Culture Amp Product Designer Dan Wearne talks about product design.
Edited for grammar and syntax
Bronwen Clune: Welcome to the Culture First podcast, I'm Bronwen Clune, Director of PR and and Comms, and I'm here with David Ostberg, our Head of Insights. We've got a special guest today, Dan Wearne, who's our Product Designer from our Melbourne office, he's visiting us here in San Francisco. Welcome to the show, Dan.
Dan Wearne: Hi guys.
David Ostberg: I don’t know a whole lot about your background and how you wound up in the world of design and how you wound up in Culture Amp. Would you mind just walking us through that?
Dan Wearne: It wasn't a very traditional path to this job, and meeting the guys and getting into design in general. In my undergrad I started programming, and it wasn't until four years of that that I realized I wasn't a programmer. It was a pretty expensive HECS bill.
Bronwen Clune: HECS is what we pay for college or university in Australia.
Dan Wearne: I finished the degree It’s turned out to be a bit of a blessing in disguise because in the field that I work in in particular, interface design, you have to sort of know how things are built as well as just designing them, so it's worked out, but it was a bit of anxiety straight after university.
Bronwen Clune: How do you go from being a programmer to a designer? They kind of feel like the left, right brain that exist in competition with each other. Did you just decide one day you liked the look of things?
Dan Wearne: No, design has always sort of been here from my high school standpoint, more of a hobby, less a serious consideration as a career. I suppose interface design, or UI design is new insofar as 10 years ago there wasn't really any tertiary education for it. You find a lot of people who work in the field are a mix of programming and design sort of interests, the engineers have a bit of design now as well so it's still formative, the field in general.
David Ostberg: What were you interested in before university? In terms of art and design, you said it was a hobby, what were you into?
Dan Wearne: In my high school it wasn't a strength, so we only had one class for it, it was called Vis Com, Visual Communication. It was mainly just a lot of elementary industrial design, you typically design a car or packaging for something. I was always handy with software like Photoshop, Illustrator, Flashback when it was a thing, before Apple killed it. Then, like I said, it was never a real serious consideration, I found it fun, but … you didn't have a lot of design companies so it wasn't very clear to see how those skillsets would transfer to something that I was ambitious about.
Melbourne co-working space Inspire 9 as the incubator for the Culture Amp concept
Bronwen Clune: You are also working out of the same co-working space where Culture Amp was kind of born. Is that how you came to know the guys and came to work with Culture Amp – and by guys we mean the founders and Jason McPherson who's our Chief Data Scientist, kind of the original team around Culture Amp.
Dan Wearne: Yeah, I had a close friend in university and early we decided we weren't going to take jobs straight away, we were going to do our own thing. That was because we were a little bit insubordinate or had a healthy disrespect for authority maybe, but pretty much straight after university we were looking at ways to take on a bit of work. He was a programmer, I was more designing for clients. We were just doing small websites for small businesses, just landing pages and stuff like that. We didn't have a lot of income in the first year, so we were looking at frugal ways to have an office, a bit of office presence.
Co-working back then wasn't a huge thing in Melbourne. It might have been in San Francisco and the Valley and stuff but this would have been around 2010, 2009. We stumbled across a co-working place called Inspire 9, they have been a long part of the culture and history. I think I joined there around the same time that Jon and Doug did, two of the founders of Culture Amp. They were doing their own thing called Jodoro, right?
Bronwen Clune: Yeah, I think that was their original startup yeah.
Dan Wearne: I wouldn't be able to tell you much about Jodoro, it was some software that Jon and Doug built. It was their sort of startup venture once they left their jobs. We were the youngest at this co-working place by a fair margin, we would have been in our early twenties. I think it's fair to say not all of the guys took us all that seriously, we were a bit cheeky, we didn't have a lot of work in the first year. That changed mainly because of this community, they got around us and it was great.
