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039: Good Designers are Good at Business with Joe Leech

User Defenders podcast
User Defenders podcast
Product Management
039: Good Designers are Good at Business with Joe Leech

User Defenders "Mr. Joe" Joe Leech

Joe Leech shows us how psychology helps frame what we’re seeing in user research. He articulates why the superpower we need is understanding how business works. He inspires us get out of our seat and talk to executives in the organization more about the business. He also challenges us to not just always be shipping, but always be shipping the right things.

Mr. Joe Leech, Joe to his friends is a user experience consultant based in Bristol, UK. He’s the author of “Psychology for Designers”. He’s a 13 year UX veteran who’s worked with organizations like MoMa, Raspberry Pi, Disney, eBay and Marriott. He’s a recovering neuroscientist who spent a spell as an elementary school teacher. He’s also the Series Editor of Aspects of UX, a book series on UX from He once had a sauna with Meatloaf (the rock star, not the food).


  • Secret Identity/Origin Story (4:39)
  • Biggest Superhero (14:50)
  • Biggest Failure (22:37)
  • Awkward Testing Story (30:03)
  • Design Superpower (32:03)
  • Design Kryptonite (33:34)
  • Design Superhero Name (36:52)
  • Fight For Users (42:03)
  • Psychology & Design (43:05)
  • Habit Of Success (49:48)
  • Invincible Resource (51:26)
  • Book Recommendation (54:40)
  • Best Advice (57:49)
  • Contact Info (59:46)

Joe Leech’s Twitter
Joe Leech’s Website

[RESOURCE] Excel spreadsheet that shows the business case for what they’re doing.
Business Model Generation [BOOK]
Value Proposition Design [BOOK]
Gross Psychology [BOOK]

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Jason: Joe what’s your design superpower?

Joe: Oh that’s a good question. So my design superpower’s getting stuff done, and getting stuff done, getting stuff launched, getting stuff out there into the world. So yeah I work more recently with lots of startups so the power I have with them is to get them from an idea to launch really quite quickly. So making the right decisions both from a business point of view from a user point of view and getting stuff done quickly so definitely my superpower is getting the right stuff done really quickly and for the right reasons. That’s certainly where I can bring value and I bring the most value I hope to stuff that I work on.

Jason: I love it. Always be shipping and shipping the right things.

Joe: Always be shipping the right things! It’s not just always be shipping, it’s shipping the right stuff. It’s not the minimum viable product, it’s just the right product at the right time. There’s loads of stuff around that I can talk about around startups not having very good business plans, but that’s maybe a different question for a different day.

Jason: Maybe that’s another interview, another day.

Joe: Sounds like it.

Jason: Adversely, Joe what’s your design kryptonite?

Joe: So the organizations the I struggle to work with the most are certainly Silicon Valley startups who don’t have a business plan, or their business plan is get bought by Google, Microsoft, Facebook or somebody else. I know that I succeed in organizations that have solid business goals and are looking to be successful and know how to be successful.

And if a startup’s goal is basically to be acquired, I really struggle to help that organization make the right decisions to do it because it stops being about being a successful business or a successful start up or meeting user needs. It starts to be about how can we look attractive to a big Silicon Valley company, and definitely that’s my kryptonite is no real business plan. It scares me in fact when I would come across organizations that don’t have them. I don’t work with startups that don’t have them or unless they want me to help them build one. That no that’s my definitely my design Kryptonite is being is you know exit strategy being bought by Facebook.

Jason: Definitely yeah I knew you really spelled it out earlier too when you when you touched on knowing the business and such and I am so glad you did that. And again there’s there’s so much takeaway for all of us but I think about how much money is being wasted. Right? When the wrong things are being built. I think the bigger issue here is is people’s jobs in many ways right? Because if they’re wasting money building the wrong things and we don’t have the right research what happens is that money goes away and there’s no ROI like you said. And guess who suffers? The people and their jobs. It can be very scary to build the wrong thing right?

