How does a self-described “technological Luddite” run the design team at Sonos, which brings a world-class sound experience to the home?
In this episode, Sonos VP of Design Tad Toulis shows us:
Listen to the full interview in iTunes here.
Josh: Let’s start by understanding what you do as the VP of Design at Sonos. Can you give us a little insight into what that actually means?
Tad: First, I should describe what Sonos is. Sonos is a streaming speaker system that allows anyone to enjoy epic sound in one room or all of the rooms of their home. The fascinating thing about Sonos is that it’s a value proposition that really needs to be experienced to be totally understood.
It really does change your attitude towards music, and it does make you listen and consume a lot more music, because it creates a contiguous base for that sound. It influences the way you live your life and we find some pretty amazing behaviors happen around it.
My job as Vice President of Design, is to reconcile these various parts of the design problem inside of Sonos and make sure that they’re working well with other parts of the organization. So inside my department I have documentation which is the stuff on the box and the packaging as well as the literature that supports the product. We have the packaging itself, industrial design, interaction design and a discipline of CMF [color material and finish], as well as user research.
You’ve said that your job is to reconcile various parts of the design problem within the organization. What do you mean by that?
Well, the goal of design increasingly is to deliver and render experiences to end users. And so all the pieces I just enumerated are all really in the service of creating an experience. There is obviously a big set of skills inside the design discipline that help that happen, but clearly we have to work with other partners inside the organization, whether it’s manufacturing, or brand, or marketing, or technical teams, or the acoustics teams. All those pieces have to work well together in order to deliver something of merit that’s compelling to the end user.
My role in the company is making sure that we’re partnering well and that the activities inside design are pushing the organization in the right ways while also working well and educating the rest of the organization of how to leverage design.
So how do you actually do that? Do you have people who are sitting on those teams? Do you have people who are responsible for different portions, for example, is somebody is responsible for interacting with manufacturing or with acoustics or marketing or technical?
That’s a great question and one that I’m constantly experimenting with because again my goal is to create an organization that supports developmental experiences.
The way that breaks down in very general terms is that there’s a hardware component to our work and there’s a software component to the work. Inside of that there are sort of different parties that my team interacts with. As you can imagine, the industrial designers are spending a lot of time dealing with mechanical engineering, acoustic teams, antennae teams and they’re spending time in the field in Asia with manufacturing and sourcing and so forth. That part of the universe is pretty much dedicated to those functions.
On the software side, we have interaction design, experience design, which is working a lot with PMs and with software teams as well as with user research. User research is really a tool that sits across the entirety of my organization because we do both qualitative and quantitative user research. That’s really about finding great insights and tracking them through a variety of things, like ethnographic research, in field visits and so forth.
We’re increasingly noticing there’s some core skills that have to sit across everything. User research is a great example of that. There are some new roles we’ve started building that really focus on making sure that the experience arc for users is coherent from beginning to end across all the parts of that equation.
For example, we want to know, what does it mean to order the product? What does it mean to unbox the product? What does it mean to set up the product? What is the documentation around that process? What is the experience of first setting up that product? What are the sounds they hear that are confirmations?
You have components like acoustic design and sound branding, and all these pieces have the gel in a way that feel like they’re natural parts of the whole. That’s really where I try to focus my energy: to make sure those things are coming together. This means telling stories and advocating across all parts of the company.
The idea of a coherent experience arc is really interesting. How do you think about designing or creating what that experience arc should feel like for a customer?
I think the way we do it is not that dissimilar from other people. You create stories and narratives that you try to deliver against. I am learning - and I think this is the new open water for design right now - how hardware and software blend to create these experience.
I think the most important thing is to have the ability to be a good actor in some sense, which is to go outside of yourself and imagine what this is experience for someone who’s never done this before. Part of that comes through great user research.
It’s funny, when I was a younger designer, I was massively interested in user research, probably because of how I grew up. My sister is an anthropologist by training, so that was one peg. My mother taught the social significance of dress. So the idea of people’s behaviors and how they have influenced outcomes and things has always fascinated me.
The challenge there is to do good user research, find those insights but be smart about the fact that you don’t just have to take at face value what you learn in the field. You need to reconcile those observations with what you’re trying to achieve as a company.
And that’s the fascinating delta. It always makes me think about the Henry Ford quote, that if I ask people what they want, they’d want a faster horse. And so you have to figure out: This is what they’re saying, but maybe this is what they mean. Or: This is what we’re trying to convey to them and they’re not getting it, so it doesn’t mean that we abandon what we’re trying to say to them, it means we work harder to understand how to communicate in a way that resonates with them authentically.
