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Hans Guntren is the Co-Founder of and former Vice President of Product Design at Demandbase. He focuses on delivering customer value through AI and Machine Learning.

Hans is a veteran technology executive and board advisor with over 20 years of product design experience. He spent over a decade advising Silicon Valley technology firms and worked within IBM's Silicon Valley Lab, where he managed product design and oversaw a host of complex enterprise products. In addition to his experience with Fortune 500 companies, he helps early-stage startups develop their product vision and design.

In this episode, Hans and Yuriy discuss what's wrong with the trend of incorporating AI into products. They also talk about the graceful way of working with a design team and teaching young people that winning is not just about brute force.

Hans's background

Hans Guntren

Winning is not just all about brute force

​​Yuriy: Hans, what do you do in your work life? How do you describe the challenges you currently have? And as a design manager, how much is actually work and life balance?

Hans: Yeah, you know, it's gotten easier. I think when we're young, we often don't know what we don't know. And we try to compensate for that with brute force. If we work long enough hours, we'll inevitably win. And I think as you get some experience under your belt, you start to realize that winning is not necessarily just all about brute force. It's about being strategic in your decision-making and making good decisions early that pay dividends over the long term. And I think when it comes to building a team, for me, it's all about hiring. And if you hire amazing people who are smart and humble and driven, people that are truly motivated to build great products and help people, your life gets easier and easier as a product design leader. I've seen that firsthand where the team is so motivated to drive hard and win, they barely leave me anything to do. And that's a wonderful feeling. That's when I think you're really in a place of flow with your product and your team. And I've gotten pretty good at that. And honestly, I don't feel that it's ever an issue to balance work and life anymore. I'm outside of work, I'm a dad. I've got two teenage boys. I'm sure they would like more of my time, but I feel like we actually have lots of great quality time in addition to working hard.

The role of a design manager

Yuriy: So in the role of a design manager, do you think it's more a manager or a person who is focused on design? Because you can focus more on people management or focus more on design management. And there are a lot of different discussions going on.

Hans: Yeah. I mean, clearly, there are many different people with many different orientations, but for me, the product comes first. And again, I think the more you invest in hiring, the less you will have to invest in management over time. And I've seen that firsthand, the quality of the people that you work with dictates the quality of your life. And the value I have, I obviously can manage people, but the value that I have is really building products. And that's where I would prefer to spend the vast majority of my time is thinking strategically about where the product's going and how to get there and offering that vision to the team and building alignment so that people are working collectively towards that, I think is where most of my energy goes.

Yuriy: Perhaps you can call yourself a veteran in the design industry. You had the title of head of product design 24 years ago.From your point of view, how design changed and especially design management in business applications through all these years?

Hans: Well, it certainly changed a lot. I was fortunate to end up at IBM early on. And IBM had a pretty mature product design practice within its software group. And that's where I learned a lot. I started to realize there was a difference between information architects and visual designers, and researchers, and front-end developers. And I think that was just the beginning of the structure that we have today. A big shift in the industry that I saw was with the advent of the iPhone. I think that really cemented for all other software companies the value of great experience. People saw it firsthand and they held it in their hand and they recognized the difference in the experience between the iPhone and whatever they had prior to that. And it seemed like from that point forward, the product design practice was generally a formal part of every startup company that I had seen here in Silicon Valley. And that was nice. I no longer had to go in and explain the purpose and value of product design. People just get it.

Is design a commodity?

Yuriy: Do you think we are leading to a time when design will be a commodity, like just expected that every product should have good design, or it's still in the early stages and there's still a lot of work to be done, especially in B2B applications?

Hans: I think it's an evolution. It's a continuum. We are at that stage where I think it's universal. It's ubiquitous that people building software products understand user experience and the value of that. Not all folks understand the process. I do know of companies that just think, ‘Hey, if I have a product designer, I must be good, you know, and they don't invest in it as heavily as others.’ And that's changing too, I think over time, as with engineering or product management, product design will become a very rigorous and formal process, it already is. In terms of being commoditized, that's a really interesting question. I have a lot of thoughts about where the industry is going in relation to generative tech. There is already one year into this transition towards large language models, we already have tools that are generating experiences for us. And I have no doubt that that's gonna continue and those products are gonna become more and more valuable. And it's gonna be really interesting to see what that means for product designers. Our industry will change, and it's probably up to us to change with it.