Joe: I know and my advice for anybody out there if you’re looking to take a job with a startup ask that question into the what is your business plan how to make money. And if our business plan is to get bought by somebody like Facebook and Instagram with somebody you know Facebook Google or something like that. Just be careful because that this case you know the unicorns that get out there’s a billion dollar companies they get bought by people that they’re so few and far between and you know that’s a risk. But these go into that risk with your eyes open you know knowing that you could be a multimillionaire if it goes the right way.

But you know there’s 99.99% chance you’re going to be out of a job within the year when they run out of room. Why? Because they’ve got no business plan or you know they’re already on their second pivot. Organizations on this startups on the second pivot or even their first pivot. Just be careful because if they haven’t got that kind of clarity of vision and direction the chances are that they’re not going to be particularly successful. So yeah always ask that question in the job interview. You know what is your exit plan? You know have you got a business plan? Can you talk it through with me? And then you’ll know, so you don’t get yourself into that position because it’s such a shame that people do.

Jason: Yeah that is great advice. So I’m going to go ahead and commit a cardinal sin here of user interviews and I’m going to bias you by saying I would venture that maybe your answer is Mr. Joe but what would your superhero name be?

Joe: It’s not particularly undercover is it. It’s like Superman putting on glasses becoming Clark Kent. I end up sounding a bit boring like “business guy”. But then that’s all that presupposes my uniform is like some sort of suit but it’s really not. I mean I suppose psychology guy just makes me sound a bit creepy. So it’s quite hard to really decide say what is my superhero name. Yeah.

I like Mr. Joe. Mr. Joe’s got to be my superhero name. I mean Mr. J if I’m undercover something like that.

Jason: I had a feeling and that’s why I had to put my little bias in there. But yeah that’s cool. It’s funny you mentioned Superman too. When you think about superheroes in which which I’m obviously very inspired by and have been for a long time it’s funny how Superman is one of the only heroes that has to put on a costume to be normal. Right? Isn’t that interesting? Everyone else is kind of the opposite way. But he has to like put on a costume to really be a normal guy because he’s just so powerful. But I don’t know where I was going with that but I just I always thought that was really fascinating.

Joe: You know it’s true actually. This is something else to be wary of as well. I spend a lot of time with C level executives and I find that they’re often the same way. So one of the big things that I chose to do with my life was that I only work four days a week and I am very strict to my work day. I don’t really work more than sort of seven hours a day. Because for me it’s something that’s really important because what can end up happening is your job becomes something to define who you are and you end up like that so you end up on that Saturday morning, you know you’re dressed down. It’s like you don’t wear a tie you’re wearing the same shirt you wear is tucked into your slacks and you’ve got your brown work shoes on because you haven’t got civilian clothes anymore. You got to be really careful of not working too hard and your job defining you when you wake up suddenly one day and you’re 50 and you know you find yourself just wearing the same clothes that you wore to work the day before just with no tie. And that’s the last place anybody really wants to be. So there there’s something to be said about your superman analogy there. Certainly Jason.

Jason: I love that and I envy you my friend but I think it’s a testament to your GSD. You know get stuff done philosophy. I don’t think we need I think eight hours is a day is a myth. I think it’s something that Rockefeller came up with the factories right?

Joe: I read the study that was done it was done by the Victorians in fact by Victorian Vacheron and they wanted an efficiency study. It’s part this whole thing called the Hawthorn effect, which is interesting. The Hawthorn Effect is this study was done in the 1920s is a time and motion study related to luminosity. The lights in a factory. And they did the study where they got these scientists in white coats with clipboards to measure productivity of factory workers at 100 percent at different light levels. So they did that based on 100 percent luminosity. You know they noted down how productive people were.

They then reduced the lights to 80% and noted down productivity 60% and they didn’t see any reduction in productivity. They kept lowering the lights down to 40 percent. Still no reduction in productivity. They got lights down to about 6% luminosity and productivity was still up. This notion of 100%. And the reality was is the reason that you know productivity was high was because there were men in white coats with clipboards watching factory workers work. It was nothing to do with the lights. And I think a lot of work time is based upon these outdated modal theories of a scientist watching with a clipboard to see how productive you are. Eight hours is no where near the most productive amount of time you can work.

