Daniel is an experienced designer and entrepreneur who works on branding, product design, and product strategy. He is well known for his work as Design Partner at Google Ventures, Firefox, Digg, and life sciences company Calico.
Randy: We would like to welcome Daniel Burka to The Innovation Series. In your career, you have worked with companies of all sizes and flavors, if you had to pick one common trait that disruptive leaders need to have in order to succeed, what would it be?
Daniel: Thanks for having me Randy. One trait that I always admire in founders is the ability to have "strong opinions weakly held." No one ever got into the business of entrepreneurship without a great deal of confidence. You left a comfortable job to start a new venture and you somehow convinced some other people— employees, co-founders, investors—to join you on this crazy mission. Lots of people told you that you were crazy and you'd never succeed. In the face of this, most founders are adept at pushing back at anyone who cautions that they might be wrong. Many of the truly great founders that I've worked with don't let this go to their head. They balance the hubris of trying something that's never been done before with the humility of knowing they could be wrong. This balance is hard to achieve but it's really a sweet spot for innovative founders.
Randy: The SPRINT process you helped develop at GV has seen great success across the industry as a way for teams within large and small companies to test ideas quickly, how do you keep it fresh and figure out new ways to approach problem solving?
Daniel: Great question! The risk of using a process like a design sprint is that you have a useful hammer and you can start thinking that every problem is a nail. Design sprints are excellent at evaluating the directional possibility of an idea. But a design sprint isn't the only tool in our toolkit. We've started developing better processes for research, for branding, and for hiring teams, and we often apply those as needed into a sprint. There are a few fundamentals to doing sprints that we rarely change: gathering a diverse team, moving rapidly, and actually testing with customers. But within that framework, we're constantly trying new methods.
Randy: I know from previous conversations we’ve had that you are a big proponent of leveraging user research to inform product strategy, can you talk about why you believe this is important and how you do it?
Daniel: I often think of user research as one of our best secret weapons at GV. Companies tend to grossly over-estimate their knowledge of their customers. Over and over again, we talk to teams who speak very confidently about their customers' perceptions of their product but the only evidence is anecdotal or just best guesses. I've been designing for twenty years and I'm less and less confident that I can predict how customers will react to something I create. Research is incredibly useful; first to build a foundation for ideation, and second to rapidly validate your product choices. A lot of great startups are conducting scrappy research constantly, which means that instead of driving into the ditch all of the time, they're course-correcting constantly and mostly staying on the road.
Randy: With all that's going on with your team in the realm of innovation and problem solving, what else should I have asked?
Daniel: I really wish you would have asked: "What exciting stories about innovation and design do you think are underplayed in the media?" I see a lot of press about innovation at consumer technology companies. But, what I think is underplayed and under-celebrated in the media and the technology industry generally is the work being done on long-term hard problems. There are a lot of product people and designers slogging away on improving things like electronic medical records, unsexy medical devices, financial tools for the underserved, 401ks, tools to make voting more accessible, and improving software at places like Veterans Affairs. That's just a few. It's fun to read and write about the next consumer app, but these other tools fundamentally affect millions, even billions of lives. I'm excited that there seems to be a trend that these types of stories are getting more exposure and I'm really hopeful that the conversation in the tech community starts recognizing the contributions of people working on these types of projects.