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Episode Flyer for #80: Pinterest's Head of Design and Research on Accessibility and Transformation
Episode Flyer for #80: Pinterest’s Head of Design and Research on Accessibility and Transformation

Guest: August de los Reyes       Guest Title: Head of Design and Research on Accessibility and Transformation

Date: November 1, 2017            Guest Company: Pinterest              


[Intro music]


Debra:                     Hello, everyone. This is Debra Ruh. Welcome to Human Potential at Work. I’m very excited about our guest tonight. I did a little bit of stalking of him. I saw an article that had been written about his work at Pinterest and his name is August and I’m going to let him introduce himself to you, but I was so impressed with the article and I’m a big fan of Pinterest myself. I’ve been a member of Pinterest for … I was one of the early adopters and I just really, really enjoy it. I’m really excited about our guest, August. August, do you mind telling us who you are and what you’re doing for Pinterest and a little bit about who you are?

August:                   Oh, sure. Well, first of all, thank you for having me. I’m real excited to just talk about all of my favorite topics here. My name is August de los Reyes and I’m a designer. I’ve been a designer for nearly 30 years now and my current role is leading the design and research team here at Pinterest. We’re a team of about probably 75 people and we help people discover and do the things that they love. I’ve been at Pinterest for a little over a year and a half. Prior to joining Pinterest, I was at Microsoft where I was the head of design for Xbox.

Debra:                     Wow. Cool career.

August:                   That was about four years ago. I’d been at Microsoft a lot longer, but that was my destination role at Microsoft. While I was there, about six months into my role, I had an accident. I fell and broke my back and, long story short, I suffer from a spinal cord injury, so now I use a wheelchair to get around. What’s interesting about these two points is, again, I’m not a very well-rounded person. I just obsess about design, and design in the sense of understanding a pain point or a challenging situation or a base dissatisfaction with the status quo and then having a vision of how I could make it better and then taking action against that vision.

                                    Looking at my situation through a design lens, I thought, well, how can I make my own experience better? But in doing so, in one of the fortunate people working in technology as well, what I do in my day to day work scales to hundreds and millions of people around the globe. I married my interest in design to my current situation and started looking really hard at inclusion and diversity in the consumer technology space. And here we are.

Debra:                     It’s just such … I know, here we are. I read a little bit of your story and I thought, wow. You’re right, life is about … your whole brain, the way your brain works is solving design issues. The thing I find as a consumer or a member of, I don’t even know what we are, Pinterest user, but I’ve actually used it for a lot of different reasons, including therapeutic reasons. I struggle with depression sometimes and sometimes it gets pretty intense, so for some reason, I don’t know exactly why the brain works this way, I’m sure you do, but it’s just the way the design is, of Pinterest, or maybe it’s my brain, but I like looking at pictures and really connecting the dots through pictures. I found that with Pinterest, it was so appealing to me that I almost started feeling a little bit like an addict on it. No, you don’t look on Pinterest for two pictures. I’m on there and hours later I look up and I’m like, “Oh, this is …” But I think I’m a very visual person, that’s why.

                                    That, at the same time, presents an interesting accessibility issue. As I learned about your work and I read the article about you, I thought, some people might say it’s impossible to make a platform like Pinterest accessible, and why should it be accessible because it’s so visual and so it’s never going to be something that works for people that are blind, for example. Of course, they’re absolutely wrong.

August:                   Yes.

Debra:                     Yes, they’re totally wrong, because people that are blind absolutely are using Pinterest and they’re using it for all the same reasons that I’m suing it. Tell us a little bit about, as you said, this life design issues.

August:                   Okay. You’ve actually brought up a whole bunch of topics that I’d love to go into even more. Let me start with the first one that you brought up. It’s about what the optics seem like an addiction, or a kind of addictive thing.

Debra:                     In a positive way.