Jason: Absolutely. And I’m going to tell this story real quick that’s related and I’ve told it before I believe it was on Nikkel Blaase’s episode, but it’s about Henry Ford. And you probably know the story Joe. Henry Ford once tired an efficiency expert to go through his plant to find the unproductive workers. The expert made the rounds with his clipboard in hand and he finally returned to Ford’s office with his report and he said, “I’ve found a problem with one of your administrators”, he said. “Every time I walk by. He was sitting with his feet propped up on the desk and the man never does a thing. I definitely think you should consider getting rid of him.” Fire the guy right. And when he when Henry Ford learned the name of the man the expert was referring to, Ford shook his head and said that that man had once come up with an idea that saved the company millions and that he thought of it with his feet in the same position. “You call it procrastinating I call it thinking.” Aaron Sorkin says that.

Joe: Absolutely. So true.

Jason: So I’d like to ask you one of my favorite lines from Tron was when he said I fight for the users. How do you fight for your users?

Joe: I fight for my uses by framing their requests in terms of their needs in terms of either psychology or business or something that gives them or amplifies their voice into something stronger.

So a user saying oh I find this difficult to use or I wouldn’t use this thing is only a step in the right direction to fixing and dealing with that problem. They need their, effictively needs amplified by the business which we talked about a lot of psychology so some justification for why that person is saying what they’re saying and some effective way of fixing that on a larger scale. So I think that I fight for users by amplifying their needs so loudly that businesses can’t say no.

Jason: Ah, so good. Yes, definitely identify the needs and then justify the business need and build something cool. I think maybe in that and maybe in that order.

I want to talk about psychology and design and this is this is your wheelhouse and I would feel remiss, and I think my listeners our Defenders would want to punch me if I didn’t try to dig a little deeper into the correlation between psychology and design. What is the correlation Joe between psychology and design?

Joe: Ok I’ll let you all into a little secret here. You can buy my book and you can maybe figure this out.

Jason: Definitely buy the book Defenders, it’s really great.

It’s only a few pounds. It’s quite cheap anyway. Anyway the key with using psychology is psychology helps you frame what you are seeing in user research. So it helps you effectively describe at a high level what you’re seeing and what your users are doing. On one hand, 50% of it describes existing user behavior.

The challenging and most useful part of psychology’s the other 50% which is effectively prescribing what would happen in a given situation so using psychology to say if we all these variables are in line this is what will happen at the end.

So good example is I give is that so an experiment was done in a cafeteria where they had an honesty box if people come in and they would take tea or coffee. And in this case milk and they would pay a few pence dollars and be honest about how much coffee or tea or milk they drank. And so these psychologists had this idea that on this honesty box they would try a number of different images to see if an image would make people more honest or not. And they tried a number of them and the one that ended up working was a pair of eyes looking straight at that person. So when that image was placed upon the honesty box people were more honest and the amount of money they gave for that tea/coffee/milk went up. And this is a classic example of a prescriptive psychology. It describes the fact that if you want your users to be more honest so I’ve used this in software for health insurance companies and health insurance companies classically asked the question, “Have you smoked a cigarette in the last two years?” And most people will know that when they are on a health insurance Web site and if they answer yes to that they know that premium is going to go up. Right? Classic. So I’ve worked with health insurance companies to make it so people will be more honest because you know we want people who smoke to pay high premiums because if people lie on their health insurance policies all of our health insurance policies go up because they can’t spot the difference between a smoker and a not.

So I’ve worked with a health insurance company to do that to put a picture of. In fact this was that celebrity who backs their TV advertising for this health insurance, put them on the page next to this particular question looking at them in a stern manner and we spotted a marked increase in the amount of people that answered honestly to that question that said yes I had smoked a cigarette the last two years. And that’s the other half of it saying that 50% of psychology is prescriptive is saying if we do this thing then this this behavior will happen.

