As Intuit’s former vice president of design innovation, Kaaren Hanson was responsible for deepening and expanding Intuit’s design and innovation capabilities across all platforms and product lines. Her position encompassed strategic oversight and execution of Intuit’s design leadership and design for delight initiatives, as well as projects to reimagine the company’s core offerings and take on strategically important new opportunities. She worked closely with Brad Smith, chief executive officer and founder Scott Cook to continue to transform Intuit into a design-first company. Hanson received 2010 and 2011 CEO Leadership Awards for driving transformational change across the company.
Prior to joining Intuit, Hanson led research and design teams at a variety of Silicon Valley enterprise companies and startups, including Remedy and BigVine. A frequent speaker and occasional author on design, Hanson is active in the industry and has held senior leadership roles with the Design Management Institute and Usability Professionals’ Association. She received a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Stanford University and a bachelor’s degree from Clark University, where she graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa.
An interview with Kaaren Hanson
You don’t have a design background and yet you are the vice president of design at a large solutions company. How did that come about?
Great design is about solving problems in ways that delight people. I have a Ph.D. in psychology, which means I have deep expertise in how people think and their emotions. Universal principles of design, from the Fibonacci sequence to choice overload to the golden ratio, are almost always based on human psychology. Over the years, I have worn several hats: understanding people’s experiences, designing experiences, building effective teams and creating the conditions for great design in large organizations. All of these roles have been interesting and rewarding.
How can designers improve their business and customers’ lives?
Designers can play nearly any role we want. We have unique ways of understanding the world and synthesizing information to come up with creative solutions. We need to own our place at the table. All too often, I see designers not having the influence they would like, which is a loss for everyone.
How do you use design in your work?
I design every day—at home and at work. Sometimes I sketch ideas; sometimes I design conversations, strategies or organizations. In all of these situations, I try to understand their motivations and situations, create a vision, come up with many ideas that might achieve that vision and then prototype and iterate. My favorite design tools are Post-it Notes, a big wall, a good thin black pen, a Sharpie and some provocative colleagues.
How do you speak about design with other leaders in your company?
Fundamentally, I believe design is a team sport. Designers are most effective when their team viscerally cares about the customer pain and is committed to an aspirational vision. I have incredible passion for designers and I always have a few stories to share about great design accomplishments. At Intuit we are now at the point where if I raise an opportunity for design—whether it’s a key product or a strategic opportunity to explore—I get very little, if any, resistance.
What advice do you give designers who want their work to make a real impact, and what skills do they need?
Persistence is everything. Ultimately, everyone needs to find their authentic voice and how they can best influence. I encourage people to look at influence as a design problem. Empathize with the person or group you are trying to influence, come up with ways you might have an impact and try it out. See what works and doesn’t, and then try again. And again. I help people to think through their strategies and send them feedback when I observe them attempting to influence. A few tricks for designers:
What is the future of design’s role in business?
Designers who can figure out how to create conditions in which design thrives will be incredibly coveted and rewarded. Over the next decade, we will see even more business people adopting design thinking, which means it will become even easier for designers to do great work. We’ll also see even more designers stepping up and taking larger leadership roles. And by 2025, everyone in your family will finally understand what you do for a living.
Photo © Tony Avelar for Bloomberg