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Product Innovation Leaders: Deanna Brown Aho, Innovation Catalyst


Deanna Brown Aho

“Innovate or die.” It’s one of many famous quotes attributed to management guru Peter Drucker. 3M, Apple, and many others serve as examples of innovation rescuing companies from the brink of extinction. But innovation shouldn’t just be a lifeline to a failing venture. It should be part of a company’s DNA that inspires and nurtures a culture and environment for creating products, processes, and business models that deliver new value.

Unfortunately, innovation too often gets swallowed by ongoing efforts to maintain existing product value. How do product leaders protect innovation, and why is innovation something that needs protecting? Who is responsible for innovation – if everyone is, no one is. These are some of the challenges we probe in our discussions with innovation leaders.

This week we sat down with Deanna Brown Aho. With a background in user experience and visual design, she has over 22 years of design and innovation leadership experience at organizations like Northeastern University, Cengage Learning, and most recently Quick Base. In this interview, Deanna discusses:

  • Focusing on making software invisible vs. creating memorable moments for your users
  • How much of product leadership is about refocusing attention on “doing the design thinking” versus just producing artifacts or outputs
  • Being measured by the quality of the experience rather than the deliverables
  • Striving for excellence but being able to sleep when it’s not “pixel perfect”

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Podcast Transcript

Richard: Tell me a little bit about your day. Tell me what your day looks like, what are the things on your to-do list and what’s the day in the life of Deanna.

Deanna: I’m in a very, very interesting situation at the moment. It’s not one I’ve been in in the past. What’s interesting about it is they brought me in to innovate, to push the product to the next level. The product is very profitable and also, extremely difficult to use. The conversion rate is 2% to give you some sense of how difficult it is to use. From someone trying it out, to actually deciding to use it is 2%. Interestingly the people who use it love it. The reason for that is it’s so difficult that when you actually accomplish what you’re trying to accomplish, you feel really proud. I know the product, I use the product and I have that same experience. The big challenge is how do you get an organization that is, understands they have a very profitable product to want to truly invest in innovation. Even though they hire people. They bring them in and they say they want to, showing a business case for that is difficult. Truly. Because what you’re investing in is not the present. You’re investing in the future and a lot of what we’re asked to do, and rightly so, is provide value quickly. My day includes a lot of talking to people. There’s always the fun design thinking and envisioning and those things, but most of my time is spent trying to help people understand the value of a long-term vision, a North star to go toward the cost of developing it, of figuring out what that is, and working back toward finding ways to add value along the way.

Richard: Let’s stay with those conversations for a second because I’m always very interested in what the conversation looks like. Is it something you do on a formal basis? Is it something you’re doing informally? Is it a combination of those things? How do you get the most out of those conversations?

Deanna: Well, it’s definitely both. Anyone who’s had any experience trying to convince a group of people knows you need to speak to the people individually ahead of time and try to get them onboard. There’s a word for that. I don’t know what it is.

Richard: Lobbying.

Deanna: Yeah, no, there’s actually I think a Chinese word or something that-

Richard: Oh, really.

Deanna: Yeah, anyway. It’s both. It’s really about at least … I’m most successful when my passion comes through. I’m here. This is what I’m here to do. I believe in it. I can see the vision. Right? I can see what delighted customer look like. I understand how that impacts a business. It’s a matter of learning how to translate that into different languages into language marketing understands into language finance understands into language that development understands. For instance, one of the things that I’ve been trying to get us to take on is a component library. That doesn’t seem like an innovation thing. That seems like a development thing, but actually if you’re trying to put forth a design language and lean development and lean design, you need a component library. It’s a huge investment. It’s not the way most development teams work.

Once you understand it it’s so obvious, but it’s a really hard sell. There’s a lot of people to convince to do it. I haven’t been successful yet. Everyone nods their head and says, Yeah, yeah. That’s great, but it’s not there yet. It’s mostly, I think, understanding, getting really clear about what the vision is. As an innovator, I come in I can start to put together a vision. Of course, I can’t do that by myself, but as it takes shape trying to … I guess the big thing that I bring is the ability to translate that into the languages that different people understand. Some people care about the customer. You want a culture. Everyone does, but not everyone thinks about that in their day to day.

Richard: Right. Staying on the topic of vision. You say you’re not responsible for creating the vision, but there is that, how should we say, shared responsibility for you to take the company vision and make sure that the product team has direction from that and understand what to do with that vision. That’s the translation you’re talking about?