And so my book is all about how you uncover the prescriptive psychology. How do you uncover the psychology that’s going to tell you if you do something then this thing will most likely happen. But if you heard my introduction earlier on about the body language book (How To Read A Person Like a Book). That’s classic prescriptive psychology, and that taught me an important lesson back when I was 15. However well a study within psychology theory how much evidence there is to point out that if you do something like this, then this will happen. The reality is is that’s never the case. And so psychology could be great. To give you ideas about how to nudge people in that direction you can’t 100 percent guarantee that it’s going to work because we are complicated people because psychology isn’t a refined science like physics. There isn’t a definitive yes or no answer. So let’s talk a lot about in my book about how to find and assess psychology to know if it’s going to be successful or not. How do you know the good psychology from the bad psychology.

How do you know what psychology is going to work in which situation and why. And I do my best in my book to help you give you a framework to figure that sort of stuff out.

Jason: Awesome. Yeah I love the idea of predictive behavior too. And I think that’s a huge takeaway for all of us especially as we’re in design and we’re trying to design solutions. So I feel like the predictive part of that is truly valuable because we are trying to get users to do something. We’re trying to guide them and that’s up to us. Right? I mean first of all we identify the problems we’re having. But then we have to give them an interface we have to give them something a solution to solve that problem. And I think that for me the takeaway is that the more we understand people and the more we understand behavior. I think that the better and more optimal and effective our designs are going to be. And I kind of thought about that I don’t know if this is the best analogy or not but I kind of thought about it in this way like not understanding not taking the time to really understand people, understand behaviors and mental models to me not understanding it’s like playing a slot machine with your design. Like you put the quarter in, and you pull the handle and you just hope something sticks. You hope you get the three cherries or whatever it is.

But but on the other hand, understanding people and understanding psychology theory I think it’s almost like, remember in Back to the Future remember whenever he went into the future he found out who won the World Series and then he went back and bet on it. It’s kind of like that like it’s more of a it’s more of a sure bet right. I mean you can never be completely 100% sure when you’re dealing with people because everyone so different but you certainly get a lot better odds don’t you?

Joe: So true. It’s like I always say that a designer who doesn’t understand psychology is going to be no more successful than an architect who doesn’t understand physics. You need to know the building blocks of the medium you’re working in. And if you don’t understand that in architecture it’s engineering, it’s physics you need to know if a building was going to fall down or not if you don’t know enough about how people think and behave and feel, you’re not going to be successful designer because that’s ultimately the medium you’re working in. You’re not working in the medium of Photoshop, or Sketch or Omnigraffle or anything like that you’re working in the medium of communication and people and society. If you don’t understand that at a fundamental level you’re not going to be a successful designer…you’re really not.

Jason: Let’s wrap up the show with the imparting of superpowers. What’s one habit that you believe contributes to your success?

Joe: I guess is having a number of tools in my toolbox and knowing which tool to use any one time.

So I’ve talked about a few of them actually today. I’ve talked about business, I’ve talked about psychology, I’ve talked about “whiz-bang” and innovation. Is that you as a UX’er have got to decide which of those methods of advocacy of your ideas is going to be the most successful. So I’ve got a conference talk on this and you can think about which is called “How to design the science” but effectively it is the idea that you need to decide. You’ve got a great design idea and great design is only 50% of the problem solved. You’ve got to go advocate that design idea to the wider project team you’re working with. And so I use a number of different tools: I might use business, I might use psychology, I might use a story of how a user’s done something, emotional things. I might use innovation and blue sky thinking. But whatever it is I’m very very clear on that tool that I use to get that job done to get that piece of design work launched to convince the team that this is a good idea and it’s as a skill I’ll impart is understanding and having a different set of tools for different individuals that you’re working with understanding which buttons will work.

