I want a seat at the table," the thing that really rubs me the wrong way about that is that I want to ask which table they're talking about, because design often just, it wants to be part of the product. And it wants to be sitting there when the product is defined. And I think most designers say, you know, "At the strategy point, when they decide what the product is going to be, I want to be there." And that's a good place to be.

But I think, more generally, what I would love, not just designers, but the entire business to keep in mind is that design is a way of solving problems. It's not a way of designing screens. I mean, it can be used for that and is very good at that, but I see design much more as just a way of understanding what someone's, what a human's needs are, and then designing the right solutions for that. Well, we need to do that throughout the business cycle; from the moment that we're choosing whether this business is going to be successful, and how it's going to get off the ground, and how we identify what the goals of the business are, all the way through to, "Okay, is that button in the right place?"

And an example I have of that is, if you're going to go and change your business model, say you want to change from a annual payment model to some kind of subscription model, which a lot of companies are doing these days, which I've done several times. That model is a business model change, right? And fundamentally, the company has to think about, "How are we going to make money? How are we going to report that revenue back to the street? How are we going to measure our success? How are we going to deal with the timing of all of that," on, and on, and on; in terms of like, is this company going to be successful by making that business change?

But that business change has a dramatic impact on the customer, their relationship to you, and the way that you're going to use your products. And unless design is part of that conversation, you're not going to be set up on the right foot to get into that, because you're not going to understand how the customer is going to interpret that. How are they going to translate it from the way that they understand their current workflow or business model, and how your change in business model is going to affect that. And so, design really needs to be throughout the entire process. And that's why design really needs to be part of that executive, C-level conversation. It needs to really be part of, how is the business going to move forward in order to be successful?

Carl Smith: I couldn't agree any more. And you know, I am just so glad that everyone listening to the show today got a chance to feel your passion. And I say that with no filter at all. This is part of why I'm so glad you're in our community and in the industry. And you know what? Just thanks for being here today, Josh. I truly, truly appreciate it.

Josh Ulm: My pleasure. I do, I love what I do. I love this business. I love doing design. And I'm really excited about just the continued impact that design can have on changing businesses. And I hope that, you know, designers see their role as more than just pushing pixels around. They are fundamental to the success of the business that they're a part of. And I encourage any designer out there to be bold, to be as bold as you can, and to trust yourself and trust your craft, because you're very important to the success of that business.

Carl Smith: There you go. And you better do it, because otherwise, I'm turning you over to Josh, and it's not going to be pretty. Thanks for listening today, everybody. And we will be back next week. We'll talk to you then. All the best.