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Designing Women

How Design And Data Speak The Same Language

Both are interfaces through which companies and customers communicate—and they work best in tandem, argues Spotify VP Rochelle King.

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Doreen Lorenzo: How did you get to where you are? Was it a straight shot or a curvy road?

Rochelle King: It was definitely a curvy road. I always knew I’d enter college undecided as a major, because there were so many different topics that I was interested in, and that desire to explore has been reflected throughout my life. I studied art history as an undergrad but went to graduate school for engineering. I actually worked in three different industries coming out of school—first, as a structural engineer for two years, then as a material scientist, working in Silicon Valley literally on silicon (on semiconductors). And because this was back in the late '90s when the Internet was just starting, I eventually landed in an Internet tech company. So it was through this very roundabout path that I got to doing what I’m doing now. I didn’t formally study any of the things that are part of my job today.

How was design presented to you, then?

Because the Internet was so new, most of us got into design through serendipity, by simply knowing folks who happened to be designers. I was playing Japanese drums with another woman who was also a Stanford graduate, and she mentioned that the company she was working for was hiring. It was at a time when design wasn’t a very well-established discipline so the biggest criteria for hiring at a startup was whether or not you seemed smart enough to learn on the job. The design role she was hiring for seemed like it would leverage some of the skills that I already had: problem-solving and talking to customers to figure out what their needs were. So that’s how I fell into design. It was both about seizing an opportunity when it’s presented to you, but also not boxing yourself out of something because it doesn’t fit a preconceived notion of who you are.

Would you consider yourself one of those rare people who are equally left- and right-brained?

I did take one of those BuzzFeed quizzes and I was exactly 50-50. So depending on how accurate you think those are, I’m equally left- and right-brained. I think it’s becoming more common and more important for people to use both sides of their brains nowadays. The nature of business is changing, and the nature of how we solve problems is also changing, so everyone needs to be able to exercise and leverage both sides of their brain, even if it may not feel natural to them.

Tell me about your current role at Spotify.

I head up an organization called Data, Insights, and Design. It’s a new organization that was just created in November. Admittedly, it’s been a bit of an experiment to combine design and data into a single department.

The organization is made up of a few different teams. Product design is focused on defining the user experience (similar skills and responsibilities to what you would find at most other tech companies in design). We also have a team called Product Insights, which includes user researchers and analysts that are focused on understanding how our products are performing by gathering and analyzing big and small data. There are also two parts of my organization that are focused more on the company at large as opposed to just the product experience.

The Analytics organization is focused on analytics across the entire company. They are currently driving an effort to really make the company data-first through best practices, culture, tools, and resources. They are also responsible for broader data and research efforts like our company key metrics, which affect multiple departments like marketing, content, finance, and product. Finally, there’s a very small team of two women looking at structuring innovation, which is basically our effort to look at how we can get better at innovation within Spotify. For example, understanding if the projects we pursue actually tie back to our North Star goals or spreading best practices around innovation.

So that’s my overarching role—it’s quite diverse. My previous role at Netflix was also really diverse—it involved content operations, design, localization, and metadata. I always seem to aggregate these unusual groupings of teams.

You have bridged this whole concept of data and design. It seems like it comes naturally to you, like you really can see it and understand how this happened. How do you go about doing this?

The interesting thing about bridging data and design is making people who are in the data world recognize that design can actually inform and empower them, and then vice versa—helping designers recognize what data can do to help enhance their work. It’s really about making people realize that there’s common ground between those two disciplines. Mostly, this is about teaching people a common language. You’ll find that people speak about things differently, but in the end it’s all toward the same goal, which is to create better user experiences. Something I often say is that behind every single point of data is a human, a real person. And that person is actually in the data telling us whether or not they like our experience. So if the numbers go up that means we’re doing a good job. If the numbers go down then we’re probably not doing a good job. So data becomes this language that these humans are using to communicate with us.

Then on the other side, every single experience we give our users has to be considered and designed. The experiences that we craft reflect and communicate our thinking to the people who use them. If you think about that, then both data and design are actually doing the same thing—they’re both interfaces through which we communicate with our customers and through which they communicate with us. When we think about those two things together, it’s very powerful. You can see how they influence and affect each other.

How do you think this combination of design and data is impacting the music industry?

At Spotify we really want the whole world to be able to enjoy music. That’s really our goal, is to make it accessible for everyone. If you think about design, regardless of industry, it’s about making things that would normally be difficult easier for people—helping to somehow bridge that gap. To do that, design needs to bring a point of view on what’s important and what needs to be removed because it’s in the way. So Spotify has probably most impacted the music industry by making it easy enough for anyone to be able to stream music. Because it’s actually a pretty complicated thing if you think about it, right? For us, design is about making experiences that make it as easy as possible for anyone anywhere in the world to be able to get to the music that they love.

Now all of that is on the consumer side, and recently we’ve started to focus more on the artist side. So in the same way that we want to make listening and finding music as easy as possible for our consumers, we also want to make sure that it’s as easy as possible for artists to understand what’s going on in their world. That’s why we recently launched Spotify Fan Insights. The design of that experience takes information and data about how people are listening to different artists on Spotify and presents it back to the artist in an easy way for them to understand: Where in the world are the people who are listening to their music? Which are the most popular playlists that that artist is on? Making that easy empowers artists in new and different ways.