You know if you’re working with the finance guy, absolutely business is going to work. If you’re working with a empathetic communicator, then stories of what user’s are doing is going to work. If you’re working with a data guy then psychology might work. But you need to know and get to pick a tool in your toolbox that’s going to help you advocate the design change that you know is important to meet user needs. If you don’t choose the right tool you’re not going to be very successful.

Jason: That’s a perfect segue into my next question. And you may have answered it already. But what’s your most invincible tool that you can recommend to our listeners?

Joe: So I mean it sounds harsh and I can’t believe I’m saying this. So for me, if you’d asked me this 10 years ago if I did I’d have hated my future self for this. My most invincible and most useful tool in any UX’er or Product Manager’s arsenal is an excel spreadsheet that shows the business case for what they’re doing. That is invincible. If at the end of the day you cannot advocate to your business how much more successful it’s going to be by some sort of metric, be that money, be that happiness, be that whatever that is. There’s got to be some metrics for doing that thing you’re going to be successful. Most of us, unless you’re working for Apple and Apple likes to do the right thing there are very very few businesses that are able to do that scale. You need to be able to advocate using. And I know I don’t use it very often but when I breakout Excel it’s because I know I really need to get something done and really make sure to get something done so I say the most invincible tool I’ve got is a fundamental understanding of business numbers. I know that sounds really boring and honestly my 22 year old self would call me some sort of compound, loser/boring business guy. I’m still fighting for the good stuff, I’m just using tools that already exist to help me get there.

Jason: Absolutely. No I think that’s a brilliant answer and it’s yeah maybe not the most sexy that you’d think especially as designers we all love cool things right we all love neat innovations you said the “whiz-bang” factor. And certainly that’s not a bad thing. But again you’ve gotta start by justifying the need for business and users. And so I appreciate you reiterating that…really, really good.

Joe: If you think about creative directors. I would never go to a creative director and say here’s the spreadsheet to justify my latest design. He would laugh me out of the room. It’s like you got to use certain tools to certain people is absolutely the case. I’m not saying “whiz-bang” and cool, exciting innovative stuff doesn’t work. It’s just not going to work with all people all the time.

Jason: Right, that is awesome. So I’m going to go ahead and start this next question by highly recommending your awesome book. It’s called “Psychology for Designers” and Defenders pick it up. I’ll have a link in the show notes. Joe I’ll tell you you know that that quote there that saying that says, teach a man to fish, and they never have to ask you again. And what you’ve done in this book Joe it’s a really it’s you packed so much into it it’s a real tight read. It’s it’s a pretty quick read but you packed so much into it and what you did in this book is you’re teaching a man to fish. You have so many resources and insights in the book that I’ll tell you honestly that this is what this did for me is it truly inspired me to want to pursue my knowledge of psychology. I’m like pumped to learn more. And so that was a total success for me in this book. So I’m going to recommend that book to our listeners to pick it up and I have a feeling they’re going to be inspired as well especially after this conversation to want to learn more and dive deep into psychology and tie it into a design. But I want to ask you if you could recommend one book to our listeners what would it be and why.

Joe: So I would recommend what is actually it’s actually two books of the series.

I’m going to I mean to break the rules right here. There’s a book called “Business Model Generation” and it’s follow up which is called “Value Proposition Design.”

And these are basically business books that are written for designers and to your UX’ers. There are a series of tools that help you understand how business works and how to apply design thinking and how to fit your design thinking into the business world. They are incredibly well written, concise, and they’re beautiful books as well. And they are absolutely wonderful they’re published by John Wiley that there’s about five or six authors that are written by. But, Business Model Generation and Value Proposition Design, the follow up, are superb books in terms of justifying all your work in terms of user and business need at the same time. Great books.

