Behind the Scenes: Product Design at Google

Behind the Scenes: Product Design at Google was originally published on Springboard.

Product Designer Sandy Woodruff went from being a designer on a big team at Fab to being the only designer. In this Real Talk, we go behind the scenes on her career journey from Fab to Rent the Runway to Etsy to Google (where she applied 3 times before getting in!). Hear her tips on collaborating with engineers, upcoming opportunity areas in design, and creating core user journeys. 

What was your path to UX Design at Google?

My first job was at, which at the time was a darling in the New York startup community. They were this huge company, growing really fast. After I joined they had a series of layoffs — and I went from being a designer on a really big team with great mentorship to being the only designer. It was an interesting experience because I feel like I got a whole lot of experience in a very condensed amount of time. But I was glad to have had the experience of mentorship before then where I could learn a lot on the job and then come to a point where I needed to use that knowledge and just start advocating for the users on my own.

After that I worked at Rent the Runway and at Etsy and currently I am on the Cloud AI UX team at Google. I knew I always wanted to work for Google, I was a big fangirl and I applied three times before finally getting in. I’m really happy there now.

What does it mean to be a great UX designer?

For me, a great UX designer has to be a great collaborator, a great compromiser, and, of course, a great advocate for the user. Design skills are easier to learn than people skills. And I think a huge part of my job is just interacting with different stakeholders like product engineering and you have to know how to kind of speak their language, a compromiser because they say that good design is invisible but I think good designers are also invisible. Not in a bad way, but in a way that you should be comfortable with sharing your sketch files with other designers and collaborating on something and not being too tied to one idea. It’s important to be able to always bring back what’s best for the user and being right is less important than advocating for the user.

What are some of the biggest trends in the UX design sector right now?

One trend that I’m really interested in is designing for digital wellbeing. There’s actually now a digital wellbeing team at Google and they work on things like a timer to show you how much time you’ve been spending in an app or reminders to take breaks in things like YouTube when you’ve been watching for so long. Companies are starting to realize that users will respect a product more if it respects their time and designing for maximum engagement all the time isn’t always the right way to go. I think tools like these digital wellbeing tools are great. I’d love to see designers kind of taking initiative and designing with wellbeing principles in mind from the start so that they design for less addiction and things like that.

As for compromise, I can think of one project specifically where this came up as a good example. I was working at Fab and we were trying to create an AR app for furniture visualization so you could buy a sofa and then view it in your home at actual size. At the time AR had not been fully developed yet and there were still a lot of technical constraints on how to do AR, so the engineers told me like the only way we can do this is if the users print out a QR code and place it on the ground and use their phone to understand the space. I kind of thought that was a little bit too much and that was confirmed when we brought users in to test and users said, “There’s no way I’m going to spend time printing this out.” Only our like power users were okay with doing that.

I pushed back and told engineers, “There’s no way we can get users to do this.” And they kind of came back and said, “There’s no way that you can do this without the QR code.” So we were at an impasse for a while, until I started reading up about AR and I found that the most important thing was to get a sense of the space. And you can do that if you have an object that’s usually always the same size. So for example, a pencil, it’ll know that a pencil is usually the same size. So I tried to see if maybe users could just photograph a pencil and use that as their baseline, and the engineers built a quick prototype and it worked. So we were able to take this really arduous process and turn it into something simple like photographing a pencil, which users were able to do and enjoy the app more quickly.

What are some of the biggest challenges that you face as a UX designer?

Two challenges come to mind: 

  1. Evangelizing UX. There are people that I’ve worked with that don’t understand what UX is and I always try to use the metaphor of a house. A UX designer isn’t the person that’s just painting the walls of the house – something you can do at the end and it just gets applied afterwards – the UX designer is more like the architect who is drawing up the plans to build a house and making sure that before you go in and start building things, things are in place – like there’s no toilet in the kitchen. It’s much more costly to tear that down than it is to build it correctly in the first place. That’s where people see the value of UX to build things as opposed to going back to fix things.
  2. Dealing with my own biases. I think it’s easy for you to think that you are the user and certainly when I worked at Rent the Runway and Etsy, I was kind of the user. I overlapped with the user in some sense, but it was harder for me to deal with my own assumptions about how the user might act because I’m very different from someone else using the app in another country or any number of ways. So I think it has been easier at Google now that our users are enterprise customers and I’m certainly not an enterprise AI customer so it’s easier for me to separate out the two. But I think regardless, it’s important for you to realize the differences between you and the user.

What’s the difference between UX design and UI design?

The example I like to use is this image of two paths. One is very nicely paved and leading straight ahead. The other is cutting through the grass and it’s just dirt. But people like to take this other path because it’s the shortest way to wherever you have to go. So that really nice paved path that’s kind of not really used, wasn’t very thought out, is kind of like UI and the dirt road path that’s well worn, everyone wants to use it, that’s UX.

At the same time, I don’t really buy into the thought that UX and UI are that separate. I mean, if you’re designing, let’s say for voice or designing an API, of course then there’s going to be no interface, no UI. But it’s always important to as a UX designer think about those elements that users are going to be interacting with if you are designing an interface. For example, at Google we have a very big design systems team, so those are the folks that have already fleshed out what this button is going to look like, what the corner radius, what the pixels and colors are, like completely optimized. So I have to think about that a little less day to day. But there are cases that come up where we’re building on top of this design library, but we may find use cases that come up that either changed the design library or there are reasons to make tweaks to that. So it’s kind of always in the back of my mind, even though I’m not focused on the UI.

What’s one skill that he learned on the job that you wish you would have learned in your UX design education?

In my UX education, we focused a lot on process. What I wasn’t prepared for was that the process always changes depending on what company you’re working for, the people you’re working with, and the size of the project. So while it’s important to learn the basics of a process, I think it’s also important to realize that UX is just one small thread in a larger tapestry of things and you’re able to adjust as needed based on the situation. Also that the process can sort of vary widely depending on the company you’re working for, and even within one company. So I know at Google some of my friends who are designers are more far reaching cause they’re on a smaller team. So their role includes interaction design, UI design, even branding sometimes, which wasn’t part of the job description. Learning the full spectrum of the process is helpful. It’s also helpful to know which parts you’re most interested in or excited by to build upon those skills.

Could you describe your design process and what methods you follow?

As far as process goes, fortunately at Google, we have a lot of emphasis on the design discovery phase, so researchers will talk to potential customers and domain experts and others in the field to just kind of learn about the space before jumping in and building something. And depending on what we find in that research, that may mean that PMs need to either reduce scope or increased scope or change the project. By being brought in at this stage we really have a foundational role. And then after we get a sense of the people we’re designing for, which is often multiple different types of users, we start coming up with CUJs, or core user journeys. So that’s what a user needs to accomplish, what is their main goal and which goals are the most important.

All of this so far has been in collaboration with PMs and engineering so that we can get on the same page about the users we’re designing for, which user journeys are absolutely critical, which ones are necessary for version one and which ones we may want to push out later to version two or three, sort of prioritizing things, not just from a UX standpoint but also from is this easy for engineers to build, is it feasible within the time period, And of course, discovering how valuable are they to the business.

And, of course, we try to get feedback on our designs as much as possible throughout this process. So I’ll be creating prototypes for usability tests, the fidelity varying depending on what we’re trying to find out, and just collecting that feedback from users and exposing it to stakeholders throughout the process. And then once we’ve got a relatively good idea about what we should build, the designers collaborate with the engineers to actually get it built. They’ll try and build as close as possible to what we’ve designed — and we’ll work with them to resolve any discrepancies. 

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