The Grit

Learn about Product-led Growth & design experiments from Chetana Deorah, Product Design Director at Coursera

Matous RoskovecMatous Roskovec

Hi Chetana. What’s it like to be you?

As an Indian-American immigrant based in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 15 years, I have not yet surrendered to being called “Anna” or “Tana”! My name is a Hindi word that can be tricky to pronounce in English. When read in Hindi, Chetana is pronounced chay-th-naa, and it means “consciousness” or “awareness.”

Currently, I work as Director of Product Design, Growth & Consumer at Coursera. Coursera’s mission is to envision a world where people everywhere can transform their lives by accessing the world’s best learning experience online. Previously I have worked at Netflix, Scribd, Yahoo, and Pentagram. The primary focus of my work is to empower business objectives via a human-centered approach to design. As a player-coach, I lead teams to help innovate and improve how we experience the world we live in. Along with my career, I have volunteered extensively in design education teaching at accelerator programs and co-creating curriculum.

I serve on the Board of Directors for Inneract Project, a non-profit focused on bringing design education and careers in design to diverse youth populations. I also co-facilitate the online community at the growthdesigners.co/ in collaboration with the founder, Lex Roman with the mission to keep growth good!

How did your career start?

I grew up in the hustle and bustle of Bombay (Mumbai) in India. Though I was fortunate to be born into the “have” side of the highly stratified haves and the have nots, from an early age, I questioned the duality of life – unable to make sense of the vast differences present in the world around me. As a Biology undergrad, my curiosity about the workings of every life form found a new outlet. I was happy dissecting flower parts, recording the behavior within a colony of ants… until one fine day, I had to face a frog dissection - and promptly fainted in the lab. Looking back, it may have been the best thing that could have happened to inspire a change in my career journey.

I seem to have inherited, from my father, a keen scientific approach to understanding the way things work, and I’m proudly unafraid to ask “Why?”. I was so excited to discover design thinking and UX design, which thrives at the intersection of aesthetics, scientific approaches to problem-solving, and, most significantly, working towards a purpose. After completing a 4-year program in Mumbai at Sophia Polytechnic in Commercial Art, I came to the US to pursue an MFA in Graphic Design.

Back home, I had worked extensively as a design consultant within my family business in Web Design, E-commerce, and SEO. We launched several projects for the government in India, publications, startups, boutique shops, and were at the forefront of digital transformation in India. As I recall, my first website ever was for a car dealership company! My first award-winning website was for a large non-profit organization.

After my masters, I was fortunate to land my dream job at Pentagram (SF). Living in Silicon Valley made it evident that I had to expand my knowledge and experience beyond print and graphic design. I mustered up my courage and started taking on freelance projects for any and all mobile app design, beginning in Brew! That work eventually led to 7 years of work experience, and several long-lasting friendships, at Yahoo. I often say I grew up as a product designer at Yahoo - it’s where I learned everything that design school could not have taught me about craftsmanship and influence as a product designer.

As a design leader, I have to ask you a few tough warm-up questions. Ready?

Let’s do it!

What is human-centered design?

Human-centered design is a methodology to help achieve business goals while fulfilling (or exceeding) unmet human needs to improve our lives. Human-centered design has the ability to create solutions that are usable, delightful, and responsible.

The role of human-centered design.

How do you think outside of the box?

By asking, “Why?” And sometimes... “Why not?”.

If you could do one thing in life differently - what would it be?

I’d ban work meetings over lunch break. I think everyone is with me on this!

What’s an interesting or fun fact about yourself we wouldn't find on the internet?

I have a genetic aversion to cilantro, especially as a garnish on food. That’s tough for someone who loves Indian and Mexican cuisine as much as I do!

Amidst these current turbulent times, you’re currently being onboarded as the new Product Design Director at Coursera. What led you to Coursera?

I’ve always envisioned my work, aside from my day job, as being at the intersection of Design + Education + Yoga. My new position at Coursera lets me live this dream and continue to evolve as a leader.

A few themes that have emerged in my career, as I connect the dots backward, are leading design for consumer (B2C) products, subscription business models, with a focus on the content and media domains. It’s been an exciting journey from binge-reading to binge-watching to now creating a value proposition for customers to binge-learn!

In contrast, as I started work at Coursera amid the pandemic and shelter-in-place, my onboarding was conducted entirely remotely. Given that our primary product offering is online, it hasn’t been a completely alien experience. Still, indeed, the biggest challenge so far has been building relationships and trust with new team members via only Zoom and Slack.

At Coursera (and previously at Netflix), you are leading product design for Growth. What is unique about user-experience design for Growth?