So how did you go about building these design teams, both at Spotify and in your previous role as vice president of user experience at Netflix? What do you do? What do you look for?

In both cases, when I joined Netflix and Spotify, the design teams that existed were under-resourced. They were quite a bit smaller; they hadn’t grown at the same scale as the rest of the company had. In that situation, there are just some things that you know you need to address. Like, we need to hire more. I also like to think about building a team like an orchestra—you want to make sure you have a variety of skill sets, experiences, and levels. With that in mind, you look at the teams you have and say, okay, what are the pieces that we have, what are the pieces that are missing. Do we need more oboes or clarinets or is the wind section actually pretty good, so we should get more percussion? Maybe we have a second violin but are missing a first violin? Taking a holistic view of what skills are on the team and what skills you might need is important. But you can’t just look at it for today, you need to take into consideration the needs of the company, or the needs of the team, two years from now and put the pieces into place to help grow to that vision.

Talking about women-led design teams—does it make a difference?

I’m less inclined to care about whether or not it’s a woman who’s leading design, so long as there’s good representation of women and people from all different kinds of backgrounds in leadership positions across the entire company. I think it’s important for everyone to have exposure to role models that they can look up to, who they can empathize with and who can in turn empathize with them. So it has less to do with matching a gender or a race to a specific function, but more to do with the composition of leadership at large.

You’re based in Stockholm, but you’ve worked for most of your career in the U.S. Do you see a difference in how the U.S. and the EU approach design and design research?

I would say not so much from design sensibilities or aesthetics. This is the first time I’ve worked abroad, and I’m getting to experience it with my family. I’m learning what it means to be part of a truly international company and to be based in Europe. As a result, I’ve become much more thoughtful and sensitive to the nuances in different working styles and how different cultures come together. I’ve also come to realize how U.S.-centric we are in America and how much navel-gazing we tend to do. If you’re trying to build a product for the world, when you come and actually live in Europe for a while, or in Asia, or in any place else other than the U.S., you begin to realize how U.S.-centric all our assumptions are. It’s in the cultural references I make, my background, how I grew up, and my assumptions about the kinds of experiences we have in school. And all of that ends up playing into what you’re creating too, right? So that’s been the most eye-opening thing for me, to become much more sensitive to the biases inherent in my view of the world and learning how to adjust that.

Do you consider yourself a creative person?

I’ve always been labeled as a creative person. I was one of those kids that would sew their own clothing, and it was always, like, weird clothing, asymmetric and structured. I was inspired by the Japanese fashion designers in the '80s like Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto—but for a kid growing up in Hawaii where most kids were wearing T-shirts and shorts to school I think I was a bit out of place. I’ve always been doing things like that, though at some point I lost confidence in my creativity.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to redefine creativity for myself. I've come to realize that there’s a lot of creativity necessary in seeing connections where other people don’t see them. So that can be with ideas, and it goes back to that whole bridging idea that we talked about earlier. So that’s where I see most of my creativity going now, is just finding things that are really interesting at the intersection of two worlds. For me, creativity and design is about being a multidimensional person who can live at the intersection of multiple worlds.

What have you learned over the years working with all these creative people?

I’ve learned to appreciate that creativity comes in many different forms, and to recognize and acknowledge that people are coming at it from different angles. That can be a hard thing to do—because you might have your own particular version of creativity that you hold to be true. I also think that everyone has creativity in them, and it’s always fun when you can help unlock that for different folks. It’s a bit of a dance. How are you creative in a way that’s different from how I am, and how can we make those things play together? Someone might not think that they’re "creative," but there’s usually something inside where they are applying creative thinking. So what is that, and how can we amplify and draw that out?

Does being a woman make your job harder, easier, or does it even matter?

Let’s be honest—it’s a very interesting time to be a woman in tech right now because there’s such a spotlight on diversity, but that’s actually both good and bad. On the one hand, there’s much more awareness about the issues that women and other minority groups face, but that spotlight sometimes means that there’s also a lot more scrutiny and second-guessing about our experiences as well. Overall, it feels like I’m actually having much more open and frank conversations with colleagues at work about what it is to be a woman in tech, what the challenges are, and sometimes that leads to much more empathy, which is always a good thing.

The best thing about women in tech and design becoming such a prominent topic over the last couple of years is that it’s so much easier to hear about and meet so many impressive and really inspiring women leaders and role models. We reach out to each other because we have similar stories and struggles and as a result we become friends. It’s interesting to see how strong and supportive some of these networks have become, because we’re talking about it so much. I get to talk to you because of this phenomenon, so that’s kind of great.

Last question: There's a common idea that you shouldn’t hug in the workplace, right? But are you a hugger?

I am totally a hugger. We give hugs in our workplace all the time. Maybe that’s Sweden versus the U.S. They say that Swedes hug a lot. But, yes, I am a hugger. I think Spotify’s a huggy, warm, and happy kind of place.