In our jobs, family life, and social circles, conflict is difficult to manage. In this 99U Talk, Spotify’s Global VP of Design Director Rochelle King reminds us that tension is essential to any creative endeavor. Instead of running from confrontation King says, “the biggest thing that I’ve learned about dealing with conflict is that it’s fundamentally about the mindset. Explicitly embracing conflict actually allowed me to take control of it.”
Rochelle King is Global VP of Design and User Experience at Spotify where she manages the teams that are responsible for user research and designing the product experience at Spotify. Prior to Spotify, Rochelle was VP of User Experience and Product Services at Netflix. Rochelle has over 14 years of experience working on consumer-facing products.
So over the course of my life, I’ve actually expanded a lot of time and effort trying to avoid this word. It’s uncomfortable. You know, the first time, even if you know someone really well, that first time that you realize that you’re going to have to give them some critical feedback, it just causes me huge pain and discomfort, like someone is grabbing your stomach from the inside plus simultaneously punching you in the heart. And I don’t know if this feeling is familiar to you, but it’s quite distressful. But unfortunately, for me what I found is that in order to do my job well, and especially when I became a manager, I would have to learn to become comfortable with conflict. And actually, over time I also started to realize that I rarely regretted engaging in those conversations. If you think about it, some of the richest conversations that we have are ones where they are really divergent perspectives presented, and we really think about and reinforce those differences through that dialogue. And these are the conversations that actually pushed me the hardest, the ones that were the most painful, but also the ones where I grew and learned the most. And the other thing is that I realized that those prickly people, the ones that we’re always scared of actually confronting, usually welcome it, because there’s hardly anyone that’s brave enough to actually say those things to their face, right.
Now, this is all about personal conflict. And I have been a Netflix and Spotify for the past few years, right at the intersection of data and design. And a lot of people will say that those two things are opposing forces. But what I’ve actually learned is that agitating the creative process by thoughtfully and conscientiously injecting conflict into it can actually be really, really beneficial. It helps to actually facilitate, but also encourage, a better conversation a better dialogue. And that’s true whether it’s with your peers or with your users. So while the anticipation of conflict still does make me quite uncomfortable, especially for an insecure and introverted sometimes person like myself, I’ve also found that actually not only is it necessary, but it can actually be hugely liberating. So I’m going to tell you five things that I’ve learned about how to deal with conflict.
Oh, and as a side note, I was working on this talk when I was on vacation in Japan. So pro tip is that if you use your vacation photos as slides, they’re royalty free. The family in the foreground is not actually my family. My family is being represented here by the small child in the background that’s photo bombing.
So the first thing is that before you even engage in conflict, you want to know what it is that you’re fighting for. And you also want to make sure that it’s actually worth it.
So this is not about being contrarian or disagreeing for the sake of disagreeing and just go around picking fights for no reason. Conflict is exhausting. So before you actually take the time to gather your weapons and put on your armor and then go out into battle, you actually want to make sure the cuts and the bruises that you’re going to get along the way are actually going to be worth it and for something that you actually believe will have an impact. So designers are always talking about frame the problem correctly. Ask me how to cross the river. Don’t tell me to build a boat or build a bridge. We say this all the time, I think. But before we actually think about the task of figuring out how to cross that river, let’s make sure that river is actually worth crossing. Is it going to be more of this foggy landscape? Or will there actually be a beautiful lovely temple on the other side? And before you do that, it’s not only you that needs to believe that it’s worth crossing, but like this general who can’t go into battle without an army behind him that’s actually willing to march in the same direction and fight for the same goal, you’ll also need to make sure that your team is aligned behind you. Because if they don’t believe in that goal, they’re not going to build you a very good boat.
Now, anyone here who works with data knows that having clear success metrics at the very beginning is actually a great way to get everyone aligned to what you’re trying to accomplish. Metrics actually help you to measure both the effort– you know, how hard was it to get across the river? How far did we actually get? But thinking about metrics before you actually embark on that quest means that you can gauge your potential impact to see if it’s actually going to be worth it. Is that goal big enough? Will your efforts actually worth what you’re trying to do? Metrics, I know, sounds like cold numbers, abstracted from the real humans and users that we care about. But I found that by tying those metrics back to real human behavior and articulating them in terms of what people do, it can really help.