Reflecting back on my own career, I’ve only just realized that I’ve been cultivating an aptitude for product-led Growth for 10 years now! During my 7 years at Yahoo, one of the initiatives I led was to develop an in-house Product Marketing Design Studio. Born out of necessity, this initiative served to better communicate the value of the Yahoo Search products to our customers.

Product-led growth is a go-to-market strategy that leverages the product itself to connect with customers and keep them engaged. It empowers the experience of the product and the value it provides as the key driver and direct channel for customer’s desire to use and pay for the product. Product-led growth strives to provide customers with reasons to believe in the service by experience and evaluation.

User-Experience design for building the core product vs. growing the product.

A few of the unique aspects of designing for product-led growth, as opposed to building the core product experience, are:

  • The practice is built on experimentation allowing for continual improvement and additional product value. A growth team’s project portfolio can be a balance between big bets, small bets, and maintenance projects - reducing design and technical debt. Experiments are best set up by establishing a strong hypothesis and then creating various solutions to test against the hypothesis.
  • Product-led growth tends to bring together scientific, psychological, business, and cultural influences to define the problem and dive into various ways to solve it.
  • It is a highly collaborative practice going beyond the core triad with product & engineering. Growth teams tend to be set up as a horizontal initiative, collaborating with marketing, sales, and customer support, each driving business growth via their areas/ channels of impact.
  • Growth designers typically need to be well-versed and comfortable with creating solutions across platforms Web, mobile, TV, and various channels. A systems design thinking approach helps create high-impact solutions that leverage the appropriate platforms for conversion.
  • A personal area of interest for me, to be closely familiar with the customer and connect them to the value of the product, is that growth teams need to continuously invest in up-leveling their global EQ and IQ.
  • Finally… leading design for growth is about focusing on the outcome and not output. Launch to learn, to iterate, vs. launching for perfection or completeness.

For over a year, you have led large scale design & research initiatives at Netflix as a Design Director. How was it?

After my time at Scribd, I was eager to deepen my leadership skills by being part of a design organization within a more established consumer product. I was also keen on designing for a global audience with a subscription business model. Scribd was uncannily referred to as the “Netflix for books’ in the media, and it prompted me to ask myself, “What would it mean to lead design at Netflix itself?!”

I joined the team as Design Director for global growth and acquisition. My areas of focus included audience growth, sign up & registrations, payments & partnerships, and new member experience or onboarding. While organizationally, this could be a challenging scope to manage, it was thoughtfully mapped against the customer’s journey. That allowed us to enable autonomous, cross-functional teams who were responsible for delivering within their areas of impact with falling out of alignment. A key part of my role was to help define and drive methods for alignment while fostering innovation in growth.

Research & Product Design-led initiative to help define growth strategy for APAC; big bet experiments.

The Netflix culture is well-documented and nurtured as a core business asset for the company. The individual contributor has an immense opportunity to grow, explore, experiment, and challenge the status quo. They are also held responsible for delivering and for learning from failures, calling upon one’s self-awareness. What excited me most about my learning and growth as a leader at Netflix was the cross-functional, inclusive forums for contributing to vital organizational decisions about a product, business, or people related topics. I genuinely appreciate individual empowerment, trust, and autonomy - irrespective of title or rank. This instilled a deep sense of accountability and self-motivation to want to perform and exceed expectations.

I joined at a time when the organization was willing to explore unique strategies for growth in markets where the usual growth strategies were not delivering desired results.

As an experienced design leader, you have undoubtedly worked a lot with engineers, developers, and other product folks. How do you think designers and developers should collaborate?

Designers and Developers, along with Product Managers, are key to the quintessential triad of collaboration. If Product Managers help define “what,” and Engineering helps assess “how,” Design is uniquely positioned to ask “why." Designers & Developers are both in the business of making stuff happen!

User-Interface component libraries empower designers to create reusable, scalable systems and help engineers build products with higher accuracy and speed.

We underestimate the value of onboarding internally among our cross-functional teams! A framework and collaborative tools for team empathy could help foster strong collaboration and respect from the get-go.

To bring more rigor to design critiques, tools that can help simulate digital experiences close to how the customer will experience has immense value. Especially as we continue to design for a complex digital ecosystem, multiple platforms (web, responsive, mobile, TV, kiosk, watch, etc.), various screen sizes, formats, low-bandwidth markets, and emerging technologies. Likewise, tools that can automate or streamline recurring tasks in the design process or jobs that are labor-intensive, like defining visual specs, are becoming a need for the current times increasingly.

At Scribd, in partnership with my cross-functional teams and leadership, we were able to explore and employ a few of the tools and workflows suggested above. We delivered robust design solutions across the end-to-end MVP and digital rebrand design across the core product experience.

Creation of UI component library as a strong collaboration between developers and designers.