August:                   Yes. There’s a psychologist named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and he talks about a kind of mental state called flow. When you are in a flow state, that you’re engaged in a meaningful activity where suddenly your sense of time gets distorted and you’re really focused and into this activity. For some of us who are fortunate enough to have our day to day jobs allow for this flow state, we should be grateful for that. I think the difference between Pinterest as a flow state and say, something objective like a slot machine is really the outcome and the impact it has on people’s lives. Though, I’d argue the benefits of Pinterest are absolutely positive. We can-

Debra:                     That’s what I’ve found. No, no, I’m with you. I think it’s interesting because I’m such a fan of Pinterest and I don’t always understand why. I don’t mean that in a negative way, but I didn’t realize why when I get on there, I just get in such a good place and I don’t want to get off, when I actually have things I’m supposed to be doing. Your flow example really explains it, because I actually feel good when I’m on Pinterest and I love the sharing and I have many, many boards. I have boards that are interesting to me. I have a board about human potential at work. I have a board about accommodations, assistive technology, inspirational, artists with disabilities. I have many, many boards. But I just find them very powerful. That was a really cool explanation I didn’t think about. It was something that I didn’t know why I loved so much, I just know I love it. Some people say, “Oh, it’s like Instagram.” To me, it’s not. Yeah, I know there’s some similarities, but I find … I don’t know. Pinterest is just a really good place for me to display work and share ideas and things with other people that have the same interest as me.

                                    I have a friend of mine that’s a psychologist and she got on and she was just sort of chatting with people and putting different pictures out to help people feel better and stuff. She almost adopted an entire practice working with people. She already had a practice, but it really enhanced it. Yeah, there’s a lot of powerful good happening on Pinterest. I think you probably are a big part of that.

August:                   You actually touched on a couple of things that I could just go on for the whole time about this.

Debra:                     Yeah.

August:                   But the first thing is you’re right that Pinterest is different from a lot of the services that we’re compared with. The primary difference, and we say this all the time but no one believes us, is that Pinterest is not a social network.

Debra:                     I agree. I agree.

August:                   Pinterest in not a social medium tool.

Debra:                     Yes, yes.

August:                   It’s a-

Debra:                     Even though we all call it a social platform.

August:                   Yes, because we get … everyone wants to categorize things.

Debra:                     Because we don’t know what to call it.

August:                   Exactly.

Debra:                     Right, what do we call it?

August:                   Exactly. I’d say for my team, we’ve decided not to chase-

Debra:                     Put it in a box?

August:                   Yes, chase that, but rather talk about what it actually does. The question that you had raised is a question that is basically what I try to answer every day, which is what is this magic behind Pinterest? What I did is, my research team and I looked at the early days of Pinterest. As with anything, that’s usually a good place to start, at the beginning. In 2010, when Pinterest took off and suddenly, just out of the blue, millions and millions of people started using Pinterest and let me build that further. They followed very similar demographic patterns.

Debra:                     That’s interesting, I betcha.

August:                   Yes. There’s a little room-

Debra:                     I betcha I’m right in there, aren’t I?

August:                   Yeah, well, usually they’re women, which is why the early preconception was Pinterest is for women.

Debra:                     Is for women, right.

August:                   They tend to be of a certain age. And not big cities but medium-sized cities to small towns.

Debra:                     Yep, so far.

August:                   Not on the coasts, mostly in the middle of the nation.

Debra:                     Oh, how interesting.

August:                   Yeah. What that said to me is that there was a latent unmet need that Pinterest filled. What’s fascinating about this is this had nothing to do with the original conception or the idea that Ben and Evan had when they started at Pinterest.

Debra:                     Right.

August:                   What I did is I asked our research team to pose this question. We call those original users the “golden cohort” and I’d argue maybe you’re part of the “golden cohort.”

Debra:                     I was going to say, because I was a very early adopter and I fell in love fast with it. Can I say also, while I interrupted you?

August:                   No, no, sure.

Debra:                     That one thing I think … the only part of that demographic I did not fit was that I’m in Central Virginia, so sort of on the coast but a couple of hours over. But I think it’s about building community and reaching out to others that feel the way you do, so it was, maybe a lot of us started feeling isolated in a way and that’s why there was a connection. I want you to tell us why, but I wrote about Pinterest as being my favorite medium in a social media book I did in 2013, along with other things. It’s an ancient book, don’t buy it. Just because, 2013 is eons ago in the social media world. Even though it’s not a social media, it’s a social communications. I don’t know. I won’t go there either, but I’m going to now think about that. But tell us more, because I know everybody’s going to be so fascinated.