That part requires designers to have great empathy. Lots of people talk about it. It’s super important. I am not technically proficient. I joke that I’m kind of a Luddite. I don’t particularly love technology. I love what technology can do, but I don’t just accept it like at face value. I think the trick is to kind of be like Pablo Picasso, who I believe said, it took me a whole lifetime to draw like a child. You’ve got to stay naïve. And that’s really when you know you’re in the right zone, where you understand everything but you have deep empathy and can understand the end user’s perspective.
You touched on the blend between hardware and software. We see that here at Canary too. Why is that different? What does that combination present?
Let me backtrack a second. One of the things that excited me about Sonos was the prospect of the hardware-software combination, right? Like, coming up, I was trained as an industrial designer as a graduate student. My undergraduate was English Lit and Fine Arts. A lot of liberal arts stuff.
Having come up through the arm of industrial design and then mutated like a lot of designers into more abstract problems, creative direction and things like that, what always fascinated me was, what does it mean for all this stuff to come together, and what does it mean to be in a place where you can make that happen?
I think what’s happening now is that it’s this idea that the future is the past, but different. And I think we’re sitting on the cusp of a time when the objects themselves will be the interface as much as the classic interface that we’ve come to know through screens. Screens are a great device for conveying pretty abstract ideas and complicated functions in one common object. But technology has matured so much that now its challenge is to meet people as they are. If you talk about voice or you talk about biosensors, there is this coming wave of technologies that are increasingly trying to refine themselves to orient to the user on their own terms.
You said before that you’re not into technology for the sake of technology and you try to stay naïve in your approach. You’re surrounded by some incredibly interesting technology. How do you keep yourself in that mindset?
Tad: Partly I think it’s a little bit some dumb luck in the way my brain thinks. But I think… like I break stuff all the time. Like, I find bugs and I find stuff and people like, that never happens. And it happens to me all the time, right? Whether my chemistry is charged in some weird way, I find stuff all the time. I also am a pretty high energy person, so when things don’t work I’m easily frustrated especially when they create what I believe is unnecessary complexity. And I’m surrounded by people, even in my team, that I think are the same way. They’re so exposed to technology that they start to see like the theme, like the forest for the trees mindset. And so I think the way you stay naïve is you obviously you get exposed to a lot of stuff but you think increasingly just like in any design problem like what is the goal of this interaction? One of my colleagues, Christian Louis, who is our director of user research, has this great story she talks about. We’ve kind of turned it into a myth inside the design team called the job of the milkshake, right? Which is kind of, what is the service the product offers, right? What is the work that the product does, whether it’s hardware or software? And without getting into detail about where that title came from, the shorthand is that they discovered that milkshake served as a breakfast because they’re drinkable in a commute. And they were selling at a particularly odd time of day in the morning and they didn’t understand why. So when we talk about what is the job of a milkshake, and I know other organizations talk about like what is the job of the product, what you’re trying to think about is like, what value does it bring and how clearly can we present that value to the user? Because when things go wrong, I think people have relied on in-thinking, group-thinking, templated thinking, leveraging architectures of how to navigate through a problem that maybe should be reconsidered. I mean, we see that, we were just in a review the other day, and there’s a lot of stuff going on in our category where there’s a certain like visual vocabulary of how to handle certain problems. And that makes a lot of sense. But one could also ask if you stepped one step away from the problem and ask, what are we trying to communicate in this moment of the experience, you might be able to think of new ways of presenting that problem. But the problem is, we’re all working very quickly and very fast, and so oftentimes you end up leveraging things without always unpacking their core meaning. Does that make sense?
Josh: It does. When you way that there’s a visual vocabulary to handle certain problems, can you give me an example? I’m not quite catching that.
Tad: Well, I mean, at the highest level, you know, there are transport controls in every media interface, right? Fast forward, pause, play. And of course those make a lot of sense, right? Then there are other things increasingly like how you steer that experience in the music space with thumbs up, thumbs down, heart. And all of these things make a lot of sense. The question – and they all work – the question, increasingly, as this space get more mainstream and more crowded, is to be able to understand why they exist, what real purpose they serve, so that we can choose to make good choices about how they appear in our experience, whether they’re first level in the experience or secondary parts of the experience. But that’s really just the process of being very good at stepping back, taking a knee, reminding yourself what you’re trying to achieve versus just automatically playing it forward without any sort of reflection on that.
Do you find that it’s hard to, either yourself or to get others, to step back and take a knee? I feel like the pace in companies like ours is sometimes so fast. We’re trying to accomplish so much in such a short period of time and frankly we’re racing a lot of the time.
You’re absolutely right. t’s funny how it’s changed for me. When I lived in San Francisco, I used to have an old Honda CB160 bike, and I used to just take a ride out of the office to flush my mind when I was feeling like I was stuck on a problem. So the old advice, take a walk – it’s super important and people don’t do it enough.