Your favorite quote is from John Cage, and reads: “The principle underlying all solutions is the question that was asked.” Why is it important for you?

I stumbled upon John Cage’s work during research on my master’s thesis project on the Visual interpretation of poetry. I find John Cage’s work to be original, radical, and awe-inspiring.

As UX designers, we can create impactful design solutions by first getting alignment on the problem statement. And this starts with the questions we ask, the areas of inquiry and curiosity we put forth in order to learn and connect.

Being able to ask insightful, thoughtful, provocative questions can help in understanding a situation, an idea, or even a person. A question can be leading, inviting, or encouraging.

As a parent, I have come to realize if you ask a child or a teenager “How was your day at school?”, you are likely to get a one-word answer “good”, or “ok”!. Reframe your question and ask “What was the most exciting part of your day today?” and you are likely to get more engaging responses!

What is Avocode?

It’s an all-in-one tool for teams that want to code and collaborate on UI design files 2x faster.

Are you working on any personal projects? If yes, can you introduce some?

With the demands of corporate life in Silicon Valley tech, personal projects have played an invaluable role for creative fulfillment, expression, and well-being. Beyond my passion for product design, a few other interests that excite and engage me are visual poetry, sacred geometry, pen n ink sketching, mixed media collage, chanting, amateur guitar player, yoga enthusiast, and experimenting with vegetarian cooking.

The 100 days project was an empowering commitment that allowed me to embrace the chaos in creativity. I created mixed-media collages to explore various aspects of my life experiences. It was a much needed analog mode of expression.

On another occasion, I was keen on leveraging the power of design to support small businesses. I took on branding/ identity work to help a vegan chef sustain his pop-up vegan restaurant that we re-branded to be called Sound and Savor. It was a very enriching experience to work with another creative whose medium is the food he cooks and serves in a communal setting. Chef Phil helped push my creativity by challenging the status quo for typical food and restaurant identity designs. I watched one of his favorite movies “In the Mood for Love” as a source for inspiration and connection with his work.

Given my love for poetry and visual poetry, one of the key deliverables from my Masters’ thesis was a low-fidelity concept prototype for an immersive, interactive visual poetry installation or traveling exhibition; one that would be a blend of sound, sight, interactivity. I am working on manifesting some aspects of this work by mid-2022! Currently I am in the early stages of research, planning, exploring potential collaborators, exploring formats, materials and media. This work is inspired by the poems of Sri Aurobindo Ghosh.

“Beyond…a journey of discovery led by Sri Aurobindo’s Poetry” interactive book and exhibit prototype.

What is the #1 thing that worries you about the current state of digital space and digital products?

The creators of digital experiences are beginning to believe that they can conquer the world we live in and ignore the consequences of an egoistic, single-minded approach to business and design. Instead, we should pay close attention to the role digital experiences play in bringing equality and inclusion for a diverse range of customers.

Digital spaces and products that continue to leverage technology to gain more customers and more revenue, without the willingness to make trade-offs for human well-being, pose an irreversible threat to the planet. Digital experiences need to ideate, create, validate with an urgent sense of collective responsibility. That means, for example, that artificial intelligence should not undermine natural human intelligence, and virtual reality should take on the responsibility to sustain the value of real-life interactions.

A life completely lived online is not compatible with how our species is designed to flourish and thrive.

What would be the one thing you’ve learned over your long career that stuck with you up to this point?

As a designer and design leader for over 12+ years, and more recently as I continue to learn and lead product design for growth, the one thing that has stuck with me--

~Sadhguru

This quote by the prominent Yogi, Mystic, and Author Sadhguru (and one of India’s 50 Most Influential People) has been an essential underpinning to anything and everything I do. I do not always succeed in manifesting this purpose, yet learning and awareness are always with me.

How are you balancing your well-being as a leader working-from-home during this pandemic?

Working from home easily blurs the boundary between home and work. Work-life balance has a renewed significance and is an individual and organizational responsibility.

Personally, I value being able to create my workspace specific to my needs and aesthetic choice! Being at home has allowed me to do so and I am grateful for that. From the basic essentials like a sunlit window area to using an adjustable desk to stand and sit has helped keep some sense of balance. Most evenings end with a walk around my neighborhood to create the transition from work mode to home mode. I miss the commute for that one reason! Funnily enough, the family has had to operate as yet another team with alignment and collaboration on home chores and supporting each other. And last but not least…I continue to make sure that the notorious lunchtime meetings are re-scheduled for everyone’s well-being.

Where is the best place for people to connect with you online?

I’m active on Twitter and LinkedIn. And coming soon, my work-in-progress website at www.chetanadeorah.com.

Bonus Question: What’s your favorite avocado recipe?

Avocado chocolate mousse.

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