August:                   Well, do I-

Debra:                     Will you come on again after this so we can keep continuing?

August:                   Oh, sure. I can talk about this for days.

Debra:                     Okay, and I’m going to stop. I’m going to be quiet. You go.

August:                   No, no, no. No, please. The thing is, what you pointed out is absolutely one of the factors that contributed to the early success of Pinterest. Putting my researcher hat on, what I decided to do was I happen to know people who fell into that demographic, so I asked both of them this question. What was your life like before Pinterest and what was your life like after Pinterest? The first person told me that she never considered herself a creative person. After Pinterest, she realized she’s absolutely creative.

Debra:                     So where could she take that? That’s amazing, I love it.

August:                   Exactly.

Debra:                     Love it.

August:                   The second person I talked to, and I’m going to paraphrase this a bit but this is my characterization of her answer. She’s communicating her life, that she was living her life in a kind of quiet desperation, because she was going through the motions, getting the kids ready for school, fixing, cleaning up the house, doing a little decorating, and then trying to decide what to cook for dinner. She said she was just going through this day by day and she felt like she wasn’t really good at any of it. She said after she started using Pinterest, she learned to assert herself into her own day to day experience.

Debra:                     Wow. I was in Geneva yesterday and I was speaking, and I was speaking about social media in one part of my presentation. I said I know that a lot of people have used social media for not good things, but social media can actually provide great, great things for society. Now, once again, I’m going to agree with you. Pinterest isn’t a typical social media, but there is something powerful there and I think it’s an example of the point I made in that social media communications, it can help heal the world. And right now, we need some healing. We’re pretty … it seems like a lot of people are extremely traumatized by events in the world right now.

August:                   Oh, absolutely. I think my critique of social media is that it puts us into a performative mode. In other words, everything we post, everything we update, everything we check in is a kind of performance for everyone.

Debra:                     Oh, so true. Of course it is.

August:                   Pinterest is not. There’s no expectation about that. In fact-

Debra:                     No, it’s just the flow, like you said.

August:                   Yeah, it’s an inner dialogue and it’s about self-discovery, and discovering your own tastes and preferences. But here’s where the magic happens. Every pin is a possibility to change your life offline. Your experience doesn’t end in the app, rather it’s a starting point. Even if it’s something as simple as adding a couple of drops of Tabasco sauce to a hollandaise sauce to give it a kick, that’s just a microform of self-expression.

Debra:                     Right, and there’s warmth there, or something. It is so interesting. It’s funny, August, I didn’t expect to have this particular conversation and I think it’s one of the most powerful ones we’ve had on the show, because I don’t know, there’s just … Once again, I think everybody can tell I love Pinterest. I’m an early adopter. But it does make me feel good, and it also, August, makes me feel like I’m contributing more to the conversation of the things I care about.

August:                   Oh, absolutely. Let me give a kind of long-winded answer to what you just said. All right. When I was at Xbox, I would argue in the world of design and technology, being the head of design for Xbox is one of the sexiest positions in our industry. People asked me, “Why on earth would you leave that behind to go work at Pinterest?” I mean, there’s some superficial things like when I tell people that I work at Xbox, people would say, “Oh, my husband, son, brother, nephew would want to meet you.” But now when I say, “I work at Pinterest,” they say, “My wife, daughter, niece wants to meet you.”

Debra:                     My God. Isn’t that interesting? When you say “Xbox” that is so cool to me, but I think Pinterest is much more cool than Xbox, so sure my son would disagree with me.

August:                   Well, here’s the thing. Here’s the subtle difference. I think one of the humanistic aspects of video games is that the whole point of a video game, the whole goal of a video game is just to feel something. The emotions that people feel when they play the game, whether it’s accomplishment or defeat, victory, frustration, achievement, all of those emotions are absolutely authentic. They’re very real. Except they occur in a mental space that is just the game.

                                    The thing about Pinterest is, Pinterest is a kind of game also, where one can feel these emotions of curiosity, exploration, warmth, support, hope, optimism. Except the difference is, once you turn off your computer or turn off your phone, you’re still feeling those emotions and they’re actually impacting your life away from your computer or your device.

Debra:                     That’s powerful.

August:                   They both generate these kind of positive emotions, but Pinterest actually has a real impact off the screen.

