Increasingly, startups need to have an understanding of design and user interaction to be successful. Those which are most successful are also those which have a solid experience. That’s why Khosla Ventures just hired Irene Au, who had previously held lead user experience and user interaction design jobs at firms like Yahoo and Google, to be its first design operating partner.
Au most recently served as the head of product and design at higher ed startup Udacity, where she worked with a small UX team to help bring education online. Prior to that she led the user experience team at Google for six years, where she oversaw all the interaction and visual designers, web developers, and user researchers working on all of the company’s products.
Prior to that, she spent about eight years at Yahoo, most recently as its vice president of user experience and design, leading product and platform design worldwide. Before Yahoo she was held positions at Netscape Communications, where she was an interaction designer and led cross-product design for its browser, email client, and page editor.
Khosla Ventures breaks its team down into investment partners, who help the firm pick the companies it puts money into, and operating partners, who each have a certain realm of expertise that they can lend to portfolio companies.
In her new role as the firm’s design operation partner, Au will work with startups within the Khosla Ventures portfolio to help them to improve their user experience, user interaction, and other design-centric things about their products.
“One thing I think we’ve all observed is that startups share many of the same challenges around design,” Au told me in a phone conversation. The two main challenges revolve around people and process, according to Au.
On the people side, that means helping startups to better identify design talent. That includes providing guidance into how to find a designer, make sure it’s someone good, design a team, and make sure they can all work together.
And on the process side, it’s all about helping teams to design and develop their products. “Design is more than just skin deep,” she said. “It’s about, ‘How do you create a design experience that will make this useful to people?’”
In some ways, it goes beyond that. Au told me that part of the job will include helping startup employees to translate the vision of their company into certain design principles.
Unlike some venture firms, Khosla Ventures won’t be creating its own in-house design firm in support of its portfolio companies. Instead, Au hopes to prepare companies so they can be self-sustainable and scale in the future.
“I feel passionately about bringing [my experience] to a number of companies,” she said. “Having worked with so many different teams all at once — I missed that. This gives me breadth and opportunity to have a huge impact on a wide range of companies.”