Bronwen Clune: What made you give up wanting to do your own thing and come into Culture Amp? I imagine that was a pretty big step for you?
Dan Wearne: Yeah, we believed initially that we wanted to do our own thing and run our own agency, we had a lot of ambitions around that, but once we got stuck into it, it was less about building a really cool product and more about managing clients, and we were warned about this, but it's the kind of lesson you maybe have to learn by yourself. One of our first jobs was with Culture Amp. When Jon and Doug joined this working space, they had talked Rod into leaving his job and joining them, it was around this time that Didier came for me to stay. From the get-go wanted to meet some co-founders.
It was his mission to start a company with some smart people and I'd say it was within the first two weeks of them all being in the same room together that we saw that they moved all this stuff around one desk, which we thought was pretty humorous at the time.
Six years later, it's obviously worked out well for them. But yeah, Didier saw something in me and my friend, Christian, at the time and he walked over and said, "we'd like you to design our first website." So, I mean, if you use Way Back Machine you'd be able to find it, but that was one of our first projects, it was contract work for Culture Amp.
David Ostberg: What were a couple of the core projects that you first were focused on, and what did you think when you were first interacting with the Culture Amp tool, and the product, all the interface – what did you feel were the big needs in terms of where things needed to go?
Dan Wearne: We were just trying to take on any work that we could, and because of the nature of this co-working space, it was all startup type stuff, and they were all at the time solving similar problems in communicating analytics or workflows and logging in. Once we started doing more and more of this, we started to find that we were good at it, compared to the branding and marketing type work that was going around at the time. It wasn't for a few years that I took my job with Culture Amp. I think maybe March last year I came on full time. There were a few years between when I first contracted for them, and I was contracting for other people in the space and other startups in Melbourne, before I really dove into the problem that Culture Amp was facing.
Bronwen Clune: Dan, at the moment you work very closely with product and on the product, is that right?
Dan Wearne: Yeah.
Bronwen Clune: I think that's one of the things about a company that grows rapidly, you don't always know what everyone's doing at the same time.
Dan Wearne: It's like that, yeah.
Bronwen Clune: You really are the person who leads the charge on the experience of our customers with our product. For those who don't know, the first bit of interaction people have is with the survey, and then afterwards with reports as well. How do you make something like surveying sexy? I guess I should probably preface that with the more people in a company that take a survey, the more insight people gather from that. That's a pretty fundamental part of making what we do work. Is there a general philosophy you've developed on how to do this? What's been your learnings?
Accessibility, functionality and empathy in software design
Dan Wearne: Between my two contracts, my two contracts working with Culture Amp years ago, and then more recently before I came on full time, there were two definite experiences. The initial one, I would liaise with Didier a lot around the marketing side and he would communicate to me what his vision was, what he thought would sell, what we both thought would work and how to effectively communicate the messaging and all that kind of stuff. The next time I contracted with Culture Amp it was a lot more sitting down with customers and actually defining the problem.
It evolved very much from what we initially thought was a software problem, our site looked like a lot of other software tech sites at the time. I feel a few companies have done this, if you look at their website from a few years ago, it was very much a feature and software sort of sell and now it has more of an aspirational type tone to it. It terms of making the interface sexy, it was less about it being sexy and more about it being accessible and functional. Because these are the issues that employees feel strongly about.
Naturally you want things to be easy to use of course, but accessibility and sitting down with customers and finding out their pain points, working through the flaws, making sure that there were less stall points throughout the whole process became a hard priority. We aspired to be empathetic in the first execution, but it was a little bit of a closed conversation between me and the client, then the next time it was much more around engaging with the people using it. That's probably been more across the board, environmentally, not just within Culture Amp, but software design, interface design across the board has moved towards more of this empathy.
David Ostberg: What does that mean exactly, how can you express empathy through a software product?