Debra:                     I’m just reminding the guests, I’m putting at anyone that’s listening live, you can join us. I was just putting out a commercial there for you, August.

August:                   Oh, thanks.

Debra:                     You have explained some things to me that I didn’t even understand I didn’t understand, but as you explained them I’m like, “Oh!” Because to be honest with you, I never understood why my husband, my daughter, and my son both love video games, because I just never, ever found any … I didn’t find them interesting. But Pinterest spoke to me. It soothed me. I’m going to use the word flow. I would get on there, I remember, as someone who’s aging and getting older as a woman, I went on and I created a board called “Again With Grace.” I would put up some of the most interesting faces and I would connect boards, what I consider beautiful. A woman who has wrinkles everywhere and she has this beautiful smile and it crinkles up her whole face and I think, she must have such incredible stories to tell for every one of those wrinkles. Sort of the beauty of aging. It was just something that spoke to me. That, you’ve explained to me a little bit now why I love it so much.

                                    But I would ask you a question and I hope you don’t mind me getting personal with you. I know, he’s getting afraid. What’s fascinating is, you’ve been a brilliant designer obviously probably your entire life, right? Come on. You did Xbox. Very, very creative thing that’s changed so many people’s lives. Then you had an accident and I’m probably telling it a little out of order, but your brain was already there and then you had this accident, which, certainly don’t want to minimize that, but you still have so much to offer the world with your creativeness. I just wonder, I get that it changed your life, but how did it change your creative design? How did it change August in that way? I know I threw a lot at you but you made my brain go somewhere really big. I’m impressed.

August:                   One of the design principles that I embrace is to think universally but to act personally. In other words, when we look at challenges, particularly around the accessibility and inclusion, people can often feel like it’s overwhelming, like it’s a boil the ocean exercise. Now, that usually leads to option paralysis or just getting so caught up you don’t do anything. To address that, even taking action against your own personal situation, you can assume that what’s good for your situation is probably helpful to millions and millions of other people’s situations as well.

Debra:                     Oh, that’s brilliant. As I walk my life, especially with this show and the other program that I’m part of, Access Chat, which we definitely have to have you on there, too, but I do use my own experiences in life to tell my stories. Right now I’m walking this really tough path with my husband and it’s with beginning of dementia. Of course I’m fighting it, August, every step of the way. I’m making sure he’s, maybe he has Lyme disease, I’m just really, really educating myself on all the things that could cause this and is there something we could do. But as I’m walking it, I’m talking about it even though it’s hard to talk about, but I know I’m not the only person walking stuff like this.

                                    I used to think before, especially as a business owner that’s had great, great failures and great successes, that everybody else was smarter than me. They were smarter than me, they seemed to know more than I did and their businesses never failed. Then I realized, of course, that wasn’t true and I started being really authentic about my own story and I had so many people come back and thank me for being authentic, because I don’t think anybody really has a straight line walk.

August:                   Oh, no.

Debra:                     We’re all here experiencing contrast. Tell us more about August and your work, because I think we could … I hope you’ve written a book or you’re writing a book, August, because your life is fascinating.

August:                   Thanks. I don’t have any book plans any time soon.

Debra:                     I’ll have to interview you and do it for you.

August:                   Let me share two quick things. After my accident, something happened at Microsoft where suddenly I had a new boss. I’d returned from being away in the hospital and going through physical rehabilitation for about six months. When I returned to Microsoft, there was this massive corporate restructuring and I returned to a new boss. What I found is all the heads of design for each of the product units now reported to him, I being one of them. He asked us to come up with what are the common threads or the principles or our point of view that we want to assert across the entire spectrum of products, from the cool cutting-edge stuff like Xbox and HoloLens, to Windows. There’s a whole span of products. We were tasked with coming up with what we have in common. One of the areas that really resonated with me is an ocean of universal design. In other words, one of the things that all these products have in common is that we serve hundreds of millions of people. Including Pinterest, as well, by the way. Coming back to Microsoft. Looking at universal design, for whatever reason, designers find it challenging to think about accessibility, maybe because it’s not sexy or what have you. But given that we design for such huge populations, it’s incumbent on us to design for everyone.

