Design Leader Insights - Gretchen Kambe Gelke on Product-Led Growth in UX

November 27, 2023


Alex Smith:  Design Leader Insights is brought to you by Fuego UX.  Fuego UX is a leading UX research, strategy and design consultancy.  Hey Gretchen, thanks so much for joining the show today. 

Gretchen Kambe Gelke: My pleasure. Thanks for having me. 

Alex Smith: For sure. And as we get started, can you give the audience a little bit of the context on your journey in UX and UX research? 

Gretchen Kambe Gelke: I am a researcher by training and started in academia, moved to government before moving over finally from there to industry and even in industry, I've hit a few different areas with respect to B to B versus consumer as well as software and hardware and the journey that I've had looking across many domains and many types of tech has allowed me a broader perspective that's ultimately transitioned me from or allowed me the ability to transition from a research focused career to one that is now broader UX and leading research design tech, you know, content strategy and the rest. So right now I'm at a startup called JumpCloud and I'm VP of UX for the organization. And we're in the process of, you know, extending where we were like, cause I came in on the foundation of some really good leadership and we're now going through an organizational maturity stage, which is ultimately where I'm coming in to help mature the org.

Alex Smith: And you were at Google for a little bit working on hardware?

Gretchen Kambe Gelke: I started at hardware on hardware at Google and moved to privacy and security Emphasis on privacy. 

Alex Smith: I think one of the terms that a lot of designers will come across is product led growth and like I think there's a lot of C suite people saying do product led growth, do PLG and like, I don't think a lot of people know what that is or what a success story looks like, but you actually work at one. Can you tell us a little bit about how PLG or product led growth was applied or how it helped JumpCloud get to where it is now?

Gretchen Kambe Gelke: Yeah, this is absolutely one of the foundations or part of the DNA of the company where the founders were very much interested in understanding whether or not their idea, their concept had any traction. And so they led with the product idea and went to people to get feedback, involved in the discussion, got them engaged in actually trying it. And have expanded from there, and the entire motion has been around making sure people have access to an ability to interact with and try the product as a core part of the attachment to the company and the business and to gain customers.

Alex Smith: So then how does that then transition? I think one of the harder things with PLG is like, you've tried it, now it stays and it's retained and it's adopted, spread throughout the org. How is that something that you, you currently research or? 

Gretchen Kambe Gelke: There's a couple of different aspects, right? From a sales perspective, we push a self-serve model. However, there's an aspect to which you want to then layer in or enable sales to actually take people home, especially in enterprise environments. You have a lot of complexity and a lot of dependency. And so, there is a layer in which we then a hundred percent bring in sales. So it's the combination of marketing product and sales that allows us to fully deliver on the vision.

Alex Smith:I think it's interesting. You started in research. You kind of zoomed out and you said you got a broader understanding of UX from different roles and now you're a leader. Tell me about that a little bit more, going from academia and then learning other facets of UX. Like what, what interested you in that?

Gretchen Kambe Gelke: When you start in academia and then you switch to something like government, which has its very rigid structures and the perspective they're taking to the environment is very intentional. There's a lot of intentionality, but what you're trying to do can be a lot more, um, unfocused, right? It's like, what can we do as opposed to we're intentionally doing X, but everything has an objective. Everything has a goal. Everything has an outcome that you're driving towards, whether it's, you know, hyper intentional, narrowly focused, or more about what's possible in the, you know, big blue sky. And so having that perspective and needing to think about what makes for a successful outcome, what makes for a less successful outcome, started me down the path of making sure that at least from a research perspective, I was thinking about the business. But ultimately, to be really successful as a researcher, I think you need to understand what are the technological constraints. So what are the constraints engineering is working on, but also what are the design constraints? You need to understand what the constraints design is operating within and as you get curious around that, then you're going to one, be able to deliver better results, but two, you can leverage that to start getting further down the path of what is, how do you broaden your own scope, your own perspective and create a larger range of opportunities.

Alex Smith: This is an assumption and I don't have the hard data, but I'd be willing to bet a lot of money that it's true. If I look at heads of UX, VPs of UX, you know, directors of design, the vast majority did not come from research. 

Gretchen Kambe Gelke: Absolutely true. 

Alex Smith: Why? 

Gretchen Kambe Gelke: So I tend to believe that there's a bias that people believe that designers are the only ones capable, but I also think that that bias is built into the structure and how we grow and evolve designers versus researchers. Early on Designers are being asked to think about and gain research skills. Nowhere in a research ladder does that show up in the majority of companies. So there's an expectation of in design and that design career path to really understand the full suite of UX contributions, whether it's content, whether it's research, whether it's the design and even the visual and researchers, writers, they're very rarely held accountable for that same breadth and scope. And so by default, that's just inherent. And how people are writing the careers and setting up the growth and development for the different functions. It's very biased towards design ending up in that broader perspective, in that leadership role. 

Alex Smith: What advantages do you think there are of having a researcher lead that team? Or do you think it makes sense having that disparity between UX and research and that, that leadership level?

Gretchen Kambe Gelke: So I don't agree in having that disparity. I'm very fundamentally data driven. And I believe that some of the best work is informed by data by instance. And so that's ultimately the advantage that I've brought to the table in a lot of the places where I've ended up in the role I'm in, in, in my ability to grow myself in my career.

Alex Smith: What advice do you have for new designers that might be entering the field today? Very competitive fields. And a long career ahead for many of them. 

Gretchen Kambe Gelke: Yeah, I think the main one for me is really being curious and really getting, never halting the learning and becoming complacent. And the reason why is because just like your career has an entire journey associated with it, where there's going to be many, many milestones. There's going to be ups, there's going to be downs, there's going to be strange twists. The thing is, throughout that entire career and that journey, right, you need to have a sense of where you're going. That's your long term. But you also need to know where you're at right now and what you can do right now to think about what's going to help you grow and be better where you're at versus where you want to be next. And then ultimately where you're trying to hit. This gets back to this perspective I have and I always talk to people about the horizons and it's horizons matter. They matter  as a leader, but they also matter as an IC. That you're thinking about, what am I doing right now to make sure I'm better at my job, better, you know, growing my skills and performing at the top that I can for my company for whatever the immediate goal is. Whether it's getting the bigger project, you know, building up to a promotion, getting better visibility for the work you're doing. I mean, there's a lot of, you know, the immediate goals that you might be working on. But also like, how do you want to grow within that company or how do you want to leverage that company to grow to the next company. When I interview and I see people, you know, it's almost trite to ask the question, what do you want to be doing in five years? What do you want to be doing in 10 years? But the people who've thought about it, those are the ones who, you know, are going to be engaged in not just their own growth, but the growth of the company and the organization and the team.

Alex Smith: Yeah. 

Gretchen Kambe Gelke: Because they're on a mission. And so it gets intimidating, but you know, the few times I forgot to think about the long term plan are the few times I stagnated in my career.

Alex Smith: Gretchen, where would you point people to learn, to learn more about what we're chatting about? 

Gretchen Kambe Gelke: So for PLG in particular, the founders of this company have some really good information available for how they did it. And I think that it's some outstanding resources, both some interviews, some stuff on YouTube, but there's some great articles out there. And JumpCloud has done an amazing job. So I highly recommend checking it out if you're interested in learning more about PLG and a success story. So major kudos for what this company and what we've accomplished here. 

Alex Smith: Yeah, I'll definitely dive into those, I'm always interested in learning how to, how to actually do PLG. And Gretchen, thanks so much for joining the show today.

Gretchen Kambe Gelke: My pleasure. Thank you.