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A Year of Learning and Leading UX at Google

Christine  Courage talks about her first year of leading UX at Google and her 5 gems she used at building a great UX culture 

I’m a big believer in timing.

I joined Google as a Vice President of User Experience (UX) a little over a year ago. To be frank, Google wasn’t at the forefront of my mind for a next career step. I even passed on a job offer in 2004 because the approach felt too tactical.

However, now more than ever, UX, engineering, and product management are seen as equal partners in product and strategy development. Today’s tech company leaders are still clamoring for great design talent, but they’re also seeking design leadership. Google is no exception.

Lots of big name companies are out there telling the story of how they approach design. (Facebook, Salesforce, and Airbnb come to mind.) But at Google, the UX culture perhaps isn’t as widely known. My initial hesitation was in part because I didn’t think of Google as a hub for design, and knew very little about how the company cultivated UX professionals.

Ultimately, I was curious and the proposed role piqued my interest, so I decided to explore the opportunity. Also, why was I holding on to my impression from 12 years ago? Thanks to a few promising discussions with UX, product management, and engineering leadership — and the recommendation of a trusted friend who already worked at Google — I decided to take a chance and this time accept the offer. A year with my team has dispelled misconceptions, and added dimension to my understanding of what it’s really like to work at Google.

Here are the top 5 insights I’ve learned about building and maintaining a healthy UX culture.

1. Smart should be the default, but engagement is what counts.

Everyone says “People at Google are so smart.” True, but I’ve had the pleasure of working with a lot of smart people over the course of my career. When I joined I learned that many of my colleagues have worked here for 10 years or more. Not only have they stayed on and built careers, they’re still incredibly passionate about their work. They really care! So while smarts are great, smarts and passion are the really powerful combination.

2. Embrace speed (without intending to break things).

Google embraces speed, but with the maturity of a grown-up company — an approach made possible by the trust we place in our employees.

For example, as machine learning has improved and grown in importance, the UX team has taken advantage of the benefits of this technology to design smarter solutions for our business customers. AdSense (Google’s product that lets website owners earn money by running ads) uses machine learning to learn about a publisher’s site, and then suggest new places to show ads that optimize both revenue and a better user experience. While the technology may do the heavy lifting, the design of what constitutes a good suggestion, delivered respectfully and empathetically to our users, is the domain of UX.

It’s amazing to me that after almost 20 years, Google has managed to retain a culture of trust and empowerment. The opportunities are plentiful — it’s on you to be bold and take them.

3. Grow a peer network that’s authentic and supportive.

The peer network is one of the greatest benefits of joining Google. I’ve found past experiences as a UX leader lonely, and often looked outside of the company for counsel and camaraderie. However UX at Google is over 2700 people strong. Because the team is broken into different product areas, rather than everyone reporting to centralized leadership, there are peers at all levels, instead of fewer senior people as you advance through your career.

A satisfying work life is due in large part to the connections you forge with your teammates. In my first year they’ve been invaluable by offering support, advice, and partnership that has helped me navigate the company.

4. “Googleyness”* still wins out

(*Replace with your company’s code for ethical conduct.)

When I was new to my role, I was impressed by the level of support and selfless help my colleagues offered. I didn’t have to earn trust and credibility, it was granted to me on day one. My job was to keep that trust.

Tech’s social role, responsibility, and inherent trustworthiness has been a topic of ongoing conversation and concern. For that reason I was encouraged to find that a strong moral compass guides both how we treat our colleagues and how we advocate for users.

As a UX leader, my job is to advocate for users. I’ve found my non-UX peers to be very receptive to that perspective. They’re also direct and communicate with respect. I appreciate this form of candor and dialogue, especially when it comes to discussions about what’s best for our users.

5. Be humble. But don’t be afraid to share your story.

Everyone is busy, so it’s easy to focus just on day-to-day work, and forget about what’s outside of Google. Also, I didn’t realize that the internal environment is rich with learning opportunities (design speaker series, leadership classes, our own internal UX conference, and UX managers conference). With all that’s going on, it’s easy to be internally-focused.

Thankfully, many Googlers are humble. My colleagues have said to me “I don’t have a story to tell. Why would people want to hear from me?” But they do have great stories to tell! From cutting-edge work in virtual reality and hardware design, to voice-user interfaces and great enterprise experience design, the process of bringing new technologies to life is often as compelling as the final products.

The consequence of leaders not engaging with the wider community to tell these stories is that other companies write our story for us. Misconceptions like “They’re too arrogant” or “UX doesn’t matter there” become the perceived truth.

As we kick off the new year, I’ve personally resolved to get out to more events, as a speaker, and attendee. And to write more. My hope is to provide people interested in learning about Google UX another perspective, and eventually, more ways to connect with our community.

Posted on February 19, 2018

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