                                    In researching universal design, we actually stumbled upon the re-definition of disability by the World Heath Organization in 1982. It shifted the definition of disability from the medical to the societal model. In other words, disability is not a result of some sort of physiological phenomenon. Rather, it is a mismatch between an individual’s level of ability and the environment and objects which she or he interacts. In other words-

Debra:                     Wow, that was so powerful. Say that again. Will you say it again?

August:                   Disability is a mismatch between an individual’s abilities and the environments and products with which she or he interacts.

Debra:                     Wow, okay, I’ll put it in the window.

August:                   The damning thing about this observation is that disability is actually designed, whether it’s an oversight or a lack of consideration, but the fact that some experience is not accessible was designed into the building or the product or the experience.

Debra:                     Oh, that’s so powerful. That’s so powerful.

August:                   Oh, it gets better. It gets better. In critiquing accessibility, suddenly this approach of inclusive design actually made design sexy and creative and really appealing. Because if you look at the history of inclusive design … Well, let me back up a bit. The guiding principle around inclusive design is if you design for a specific person for their ability difference, you can assume that it benefits everyone else.

Debra:                     Right?

August:                   Because there’s no such thing as normal. Everyone. Every one of us experiences an ability difference at some point in our life, whether you’re missing an arm or you broke your arm and it’s in a cast, or you’re just carrying groceries and a baby. You’ve lost the use of your arm. If we design for that extreme case, then we can assume it benefits everyone else.

                                    In looking at the history of inclusive design, there are a lot of examples where the intent was to help someone with an ability difference and the outcome is it benefits everyone. A great example of this is the remote control. Back in the 50’s, the original intent of the remote control was so people who had some sort of mobility difference who couldn’t get up and cross the living room to change the channel, back when you had to do that.

Debra:                     Right, right, you’re right, you’re right, yeah.

August:                   But jump ahead a few decades later, the remote control is a de facto feature of every TV, everywhere. And it gets better.

Debra:                     Right, it’s like, “Where’s the remote?”

August:                   Oh, yeah. That was a kind of “aha!” moment, and as you start looking deeper into it, you find an entire history. Like, Alexander Graham Bell discovered the telephone because he was trying to help the deaf.

Debra:                     Right. His mother and his wife.

August:                   Yeah. The person who invented the keyboard was an Italian aristocrat who was in love with this contessa who was blind and since she couldn’t write letters legibly on her own, he invented the keyboard so that she could write her letters.

Debra:                     Oh, that’s so cool. Wow. I did not know that one. That’s a great one.

August:                   Oh, and even email protocol’s Vint Cerf at Google, who’s hard of hearing and whose wife is deaf, he helped develop early email protocols so that they could bypass relay services. Someone out of IBM with a cognitive difference invented the database. Even everyday objects like the bendable straw. A father noticed his daughter couldn’t drink her milkshake when it was sitting high up on the counter and the straw was just too hard for her to reach. When he went home, he put a screw in the straw and wrapped wire around it and now she could do that.

Debra:                     Oh, wow.

August:                   We see things like the electric toothbrush and Oxo GoodGrips, which was originally intended for …

Debra:                     Yep, I know that one.

August:                   … someone with arthritis. But the thing about all these innovations is even though their original intent was for someone with an ability difference, we don’t even question that it benefits everyone.

Debra:                     Right.

August:                   It circumvents the whole notion of accessibility. Rather, this is just straight up innovation. It’s straight up invention. But here’s the beautiful thing about all of those stories. Every single one of those stories is a love story.

Debra:                     Right.

August:                   Yeah.

Debra:                     I love that. I love that.

August:                   This notion that all these innovations that every one of us experiences every day is born out of someone not thinking universally or maybe they are, but really, they’re acting on a personal level. They’ve created these innovations and inventions out of this kind of personal love for someone in their life.

Debra:                     Wow.

August:                   Yeah. To answer your question, that’s how it’s changed my …

Debra:                     That’s crazy. Wow, that’s really beautiful. It’s funny, I have a book that was supposed to come out in October called, “Inclusion Branding.” I haven’t finished the last chapter. My editor’s getting real mad at me. But it just always felt like I was supposed to wait for something and part of it, when I was in Geneva at the ILOGBDN, Global Business Disability Network, I heard some cool stories and I thought, okay, cool. I’ll put that in there. But I was waiting for you, August, because I need to hear all this so we can talk about this in the book. Because you’re right, innovations are born out of love. They’re born out of love, the desire to make somebody’s life better, easier, more powerful.

