Three Designers Walk Into a Virtual Conversation…
Gathering a trio of creatives at the leading edge of their fields, we explore how industrial design, AR, and VR are moving design forward at Google.
The avant-garde of experience design are transforming the way we interact with different environments—even creating new, entirely virtual ones. To find out how industrial design, augmented reality (AR), and virtual reality (VR) are shaping the design narrative at Google, we sit down with Alberto Villarreal, Creative Lead on the Google Mobile Industrial Design team, Hillary Lindeman, Product Design Lead on Google's AR team, and Hannes Harms, Creative Lead on the Google Industrial Design team.
Hannes and Hillary have worked on some of Google’s most innovative digital experiences, including the Daydream VR headset and YouTube AR, while Alberto has worked on the most recent mobile products like Pixel 4a, and laptops and tablets including Pixelbook Go and Pixel Slate. Here, the trio discuss the surprising overlaps between their novel disciplines and why designing products that don’t exist yet is a dream come true.
Google Design: People can have very emotional connections with the devices and platforms that you are designing for. How do you keep that in mind when designing?
Alberto Villarreal, Creative Lead on Google's Mobile Industrial Design team**:** There’s something fascinating about how digital products have become so common in our lives, and the intimate relationships we have with them. I feel a huge responsibility even when moving a single pixel one millimeter, because I know that it’s going to impact users somewhere down the journey.
Hillary Lindeman, Product Design Lead on Google's AR team**:** Yes, it’s an amazing opportunity and a serious responsibility. To me, the interesting thing about this kind of interaction design—whether it’s in AR, VR, or otherwise—is that you can create an extremely powerful experience for users. One where you’re actually helping them achieve a goal; to get somewhere faster or send a note to loved ones. So we have to think user-first.
Alberto: Keeping everybody in mind is so important. I try to think of designing for tech products like designing a cinema. No matter how incredible the film on the screen, you have to plan the theatre itself so that everyone has the same view, the same experience. It’s a similar principle when designing a new laptop or a phone. Each user should have an opportunity at the same experience, and designing for that becomes a prominent factor for every decision during the creative process.
Hannes Harms, Creative Lead on Google's Industrial Design team**:** The kind of consideration that Alberto is talking about is why I think our role has two layers. First the pragmatic, to make something that functions really well. That does what a user wants it to do, but then there’s the emotional aspect: How a product makes a user feel. That layer is much harder to quantify as it can’t necessarily be measured. Addressing both layers in a holistic solution is our daily role as designers.
Hillary: That second emotional layer, as Hannes puts it, is really prevalent in a YouTube AR experience I’m currently working on, where users can ‘try on’ makeup as they're watching a tutorial. It’s a new field, which means there aren’t best practices already in place. But, like all things at Google, we are hoping to make this better over time, so we are constantly looking at ways to make this a fairer, more inclusive experience for our users. We know the technology is deeply intimate, so it's about building trust and keeping everyone in mind.
GD: How do you balance those more pragmatic considerations with achieving your creative vision?
Hannes: The nature of working in uncharted territories forces you to think about both the big picture and the small detail. One minute you could be talking about the long term design vision, the next it's contemplating how a 0.5 millimeter gap in the manufacturing process might prevent it. Challenging practical realities in the detail is crucial to turn the vision into reality.
Alberto: Working in this field means setting out a long term vision, then regularly checking-in with engineers or tech teams, to adapt your designs until one day you come together on an idea that’s possible.
Hannes: To work on products that don't exist yet is a dream for any designer. The academic approach to ‘new’—whether that’s conceiving a new phone or experience—is to research, consult with experts, and dive into data. And while we do that, there’s also an honesty in trusting our intuition. I don’t think that following intuition should be seen as a risk in the design process because ideally it offers a reflection of how people will perceive our products in the public.
Hillary: User intuition is critical when designing products for the future and is why a company like Google needs designers. Because no matter which side of design you’re coming from, you’re thinking about the user’s environment and their experience. With AR, it might be considering lighting so that tracking and mapping works. In industrial design, it might be the form factor of a user’s existing equipment. Regardless, as designers, we’re thinking about how the user currently engaged with our products, so that future products don’t feel too alien. As Hannes mentioned earlier, it's that emotional consideration that isn’t always born out of data and research.
Alberto: We’re also often envisioning ideas that aren’t technologically possible yet. Think about the modern displays. Having the screen run edge-to-edge was not possible 10 years ago, but that doesn’t mean designers weren’t already drawing up concepts.
Hillary: When it comes to designing in a novel space like AR, the very fact that it’s new is a challenge. You can never really know if a product is right until it’s put out into the world and receives feedback. So the first pass of any new idea has to be seen as just that. The product inevitably gets better with each version that passes, but again we have to build trust so that users come on the journey with us.
GD: Presumably the way you build that trust depends on the type of user. How do you design for different audiences?
Hillary: With experiences like AR, there’s always going to be a main target audience. At least at first: the early adopters, tech enthusiasts, and so on. But we also want to onboard as we go. So we have to make the right improvements along the way to make sure that what we’ve created is attractive to everyone; to the point where nobody is considering the technology behind it, they’re just immersed in the experience and making it their own.
Alberto: Sometimes I’m surprised by how fast people adapt to new interactions. Technology changes so fast. They optimize or upgrade all the time, and yet users keep-up, sometimes in fascinating ways I never envisaged. My young daughter, for example, uses her Pixelbook to attend digital classes… and I see her jumping between the physical and digital keyboard, or rotating the screen to do things that I never would have thought of, like putting it on top of the piano. The adoption almost outstrips the intention.
Hannes: There is certainly beauty in the diversity of products. As designers we should embrace that people appreciate choice and every person will use our products in individual ways.
Alberto: Yes, it’s true. The more I design, the more I realize there’s not one solution that fits all. Malcolm Gladwell said there isn’t one perfect spaghetti sauce, there are perfect spaghetti sauces. Different users want different things. Perhaps a designer’s role is to provide a system that’s flexible enough for users to make it their own.
Hillary: That’s something we have to navigate, especially when creating version one of something completely new. There’s a balance between all the possibilities of what a product could be, and what it should be. And while there’s inherently going to be some risk in leaving those kinds of calls to design teams, you can at least be assured that every decision made will have been considered from every possible angle.
Hannes: So many people who work in design are focused on ‘the next version of…’ or ‘what’s our brand’s take on this existing product?’ But in this field, especially at Google, we don’t have a benchmark. There are no answers yet. Instead we have to look forward and build from the ground-up. That’s truly exciting.