Dan Wearne: I don't know if this answers your question or not, but a lot of companies use chat tools, I won't name them, but I think there's a big one everyone's using now. It turned our scene in interface design towards this, I found it talks a lot about high bandwidth communication, so when you're standing with a person they can read your eyes, and your face and your body language, and they can receive all these other things other than just the words that you're saying.
At the other end of the spectrum you've got chat software, which is a big communication tool within a lot of workplaces within small teams. They're now adding some OG functionality to it, which has increased the bandwidth from just the words that you're saying to what you're feeling in response to those things. I feel like it's added another layer of communication and empathy to the tool in terms of who you are, or communication. No one designed that, that was just a trend in the way chat tools have been used, we've seen Twitter lean towards that now, and Facebook adding more than just the like button and always having other emotive functionalities. Empathy is really trending at the moment in terms of that stuff.
Bronwen Clune: I guess the other challenge for you that I often think about is we deal in fairly complex ideas. David, you can probably talk to this a little bit better, but when it comes to helping people access the insights and the data and stuff, how important has it been for you to come to understand what people are looking for rather than just a nice looking report sheet. Has it been a journey for you in understanding what it is people are trying to get out of Culture Amp, what insights they really want and the way we present them?
An interface update is about more than just a makeover
Dan Wearne: Very much. When I first came along, because no designers had really worked on the interface until me. The software had matured over a few years so there were a lot of patterns already set. There was a lot of temptation to just update things to make them look really nice, once we did that over a few months, and I'd been working on the reporting section pretty much my entire time at Culture Amp, within a few months I realized the bigger problems to solve were less about interface or the veneer of the reporting section and more the messaging around what it is we're trying to communicate.
Especially because we gather so much data, quantitative and qualitative. We're about to address the qualitative stuff with data analysis and text analytics. It should be ready by the end of the quarter. No.
Bronwen Clune: No, it won't be.
Dan Wearne: Even the quantitative stuff, it meant that my relationship with the Data and Insights team has been strengthened a lot. I would sit down a lot with Jason and say, "we've got access to these numbers, which ones are important and why?" And that steered a lot of the product design in the last six months or so, we've moved towards really emphasizing comparative stuff. For instance, there's factors that don't write well at all. You might able to correct me, Dave on this, like compensation, there's a human psychology around how you answer those questions. An arbitrary number between 60% and 80%, like, what does that mean?
It was at that point that we started focusing the product not just on the benchmarks, but historically to other departments, this kind of thing. That steered the product design of a lot of the reporting stuff.
David Ostberg: Is there anything that you felt you really wanted to be able to put into the product or the interface that got hacked?
Dan Wearne: There's a lot. Again, that has a lot to do with my relationship with the customers, and meeting and talking with them, and me understanding, moving away from being a software problem and more of a messy people problem. I had a lot of misconceptions around the kind of users that were in HR and people analytics. I thought it was sort of an older, senior HR, but going into a lot of offices you start to see a lot of these tech savvy, energetic people working in this area that really understand not just statistics, but other things like this.
I was getting fancy, we had something in our reporting section called driver impact, driver ...
David Ostberg: Analysis, yeah, impact analysis.
Dan Wearne: Yeah, it's moved from drivers to analysis. We were trying to communicate that effectively, I had little diagrams of correlation graphs for those that I really believed looked real sexy.
David Ostberg: I want to see those.
Dan Wearne: But they didn't test well and people were finding it confusing and it's a bit of a give and take process, trying new things and living by our culture of learning through feedback, being vulnerable, all this kind of stuff, at times that's as much part of the journey as getting it right. But yeah, to answer your question, I had little correlation diagrams. The initial diagrams of ability breakdowns, and the reporting section used to be much more prominent and less colorful. There were these big gray scale things that looked real beautiful but functionality fell by the wayside. Almost everything that's made it into the reporting section now has been iterated on several, several times.