August:                   Yes. That is-

Debra:                     We don’t think about it that way, though. We just think about it as, “Oh, it’s a compliance thing to do.”

August:                   Yeah, yeah. We get blindsided by it because of other systems in which we exist. You brought up the notion of authenticity and I think the reason why these innovations and inventions are so pure and they’re so effective is because they were born out of very authentic, humanistic concerns for someone else.

Debra:                     So, authentic energy, almost, right?

August:                   Oh, yeah. Let me tell you a Pinterest story. I want to tie this into Pinterest, because all this was kind of a theory for me when I joined here, but now that I’m inside the company, I actually want to tell the story that confirmed all of these suspicions.

                                    Last year … Well, actually, here at Pinterest, every Friday we have a company all-hands. We call it Q&A and as part of the agenda, sometimes we bring in an active Pinterest user. We call them “Pinners.” So, we hear their Pinner story. Last year, there was someone who came in. Her name was Kim Moore and she’s from I think Edmonton, Alberta, and she’s a party planner. I was listening to her story and I thought, “Oh, well, of course an event planner would use Pinterest.” But here’s what’s interesting. She started telling a story about her daughter and her daughter was born with a rare form of cancer. While she was four months old, after undergoing the chemotherapy, it had left her infant daughter paralyzed from the chest down. She started talking about her grieving process and just trying to wrap her head around what her daughter’s life might be like. Being an event planner and an active Pinterest user, she went on Pinterest just poking around, just trying to wrap her head around what her daughter’s life might be like. One of the challenges was there aren’t wheelchairs that are manufactured for infants and toddlers.

Debra:                     I was going to say, right.

August:                   But on Pinterest, she actually came across a pin that showed how to put together a wheelchair made out of a Bumbo seat and a shopping board and some bicycle tires and some bicycle wheels. Now her daughter has that wheelchair.

                                    To your earlier point, if you scroll down the very pin that Kim Moore used to design that seat, she actually found other people who had gone through the same sort of experience, the similar experience. Other parents who have had to put together, improvise this kind of seat for their children with ability differences. At that moment, she realized she wasn’t alone. That she wasn’t the only-

Debra:                     Right, she had a community. She had a community around her.

August:                   Exactly.

Debra:                     Wow, that’s a beautiful story.

August:                   To me, that’s a great example of inclusive design. But here’s the thing. Once she connected with other people who were facing the same challenge, she knew she wasn’t alone. She did become part of a community but, again, in a very authentic and pure way, which was born out of that need. That’s the moment that it just confirmed all my hypotheses around Pinterest.

                                    Now, I’m working with a team looking at other unexpected reasons why people would come to Pinterest, aside from the scenarios that you’d expect. We got 20 million interactions last year for people curious about cancer, about four million people who were searching about grief and bereavement, people searching about divorce, breakups, abuse.

Debra:                     Wow.

August:                   Yeah, and so-

Debra:                     Think of the data. I never thought about that, wow.

August:                   Yeah, and in the same way that people create their book lists with book pins or movie pins or therapy pins or exercise pins, this could be a platform for people to create positive impact in their lives. Not just in a day to day way but in really profound and meaningful ways for people going through really challenging experiences.

Debra:                     August, thank you so much. Thank you for your brilliance and your authenticity in your work and the work at Pinterest and Xbox. Wow, you really changed lives. Congratulations, wow.

August:                   Thank you to you, Debra, for creating this channel for people to express important messages to the world. Thank you for having me.

Debra:                     Yeah. Yes, and I will just say on that, we have a new network called “Global Impact Today.” We have different people joining it and doing their own programs. Doug Foresta has a program on there, for example, and [inaudible 00:39:23] and gosh, August, we sure would love to talk to you about creating one, because I think you would probably become one of the most largest listened-to shows ever. You have a really, really powerful voice. Very, very impressed. Thank you so much for joining us today. We really appreciate it.

August:                   Thank you, Debra. It was a real pleasure.


[outro music]


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