Tuesday, November 29, 2011

All good things...

Friday is my last day at Google. 

I started at Google nearly 5 1/2 years ago. I was placed on the gmail team and into the infamous "Gmail Cube of Bitterness" with Zhanna, Adam, and Kevin

I was given a starter project on the Gmail UI. An engineering intern had already hacked up a way to show new responses to a thread if you already had the thread open (instead of wasting precious seconds going back to the inbox, only to find updates). It was my very first assignment at Google to make this UI more useful & friendly (see before and after screenshots). I started on July 24th, 2006 and this UI shipped to millions of (Beta) Gmail users a few weeks later. It remains to this day, exactly as I designed it years ago. :) 

The original UI
This should look familiar to most of you. :) 

From that first experience, through 2 years on Gmail, 3 years working on beloved Google Reader and 1.5 years leading the user experience of the video page for the world's biggest websites, I consider myself to be one of the luckiest gals around. 

There are no words to describe the opportunities I was given, the ways in which I grew and the extreme talent I was lucky enough to witness. There really is no place like Google. 

I'd like to just thank everyone I worked with. You know who you are. 

Jenna's Leaving Google: FAQ

A: Yes, it's true. I'm really leaving Google. 

Q: Wait, why? 
A: After a good long run, I've decided it's time to move on, tinker with some side projects and explore the big wide open. 

Q: Where are you off to? 
A: I currently do not have full-time employment lined up. I honestly don't. I don't have a seeecrit startup, either… Though, cw & I will be tinkering with some ideas. 

Q: No, seriously… where are you going?
A: Seriously-I'll be sleeping in, cooking for myself and walking my dog during the day for the foreseeable future. 

Q: Was it something I said? 
A: NO! you are perfect just the way you are. It's not you, it's me. Can we still be friends? I promise to still send you lots of YouTube videos of cute cats and people falling down. Even if you ask me to stop. (Do restraining orders extend to email? -- asking for a friend.) 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Invisible lines

Everyday, I teeter on an invisible line at work. I oscillate between my passion about my product/work being my biggest asset - to being a thing that actually stands in the way of progress of myself or my team. When does this passion for the product start harming it?  

You all know the type. Been at "company x" for a zillion years, been through all types of launches... has "already tried that and it didn't work." Maybe even some of you are on the other side of that and get annoyed when new hires try to re-invent the wheel. Deep down, we all reaslise that everyone is just (hopefully) trying to do the very best thing for the product. I struggle with this invisible line all the time. I'm a naturally passionate person, but occasionally (in extreme cases) it causes me to talk, act and feel like the world's biggest asshole &  the world's worst colleague. I don't like feeling or working that way. But do truly great products ever get built in perfect harmony? 

How can anyone distinguish what is truly worth putting yourself out there for? Do you advocate for it even at the expense of co-worker's discomfort? Or do you spend a reasonable amount of energy arguing a rational path and going along with a decision after it's been made even if it's not the one you would prefer. 

For me, it's a sliding scale of the following:  
  • If someone is clearly better/more knowledgable than me: Defer nearly completely to them. 
  • If I have thoughts and feedback, but ultimately not in my domain: Give constructive feedback, defer immediately. 
  • If I feel somewhat strongly: Spend some time debating, understanding each side, arguing pros & cons and come to a mutually (slightly uncomfortable for everyone) way to move forward.
  • If I feel very very strongly: Don't let anything stop me from advocating for what I believe is fundamentally the right path. 

It's this last one that puts me into uncomfortable territory at least once a quarter. I know that having someone on your team who cares deeply about the product is usually a huge asset, but you have to take the good with the bad and this is what comes along with passion. Passion cannot only remain on the positive side. Strong passion is not compartmentalizable. All in or all out. 

I guess I'm just lucky enough that my colleagues ultimately understand where it's coming from and still generally like working with me, but it doesn't make me feel any less dreadful at the end of the day. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Neutral, Open, Malleable & Agnostic - Can a strong brand be built on these attributes?

