Meet Irene Au


We get some insights into Irene Au’s love of simplicity, design, and yoga!


Your past employers are a roll-call of the biggest names in tech – Netscape, Google, Yahoo. What is your biggest take away from each of these companies?

In each of these companies, it was best to ask for forgiveness, not permission. If something is broken, you fix it. If you see an opportunity to make things interesting or better, go make it happen. Don’t be afraid of stepping on other people’s toes or asking too much of others. Most importantly, don’t fear failure or making mistakes.  It’s far worse to do nothing.


As ‘Simplicity’ is the key-word for this year’s Agile Australia conference. What does it mean to you and how do you apply it to your work?

Simplicity to me means stripping away what is unessential. In my life, it means keeping only what is beautiful or useful and being really clear about how I want to spend my time. In my work, it means staying focused and not introducing anything that is unnecessary.  It’s incredibly hard to do and requires one to understand deeply what is most important, not only in this moment in time, but also in the grand scheme of what we are trying to do.


What advice you would give to someone wanting to achieve simplicity?

It’s harder to take away a feature than to add it in. Test your ideas before you commit to offering it, and set appropriate expectations so that your customers or users don’t get too attached to something that is still under consideration. Follow the 80/20 rule: at Google in the early days, any feature that was added had to be used by at least 80% of its users.  That’s an impossibly high bar but it kept the product focused and the interface amazingly simple!

Appoint a ‘czar’ who can be the arbiter of what goes in vs. stays out. Someone has to be the “decider” and decision making processes need to be clear to the entire team. Reconsider how team members are incentivized: product managers and engineers are often motivated dream up features and get promoted based on what they launch. This is counterproductive to achieving simplicity.


As a seasoned veteran, what is the best advice you could give someone that is just starting to cut their teeth in the world of product design?

Design is a profession where people learn by doing. Keep making stuff, let people try your offering, get feedback, and commit to continuous improvement. Better design only comes through iteration. Once you realise that you are committed to iterating, the pressure to be perfect coming out the door is lifted, and liberates you to be more creative and generate new ideas.

Develop your sense of taste: What makes a great product great? What do you love about it and why? What makes a bad product bad and how can you avoid that?


You are very vocal about your passion for Yoga. What parallels can you draw between the practices of Yoga and design?

In terms of the physical practice, yoga helps to get people out of their heads and connect back to their hearts and instincts. The mind-body connection has been well established through research done by Fritz Strack, Eric Finzi, Amy Cuddy, John Sarno, and others. As the practice of yoga stretches and opens the body, so do the mind and heart. People become more empathetic and less judgmental, which are essential for design. Yoga liberates the body from tension, offering a calmer, more playful way of being, which create the conditions for better creativity.

More importantly, the spiritual lessons from yoga are the most important lessons for design: courage, curiosity, compassion. They are what designers need to have to overcome fear of failure, fear of being judged and criticised, fear of making mistakes. Courage cultivates trust and freedom to generate new ideas, take risks that lead to innovation, and provide leadership to teams to move toward a single vision. Curiosity fuels the questions designers ask that lead to better design. Compassion enables designers to relate to others so they can design more effectively for people.


With your role at Khosla Ventures, you must see a lot of innovative new products and companies. What is the secret to a great new product? How do you pick a winner?

First, a product needs to fulfill a need. It must be so essential that it becomes a product people cannot live without. Second, the team has to be outstanding. They may not have all the answers, but they know how to break down problems into smaller problems that can be solved, are self-reflective about what needs improvement, and constantly iterate. Third, the best products are developed with a clear point of view which permeates every aspect of what the company does. These companies know what their mission is, why they are doing what they are doing, and align all their people and operations to execute on that mission.


You were an early human-computer interaction expert. What changes have you seen in this field over the last 15 years?

It is remarkable to me that a field that most people had never heard of before has become one of the hottest professions around now. When I first started my career, the challenges were around designing interfaces so that they would be useful and usable. While that is still largely true today, there is greater appreciation for aesthetics and motion, thanks to advances in bandwidth, availability of technology, and mobile devices.

The interfaces of tomorrow will pose yet another set of challenges. Sensors everywhere and the Internet of Things suggest that the interface recedes. The holy grail of the future interface will look much like the movie “Her”, in which the interface becomes invisible.


What’s the strangest situation you’ve applied a design principle to?

This summer I will be teaching a course at the Esalen Institute called “Mindful by Design:  Applying Design Principles and Practices Toward a Mindful Life”. This is probably the most unique application of design but most important!


What are you most looking forward to on your trip to Australia?

I most look forward to interacting with the Australian people! I have tremendous admiration and respect for the culture and people there.



Don’t miss Irene Au’s keynote speech at Agile Australia 2015!


This interview was initially published as part of the publication, AgileToday.

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