Consuming and transforming

“Consumer” is one of those words I’ve never been comfortable with. Along with “user”, it refers to real people as simply receptacles for whatever companies churn out for them. It’s a lazy, impersonal, demeaning, and ultimately unhelpful word.

Alex Bogusky thinks that as consumption is inevitable, people just need to be better consumers. I agree that’s needed, but still believe our word choice matters and can be improved. Lots of other people think so too.

The most obvious and simple change is to substitute “people” for these dirty words. That works almost universally, and I use it effectively in my design practice. But today I stumbled upon a use of another word that is more than benign–it’s empowering:


The article itself takes the side of “producers”, acknowledging that nothing is truly produced; it is merely transformed from one (perhaps natural) state to another. Carrying that theme through to the people we design for emphasizes that they too will transform what they receive, putting their stamp on it, doing good or ill with it.

Transformation happens to products, commodities, experiences, and ideas. The word transformation recognizes that people have the opportunity to improve what they receive, but also the responsibility of managing it.

I’m going to try substituting the word “transformer” for “person” in my work–probably just to myself at first–to see if it changes my design decisions.

Beans and Noses

One piece of advice I keep coming back to is about managing expectations. It came from an old friend, just a few days after I’d started my consulting practice. He was a seasoned consultant himself and I had asked him what I should know, just starting out.

He told me his First Rule of Consulting: No matter how much you try, you can’t stop people from sticking beans up their nose. – Jared Spool

Designers with no power

It’s ok not to have power, provided you don’t act like you have it. What decisions, as a designer, are truly yours? There is probably a small set of decisions you can make without implicit approval of someone else. And if you want more of your ideas to make it out the door, you either need more power, or to get better at borrowing the power of others to get things done. – Scott Berkun

Corner office here I come!

Bob is the 2nd most common CEO name on LinkedIn. Now I’ve just got to get rid of that “Peter” guy…

Or move to Brazil, where the top CEO name is “Roberto”.

Why I design at Google

Google is an amazing company, but it’s not always known for design. I thought I’d write down the reasons I’ve enjoyed designing products at Google for the past 6 years. As always, I speak only for myself, not for the company.

There are lots of reasons I like working at Google besides design1. But I’ll mostly focus on the specific reasons I design there.

My main professional goal right now is learning how to do great design work. I’m still early in my career, and while it’s nice to find some success, I’m mostly focused on learning and growing my skills. Most of my reasons for designing at Google are centered around this.

1. The huge variety of work

In six years I’ve worked on online and offline advertising, desktop and mobile communication products, B2B commerce, science-fiction-style interaction concepts, entertainment and media services, and now products for African and emerging markets. As a designer, this gives me a lot of experiences to draw on in my future work. It’s almost like having 10 different jobs, but seamlessly transitioning between them without interviews or moving.

At the same time, I’m able to stay involved with and observe past projects to see how my design work did or didn’t influence their success. One drawback to a consulting role is the disconnection after a design phase finishes; at Google I’m still in touch with (and responsible for!) projects long after my main effort has wrapped up.

2. Support for conceptual design

My short-term design goal is to improve my abilities in conceptual design and the early-stage design process. Google’s scale and scope means that I can work on a big variety of product concepts while still building a foundation of resources and collaborators within a single company.

Additionally, a large, established company supports speculative, long-term thinking in a way other companies cannot. In a startup, for example, you probably wouldn’t have a designer spend much time spinning out concept ideas and doing open-ended, foundational research. At Google’s scale, this is valued and supported.

3. A global presence

Google’s global footprint is also a great resource. In the past year, we moved to Switzerland and I’ve traveled to our offices in China, Ghana, Nigeria, Israel, Senegal, and England, and I’m soon headed to Kenya. As a designer, it’s incredible to have coworkers based in dozens of places around the world, and to easily travel to and base research out of our offices there. With a single email, I can get people worldwide to contribute research and opinions on my design challenges. These global perspectives make my designs better.

4. Because it’s hard

It would be the easiest thing in the world to just design by myself. Designing at Google is training me to do great design in a challenging environment.

Google is, fundamentally, an engineering company, and it excels at building advanced, innovative technology platforms. Design leadership at Google isn’t forced on teams from the top, and there isn’t a long-established history of how design works there. Design and designers have to prove their value every day, in ways that our engineering culture respects.

There’s a lot of debate about this, but in the end I appreciate the challenge. Long-term, I want my design work to influence the direction of large groups and societies, and to do that I need to learn how to work with and persuade people who aren’t inclined or required to listen to professional designers.