For the past few months, I've been working on a big project at YouTube that I've been very excited about. It's been a hectic few weeks, and it's only now that I'm stopping to reflect on what we've accomplished and how far we've come. I'm very proud of the exciting new thing we've built (I can't tell you yet!), but I can't help but look at it and wonder about what does it mean for content to appear "on YouTube" and how will what I'm building change or shift that perception (if at all)? 

There seem to be generally two camps of "YouTube-as-brand" 

1) YouTube is an extremely strong brand, and it's almost as important (if not as important) that a certain piece of video content "went viral on YouTube" as what's actually contained in the video itself. 

2) YouTube is a neutral platform - a repository for all the world's creativity. That the UI should recede into the background and let the content (and creativity) shine with it's own voice and the voice of the community. 

Unlike most false dichotomies that seem to be presented when talking about UI models, this one actually seems to be legitimately mutually exclusive. How can a property have an extremely strong brand within a UI while still maintaining a neutral voice and canvas for content of all types?

I've been struggling with this split in the path of the YouTube UI for a few weeks now, because I believe that YouTube's core differentiator is ultimately the community (for mostly better and sometimes worse). That YouTube *feels* approachable, *feels* community made and *feels* malleable to it's visitors. Can this DIY feeling, in and of itself, be a strong brand attribute? Maybe even the strongest? Can YouTube's brand simultaneously recede and strengthen? Should we be more heavy handed in the visual design and the UI to strengthen YouTube's brand? Or should "YouTube" remain more of an abstract concept that can be lightly applied to all hosted content, with an open community and a neutral canvas? 

After many weeks of pushing in a certain direction, I feel that YouTube's brand (and market differentiator) is strongest when the community shines the most. When the community takes ownership of the content and the discourse no matter what container it shows up in. The mere fact that YouTube allows (nay, encourages) its UI & content to escape it's main youtube.com container (embeds all over the Internet) is evidence that a strong ecosystem can easily trump a heavy-handed branded UI. The trick now is to discover a UI treatment that uses *clean*, *modern* & *professional* to enhance (not overpower) *neutral*, *open*, *malleable* & *agnostic*. Tricky. 


Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 - My life in pictures.

It's been one crazy rollercoaster of a year. I thought I might sit down and reflect on the events of the year, writing a thoughtful perspective and hopes for the upcoming year. But then I realised, everyone does that and you, dear reader, don't need another.

My hopes for next year? A little more predictability alongside some pleasant spontaneity. Always moving forward, only looking back a little.

So here it is, my roller coaster year, in pictures (I've spared you the boring bits).

New Year with Willie Nelson

Whale watching in Maui on New Years day
Ulnar nerve transposition (2/3)

Semi-Mobile post surgery with robot arm

Puppy day. 2/23

SXSW with Brizzly debut

Start work at YouTube (3/17)
Emmie Lou graduates from puppy class. :)

Thinglabs HQ 2.0 (bigger space)

Beautiful Isla Mujeres (July)
Tulum, Mexico (July)

Met Isaiah Mustafah - Old spice guy @ YouTube

Bought grown up art @ Art for AIDS auction (9/25)

AOL buys Thinglabs/Brizzly  (Sept)

Rally to restore sanity and/or fear (Oct 31)

Bought a new car. 

Went on a Disney Cruise (Nov)

Mad Men'd it up for the YouTube Holiday party (Dec) 

See you next year!! 

Monday, November 15, 2010

This is why the world needs UX designers...

No, not very useful indeed. o_O

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Styleguides & Innovation: Is this town big enough?

When a company first gets started, brand, design and consistency are relatively simple to coordinate. A single designer or a small team can easily know what all the different experiences are and work quickly and effectively together to make sure they are high quality, consistent and on-brand.

When a company becomes a little more successful, grows rapidly and starts branching out a little from it's core value, the cohesiveness of the user experience naturally starts to fragment. This is usually a result of pure logistics, not the quality of the design team (if we assume that the company is smart enough to hire great designers). Reasons for a loss of quality in the user experience of a rapidly-accelerating company can be numerous and varied: Too much work for the original design team to be able to handle, new designers getting hired in while the original designers are too busy with other work to do high quality mentorship around brand & experiences, fragmented office locations, more people, more opinions, etc. etc.

