Building Better Design Culture
A conversation with Google’s Mike Buzzard on creativity, career advancement, and criteria for success
Designers are special creatures. Mike Buzzard understands this, and for the last four years he’s been working to make sure Google develops a strong appreciation for design and designers. His mission at Google is ambitious: to foster a world-class UX culture through cross-functional product development, internal operations, programs, education, talent recruitment, and perhaps most impactfully, by improving how Google defines roles and performance expectations for designers. This is an endless exercise in refinement, revision, and keen observation. So how does one become an unapologetic design evangelist in a world where engineering reigns supreme? It helps when you yourself are an edge case: a high-school dropout, an entrepreneur, and a self-taught developer who loves design. Buzzard has learned a number of lessons on his unconventional path to becoming a design lead—ideas helpful not only to understanding the rising stature of design at Google, but also for fostering excellent design vibes on any team.
Amber Bravo: Tell us a bit about how you came to work at Google?
Mike Buzzard: I started out in the ’90s as a self-taught developer with a strong interest in design. I worked for an architecture firm and built a bunch of internal, internet-based tools. Then I moved to San Francisco in 2000, and worked at a startup while also building a freelance practice. I ended up co-founding a design and development studio called Cuban Council. We ran the company for about 10 years out of San Francisco, New York, and Portland. We did a lot of identity, branding—logos for Facebook and Quora at one point—and content management tools for startups and more established entities like NASA, Francis Ford Coppola, BBC, Evernote, et cetera. Google was a client for about seven years, which is how we eventually got acquired to work on Google Plus.
AB: What inspired you to get involved in fostering the UX community at Google?
MB: Well, I had immediate design needs for Google Plus, so I had that motivation. But I also joined the hiring committee and gained a top-down view on how we source, qualify, and assess design talent, which put me in unique position to start bolstering the design disciplines. I also had an existing network of UX leads across Google that I’d meet with to understand their needs and perspective. I realized that by changing the documentation you can actually reframe the way the whole company views a discipline. In 2012, there were a lot of design generalists at Google, and we were trying to diversify and enhance our design capabilities by hiring a lot of specialists. It’s one thing to source specialists, but it’s completely another to build confidence that they’ll be successful. That requires making sure the company understands who they are and what they do, and how to sequence the various disciplines successfully in the product design process.
AB: How has this work evolved over the years?
MB: Google is an engineering-driven company, and I think it’s important that those roots remain. However, I do think Google can become more design oriented. Signals of that would be in the vocabulary engineers use when talking to designers about their work, or even just a top-down, bottom-up sort of comfort in understanding how design influences the company’s products and culture. To me that influence should be visible from the outside. Things like the Google rebrand or Material Design, for example. It’s a slow transition, but it’s clear that the company is definitely moving in this direction. The number of people working in UX at Google has multiplied over the last 5 years—that magnitude of growth is partly why we created a team dedicated to UX community and culture, to ensure the health and success of UX across all of Google.
AB: What types of designers thrive at Google?
MB: I think designers who are interested in creating products from top-to-bottom, who understand the importance of how something functions as well as how it looks and feels. Designers working in brand marketing are often responsible for making sure that brand, content, and functionality goals are met, but often don’t receive the same level of rigor and testing that Google requires. At Google, it’s not uncommon to be working on something that will affect hundreds of millions of people, so there’s an inherent responsibility that you need to get the design as close to “right” as possible before you push it out the door. A lot of people who come in actually appreciate that rigor, that level of ownership and accountability. People with an agency background tend to be great listeners with a strong sense of self-awareness because they have to be—every client is different and their needs are different. That’s a really translatable characteristic that can serve the designer well at Google.
AB: At Google, all designers are hired and evaluated based on the same universal criteria: impact. How does that fit into fostering the company’s design culture?
MB: The idea is that as we hire into roles and grow both the diversity of disciplines as well as the diversity of experience, it will feed back into improving the broad culture of design at Google. We started with scaffolding, or a framework—first aiming to simplify by focusing on the essentials, and then we focused on refining and evolving rubrics. This helps designers better understand and communicate: What is hard about the work I do? What did I do to make a difference or what would have happened if I wasn’t there, and what impact has my work had? When you have peers from different job functions evaluating each other, they’re absorbing this information, and it influences how they think about design roles within the company.
AB: Having a strong criteria is great, but is there a level where feedback and self-assessment has to be tailored to each team?
MB: Really good managers will provide tools and education for their team, they’ll create clear language which people can evaluate themselves and their peers against. It’s important to have a framework for people to tell their story, to help others understand and appreciate the work that they do, especially with the broad range of team compositions. We aren’t doing this work in a vacuum. We observe design promotion committees, we help compose them, we also collect heaps of feedback from pools of reviewers ranging from specialists to leadership. We’re doing everything we can to make sure that people understand their job profiles and criteria for advancement, by routinely providing resources and training. It’s an end-to-end, ongoing process.
AB: Measuring your personal success or job impact doesn’t necessarily require that the project or product you worked on was successful, right?