The increasing recognition of design’s impact on a product
Bronwen Clune: Dan, I know one of the things that has been a challenge a little bit for designers in our company is that we were founded by four engineers. Particularly in startups, because companies are so quick to execute, the function of design is something that gets left behind until the last minute and everyone's like "turns out we want to make this accessible, we want to make this pretty". That's never something that's of great value in the beginning. Has that been something we've experienced in the company, can you talk to that at all?
Dan Wearne: The co-working space that we all met at, I was one of the only designers, there were a lot of tech startups, a lot of engineers. All the founders – Didier's not exactly an engineer … actually he is, isn't he?
Bronwen Clune: He is an engineer. He's a jack of all trades really.
Dan Wearne: I always understood that they believed in the design process. And it's evolved again, over, in the last four, five years, design used to be a resource, they used to toss something over the department fence and they would just sort of deal with it, and [now] it's more towards these cross-functional collaborative takes. There's only five designers now in the company. We're hoping to increase that ratio of designers per engineer from 10 to one to five to one. We're trying to identify our culture as a design team. I suppose it's that tandem between a product manager design lead, and a tech lead that we all know and believe can produce really good work.
I remember initially thinking that I'd just get the rounds on the board and everyone would just let me do what I want. That's been a bit of a growing process as well because the talent we have here in the engineering department here is world class, and they're very eager to collaborate with us. I always get a bit of stick for pigeonholing people as techs or designers, everyone should be sort of a Venn diagram of all three but it's very much those personality types that I identify with in those sections, where they get the best work done.
Aligning engineers and designers to achieve goals
Bronwen Clune: Do you want to touch on a bit about the culture of the design team, because I mean, this is the Culture First podcast, it's something we all talk about in the company, the difference often between something like design and tech is it's so outcomes driven, how do you develop a Culture First approach to those sorts of things?
Dan Wearne: One of the other forces acting on that as well is company size. A lot of designers don't work in company sizes that have four, five hundred people whereas a lot of the engineers are comfortable in that structure. Agencies can range from 10 people to 100 effectively, and all our designers have worked in a range of companies that have been those sizes. We've focused a lot in the last six months on what exactly our design culture is with a lot of support and trust from the founders and leadership around finding that, we've been going to conferences, we speak to a lot of people.
One of the most exciting times, I was speaking to Jon [one of the Culture Amp’s founders] about how Facebook scaled their culture. He advised us it was around focusing on the team aspect and then rolling that out instead of ruling with an iron fist from the top, it's very much “get your smaller teams of engineers and designers working together, align their goals,” and it's stuff we've all been told before but until you hear it from someone as influential as that … it was enough for us to get it back.
That was only a few months ago, after the Semi Permanent conference. We start going through the process of identifying our design culture and then having aspirational goals from a year or two from now when we know we're going to keep growing.
Bronwen Clune: I think It sounds like we're in really good hands Dan, and I can't wait to see what the next iteration of Culture Amp looks like.
David Ostberg: Yeah, to see what happened over just the last nine months has been really impressive and I know the most recent release of the all new reporting interface has been really well received and it's really user friendly, and accessible, and so much information, just in a visual presentation, it's great.
Bronwen Clune: We'll wrap up in a minute, but I'd be interested in [hearing] what's been your proudest achievement at your time at Culture Amp. Is there anything that stands out as something like "we nailed that one?"
Dan Wearne: It's been moving so crazily it's hard to stop and pause and give yourself a pat on the back. In general, probably a bit of a cop-out answer, but just how much the interface has changed in my time there, which is unusual for founders who have built the software from the ground up to relinquish that kind of control. There's always been a lot of trust from the fore-founders around where this application can go and how it can be communicated. We've been given full rein.
There's been a few speed bumps on the way but overall I'm really proud of the branding that Designer Nicole Dominic has done and how we've been able to roll that out across the experience and the app, not just the capture experience but the reporting section especially. I haven't worked on a lot of projects where we've been given a license to be this ambitious and achieve as much as we've achieved in the last 12 months.
David Ostberg: You've done great work.