Jason: Wonderful. I’ll be sure to link those in the show notes as well. I think the very first book you linked to, if I’m not mistaken in your book is Dr. Richard Gross’s Psychology. I’m an iPad reader so I typically get a lot of digital books. I was looking at it and you can actually download a preview on iTunes, the book is, it’s huge. Right? I mean there’s thousands of pages right. So, in the preview in the download the sample I think they give you like 700 of these pages. I download it, I’m like I’m curious about this now and you can read like probably up to chapter 5 in the book. So that’s a little tidbit there and I yeah. So, I think my kids are going to give me an iTunes card for my birthday coming up here. Next week and so I already have $15 and I think I’ll be able to actually buy. I think it’s like $25 or something on iTunes. I think I’m going up I’m going to buy that and start plowing through it.

You think that’s a great book for designers?

Joe: It’s a good one. I mean it’s it is it’s basically it’s like psychology 101 textbooks. It’s quite used in quite a lot of universities but it’s very accessible. So it kind of takes you back to basics in terms of psychology. So it’s not going to talk about psychology in terms of design you’ve effectively got to make that leap that connection between. How does this relate to the design work I’m doing and that’s my one tip. If you’re reading Richard Gross’s book is every point you really get going. How does this relate to my design work, how did this relate to the team I work in, and how does this relate to the user research I’m doing. Always try and bring it back to the work you’re doing because otherwise you can just end up getting a little lost in it, because it’s huge. You need to keep referencing back to the work you do. How could I apply this how could I use this. What does this mean and that helps you get a lot out of that book.

Jason: Great points.

So this is my last question for you Joe and this is one of my favorite ones. This is the reason I really get to have wonderful guests like you on the show to add so much value to our listeners and a lot of them a lot of my listeners a lot of my Defenders listening are aspiring. They’re just kind of diving in and getting their feet wet in the field. I’d like to ask you, what’s your best advice for aspiring superheroes?

Joe: It’s to get out of the design studio and get into the rest of the business. I think my advice is to kind of just spread your wings a little bit in the organization is going to make friends with everybody. So you know you’e probably got this advice anyway go to make friends with developers and go and make friends with Product Managers. But just spread the wings even wider, go and make friends with people in the rest of the business go make friends with people in customer services. Go and just get out there and just build contacts throughout the organization. The most successful UX people I know within business within organizations have got links to every other part of that organization.

They know somebody in different team they’re getting input from left right and center. You need to be that person that links the business together. You need to be the person who’s out there effectively speaking to customers but then coming back with those customer needs, because again a lot of the work we do in user research is user experience design, if you change a button on a on a website that says that users want free next day delivery and you come back to this and say, hey business, all our users said to us all of them want free next delivery. They’ll laugh you out of the room because that’s going to be an enormous cost to them a huge cost to the whole business to say that you need to be able to go and justify that particular thing you’ve heard from users in terms of the business. You need to go out and chat to somebody about what that means and then say, hey I heard from users that they want a free next day delivery.

I’ve spoken to Bob in Operations and he says if we do this, this and this we could do this, this and this. You need to start taking those these user requirements and before you even communicate them to go gather more business requirements all the rest of the organization requirements to meet up with them to go and take that forward.

Jason: Oh man that’s awesome stuff Joe this this is truly this is a truly wonderful interview and so much value. As we close I want to ask you what’s the best way for our audience to connect and keep up with you.

Joe: So Twitter if you use Twitter I share loads of articles on Twitter about Psychology and UX and product and business. So I’m @mrjoe. I joined Twitter really early, like 2006.

Also on my web site I also publish loads of articles. Something every week. That’s I just actually published a series of UX mistakes I’ve made so I’m just about to publish another one tomorrow which is the fourth or fifth in the series of your UX mistakes I’ve made. It’s great if you’re aspiring you UXer because you can learn from the stuff that I’ve messed up. I’ve also written stuff on business and psychology. But is the best place to go for my writing @mrjoe find me on Twitter and I share my writing on other people’s stuff as well.

Jason: Wonderful. Well thank you so much for being here Joe. This has been so awesome as I just mentioned and I can’t wait to share this episode with our listeners. And I just want to say fight on my friend.

Joe: Yes, keep fighting the good fight.

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