designing-at-google:-10-things-i-know-to-be-true

Reflecting on my first year at Google.

Kenny Chen

A designer with a Noogler hat working on his computer

A designer with a Noogler hat working on his computer

Google wasn’t exactly known for their design a decade ago. A lot has changed since then.

I joined Google last year on the week of their 20th birthday. I was curious to see how design evolved for such an unconventional company.

Looking back at the past year, here are 10 things I learned that I hope will help you with your design journey.

A woman in a wheelchair having coffee with a friend

A woman in a wheelchair having coffee with a friend

Focus on the user and all else will follow. From the very first day of orientation, speakers instilled into us to respect the user. With nine products that have more than one billion users, designing for everyone took on a whole new meaning. The smallest design changes could affect millions of people.

At my previous companies, accessibility and internationalization were an afterthought. At Google, our designs need to be inclusive and we need to think about supporting the next billion users.

I’ve become a better designer by focusing on providing a great experience for as many people as possible.

Two men having a conversation

Two men having a conversation

Before Google, I was the head of UX for a midsize, public company. When I joined the search giant, I had the same title as hundreds of other designers and no direct reports. Here’s the thing — you don’t need a fancy title or to manage a team to be a design leader.

Google is very much a relationship-based organization where influence is everything. Building strong partnerships with product managers, UX researchers, and engineers are essential. That’s been true for every company I’ve designed at, but especially here.

How do you build influence? Start building trust by asking questions, listening, and taking a personal interest. Once you’ve got the team’s trust, inspire others on your vision by showing how it aligns with the team’s goals.

A man and woman looking over a computer screen.

A man and woman looking over a computer screen.

Google’s design community is huge and everyone wants to be helpful. It’s not uncommon for someone to throw a quick chat on your calendar to meet or get advice. Chances are pretty good that someone has already dealt with a similar problem in the past.

As the new designer on the team, take advantage of your status by asking lots of questions. You don’t know what you don’t know. There’s a lot of history and design decisions that went into a product that you’ll need to uncover. Don’t be afraid to show unfinished work to get early feedback. By the time I go into a design review, I’ve already had a chance to address any concerns.

A woman taking a selfie

A woman taking a selfie

Ego gets in the way of good design. During my interview, I asked what traits successful designers at Google have. One that I heard many times was not having an ego. While a healthy dose of confidence is good, don’t aspire to be the smartest person in the room. We don’t always have all the answers and that’s okay.

Good ideas can come from anyone. There have been many times where someone else has come up with a different way to solve a problem. By remaining open-minded, we collaborated on a better solution for the user. Stay humble by reminding yourself who you are designing for and empathize with them.

Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker fighting with lightsabers

Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker fighting with lightsabers

There’s always that voice in the back of your head questioning if you belong. At a company the size of Google, that feeling multiplied. I worried I wouldn’t be successful despite designing many products people love.

I’ve come to realize that everyone experiences some form of imposter syndrome. No matter how much you know, there’s always more to learn. I’ve learned to embrace the feeling. Now, when I have even the slightest of doubts, I’ll look back at my past year of achievements and know that I belong.

A man designing on a whiteboard

A man designing on a whiteboard

“The most important investment you can make is in yourself.” ― Warren Buffett

One thing I appreciate about Google is the many learning opportunities available. I’ve taken classes on everything from storytelling to running design sprints. Once a year, Google has an internal UX conference. Designers from all over Google come together to give inspiring talks and workshops.

Not only have I learned from others but I’ve tried to give back to the culture of learning. I give talks on design, mentor others, and teach courses. To become the best version of yourself, embrace the uncomfortable. Do things that scare you. That’s when real growth happens.

A man working out

A man working out

How do you excel among other super talented designers across the organization? Develop and optimize your strengths. Using your strengths results in higher levels of positivity and engagement. It also leads to sustained peak performance.

During performance review time, everyone has to list one thing you do really well. One of my strengths is analyzing data to find patterns and organize ideas. I try to get data whenever I want to make an informed design decision. I’ve learned to focus on my strengths and to look for opportunities to use them in my career.

A man and a woman working on their computers

A man and a woman working on their computers

In a lot of ways, working at Google is like working at a well-funded startup. Each team has different processes and tools. While debating between Sketch and Figma is fun, tools change all the time. Technology is always changing and there are new design trends each year.

The one thing that stays consistent is people. We like to think we are all unique but the way human’s think, feel, and act is predictable. Human’s are creatures of habit and don’t change as fast. Understand how to work with your teammates, their motivations, and goals. It’s much more important than learning new tools.

A combo chart with bar and line graphs

A combo chart with bar and line graphs

Throughout my career, I’m amazed by how many people don’t understand the business they work for. Everything from the products, users, goals, and how they make money.

As designers, advocating for the user is still the number one priority. Knowing the business makes it easier to convince cross-functional partners to invest in your solutions.

Google is big on OKR’s (objectives and key results). When presenting designs, I make sure to tie them back to the company, team, or product goals. Linking design outcomes to the greater company strategy reinforce the importance of design.

A man holding a backpack next to a globe

A man holding a backpack next to a globe

“Fall down seven times, stand up eight” — Japanese Proverb

Getting into Google was a dream come true but it didn’t come easy, which made me appreciate it even more. For the first seven years after college, I applied to Google almost every year and only got as far as a phone screen. A few years later, I managed to pass the initial screenings. I was flown to the Googleplex for a full day of interviews. I didn’t get in.

Between all the rejections, I continued to learn new things and work on my craft. A recruiter reached out almost five years later. After going through the process again, I finally got an offer.

Everyone’s journey is different. There will be ups and downs. If you put in the work, you can achieve anything but the journey never ends. There will be new goals and dreams. I’ve learned so much in my career and the past year at Google but there is so much more to learn. I can’t wait to see where my journey takes me next.


Shout out to Undraw for the open-source images.

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