Deanna: No, I don’t want to say I don’t have responsibility for the vision because I think that that is my responsibility. All I’m saying is I can’t do it by myself. Right? I need business people and I need sales people and I need engineering people and design people. We need everybody in the room to get that collective mind of who are users are and where the business is going. What is the competitive landscape? Where are the opportunities truly to win in the market? I’m a design thinking person, so yeah, I lead those conversations. To me, that’s the easy part and that’s really fun and people love that and people get engaged. It’s really the execution of that vision that is the challenge and takes a long time. It’s not as sexy. It’s really just … It’s business.

Richard: You’ve mentioned now twice, the time it takes to do those things. I’m assuming that patience is one of your strengths.

Deanna: Is patience a strength? Actually, I feel like … That’s interesting because no, I can’t be patient I have to be at least, like I was saying, adding value all the time. One of the things that … My background is experience design and visual design and one of the misnomers about our craft is we slow everything down. I’m very, very aware of that and do everything I can to make sure to change that perception, so even if yes we have this North star, I’m very focused on what we can do right now to push the needle forward and balancing that against what’s the cost of that to our future vision. Right? That could be as simple as, if we code this now without a component library we’ll have to remake it. Trying to understand those tradeoffs and helping other people understand them.

Richard: When you’re making those trade-offs, how are you balancing the day-to-day requirements, obviously, that an organization needs to iterate or move forward on a responsive basis, in terms of what your client needs are? But you’re also thinking way ahead to the future and thinking, Well, what is it that we need to do in a year or two from now? How do you balance those two things?

Deanna: Well, that’s the art of it. I don’t know if I always do it perfectly. I’m sure I don’t. You do the best you can and again, I don’t think it’s a one-man show. I think it’s really about the collective understanding of what’s best. I wouldn’t presume to say that I always know. I enjoy being part of a team who takes those things under consideration and takes a chance. One of things you can do to mitigate that is try to not make the risk so big, so take lots of small steps, but keep stepping. That’s the key.

Richard: Can you give us an example of that?

Deanna: Believe it or not, this 15-year-old, very successful product has an extremely lousy mobile experience. There is no mobile vision. We have a users conference and every year we keep hearing, We need a better mobile experience. We want to have great modern, mobile, clean, a modern experience, one that is out of your way, that is just does what you expect it do to. But that’s a long way off. We need to move forward somehow and what we decided to move forward with was, basically, imitating what the desktop version does on the phone. Anybody who designs for mobile would cringe at that.

Richard: Right.

Deanna: It’s not a mobile.

Richard: Not best practice.

Deanna: It’s not a mobile solution at all, but it really satisfies this noisy band of people. This 2% who are loving the product and really using it. It’s just exactly what they need right now. That is a step forward. It’s kind of a step sideways maybe. It doesn’t feel good to someone like me. Except for the fact that people are excited. A lot of conversation goes into that. A lot of … this is going to be throwaway work. All of those things, but we are stepping forward and we are meeting the customer’s needs.

Richard: That’s interesting, so stepping forward as a narrative for progress doesn’t always have to be innovative. It just has to be stepping forward.

Deanna: Absolutely. One of the other real hard things here is to decide when to innovate and when not to. Not everything needs to be special.

Richard: Yep.

Deanna: Getting at where do we invest that innovation dollar or passion or whatever those things, whatever that currency is and where do we not? I did a project recently that I had in my mind there was a better way to do a calendar. I just really, C’mon a calendar. Really? There’s gotta be a more interesting mobile first way to do a calendar. No matter how hard I pushed it in research, everybody just wanted a calendar. Even though I felt like that would be a real breakthrough thing, really, it’s not the right place. There were better opportunities than a calendar to innovate.

Richard: The idea that something has to be innovative in order for it to get people’s attention seems to have been a distraction for a lot of product people. I think many of them are trying to do too much when what the customer base really wants is for them to just be reliable or consistent. Again, this might sound like the same question, but it’s mostly related to the experience creation or those moments. How much do you feel like your job is creating memorable moments within a product experience versus just shipping experiences that are consummate with keeping the norm as it is or just keeping expectations in line?

