Q&A with Irene Au

You studied human interaction design at a time when the field didn’t exist. What inspired that?

I’ve always loved gadgets, computers and technology. I was pursuing a graduate degree in electrical and computer engineering, but it felt like all the students around me were building technology for the sake of technology. They didn’t have any kind of perspective on how tech could be useful for people or how society might be influenced by it.

I became very disillusioned by the path I’d chosen and coincidentally, around that time, I discovered an entire field of study called engineering psychology and human factors. The field was based on the idea of human cognition. For instance, how can you inform the design of airplane cockpits so you could reduce pilot error? Human-computer interaction was born out of this and was based on how people think, process information and what motivates them.

How could we use these principles to drive and inspire the design of computer software and technology? It was really early back then and very few places allowed you to major in it. I wound up transferring into the department of chemical and industrial engineering and created my own program that drew from courses in computer science, engineering and psychology.

What was technology at that time?

We were focused mostly on software: Windows 3.1, CD-ROMs. Wow, I sound like a dinosaur. The web was very young; we were in the days of Mosaic. It was a very exciting time because I was at the University of Illinois, where NCSA Mosaic was developed. U of I was really at the forefront of moving information to the web. It also seemed like a lot of the cutting-edge research really revolved around the web: visualizing server traffic, using 3-D interfaces that were completely immersive, etc.

Was there a defining moment in your career? How did it shape you as a designer?

The first defining moment was when I realized there was an opportunity to even do this kind of work. I was flipping through my computer architecture textbook by John Hennessy, and I found a graph in that illustrated Fitts’ Law. It looked at human performance as a function of the design and showed how big the target was. My reaction was, “Oh, my gosh. There’s this whole field of study where people research this kind of stuff.”

Later, when I was working at Netscape, the focus was on creating the software; it wasn’t so much about Netcenter and websites, it was more about creating the viewfinder for the web. At some point I realized that the more interesting design challenges of the day were around the content. That’s when I decided to switch to designing the applications that would be featured inside the web browser, rather than designing the browser itself.

You’ve worked at some of the most influential consumer Internet companies from Netscape to Yahoo to Google. How do you think design thinking has evolved over the course of your career?

The way we think and talk about design has gotten a lot more sophisticated. It’s largely thanks to people in this profession who have coined the phrase “design thinking,” which didn’t exist 20 years ago. Now, there’s a mental model for what that means. It’s becoming so pervasive that some people just call it regular thinking, like that’s just the way they see the world, which is great. We’ve hit true success when everybody starts thinking like a designer.

The profession has made a lot of inroads in that sense. More and more people understand what it means to think like a designer; what it means to start with users first and understand their needs, and then create an experience that meets those needs.

Then, there’s the process of design: rapid prototyping, feedback and iterating. The web has enabled much of the rapid development cycles, and that certainly has changed. When I started in the field, much of the focus was on software development, where we produced shrink-wrapped software. The development cycles were much longer, so you had to invest a lot more time and energy in prototyping and getting feedback before you shipped anything to users. Iteration cycles today are faster. You also have different functional groups, engineering and product management, also thinking in the same way around constant change and iteration, all based on user feedback. There’s more widespread adoption and embracing of these concepts.

Outside of other designers’ work, what are some of your influences?

I’m heavily inspired by mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation. There’s a connection between mindfulness practices and design on several levels. For instance, just the physical practice of yoga frees the body and liberates the person from their ego in a way that allows them to be more playful, creative, open and empathetic, which are really critical for effective design.

Another example is the concept of non-attachment: You just do the best you can in the moment that you have without attachment to the outcome. This allows you to create without fear of judgment or failure, which is so critical and necessary for design. This philosophy and way of being in the world makes designers better designers.

I also really value just being present with other people, where you can actually relate to their experience and feel true empathy for whatever they’re experiencing. That understanding informs, inspires and drives better design: you’re able to more effectively design for other people. A lot of design inspiration comes from human observation and empathy.

How would you describe your own personal style?

As a designer, I go for cleanliness, simplicity and timelessness. As a leader, I’m focused on building great teams and creating the conditions for others to be successful. My design practice is not driven by force of personality or ego, but by great practices, talent and processes.

Entrepreneurs ask all the time, “How do you recruit a great designer?”

Good designers will be drawn to inspiring missions and companies where they feel they can do great work. It’s really important to create an environment where design can be successful. There’s so much involved in that, but those are the basic principles. Can the designer connect with what the company is trying to do, the big picture? And can they do great work they’ll be proud of?