So Spotify is a streaming music service. And like many internet companies, one of the things that we care a lot about is engagement. DAU over MAU, daily active users divided by monthly active users. And what this is really measuring is engagement, how many times people are coming back to the service over the course of a month and how sticky your product is. But thinking about designing to increase DAU and MAU feels kind of abstract. So one of the first things that I actually did when I go to Spotify was to partner up with my friends in the analytics team. And we started to think about how we could redefine those metrics back what we wanted our users to actually do. And what we want them to do is to actually play music. I mean, if they’re coming back to our site over and over again, but they’re not actually playing music, then I don’t know that we can call that successful. So rather than talk about whether or not a feature was going to lift DAU over MAU, we can actually start to talk about whether or not a feature was going to get people to play more music. So doing that actually made metrics more accessible to the entire team and also easier to sort of emotionally understand whether or not what you’re going to do was going to have impact. And having that clear vision at the beginning of the process actually really did help to sustain us through those conflicts. So I think that that’s actually something that’s very helpful.
Now once you actually believe that you have a fight that’s worth fighting for, you need to make sure that you’re actually expressing your point of view well. And I know that I always feel better walking into a conflict if I’m prepared.
So how many of you here have done debate in high school or middle school? There’s like some nerds like me that did that. So when I was actually at Netflix, we actually saw debate as pretty foundational to the company culture. But not everyone actually likes to debate. And not everyone is actually really good at it. And think about what a huge disadvantage that is if you’re not good at articulating your points in a company whose culture is all around debate. So one of the things that the head of product and I did was that we got together and thought, hey, let’s actually stage some debates. No, really, like high school with a stage and podiums. And we even experimented with formats. So we did the Lincoln Douglas format, which is one on one, and the Australia Asia format, which is three teams, or teams of three rather. And so what actually happened is that we actually also used real topics that were hot in the company at that time to be the things that we would debate. So things like Netflix has a culture of fear, pro and con. Or we are too dependent on our data, pro and con. And sometimes what we would do is actually assign topics to people that were against what they might normally argue. Like the time that I actually had to argue against the statement better visual design can improve retention. Now admittedly, not everyone liked it or was comfortable with it. But people did actually get better at it when they did it over time. I actually loved it. The reasons why is what we were creating by having this staged debate is to have a safe environment, where people were just practicing and performing. It’s kind of like this staged fight. And in the spirit of actually trying to win at all costs, I found that people were even more brave. To build their case, they would say some of the things that people were thinking in their heads, but weren’t willing to say publicly, or maybe the things that you heard whispered in the hall. So that was actually very liberty liberating.
There’s nothing better actually than building your skill at how to formulate a clear argument and how to structure that argument than doing it on stage in front of all of your peers. So one of the best ways to win an argument is actually to be able to state the opposing view better than your opponent can themselves. And one thing that’s actually really great about that is it also makes your opponent understand that you understand where they’re coming from and that you can kind of empathize with them. So being comfortable in engaging in debate around your ideas is actually really, really helpful before you go into that process of building out your ideas.
OK, so I’m not sure if this is going to sound familiar to you. But the first thing that I like to do when I have a brilliant idea is to run out and find someone to share that with because I need to bask in the glory of my mind with other people. And if I’m being honest, the person that I usually look for is a kindred spirit, probably another designer, someone who thinks like me, who’s going to high five me because they totally get it because it resonates with them. And the risk here, especially when it’s in the early stages of exploration, is that you start to drive down this path of more of the same, with people just reinforcing that brilliant idea. So even though you might feel that at this point your idea is kind of like this precious baby that’s just been born and you need to protect it and keep it until it’s grown up, This is actually the best time to go out and seek your enemy and feed that idea to the wolves. So who’s your enemy? I think you all know who your enemy is. There’s someone at work that you’re constantly butting heads with because you disagree on every single point, at least I have that person. I know who that is. I won’t say that here. And what I do is I actually do the kind of avoid them at the coffee machine so that we don’t need to get into that discussion and all kinds of other bad behavior like that. But actually, actively seeking out that person at this stage to critique your idea, even though it doesn’t sound like fun, is actually a really good thing. One, you’re getting feedback on that idea from the person who you perceive to be the most the vicious opponent to it before the stakes get too high. It’s better that they tear your idea down one on one when you’re actually ready for it rather than in a room full of people. And you actually build a better relationship with your “enemy,” because, again, to be honest, you can’t have a meaningful argument with someone unless you actually respect them or their opinion. And inviting them to push against your idea acknowledges this whether or not you want to admit it. I’m always very transparent when I do this. I always go up to that person and say, hey, listen, you and I, we always disagree. And that’s kind of why I want to run this idea by you. And what’s nice about that is that your opponent is often really open to participating. And in fact, they embrace playing this role of fighting against your idea. And the best thing is that it’s not personal. It becomes this academic exercise. So thinking conflict at this early stage from people who think really, really differently from you and often disagree with you can actually help to push those ideas further. And it also makes you less attached and less precious about these babies, so that you can actually be more open to exploring.
