Jens Riegelsberger, UX Director at Google Joins 4YFN19 Bill

UX design is what brings together people and technology – it is the interface that allows us to interact with the amazing technological advances around us and has become a fundamental aspect of the digital world. Google is a pioneer of UX design, first through search and now through its universe of products and applications.

This year at 4YFN19, we have the great honour of receiving Jens Riegelsberger, a UX Director at Google who manages UX teams in Search, Assistant, and News, as well as Google’s UX Infrastructure team. Here he gives us a taste of what he will talk about at 4YFN and his insight into bringing together creativity and computer science.

1. What are you talking about at the conference?

I’ve been leading user research at Google for over ten years. In this talk I’ll trace Google’s evolution from an early focus on usability and lab research to finding inspiration in direct contact with users; be it in emerging markets or at our doorstep in Silicon Valley. I believe that deep understanding and empathy with the people who use our products is a key driver of creativity and innovation. I’ll share some of the eureka moments that have shaped Google’s products and design culture, and also take some time to reflect on my insights from a decade of growing UX at Google.

2. What are you passionate about?

I love being at the intersection of art and science; design and engineering; data and intuition. There’s a lot of creative tension in these boundary fields and I enjoy being in the middle of it.

Google might be widely known for its engineering excellence, but we’ve also been named as design company of the year in 2018 by AIGA and Fast Company, so it seems like a good place to be forging strong collaboration between these practices at scale.

What’s most important, my role – in the UX team at Google – allows me to bring together technology and people. We are in a pretty unique position to make real the promise of new technologies, by deeply understanding the needs of people and communities, and to then use the insights to give form to these technologies.

3. If you weren’t doing your current job, what would your dream job title be?

As a kid I always wanted to be an architect. I drew plans and elevations for houses as far back as kindergarten. It helped that I had an uncle who was an architect. When I was about 12 years old my parents, with my architect uncle, built an extension to our house and I vividly remember being a vocal part of the family design council.

What fascinated me was that architecture required a sense for beauty and aesthetics, but also practical considerations around utility, people’s movements and habits, down to technical and engineering knowledge around statics, wiring, plumbing, and so on – that means my geek side was satisfied as well.

A few years later, still a teenager, I saw a TV report on Nicholas Negroponte and the MIT Media Lab and I knew that this was the space I wanted to be active in. Media Lab was part of the MIT Architecture School, but was entirely committed to digital media. This led to me going to art school, and later into computer science, and today I’m working with many Media Lab alumni at Google, so I’ve landed in a place pretty close to my dream job.

4. What is the future of your field?

My field, User Experience, is still pretty young, but has already been through massive shifts and reinventions. It came to prominence in the desktop computing era – maybe most famously through the work of Xerox PARC or the Apple Lisa in the 1980s. Then the early 2000s saw the emergence of Mobile computing with the iPhone and Android, and now we are at the next paradigm shift: conversational assistants, empowered by machine learning.

Rapid change will continue for a while. Compared to other creative fields, like architecture or film, we are in our infancy, we still have to codify our discipline, to establish how we fit into the wider picture, and what our stable foundations are amid rapidly shifting technologies.

This makes it a very interesting point in time to be in the UX field. We really have the opportunity to shape the enduring tenets of the field; to distill the essence from rapid change.

5. Why is it so important?

Humans spend a lot of their time with digital technology
More and more of our activities are conducted via technology

We’d better design it well.

That means designing with accessibility, equitability, wellbeing in mind. It also means designing for human joy, delight, and surprise. What’s more, increasingly we are designing not just for individuals, but for families, groups, societies.

Again, architecture comes to mind. There’s been a long debate in this field about the intended and unintended consequences of designs and how to best involve the users of buildings and public spaces. User Experience has a long proud tradition of user involvement in the design process and it’ll be important to continue and update this as our technologies and practices change.

6. What are your favourite sayings (they can be your own)? Words to live by?

Always assume good intentions
From my experience in life so far, both professionally and personally, a little equanimity goes a long way. Pause, breathe, reflect before you act. That annoying email you just received may just have been thoughtless, rushed, or ill-informed.

Culture eats strategy
Peter Drucker’s often-cited slogan is easy to like, but again and again I’ve found truth in it. Now, it might sound soft, but establishing and keeping a strong culture is anything but easy. It’s less about the ‘values’ you put on your team site and more about the people you hire and promote, and which behaviors you condone and which ones you don’t.

Simple design
That is of course what Google is known for. The white homepage, the single search box. It is one of the reasons I feel at home here. I do think there is value not only in minimal and parsimonious product design, but in applying these principles to conceptual thinking also. There is, to me, a sense of beauty in Occam’s Razor.

7. What does the world look like in 50 years?

In a way I believe it’ll look less futuristic than today. By that I mean that we now have screens everywhere: in our hands, on our arms, in our houses, on city facades. That is the main way in which computing manifests itself in this moment. With further advances, I believe that technology will blend more into the background and fabric of our daily lives through spoken interactions or by having everyday objects empowered by computing. We will focus less of our attention on screens, but be helped by technology in more subtle and seamless ways.

Equally, we’ve been very focused on visual or text input and expression. Not a surprise, given that GUIs were the way in which we’ve interacted with computers for the last 40 odd years. I believe that increasingly we’ll see this as a phase, an early-stage artifact, and we’ll have more and more tools that serve our expression and understanding across multiple senses.

More importantly though, I do hope that we’ll continue putting the advances in computing technology and machine learning to use towards solving the really important problems of humanity: health, climate, education. The last few decades may seem like periods of tremendous technological change, but I believe we’ve only just scratched the surface.