Yuriy: Do you see it as a risk for our profession or an opportunity?

Hans: Certainly an opportunity. You know, we've gone through many revolutions over the course of humanity and they've all been good for us. And this is no exception. I think the risk or the challenge of it is the pace. You know, generally speaking, humans need time to adapt and I've never seen anything quite like this in terms of the speed of innovation. And so when I think about careers in general changing because of AI, that's the part that's a little bit unknown for me is like how will humans adapt quickly enough for the tools that are being created today?

The difference between consultancy and product work

Yuriy: You also have experience with consultancy. Early on. How do you see the difference between working in a consultancy and working on a product? And also, I know that you also advise some startups so there's still partially in consultancy. What's the difference in your job when you're consulting and when you are actually in the product?

Hans: Well, sometimes I describe consulting as being twice as hard. And then people say, well, why would I do it? And I say, well, it's also five times as fun. And I really enjoyed it primarily because it gave me visibility into so many different things all at once. Typically, I would consult for three or four companies at a time. And that's a bit like training to be an Olympic athlete because you're really forced to be thinking about different products, different spaces, different personas, different industries. And what I saw is that oftentimes the things that you're learning in one engagement are useful in others and you would not have thought of those if you weren't sort of jumping from project to project inside of a given day. It gives you an opportunity to cross-pollinate in a way that brings a lot of value to all the companies that you work on. And another benefit of it is that it really got me over any fear or anxiety that I had about working on something new. I think when you go work for a company, spend five years there, however long you spend, then you leave, it's like, my gosh, and now I gotta start from scratch. And if you spend a few years consulting, you're starting from scratch all the time, over and over again. You're really exercising that muscle, whatever it is, and you completely lose your fear of it. And that's a kind of a superpower, I think, because each day there's something new that you have to tackle. And if nothing scares you, I think you can do a better job.

The biggest mistake in integrating AI into products

Yuriy: We recently had an interesting chat with my team about different types of R&D in design. Everybody knows that you have to do research before you start. And usually when we talk about research in design, it's about user research. So you talk with users, try to understand their pains, where they struggle, what are the opportunities, and then you build the product. But this type of innovation that's called the demand pull. When people need something, we find what they need and we build the product. With AI, it's a different story because it's a technology push. We have a technology and now we have to find how to integrate it into our product, what can be built. It's actually proof of concepts, about vision, about something, even when you can't copy the patterns from other products. And I see that many designers may have trouble with this kind of approach because there is no methodology. What is your advice on how to work on this kind of innovation?

Hans: There are many hundreds or thousands of traditional products out there with product teams who are saying, we want to be an AI product. Can you just figure out how to put some AI in our product? And if you sit in front of a whiteboard, you'll think of a bunch of different ideas and ways to do that. And, most of it sounds really exciting and the company will say, yeah, let's do that. And then we can be an AI company. But the truth is that those are solutions searching for a need. And I think it's a bit backwards. I think the best products always start with a need and good research, good process, as you mentioned, where you have a problem that needs to be solved, and then you think about all of the tools that are available to you in solving it. And I still do that. I think you have to think that way. You have to avoid this trap of saying, hey, can you just incorporate AI into our product somehow? Put some chat interface in here. Most of that stuff doesn't offer much value beyond, say, marketing value.

Yuriy: Yeah, I definitely see it in lots of products that try to push AI on you. And even like trying to ask for some feedback, we recently had requests for an interview with Coda when they also asked some questions why we are using AI or not using and how to find a solution. But actually it shows that adoption rate for AI features perhaps isn't as high as the products expected when they were launching the systems. Yeah, but still they can find some insights from this kind of... When they launch the features, then they can talk with users and see what are the opportunities to enhance it and maybe remove some AI features and that's something you need to start with some learnings and without providing proof of concept of these features, it's really hard to learn, perhaps. Yeah, or we can just wait for other products to be successful and then copy their patterns, but it's always following others.

