Greg leads the UX teams for Cloud AI products and Cloud Platform Design, the overall design language and system for Google Cloud Platform. Previously, he led the Advertiser Platform UX team at Google, including leading the 2016 Material Design redesign of AdWords. In his 22 year career in UX, he’s focused on building high-functioning/happy teams, creating great products for a wide variety of users, and driving design change at significant scale: leading redesigns of products ranging from AdWords to Yahoo! Mail.

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1. How did you begin working in the wonderful world of design?

I don’t have a formal design background or training. I was originally going to be an elementary school teacher, but got the tech bug when I was in college and changed my mind. After I got out of school, I had some support-type roles in tech then found my way to Software Quality Assurance (SQA).

From the early to mid 1990s I tested software at Symantec, specifically a CRM tool called ACT!, which Symantec owned at the time. During my time in this role, my responsibility was to find, report, and perform regression testing — typical SQA work. However, in addition to finding software crashes and feature failures, I had a tendency to file lots of design-related bugs, from nitpicking alignment issues, to highlighting workflow problems, etc. At the time there weren’t many dedicated UI Designers at companies — let alone dedicated UX teams — and ACT! didn’t have a dedicated designer or UX researcher.

Given that I was in software quality assurance, my manager at the time complained that I was filing too many UI bugs, and that they really weren’t bugs at all. He then — somewhat exasperated with me — asked me if I thought I could do a better job of designing it and asked if I just wanted to do that job, I said “yes”. From that point on, I started designing full-time on ACT! and moved on to other roles/companies, made lots of mistakes, had a few successes, and tried (and keep trying) to learn more.

2. What is the purpose of design?

Big question! This could be a multi-book response, but I’ll simply say that the true purpose of design is to solve user, business, and global problems by intuitively and seamlessly harnessing the power of technology to do so.

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Additionally, there’s a social, ethical and moral responsibility that comes with being a designer. You are that bridge between a business’ goals and its technical capabilities. It’s your job to be sure you’re representing users by not only providing them with the best experience possible, but as technology evolves (especially with AI, as mentioned below), be their advocate by making sure we don’t cross the line from helpful to creepy and intrusive.

3. How would you describe the intent (mission) behind Google’s Cloud UX design?

Our mission is to create the best Cloud design system on the planet and one that any and all teams, whether internal or external, want to use and participate in. This means doubling down on consistent design patterns and components, and more focus on workflows aimed at addressing user/business needs and less on adding features.

This is especially critical in a rapidly growing business like Cloud where the competition is fierce and there’s a tendency to be more feature-driven in an already powerful/feature-rich product experience. The workflows, or critical user journeys, need to be the guide, not the features.

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4. What’s one thing you believe about design that most others don’t?

I don’t think there’s any one thing I believe that most others don’t, but do find myself sometimes in the minority in the broader UX community when it comes to how I think designers should function within teams. Some designers like to sound like designers, use UX buzzwords, etc. While unintentional at times, it can make them seem isolated or arrogant, or not very connected to the actual product or users, which is ironic considering they’re well-intended to create great design.

I think you can think these things, but talk the language and be deeply empathetic to you cross-functional peers, ultimately focusing on creating great products (and know the products and users), embracing (yet challenging and pushing) constraints with engineering, and just keep things simple.

Too many times, I’ve seen talented designers trip over their own words, but to no meaningful end other than to hear themselves sound like a designer. Why? Just do great work, help make users’ lives easier, create amazing products, and make those you work with look good and be successful.

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5. What key problems are often overlooked by design?

I’ve worked on consumer and enterprise products, and I might be biased by my experience in the enterprise here, but I’m sometimes surprised by the lack of understanding or desire some designers have for solving business problems or those problems where revenue is involved. When you’re working on a product with business impact, the form and function of the work has to not only be intuitive but address business needs — if it doesn’t, you’ve failed.

I’ve been blessed to work with and manage brilliant designers that can make business-focused design beautiful and purposeful, but have also seen many that are too focused on the mechanics of the design, and feel that focusing on business specifics detract from the aesthetic or optimal workflow. You can achieve both, the enterprise space continues to be a big growth area and a greenfield opportunity for designers wanting to have more impact, so why not embrace a broader perspective when thinking about exciting problems to solve beautifully?

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6. What is the most difficult thing about design?

Remembering that it’s not yours, it’s the users’. You can always make it better, and you need to constantly learn to make it better.

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7. When is design “done”?

While design is never really done, there are degrees of completeness depending on the product or platform. If you’re designing a more robust app, system, or platform, the overall design framework of that system has to be relatively stable and well-designed such that it can support a variety of features, integrated products, support future growth initiatives, etc.

And if it changes frequently, it was poorly designed. An analogy I frequently use with design is building a house. If you build a house and one year later realize you have to move a couple of walls, something is very wrong and the original plans didn’t factor in the current/anticipated needs of the occupants (users) If you’re repainting rooms regularly, and things of that nature…sure, go nuts :)

8. What does the future of design look like to you?

In terms of interfaces humans interact with, there will continue to be a big shift to voice and video. AI — in concert with voice and video focused experiences — is driving the future of design.

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As such, all UX practitioners will have to rapidly evolve their strategies and tactics to adjust to the growing impact of AI on product design. AI/ML implementation of models into products is quickly changing, thus the exact impact on the end-user experience is a bit of a moving target.

Because of this, AI is experiencing a “growth spurt” of sorts, and UX professionals need to keep up and deepen their understanding of how these systems actually work, develop best practices, and closely partner with AI researchers/engineers to factor in user needs/concerns regarding AI early into the development of models that impact products. While early involvement and collaboration with engineering is always a good thing, it’s even more important now for UX practitioners to do so.

9. What core problem are you trying to solve? What experience are you trying to create through your work in UX?

In addition to helping achieve the mission of creating the best Cloud design system, for Cloud AI, our mission — which we’ve publicized at Google Cloud Next — is to democratize AI. From many outsiders’ perspectives, AI/ML is like Harry Potter’s wand. There’s an allure and mystery of AI/ML — and also a promise (real or perceived) that it can do amazing things.

However, for many it’s a black box as to how it works and there’s a significant learning curve to make it work, and set it up correctly (and most of the work is in data prep). The Cloud AI UX team’s mission is to provide intuitive access to the power of AI/ML to a much broader base of users, beyond research scientists or engineers with PhDs in AI. Accomplishing this mission requires a deep understanding of AI/ML users and technologists, and then creating design solutions for them that are tailored to workflows (user journeys) that address their needs.

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Thanks for reading ❤
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This series was designed by Vasjen Katro, Visual Designer of Baugasm

Oct 27, 2020

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