I think the nominal bar now that I told the team to do is book your time, right? People, I mean it’s well documented, that’s not the focus of this conversation, but like the technology is addictive and it stimulates you and it drives you into patterns that if you’re not paying attention, you fall victim to. And I book my time. I encourage my team to book their time. They’re not always good about it. But it’s amazing how something about the way that technology intrudes on your life is very compelling. There’s a great quote which I won’t be able to pull up, about like the thing about information overload is that it’s like both like charming and compelling and like nerve wrecking at the same time. But I think the thing is, I book time and encourage my people to book their time, I encourage people to ask what is the agenda at the meeting they’re being called to. If it’s not well-articulated, you know, then maybe don’t go. But make sure you’ve communicated to the person that you’re not going and why you’re not going rather than just be a no show. But I think people are very sloppy with technology. And that’s a challenge. And I think this picks up on what I was saying about, you know, step back, be empathetic, what is the core purpose of something. And that’s a really important skill that I think everyone today should be cultivating who lives in sort of a modernized, which I guess is the whole planet now, but like in a modernized contact and there are many low level distractions that are not of any consequence. And I think that’s a real value that should be you know taught to kids in school, should be trained in organizations just as much as these sort of pithier concepts of no email or a limited amount of email per day. Those are all great techniques. But I think there is a bigger concept there which is how do you reserve time for quality thinking versus reactionary thinking?
Tad: Well, this is a really interesting cross-over which is like, the thing that’s sort of fascinating about this category and why I am, I pinch myself even on the hardest day, and there are some very long, hard days, around the idea that I have been able to end up in an intersection where hardware and software, my interest in people and something as you know just flat out phenomenal as music is in the mix. And let me tell you where the crossover is. Music is deeply resonant with people in a variety of ways. But one of the ways it’s impactful with people is that it’s emotionally uplifting, it’s empowering, it’s reflective, right? And it can create a few very subtle like insinuation. Like you can start listening to a track or arbitrarily hear something and take a moment and listen to it. And I think that’s one of the amazing things about this category, is like, music is an amazing piece of art that people touch base with almost every day. Like I wish people went to museums all the time. I’m a big museum [unclear 23:11]. I live a few blocks from Lacma and that’s just by happenstance, I didn’t plan it. But the thing about music is like music gets you back in touch with yourself and with a rhythm that’s much more organic and human. And I think that’s why it’s powerful for people, right? The technology will drive you to behave in a way that’s appropriate for the technology, and the music and the solutions we’re trying to develop for people need to increasingly conform to human behavior while expressing the genuine flat out awesomeness that is Sonos’ proposition, right? And that’s why I’m so excited about it. It’s not a productivity only problem, right? This is a subjective, elective category, which means that it enables us as designers to experiment with ideas and in a way to present things that are different than just say like how can I get more music listening in in the next hour, right? Like, no. How can you get more music into your life, right? That’s really the way to think about it. And I think the reason why people are fanatical about it who do have Sonos is they realize how it creates more sort of personal time, more family time. We just did a piece with Apple, I believe it was, where we put a bunch of, we tested people who didn’t have music in their home and then we gave them equipment to listen to music. And the testimonies were pretty compelling, that like all of a sudden they had like, it felt like they were spending more time with their family, they were talking more, they were spending more significant time with their spouse, regardless, it was kind of soft science, right? But regardless, we know this to be true, like we know that people who have Sonos in their home profess and express a lot of change in how they’re living, that feels much more emotionally satisfying to them than this sort of productivity focused mania is easy to get carried away with.
I’ll tell you the one thing that’s been really fascinating. When I first came to Sonos, I was obsessed, and I mean really obsessed, with understanding the relationship between music and design. And I believed that they’re both deeply experiential. Without boring you with a lot of detail, I think the thing is that music, design and ultimately experience are about the sort of emotional resonance and rightness.
Taylor Swift is not wrong. Jack White is not right. I might be more on the spectrum of Jack White but there’s no right or wrong. There’s relevance and rightness for the person who’s experiencing it. And one of the things that I know like in my own experience that’s kind of set me apart from other designers is this: like any designer, I have a fascistic point of view of what I think the world should be like. But as I’ve grown and lived in the world and done other things I realized that it’s more about finding people who share your interests and hoping that you can connect with a broad enough base by opening up about the way you think about the problem to bring value to people who might otherwise never have immediately sees what you’re going after.
I think that’s the really fascinating thing that I think about all the time and encourage my team to think about all the time, is the interplay of how all these things - the music, the experience and the design - have a ton of subjective decisions that are the force multiplier that creates value and love for the end user.
There has to be a base line of mostly right, but the thing that makes people orient into Taylor Swift over Jack White is totally personal. And that’s the thing that I think is fascinating about design and the thing that’s fascinating about the experience, and where the technologies are now giving us a much more nuanced brush by which to deliver those experiences than we used to.
[This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity]