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Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer speaks about team building, product insight, and good design

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer made an appearance at the Dreamforce conference in San Francisco today to have a fireside chat with Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff. During the hour-long conversation, Mayer spoke about her experience relating to teams, the impact of design on products, and how she helps empower her employees.

In one of the many platitudes that Benioff shined on Mayer, he spoke about her commitment to employees and his fascination about her behavior. She replied that we’re in a global society and that by building products that are used by the whole world is “daunting” and she makes a concerted effort to travel with product managers to understand their situation and improve it.

Mayer also spoke about two important things about how she understands her users: product insights and understanding the team. With the former, it’s about understanding someone’s motivation in purchase decisions and how the services work for the end user. In regards to the team is building a cohesive unit and understanding the various personalities and what makes it special.

When it comes to products, you need to build it quickly which helps people learn. From her experience, she says that companies need to build tools that work for common users, not those that are experts in the system — most likely by doing so, it will make it more accessible.

So does Mayer consider herself to be the Chief Design Officer? She doesn’t think so and says that in her executive team, she has a spot for a Senior Vice President of Design (similar to a Jony Ive role), but she loves design and enjoys working with teams to create the experience. She sees herself responsible for designing the organization, the brand, and the overall vision — this is what she’s excited about. However, she readily admits she’s not a designer by trade.

Design is certainly an important part of any product. Mayer touts that Yahoo’s product refresh focuses on more than aesthetics but about the user experience. She says that companies can’t have great products unless the look and experience has been thought out. In Yahoo’s case, the process has been internally driven.

One should not lead with design. In actuality, Mayer says that you should lead with a set of core values and a strategy to understand where you’re going and what’s being done. In her words, “First you have to do something that people will find useful and then work on the design.” She also spoke about how this thinking went into Yahoo’s effort with search, mail, and its mobile strategy. But with all the love being tossed at design, she cautions that it is possible to overdo it.

The mobile device has been a core focus for design because this is an area that Mayer says has caught a lot of people off guard. However, on the positive side, Mayer says this can help companies reinvent themselves.. At Yahoo, Mayer says that the company is not “design first, but mobile first”. She says that there are 400 million monthly active users using Yahoo’s products and this metric along with its core values have been an impetus for the various product refreshes, including the company’s weather and finance apps. And let’s not forget about her role with Yahoo’s new logo.

In more examples about Mayer’s concern for her employees, she cited Yahoo policies such as PBJ which allows employees to ask for help in removing obstacles and bureaucracies to get things done. The company also has other tools to help employees voice their opinion and operate in a democratic manner to get things done to meet the expectations of the workers.

In a bit of drama, at the beginning of Mayer and Benioff’s talk, a small group of protesters began chanting, but were quickly escorted out. The protest appears to have been in response to Mayer’s position on Walmart’s Board of Directors

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