Deanna: I think the norm where it is and expectations in line are really different, really far apart from each other. I would always want to keep expectations in line. I actually don’t, I don’t want to make memorable moments in software. I want software to be invisible. I want it to play with your expectations and just do what your mental model thinks it ought to do. In a way, if it’s memorable, it’s kind of given you a cognitive kick. There might be times for that. It wouldn’t be what I would strive for. I think you can still innovate without creating a memorable moment.

Richard: Your experience as a product lead of somebody driving experience creation has been, for the most part, in larger organizations at least the last, I don’t know, five years or so. How do you find the challenge of creating new experiences in existing environments where there is inertia or, Hey, this is the way we’ve been doing business, or, This thing is very profitable, so why break it or change it or change it. Where do you find the most useful set of experience skills or product management skills come to bear on that conversation. How do you get your agenda and the agenda of the better experience across an organization like that?

Deanna: It’s all about the leadership. It’s all about the culture. At Cengage Learning, they were trying to bring in a culture of innovation and I was able to build a little village unto myself that we built that muscle memory and we taught, I taught everyone how to do it and part of it is just understanding the mindset, understanding how easy it is, understanding that it doesn’t have to take forever. Getting everybody to understand what it feels like to delight your user. I know that word is so overused, but when a developer’s built something and they get the direct feedback from someone using it, it’s career-changing.

Richard: Right.

Deanna: A lot of times people don’t get that. That’s one of things that I would recommend anyone ever do is really, really learn to love and know your user and partner with them for everybody. Everybody has to … the culture has to love the user. The culture has to deeply, deeply care. Then it’s easy to share ownership. That vision is shared. It’s not that nobody’s in charge. It’s just that everybody wants to win. That’s how I’ve been successful, but it’s very, very difficult to do that without the leadership buying in.

Richard: What are the ways that you’ve helped that feedback loop happen? You’ve spoken about learning to love your user and valuing that feedback. These engineers and design people actually getting a kick out of seeing the kind of work that they’re … the effect or the experiences that their work is creating. Is there a better way to get that feedback back into your team? Are there little secrets or best practices that you would recommend?

Deanna: Well, if you know of any I’d love them. I don’t think it’s rocket science. I think it’s … It can be FaceTime. I guess it doesn’t have to be FaceTime. One of the things we did in this particular group that was very successful and it wasn’t meant to do anything. It was just our product was … We got connected with sales and when a big sale was made they were in our Slack channel and they posted, Just sold 20,000 copies of this, and the QA guy got up on a whiteboard and started tallying how many were being sold. That was huge.

Richard: Wow.

Deanna: When I was at the sales conference, I took a few videos of people using it and just put that on the Slack channel. I don’t think it has be real formal. It just has to be inclusive or regular or maybe making it formal is what slows it down.

Richard: Yeah, yeah.

Deanna: I don’t know.

Richard: Interesting.

Deanna: Also, with regard to most things, I hate documenting stuff. I feel like everything is for right now. What’s its value right now? I recently introduced Rainbow Spreadsheets to my team. Are you familiar with those?

Richard: No, I don’t think so.

Deanna: They’re really, really neat. The idea is it’s very, very lean. You have a paper prototype or something. You show it to five people. It’s sort of a grid. What did people say and you can look at the grid. You can act on it, in terms of making design decisions and then you throw it away.

Richard: Oh, okay. Like Snapchat for documentation?

Deanna: It is, but it’s not documentation because you don’t even need to keep … It’s really just a method to quickly gather and visualize design input. Leaning always toward just, What do I need to know right now, and moving forward quickly and not taking all that time to document it.

Deanna: I guess I’ve fallen into these places where research is slow and it’s all about documenting it and analyzing it and I believe in holistic research. Don’t get me wrong, but when you’re trying to move quickly and you’re trying to make a decision, Should this be blue or green, probably you’re not going to do research on that, but how can I quickly get an answer and just throw it away. I think the same is true if you had that principle through everything. How does this matter right now to this group of people? People remember it.

Richard: Yeah. It’s interesting you say that because it’s very often the act of researching, not the research itself that brings forth the insight as much as the act of designing versus the final output is the process by which you derive value or solve the problem. It’s interesting that you point that out because it makes me wonder how much your project management or the leadership that you speak of is about refocusing people’s attention on the doing of the thinking. In other words, the doing of design thinking versus just producing artifacts or outputs.