MB: It can be an impact on a project. It can be an impact on a product. It can be an impact on a team or on Google at large. A good example of impact that isn’t necessarily quantifiable, or measurable, or launch-related could be something like building tools for automation, or identifying common problems that designers have and creating programs to address them. It might be very project specific, and if it is, and everybody adopts that program or process, then it just made the whole team more efficient in their work.
AB: What’s the key to attracting talent at different levels and from different backgrounds?
MB: When we look at the slotting of a discipline at a particular level, we are careful to consider all of the data we have available to us. We look at a person’s former or current role and assess his or her level of influence, leadership, and impact. It’s very important that they will be able to meet or exceed the expectations of the teams when they join. At the more junior levels, we’re looking for opportunities for designers to feel their individual contribution helps them develop a strong sense of purpose and self-awareness. It’s up to them to deliver the value, not just the assets, but younger designers aren’t often wired that way. You’ve got to put yourself in meetings where there’s something to be gained or learned—you can’t always wait for invitations, especially when you have a curiosity or an idea or a concern about the larger product work that you’re contributing to. We look for the hint of an entrepreneurial spirit.
AB: What do you think is uniquely challenging about evaluating design success at Google?
MB: Google is big and has so many different teams. Part of developing criteria for measuring success is to not overly prescribe based on the norm. I’m a great example—I’m a one-off at Google. The ladder has to be general enough to allow me to show how I have impact and demonstrate leadership, yet at the same time it can’t be too vague. We have to be considerate of all the different use cases, and it’s not something we finish and then just walk away from. As Google’s understanding and appreciation of design matures, we need to make sure that the documentation that sets those expectations is representative of the culture that we want. We’re constantly collecting feedback. Some of it’s very small and detailed, and some of it is very philosophical. We’ve come up with different models and frameworks for testing the concepts, profiles, and criteria that we produce. And we regularly observe committees to see how these materials are considered and applied in practice.
AB: In the UX ladder you talk about many qualities of leadership—driving an idea to fruition, building consensus, being a thought leader—can you be a strong leader and be deficient in one of those things?
MB: Leadership manifests itself in many ways. I wouldn’t say that you have to check all the boxes to be a good leader. You could go very deep in one area that has significant impact. As many people progress in their career, they move into the management realm, often times circumstantially. If you have more than eight people reporting to you and you’re not spending more time managing the careers and efficacy of those individuals, you’re doing a disservice to the team and probably the product. In the agency world, this is similar to transitioning from a designer to a creative director, where the challenge is to detach yourself from the details of the design execution and essentially learn to design through others. A “lead” is a person who’s designing through others as they scale themselves. And a lot of the great managers will build a team that’s so high-functioning that they can then focus their time more strategically. When this happens, the manager typically begins to think more logistically about how the team is operating and functioning, focusing on things such as resource allocation, product strategy, and cross-functional partnerships. For example, I know one director who thinks very carefully about personality pairing in trying to identify who’s going to be the UX lead that partners with such and such product manager. What keeps that person up at night is not the pixel accuracy or the simplification of a flow, as much as it is the level of healthy collaboration of the team with its partners. People have to be acutely aware of these organizational traits if they’re going to successfully grow as a managing leader.
AB: What advice would you give to a young designer interested in working at Google?
MB: Excellent design skills are table stakes, communication and presentation skills are also extremely important. If a designer comes into a role and they’re the only designer on the team, they need to be able to confidently express their ideas, rationalize and justify their design decisions, and understand how to align both user and business goals while being mindful of engineering constraints and opportunities. If they’re not comfortable with that level of engagement, then they might consider working on a larger team where they’ll get more mentoring and structure to grow.
AB: How does pedagogy play into this?
MB: Investing in education is about helping people find their passion. In 2013, I started visiting design schools just to see what kind of events we were running and the message Google was sending. Immediately I recognized that there was room for improvement. We were sending mixed messages, and students were leaving school not knowing how they wanted to apply and expand their training or what type of organization would be the best first step down their career path. So a lot of my involvement with Google’s university recruiting programs has been spent trying to help on both sides—to help students develop a better understanding of what type of company, role, and work would provide them with the best opportunity to thrive—and to help Google set clear expectations that help students self-qualify more confidently.
AB: How much of your work is about ensuring general happiness?
MB: We want to make sure that Google is a great place for design and designers, whether you’re a 15-year veteran designer coming from a small brand studio or an entrepreneurial junior designer. We want people to be comfortable on a product team. That’s a big ask. There’s often a sort of a reboot with somebody’s personal identity when they come to Google. They need to try to figure out how to apply their skills within a massive product organization.
To me, this work is most important because it helps designers understand where they exist in the world of Google. They have specific criteria to measure themselves against and can align their day-to-day work with those expectations. Equally important is the definition of what is expected of designers within Google to people in functions other than design. I want it to be a healthy place for designers to grow and evolve. Not everybody is going to climb all the way up the ladder, nor do they all want to, but everyone should have the opportunity to grow, whether it be intentionally developing specific skills, assuming more ownership over a product, or leading a team. I just want to see happy, successful, healthy designers and design culture. I can’t think of another way for me to have a more widespread effect than in doing this kind of work.