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Chatting with Irene Au

07 Feb 2007

Irene Au is the director of user experience at Google -- and my boss. I'll be having a conversation with her onstage at Adaptive Path's Managing Experience conference next week. As a little preview, we did a podcast that will post soon. But until then, here's a transcript...

Jeffrey Veen: Hello, I’m here with Irene Au, the Director of User Experience for Google and a speaker at the Adaptive Path Management Experience Conference. I’m Jeff Veen, and we’re going to talk today about the opportunities and challenges of managing design at a company like Google. Welcome, Irene.

Irene Au: Hi! Thank you.

JV: Could you start by telling us a little bit about how you got to Google, and what your career has been like so far?

IA: Google is known for its amazing technology and for being such an innovative company. The intriguing challenge to me in coming to Google was to see how we could marry the technological prowess here, and just the culture of innovation that Google has, with [its] deep understanding of users’ needs and wants and desires. So you could build something that’s really meaningful and relevant for users in a game-changing way. That to me was the really exciting challenge about coming to Google.

JV: Well, that’s also sort of how things work in Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley is very, very innovation-based, but [it’s] almost purely technological innovation, right? It takes rare companies like Apple to come out with things that are not only interesting technological innovations, but really, truly ways of changing the way people view the world, or work in the world, or play in the world. So there are opportunities here at Google as well.

IA: Absolutely.

JV: I think there’s a lot of technological innovation here, a lot of opportunity to take that technology to users in ways that nobody has thought of yet.

IA: That’s right. Absolutely. Also with the brand that it has, the wide audience, and how Google has really become part of our daily lives and part of our vocabulary, there’s a tremendous opportunity to deliver amazing experiences beyond search at Google.

JV: So how did you get here? How did you get into design originally?

IA: My background is actually in technology. I loved computers and gadgets, so I studied electrical and computer engineering.

JV: You’re an engineer?

IA: I’m an engineer. But when I went into graduate school, I realized that what was really intriguing to me was how technology could be used [to become] more meaningful to people, and how technology could impact society, and how people could also shape what kind of technology was built and formed. So I made the switch and studied human and computer interaction, and studied human factors in engineering psychology. So that’s kind of how I made that switch. But being at the University of Illinois at that time, [a place] where NCSA was doing all kinds of fascinating research on the World Wide Web and [where] Mosaic was born, it was just a really great place to be, to think about how the world is connected in these ways and how you could use technology to bring people together. So after that, going to Netscape was a very logical next step. So I started out my career as an interaction designer there.

JV: What did you work on?

IA: The client, Communicator 4.

JV: That was such an important piece of software.

IA: It was, and yet it got to the point where I realized that the browser was really the viewfinder and what was interesting was the content. That’s why I made my switch over to Yahoo!, because to me it was so much more interesting to think about what people are actually consuming inside the browser.

JV: Both of those companies move very, very quickly. So that must be a challenge, especially when you balance quality versus speed. What are you thoughts on that?

IA: I think it’s really important to be very pragmatic about what you’re building, and how quickly you’re building [it]. There’s a balance [that must be struck when pursuing] something that’s really perfect. When you’re innovating very rapidly, sometimes you just don’t even know how things will be used and what [they’ll] be used for. So sometimes it’s just important to get it out there. Being able to adapt to the conditions and the environment…that was kind of a survival skill that I had to learn.

JV: Yeah, that’s certainly true. Also, this idea of “fail quickly to iterate a lot,” to figure out your mistakes (even if they’re public), to figure them out quickly and then to keep making products better and better.

IA: Right. That was one thing that was so fun about Yahoo! compared to Netscape: With Netscape, we were building software and we were still burning it onto CD even though most people were downloading the client off the Web. We still had long development cycles. So you did have to be a little bit more methodical about what you did, and why. Whereas at Yahoo! there was a sense of we could put stuff out there, we could change it very quickly. We’ll just test it and see how it works. You see that mentality here at Google as well.

JV: For better and worse, though, in companies like this. Because you also never stop tinkering. The design is never done. In some ways, that’s liberating, right? You don’t have to have a release number and burn the CD. But at the same time, it feels like we’re sprinting marathons all the time, right?

IA: Yeah, definitely.

JV: So what’s unique about Google? You’ve seen a few of these big Internet companies now from the inside.

IA: There are so many things that are so fascinating about Google. The way this company is designed, the whole organization is completely inverted. There’s incredible empowerment in all levels of the company. A lot of start-ups, they start out flat, but then as they grow as companies, they become more hierarchical and more silo-ed. Google has done an amazing job of avoiding that. So the company still operates in a very flat way. People are very much empowered, and there’s a lot of freedom and flexibility to explore and pursue your passions. If you really believe in something, you can absolutely go make things happen. That [makes it] very easy to build things.

JV: Have you seen challenges in being a designer at Google, a very sort of technology-focused and -centered company?

IA: It is challenging. I think in a lot of conventional companies, design is kind of a top-down process. Where you think about who are your target users, what’s the market you’re going after, what are their needs. You do requirements-gathering, and then you design the experience around that, and then you tell the engineers to go build. Here, the way products are conceived a lot of times, it’s an engineer has some kind of idea and then starts building it and then — as it gains momentum — a product manager and a designer might become attached to it. So it’s a very bottoms-up kind of process, which is very different to how designers are trained to think about product development. Yet I still think that there are ways that designers can work within that environment and still have products be use-driven and design-driven, but the ways in which you go about getting yourself inserted might be quite different than [at] other cultures, [which] are maybe more top-down, or product- or marketing- or design-driven.

JV: That’s right. I think either way — the design-driven focus or the engineering-driven focus — can often get you in a situation that leads to a hand-off, right? The engineers are done and they’re ready for the designers to work on it, or the designers have spec-ed everything out [and it’s] time for engineers to build it. Both of those I think can lead you to a situation that requires unnatural communication, or places structure on something that’s inherently unstructured.

IA: Right.

JV: One of the things I’ve noticed, now [that] I’ve had a small team that was working in the start-up environment: There were six of us working very fast, very iteratively, all together from the beginning. And then coming into Google, we’ve been able to maintain that in the team that we’re working with now, but it’s been a little bit of a shift. Like having designers involved from the very beginning, at the technology-creation stage, has been something that the engineers we’re working with have never experienced before. It’s working really well, but we’re all sort of feeling this out, like, “Oh, I see. So engineers are going to be involved in user research, and designers are still going to be involved while they’re writing the code.” I’ve really enjoyed that here. I think that’s a unique opportunity that I’ve found here at Google that I haven’t seen [elsewhere]. I’ve done a lot of consulting in the past, and I did not see that at a lot of organizations. So that’s worked really well here.

IA: Yeah. I think the engineers here are very eager and very open, very open. There is a sincere interest in building something that is not only useable but also very useful, and something that people want to use. I think one of the challenges that we face as an organization in the user experience team is just keeping up with all of the hundreds of projects that are going on, and picking very carefully what are the efforts that we want to engage in and do really well.

JV: Yeah, absolutely. Well, thanks very much for taking this time. I’ll see you at the MX Conference.

IA: All right. Thanks!