An Evening with Daniel Burka

Last Wednesday on October 12th, I attended An Evening with Daniel Burka, a seminar-style Q&A chat with the brilliant Daniel Burka, Design Partner at Google Ventures. It was hosted by the MFA in Interaction Design program at the School of Visual Arts (SVA). I recognized his name from the Design Disruptors documentary so when I saw this event on Twitter, I was thrilled! We had the privilege to ask whatever we wanted and the wisdom he shared was golden. Let me share eight quick hits of my takeaways. 

1. The best way to learn is by designing a lot
It can’t get more obvious than this. We could spend all the time in the world learning design theories and hearing people share stories but the best way to learn is by doing a lot of it. What’s even better is being surrounded by designers and non-designers who will provide solid and honest feedback. It’s important to appreciate that feedback and soak it all in as part of the learning process. This is the fastest way to grow as a designer.

2. Work on high fidelity prototypes
If we’re going to conduct tests with actual users, it’s significantly better to work with high fidelity prototypes and make it as real as we can. Testing with close-to-real artifacts yield solid results that are worth the extra minutes spent on creating high fidelity prototypes. When users interact with realistic prototypes, they provide unbiased insights that are actually useful and beneficial for the design and the business.

3. Brainstorming is a waste of time
Teams think they are collaborating when they brainstorm but it’s actually an inefficient use of time and limits creativity. At GV, they hold week-long design sprints (heck, they invented sprints!) where each participant comes up with his or her own ideas and then silently vote on their favorites. The emphasis is on silent because good ideas should stand on their own. This method is more efficient because they get a lot of ideas in a short period of time.

4. Ask the two most important questions
In order to bridge the gap between design and business, we need to ask two crucial questions: “What do you think of when you think of design?” and “What keeps you up at night?” As designers, our role is to bring people together and foster a sense of unity in the business. It’s also our responsibility to create solutions that add value for both users and the people running the company. Design is that bridge between a company’s vision and the users’ needs.

5. Never have a designer-only sprint
Bringing in non-designers and key decision makers from the company can be a real asset in the design sprint. When GV held a sprint to design the customer experience of ordering coffee from Blue Bottle, they included a customer service representative in that team who was extremely familiar with customers’ struggles. Non-designers bring in expertise that designers lack and adds significant value to the process of solving problems.

6. Prioritize the most important stuff
At GV, they invest in hundreds of companies, with 40% going into the life sciences, and work with them to break into new markets and create amazing products for their users. 5-day sprints are held so that teams can really prioritize the most important stuff. Sometimes, designers sweat the small stuff like typography and colors but the time constraints of a sprint helps them figure out what they need to focus on and work on those tasks.

7. Research is a secret weapon
There is a reason why design-centered companies do well. What’s their secret weapon? User research. Research is so fundamental to design. It’s the ultimate method of testing assumptions without investing massive amounts of time, energy and funds. It also allows designers to validate and solve big problems in a short amount of time with minimized risk. I love research-driven design and am a huge advocate for investing in it.

8. Be a generalist and do it all
I’m a generalist. A proud one. I can’t believe the amount of people out there who give out terrible advice on finding a specialty. Fuck that shit!” Those aren’t the exact words but you get it. I’ve received that advice before too and I hate it. If I have the capability, I want to learn and do it all. Design should be empowering, not limiting. We’re responsible for solving huge problems and can only do so by expanding our own toolkit.

I’ve been to many events but I find that candid Q&A sessions are the best. It’s always refreshing to hear industry leaders speak so passionately about design. That passion and enthusiasm was definitely contagious because I walked away feeling extremely inspired to start my own projects. I love that GV has perfected the way they design. It shows they truly care about solving problems for the companies they invest in and that design is a serious priority for them. I’m going to pick up my copy of the Sprint book now!




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