Deanna: Yeah, I love the way you said that. I think we who do it that’s what we love about it is those … is being in the moment. It’s solving that problem right now and having the right influence knowing, having the confidence that what we’re learning about it is the stuff we need to be learning right now.

Richard: It’s the age old question of, how should I put it, it’s almost like the student mind or the apprenticeship mind. In the work that you do, leaders like you are constantly bringing the attention of your team to that mode of thinking and away of just producing artifacts.

Deanna: That’s another reason why I think artifacts need to be leaner also. Documentation, writing specs, nobody should be writing specs anymore. I’ve had this conversation a lot where I work now. Not everyone agrees. Maybe you can’t if you’re not set up the right way. Obviously, if your development team is in another country, it might be difficult to not write specs. I’ve just been feeling really burdened by the level of work that gets done that doesn’t drive anything forward.

Richard: Right. Right. Then I guess those two things are connected where you can document or anticipate an output set that will be judged as the value of your team’s output. Where in fact, the immeasurable intangible parts of the work that they do are the things that bring the most value. I guess leaders like you may not be able to solve that problem easily because it may be a assistant issue with the way that teams are structured. It seems to think a design thinker’s dilemma. How do I put a value on design thinking when what outsiders to design thinking are judging are the artifacts of that process?

Deanna: Right. That’s really key and finally understanding how do we measure success is part of our conversation as well. I feel like for a long time the design side of things was separate from that. We didn’t really have to measure our success except that we delivered on time and delivered something that was build-able. But getting tied in to the success of the product, the NSP score-

Richard: Right.

Deanna: … or things like that help us … free us up from being measured by deliverables and being measured by the quality of the experience. That’s a change.

Richard: One last question and then I’ll let you go, when you’re putting a team together with all of these things we’ve discussed in mind, what are you looking for … whether you’re inheriting a team or actually starting from scratch, what are you looking for in that team that’s going to help you get these things done?

Deanna: Definitely a willingness to fail. I guess talking in clichés a lot, but that’s why they become cliché. Right?

Richard: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Deanna: One of things that I had to learn recently was … It wasn’t that recent anymore, being able to sleep when it’s not perfect. Striving for excellence of course. Being okay with, We can go with this for now. That’s hard, especially brought up in the design world. We love pixel-perfect and when I see people describe that in a job description, Do you love pixel-perfect? I almost … I do, but I’m not sure that’s the right place for us to be anymore.

Richard: That’s interesting, so you’re saying that not just from the perspective of your team or your company, but also a generalized perspective of where we are in terms of digital product.

Deanna: Absolutely. I’m just thinking of that as I said it. I read it yesterday actually, Do you love pixel-perfect design? I absolutely do and in fact, I cringe when it’s not, but it’s not the mindset you need to win in the market. It doesn’t mean you don’t strive for it, you don’t fight for it, but I don’t think it is the measure of success.

Richard: That’s very insightful. Very, very insightful.

Deanna: Basically, people who can laugh a lot, have a sense of humor, move forward, not take it all too seriously, but love their craft. Of course, you take it seriously, but it’s hard. If you take everything personally, you’re going to be crushed.

Richard: Yeah. I like that you say a sense of humor. I recently read a book called Deep Survival and it’s a generalized survival, it’s not specifically adventurous or soldiers or anything like that. It’s a book about who gets through these challenges in life with some measure of self intact and one of the key components is a playfulness or a sense of humor about even the most serious things. Often referred to as gallows humor in some parts, having a sense that it doesn’t have to be perfect. That you are going to manage to deliver value even if you have a sense of humor about it. You don’t have to always be stone-faced about all the work you do. I like that.

Deanna: I think that is the hardest part for us designers is to, I never liked the term good enough, I don’t think that’s the right way to put it, but like you just said, delivering value to our customers is really the prime thing, not a portfolio piece.

Richard: Very cool. Well, Deanna, this has been a delight. I think there’s probably like 15 things that you said that are immediately Tweetable.

Deanna: Good. Good.

Richard: Thank you, Deanna.

Deanna: All right. Bye.

Author Richard Banfield

As CEO, Richard leads Fresh Tilled Soil’s strategic vision. He’s a mentor at TechStars and BluePrintHealth, an advisor and lecturer at the Boston Startup School, and serves on the executive committees of TEDxBoston, the AdClub’s Edge Conference, and Boston Regional Entrepreneurship Week.

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