Now at some point, you need to find a way to resolve your conflicts. And there’s usually many effective ways to do this. You can discuss and then reach consensus. You can maybe find someone that you’re assigning to just make the decision. But in product development, you can often turn to your users. We can say, hey, we’re not going to make this decision internally. We’re going to make a couple of different versions of our product and put it out to the public. And we’re going to let the data tell us which is the one that performs the best. And I know that saying that you’re leaving it up to numbers and data to make a decision can sometimes feel very disempowering, you’re taking your voice out of that decision making process. But what I like to recognize is that behind each point of data is a person. And that this data helps us have a conversation with our users about what they’re doing in our application and what’s working for them and what’s not working for them. And data becomes this language that they’re using to communicate with us, so that it helps us to become more empathetic to them. Now, with any person, you can have a boring and uninteresting conversation, or you can have a very meaningful conversation. And this is actually the same thing when you’re having that conversation with millions of people through data. You actually want to start to design experiences then that elicit a strong and clear response. So conflict can be helpful here as well. And if we think back to having those rich conversations that I mentioned earlier, presenting your users with as many feasible and differentiated solutions as possible with differences that they can actually recognize– not differences that you recognize. You are like, these are so different– actually does help them to articulate what’s important to them.
So if you were to have a conversation with your users about whether they choose the strawberry on the left or the strawberry on the right, that’s probably not that interesting a conversation because the conflict between these two choices isn’t very strong, even though the one on the left actually costs $5 and the one on the right costs $3 and they’re individually wrapped, because Japanese people are crazy about their fruits. But actually think about designing a conversation with your users about whether they choose an apple or an orange or a strawberry. And that’s probably a little bit more interesting because when the differences between those choices are more pronounced, it’s easier for them to have a stronger opinion about which side they would pick. So as a designer, it’s actually within your power to choose whether you’re going to design that conversation to be about strawberries versus strawberries or strawberries, apples, and oranges. And if you think about it, which conversation do you think you’ll learn more from? So reaching a conclusion, especially when you’re using data to resolve that conflict, is generally more motivated by learning than it is about winning.
So when you go to the temples in Japan, you can actually get your fortune told. And if you get a bad fortune, you can tie it to these strings. And that’s supposed to make it go away. When I did it two weeks ago, I think I got the second worst fortune from the bottom. It’s like none of your dreams will come true. Watch out for your health. It’s great. So, of course, I tied it to one of these strings, even though not superstitious, right. But just like I tied my fortune to that string, I am actually still looking for ways to avoid conflict, but only to be smart about it.
So you’re going to have indulge me for a second in this little story. I used to play Japanese drums, taiko drums. And my teacher, my sensei, was this super old school Japanese guy. He was really, really strict and very disciplined and actually very scary. And there’s this one time where I playing this thing. And I kept making the same mistake over and over again. And then he’d call me on it. And then I’d play again and make the same mistake again. And then finally he came up to me and he said, hey, so you go for a walk in the woods. And you walk, walk, walk, walk, walk. And then bam, you hit your head against a tree. The next day, you go for a walk in the woods, same walk, and you walk, walk, walk, walk. And bam, you hit your against a tree. In Japan, we call this stupid. Do you call this something different in America? And, yes, of course, this is stupid in America too. If you’re going to walk every day down the same path, then you should be paying attention to the things that are around you, so that you don’t walk into a tree again. And for some reason this metaphor really resonated so much with me.
So I started to try to look for patterns when I was experiencing that conflict. And these could be patterns that you recognize in the subject matter of the conflict. It might be patterns that you actually see how the process that you’re using to approach the conflict or maybe how you’re resolving it. And if you find those common theme, you can take a step back and see that bigger picture. And what you learn from each of those confrontations, you then start to apply to future ones so that you don’t have to have them anymore.
So the design team at Spotify is actually relatively new. And as we were establishing ourselves, we would find that we’d have to build a case and argue for things that we really thought were important to design. And one of these things was really taking the time to fix design quality before launch. But actually, when we’d say this what the organization would hear was, oh, you want to take a lot more time and polish every little thing, and you actually want to slow down shipping by like three months. And actually, of course, no, we didn’t want to slow down shipping by three months. But what we realized is that we could actually just start submitting design bugs into the system and then no one complained. And what we learned was that instead of standing on the soapbox and just preaching about design quality over and over again, we should start embrace the system and the languages that were already being used by our tech teams to refer to how we talk about design. So we started to talk about experiences that had really poor usability as UX crashes, things like this. So again, resolving conflict here was a lot more about learning then it was about winning.
So the biggest thing that I’ve learned about dealing with conflict is that it’s fundamentally about the mindset. Explicitly embracing conflict actually allowed me to take control of it. And then practicing engaging in that conflict made it palatable. So honestly conflict is still super scary to me. It’s still uncomfortable. But what I have learned is that it’s one of the most effective tools at pushing forward that creative process. Thank you.