Future of AI in product design

Yuriy: Yeah, so in your product, do you have any experience working on AI features and how did you, because I understand in your previous job, your product was also connected with AI and now every product is an AI product. So how do you approach this?

Hans: In my mind, there are at least two categories, right? There are the traditional products that have already been built, and those product teams are looking for ways to augment them using large language models, and that could be like a better experience, a better interaction paradigm. But then there are, I think, the second category, which are problems in the world that were previously unsolvable. And now suddenly we have tools and capabilities that allow us to solve them for the first time. And the latter is an area that I'm particularly interested in. I mean, if you really think about it, the advent of large language models has literally kicked the door open on every field, every industry, every imaginable problem. And suddenly we have this new arsenal of tools that allow us to solve things that we couldn't previously solve. And previously they just required humans to do them. And so I'm very interested in being part of that transformation that's happening in the world.

Yuriy: And what I hear from different VCs, because I do a lot of research in AI to see what would be a successful product. So there is a widespread idea that the next stage, the first year of large language models, was about embedding chats everywhere or maybe like some textual generative interfaces. And the next stage is coming, where the user experience will change a lot and good user experience working with AI will be game-changing on the reason of success or failure of different products. Because now we will have AI working on the backend that will be proactively building workflows for us, automating a lot of stuff and providing value. So it's not just chatting or uploading documents and getting a summary of this document. It's more about the internal logic of the system that works as our co-pilot, agent, anybody, how you, it doesn't matter what you call this AI, that is your partner or even coach sometimes that helps you run your business or run your professional responsibilities.

Hans: Yeah, that's right.

AI UX trends

Winning a seat at the table

Yuriy: From your experience, what I hear from different design leaders is that one of the biggest challenges in corporate work is winning a seat at the table with other departments to make sure that design is an important part of the competitive advantage of the product. Do you have any advice? What should design managers do to be heard and so their words are valued in the company?

Hans: I would say first and foremost, choose wisely when joining a company. Not all companies are equal. And one thing that I learned a lot about in consulting was that there's a huge continuum of cultures that exist. Companies are like people–their personalities often stem from their founders. And you have to pick a company that has a culture that's consistent with your own values. And I think a lot of people will just be looking for a job, right? I want to be a product designer. Let me go find a company that needs a product designer. But the process of choosing a company that really believes in product design and values it and invests in it will make a huge difference in your quality of life and the quality of your product and the quality of your career. Having worked on a winning product versus a company that develops a poor product has a profound impact on your options thereafter. The thing that I see young people doing that I think is a huge mistake is just joining a company that has an opening and not spending as much time on the culture of the company and the company's willingness to truly invest in product design. That's paramount. I mean, first of all, if you do that well, everything else is a downhill battle. You don't have to go through that process of begging and teaching and trying to convince people that product design is important. It's already inherent in the culture of the business. But when you are in a situation where that happens and you have to go through that process, it's about believing in what you do and doing it really well and showing people that it has an impact and a value. You know, the people in the world who understand and respect product design got that because someone at some point showed them. And as product designers, part of our role in all of this is to teach.

Fostering a passionate and versatile design team

Yuriy: How do you evaluate the competence of your team? Because there are so many areas where designers can grow. Sometimes we have a case when designers tell us, okay, now I want to move to motion design. It's totally different than in most cases you will have challenges in business applications. But then you have designers who are super good in design systems and just craftsmen, yeah? Just the craft. Then you have designers that do research more than others. Then you need designers who can be visionary and maybe do research and competition on technology and provide the vision for the product. And ideally, you want this to be one person that can be independent and also have strong communication skills to manage all the stakeholders and win the battle when somebody says, no, it's too hard, let's go home and make it done. So how do you balance this kind of skill within one department when there is always a limit to the number of people you can have?

Hans: Well, first and foremost, I think it's about finding those designers who are in it because they're passionate about it. To me, that makes the world of difference. Some people, they just can't stop thinking about the problem that they're trying to solve and how to approach it and how to get the information they need. And they're truly motivated by the idea of building a great product and helping people. If you don't have that, I think you're in trouble. And I have met some young people that enter the field and they're struggling. And to be honest, they're just there because they heard it was cool. They heard it was a place where you make a lot of money and people will value you. And then they said, okay, that sounds good to me. I'll go do that, but they don't have that spark, whatever it is, that maker mentality. So that's first and foremost. I think for those who do have it, you touched on positioning. How do you get the right designer into an area where they can really thrive? Give you an example. You mentioned design systems. In hiring design systems, product designers, I used to joke that during our Zoom interviews, oftentimes they would be at home because of COVID. I used to joke that we should have these people take us around their house and show us their closets and their kitchen cupboards. The people who are really great design systems designers tend to be highly organized, highly structured thinkers. And the reason I made that joke is because their closets are probably highly organized and you know they've thought about how to put things into a good hierarchy or groupings of color, you know, and it's really a thing.

Yuriy: I agree. I have the same experience.

Hans: I would so much rather have people working on something that they enjoy. That's where you're gonna get their best every day. And I've had situations where a designer of one kind is needed to work on something else, and it's just hard. It's awkward for them, and I understand why. I try to avoid that.

Yuriy: From my experience, it also shows a great designer that they invest time in education. So the best people we had in our team are also coming earlier to the office and spend an hour or two reading and educating themselves. They were taking as many courses as possible and they were growing twice or three times faster than others. And some people are just having no time for studying because they have so much work to do and it's interesting like the same work, the same position but some people can find time and then they grow and other people do not have this kind of time and they are growing much slower.

Hans: Yeah, that's right. I've also noticed along those same lines that a certain group of designers often spend a lot of time thinking about efficiencies for the larger team. And, you know, the smaller group of people are always coming and saying, hey, could we try this? Or what if we did this? We could avoid this problem. I love that mindset. I've had so many great improvements happen in process and team structure, not from things that I envisioned or thought of, but that individuals came and suggested in one-on-ones, ‘Hey, I have this idea.’ Those are my favorite people, to be honest with you. Those are the people that I'm just so thankful that they're on the team because they're always looking, they're always thinking about what we can do to make people happier and to make this product better.

Yuriy: Okay, maybe you would want to discuss something, some other points, because we are almost out of time. But maybe there are some interesting topics you would like to discuss.

The evolving impact of AI and LLMs on product development

Hans: Hmm. You know, I think coming back to AI for a moment, I think that's clearly in the forefront for me. I'm kind of curious, you know, from your perspective, what you know about how your business has changed, you know, with the advent of AI and large language models over the last year. Are you working on a sort of completely new set of products, or are you kind of mostly just trying to incorporate AI into existing products?

Yuriy: Nice question. So we work with many clients for years. So in their case, it would be implementing AI features into the products. Because usually people already validated product market fit. So there is a problem, there is a solution and then they want to improve the product and make it a competitive advantage. And I guess it's the safest way for business software to move forward and just people who will be best in implementing that will be leading the industry just as a competitive advantage. A few products we worked on are new. But what I've seen from people who are coming to us, 90% of that is mostly a wrapper on top of large language models. So I don't see how it would be different that if I had a prompt and I would just prompt the chatbot and then it would be providing similar results. Maybe there are some visualizations. So it's very easy to copy the solution, even if there is a lot of UI. But I guess in a few years, you will be able to just ask AI to write you a copy of the system and it will do it the same way. So the biggest question for everybody with whom you work is how to protect the invention, how to make it good enough that it will not be copied. And my idea is you need somehow to build a brand and also to have a network effect. So the value of your software is not based only on the software itself, because let's imagine in 10 years, you would go to your computer and say, hey, copilot, write me a copy of HubSpot. Just go read their documentation. I need to custom implement the software, but change this, this, and this. And then what will happen with HubSpot? Like who will be paying them for SaaS, like for their services if any copilot, even open source, will be able to write the same software because all requirements are there. It can test, it can click, it can see how it works and just write the same software. But if you have a huge user base, if you have a brand, in this case, people will still value support, will value consultancy and ability to tap into the data that is in the system. And that will be the value. So I think in the long term, it's the smartest way to have in your roadmap something like that. But now you just need to move fast. If you're one of the first... First, whoever built the product to solve that problem, you can win. Then maybe you can buy other companies.

Hans: Yeah, yeah, and I think there's real value in thinking early, in the early stage of your product development cycle about how to make that product sticky. How do you make it something that is not easily replaced in the future? And it's not actually that difficult. So in addition to having a strong brand, being early to the game, I think you can help build a moat around yourself by weaving your product into the day-to-day life and operations of your audience such that it's hard to unweave in the future.

Yuriy: And also about your data. I guess Sam Altman recommended that, like that there will be so many different copilots, but the problem is which copilot gets your trust. So which software gets your trust, so you are willing to share parts of your business or your personal life with the software. Once people already trusted you with this information, changing that to a different system will be harder for them, or they just will not share this information with many other companies. So that's why brand and trust are super important in the AI era.

Navigating the legacy tech transformation

Hans: Yeah, touching briefly on your earlier comment about helping legacy companies incorporate AI in. One thing that's particularly interesting to me is, if you've been a product company for the last 10 years, you've in many ways invested heavily in building a platform that is largely becoming out of date. And I think it's very critical for so many companies today to be thinking about, okay, this industry is actually changing. Are we in trouble if we don't scrap large swaths of what we have and replace it with modern tech? Of course, that's a very hard thing to do. If you’ve invested tens of millions, if not billions of dollars building something, it's hard to throw it away and say we have to start over. But there's a real risk, as you said, that modern upstarts are gonna come and quickly build something new using modern tech that renders all of your legacy platforms irrelevant. And I think there's probably going to be a great extinction over the next five to 10 years of large enterprise software companies that are just locked into the platform that they've built over the last decade.

Yuriy: I see that lots of companies are seeing this risk now and they're trying to find solutions, but there are also other news like people are not using AI so much, or so they are trying to find protection for themselves in news like, okay, so it's a hype, like nothing will change so much. People say that AI is important, but actually nobody is using it. It's hard to believe in that because it's hallucinations and other stuff. But it will change in a year or two. So we had a very great delight when we saw GPT-4. But I guess with GPT-6 or whatever how they will call it, it will be totally different and I think people are missing that there are multiple trends emerging immediately, not only AI but also low-code. I personally hate most of the CRM systems and there are a lot of videos that people use the CRM system only because they are forced to use, nobody would do it by themselves. Or maybe after it becomes a habit. But actually it's not like the software you love to use and you are super happy to start your workday with CRM. And what's interesting, so I spent a few days and implemented most of the features I missed in CRM in a low-code, no-code platform myself. So now it works 90% as I wished it to work and no system did it before. And I understand that today's HubSpot or similar CRM systems are much more feature-rich and it would be hard for me to implement everything there. But my message is that people are maybe missing this kind of low-code approach when there is a lot of automation, a lot of business stuff that can be built with systems like Coda, for example. And also what's good is that AI helps to use this kind of system a lot. I think it's a question of a year or two when you have the pilot that will be writing pages and some formulas in this kind of no-code system for us.

Hans: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I think as a product designer, one of the most fun facets of all of this is having the freedom to depart from traditional ideas like CRM. It has been largely the same product for the last decade. And if you look at the various competing companies, if you switch your eyes, you'll see that they're roughly the same. But there's suddenly an opportunity to say, what does CRM look like in 10 years from now? Ignore everything that you've ever learned or thought about CRM and invent something completely new. And to me, that's really exciting. That's like creating tomorrow's version of this world. And it's going to be very different from where we're at today.

Yuriy: Okay, thanks. It was a wonderful chat. I really enjoyed it.

Hans: Thanks so much.
How to become a product design leader people deserve with Hans Guntren Cieden

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