THEN, the company becomes sufficiently large enough where they start to say "Wait a minute!" They recognize the obvious need to reign in all these disparate user experiences, create a strong sense of brand while creating consistent experiences across all of our product areas so that users won't have to re-learn interactions from product to product!

Enter the corporate styleguide.

In the middle phase of a company's growth, the designer will do whatever she can to clone herself or extend her magical powers to cover more of the ever-increasing scope of the business. In this phase, styleguides usually take on the flavor of creating "designer-approved" re-usable widgets & CSS to allow engineers and product managers to self-serve (thus not requiring the full attention of a designer). The great side effect of this approach was more consistency in experiences, even those that launched without full participation of a designer.

Eventually, as the company grows into the latter phase (a very large org), a shift takes place in not only the goals but also the intended audience of these documents. Documentation & enforcement of existing patterns becomes the purpose of the styleguide and small teams of designers are tasked with the creation, upkeep and enforcement of such standards on other designers (no longer a passive source of information waiting, but a gate to getting something shipped). The target audience has shifted from engineers & product people to designers themselves.

The idea is, that if designers know what the standard pattern for a section header, a search result or a list is supposed to look like, they can check the styleguide and conform appropriately. Consistency will emerge and strengthen the brand. In theory, this is a sound assumption. Consistency within a property gives it an air of professionalism, authority and craft that you won't get from a collected set of disparate experiences underneath the same masthead.

The problem arises when it takes more time, effort and energy to document the patterns than it does to create new ones, which generates (a very natural) resistance to changing or evolving them. This is a particularly challenging situation to be in for technology designers because of the pace of innovation usually found within engineering organizations will far outstrip what can be done here.

Now, no one has ever accused me of being a conservative designer, so you must understand my bias. But I am still a classically trained designer and I do appreciate the brand strength that you get "for free" with a heavy emphasis on consistency. For me, however, it starts to become a problem when innovation in design is dampened by a strong desire to conform to the documented standards.

Shouldn't design innovation inform the documented standards? Not the other way around?

How can a company maintain a strong sense of brand, create consistent experiences in order to boost user efficiency from product to product and still manage to iterate, explore and push design boundaries as quickly as engineers push technological boundaries?

I'd like to propose that some riskiness in design innovation, constant change & failing early and often can, in themselves, be core attributes of a very strong brand. And if any company can pull that off, it's the one that I currently work for.

How will we ever know what we could do, if we are simply trying to apply what we've already done?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Fast, cheap weeknight meal #2

Like my previous recipe for Cotoletta alla Milanese (modified), here is another of my cheap, fast, mostly healthy weeknight meals.

Rosemary-rubbed pork chop with tomato salad and sauteed mushrooms
Recipe originally uploaded by The Kitchen

This one is particularly simple for me, as I have a large rosemary bush growing in the yard. And I usually have a chop or two in the freezer for just such an occasion. These beautiful trumpet mushrooms were the result of a successful farmer's market trip the previous weekend.

First, Rinse and pat dry pork chops and bring to room temperature. While they are warming to room temperature, chop and mix the following for the rub:
  • 1 tablespoon rosemary 
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar 
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 
  • 1 teaspoon pepper 
  • 1/4 teaspoon cumin 
Combine all the spices into a bowl and mix.

Then, rub the mixture over the chops coating all sides. 

If you have a grill pan, coat it in about 1-2 tablespoons of (non-virgin) regular olive or grapeseed oil. Heat up the pan a little first. Toss the chops on for 6-8 minutes per side (depending on how thick). 

While that's cooking, chop some green tomatoes, some mozzarella and some basil for a quick salad. (Greens go bad quickly, so we don't use them that often, but tomatoes keep for almost twice as long).  

I happen to have these beautiful mushrooms from the weekend farmer's market, so I chopped them with some shallots and sauteed them until crispy brown. 

If you are still hungry, drop some dinner rolls onto the oil from the grill pan (for the delicious rosemary flavor) and grill it until crunchy.

Total prep time: 5 minutes
Total cook time: 15 minutes

This is a meal I usually cook when I've been at the gym, as it's quite a hearty meal (mushrooms & pork) and it fills you up.

Enjoy! Let me know if you have success with this one!