Designs at Google must pass through a gauntlet of smart criticism from diverse people, intense quantitative testing, and a culture where everything is shared openly. Good designs become great when they are honed and sharpened by this process, which focuses ideas to their core and makes them ready for the real world.

Of course, this kind of treatment can sometimes discourage designers from trying controversial new things, but if you keep an ambitious attitude and your team wants to innovate, it can be an environment that strengthens rather than weakens your designs. Recently I’ve been learning from business analysts and marketers how to blend compelling business proposals into my design work. After initially fearing this would dilute my product vision, I’ve realized instead that these perspectives helped concentrate it further.

5. Building my dream team

When I joined, the user experience team (designers and researchers) was about 15 people. It’s grown to 200+ during my time, and I’ve been part of shaping its growth. As the team grows, I learn more and more from the new people who join. I’ve had an informal rule that I don’t recommend hiring someone unless they’re a better designer than me in at least one way (fortunately they’re often better in several). Over the years, this has led to a tremendous group of collaborators and mentors, constantly reinforced by new people as the design team grows.

And even today, the group is driven primarily by the individuals within it. I’ve always been able to choose what I worked on next, and to define (or invent) my own working style and methods. Designers at Google have the freedom to explore and practice new ways of working, and to redefine how design is done in the company.

6. The future of design is interactive and networked systems

It’s a safe bet that technology will continue to infuse itself further into every part of our lives (read Kevin Kelly if you’re not yet convinced). Design in this world will require an understanding of advanced technologies and how large, interconnected systems and societies work. Even my other long-standing design passions in cycling and transportation will be completely transformed by interactive technologies (see Strava and the Google cars for a preview). At Google, I’m learning to design interactive systems at a global scale.

Of course, many of these pluses are also minuses. Variety brings distraction; global scale breeds confusion; difficulty can lead to discouragement. Each of these is a tradeoff, and designers have to choose what challenges they want to face next. At some point it may make sense to move elsewhere as my goals shift and the company continues to change. But for now, Google is a great place for me to learn and grow as a designer, and I’m enjoying the challenge.

1 Some of the reasons I like working at Google, besides design:


The perfect business model? Parents pay for their children to work and be advertised to. And it actually sounds pretty fun!

How to pick a market

Elad Gil has a good post on choosing a market for your business. My design process is all about people…once I choose a market. Definitely the first step to understand and decide.

Google’s first business plan

From early employee Steve Schimmel’s blog.

Marketing and pre-experience design

I’ve been interested for a while in how marketing materials can reveal–and influence–the core experience of a product. Russell Davies explores this well, calling it “pre-experience design”

So I found it very interesting what images are shown by reviewers for the iPad, the Xoom, and the Blackberry Playbook.

The iPad shows big beautiful pictures of people’s faces. The Playbook shows lots of windows in a multi-tasking layout. And the Xoom shows…an analog clock.

Ok, so I’ve always been prejudiced against that clock. But it clearly sets expectations about what the experience of this device will be like–you will touch widgets on a flat screen.

Also, check out the official homepages for each product–including the URL strings—and see how they influence your expectations of the experience:

Right from the start, we get the chance to set expectations for our experiences. How might we do that better?

“Don’t think of an elephant” and design

George Lakoff‘s Don’t Think of an Elephant is a political book, but the concept is applicable to many more situations. Lakoff argues that by accepting someone else’s way of talking about an issue–their words and their metaphors–you constrain your responses to what fits in their model of the world. Once you hear the world “elephant”, you can’t help but think of one, and it influences what you do next.

From the intro:

When I teach the study of framing at Berkeley, in Cognitive Science 101, the first thing I do is I give my students an exercise. The exercise is: Don’t think of an elephant! Whatever you do, do not think of an elephant. I’ve never found a student who is able to do this. Every word, like elephant, evokes a frame, which can be an image or other kinds of knowledge.

I most often observe this in the design process. The tendency of most design teams in business is to accept the language and framing of the market leader, or of your most prominent challenger. By using their framing, you set yourself up to at best create a second-rate version of their product. And worse, by taking your cues from their finished work, you’re really mimicking their thinking from months or years ago. As one of my design mentors often says, “You can’t get new ideas by reading Techcrunch.”

If you really want to design something new, I think it’s important to consciously strip out language and models from your work and communication that have been framed by existing products and companies. Invent your own language, frame the situation yourself. Then you’ve got a chance of doing something new.

It’s natural to want to check out the competition. But as a designer you need to be aware that every time you do, it constrains your thinking.