What led you into design?
The first time I learned something remotely close to design was my freshman year in college. It was a very basic HTML code and Photoshop. I learned to build a web page for my college club. Mostly self-taught and lots of “View Source” from other websites. Obviously, it was very poor at quality, but I loved the feeling that I’ve made something. You’re making something from the scratch and it’s yours. I’ve never had that feeling before. So I made more websites, mostly for free, sometimes small budget projects.
But it didn’t take too long to take the “client” project after all. My business grew organically. Hard to explain, but just one thing led to another. But the design was still my hobby and something fun, I didn’t consider it as a profession. I was a grad school student, studying family policy in South Korea. I was using data analytics tools like STATA, SPSS and those were my main gigs. It was cool, but I couldn’t help myself drew into pixel pushing instead of numbers and graphs.
I loved the motion, following works of Yugo Nakamura and many other flash artists. It was fascinating not only you can draw something, but you can make it interactive so that other people can play with it. It was mind-blowing when I first made an interactive flash website. It was just boxes and circles, but it almost felt like I created something that’s alive. And that was amazing. I think that feeling was my biggest motivation.
In 2009, I ran a small business with my friend, we had to do it as our clients got bigger, and they needed us to handle paperwork in order to pay us. And that didn’t last long as I realized that design already became my main gig. I skipped the class to join client meeting and even flew to Frankfurt for work in my thesis semester. I had to make a choice. And I joined a company as a full-time designer and eventually dropped out of school. So it all began.
It was quite a journey. I still see my professor time to time and she’s part-proud, part-confused when I’m telling her what I do.
What does a typical day look like?
My morning usually starts early - since I’m working in Tokyo while collaborating with folks based in the United States. I have to secure as much time as possible to talk to them over the video call. I wake up at 6:30 am and start dialing in to meetings from 7:00 am. Meeting usually ends before lunch. So until then I work from home and go to the office around noon. After a quick lunch, it’s design time, I rarely have a meeting in the afternoon so I have block of heads down time. It’s a nice advantage when working in a satellite office. It’s pretty quiet and I can get most productive during that time.
I go home around 5:30 pm, sometimes go to a coffee shop on the way home so I can enjoy a little bit of city vibes of Tokyo. Or just head back home directly and unwind a bit. And that’s a wrap. I go to sleep around 11pm to prepare for an early meeting, and this goes on until weekends. Might sound pretty boring but I like this disciplined life as I travel so much otherwise.
I travel almost once a month to U.S. to work with my team in person - this has pros and cons - it is tiring but necessary get things up to speed and keep relationship tighter. So I’m up for it whenever I needed to do it.
What’s your setup?
In the office, I use iMac Pro with LG 5K monitor. I also have MacBook Pro 15” as an everyday carry, and for home. I have another 5K monitor in my place and usually plug my laptop to it.
Where do you go to get inspired?
I always get inspired by physical devices. I like the blank state of the phone - so I can throw crazy idea to it. Also, beautifully designed hardware always gives me a motivation to design a software matches that beauty & craftsmanship in it. This isn’t limited to modern devices like iPhone but goes all the way back to classics from Dieter Rams. Another big source of inspiration is video game, they have everything UX design should take from - sounds, menu interface, the way they guide players in certain ways. It might sound like an excuse to play game, but not only from playing it, hearing from great game designers about how they design the game is really inspirational.
What product have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?
My top pick would go to AirPods, it changed my life forever. I love everything from the initial pairing process, and everyday use. Hardware itself is beautifully designed, I love detailed touch like magnetics inside the case, and snappy click when open & close it. Something no other competitors could achieve.
My second pick would go to Spotify. It has well-curated playlists, each with beautiful custom artwork. This changed my listening behavior forever. I also love seamless multi-device listening, it’s so each to switch between device or remotely control playback.
Last pick goes to PocketCast. It is my favorite podcast app. I paid for it and use it as my default podcast app over stock one from Apple. This reminds me that if your product is really good, people are willing to switch even though they have built-in service in their device. Obviously tells me something.
What pieces of work are you most proud of?
Hard choice, I would pick Gboard. This is the first new product that I’ve ever worked on at Google - which is pretty rare since it’s a big company and has many existing products. It was also the first product that I’ve worked from scratch and designed end-to-end. It was special to me because it gave me confidence that I can compete with other designers in the industry. With Gboard I think we innovated with lots of new features - integrated search, built-in emoji, glide typing and more. Which became really popular and won several awards including Golden Kitty and Webby.
I would like to plug another one here - Google Assistant certainly doesn't belong to a single person with regards to the credit. But I feel very fortunate and proud that I was able to participate to design a foundation of the next-gen conversational interface using voice and touch at the same time. I specifically participated to design 3rd party bots integration (alongside framework on mobile phone and TV), which was a new concept, thus there was no other guidance that I can rely on. It helped me grow a lot - designing something from the ground up, also maneuvering large scale design team to deliver final product in time.
It’s obviously not perfect and has lots of holes (which was redesigned eventually), but stepping on uncharted soil made me super exciting and I felt very much rewarded once it’s out in the world.
What design challenges do you face at your company?
At Google, We’re facing billions of user every day, and search is part of everyone’s life now. I’m working on iOS Google Search App these days, which makes me think a few more things on top of existing challenges. We’re trying really hard to understand how our iOS users are using their device, what search means to them, and how can we be more useful to them.
As we get bigger, it is really hard to understand and satisfy our user as they become extremely diverse. The product should be adaptive and serve each use cases accordingly. It’s like trying to hit multiple birds with one stone. So we’re doing lots of researches all of the world. It’s amazing to see the spectrum and at the same time overwhelmed by it.
Being “Google” app is hard, too. We have so many products can be useful to users, but it can’t be surfaced all at once. We need to show the right solution at the right timing. Keep things tidy but still have to have the capability to handle things the right way. Which is a very challenging, but also very interesting problem to solve.
What music do you listen to whilst designing?
Any advice for ambitious designers?
Try as much as possible. I get many emails from aspiring designers all over the world. They’re mostly overwhelmed by so many choices in front of them, and hesitating to put time into something - worrying they might waste their time. But in my experience trying was the fastest way to make me move forward. Whether I learn the lesson or actually find another direction - it is not wasting your time. So if you’re into visual design, just try to draw something with sketch, learn as you go. But picture the end goal you want to reach. Whether it’s an icon or fully interactive prototype, try to achieve it no matter what, and it’ll definitely help you grow.
And with the same manner, don’t pass the opportunity when it comes in front of you. I see lots of aspiring designers giving up on an opportunity because they feel like they’re not ready. But sometimes you have to push yourself outside of your comfort zone. It’s okay if you’re not ready, take the challenge and beat the pain, you can grow much faster that way.
Most importantly, it is okay if you fail. We all do.
Anything you want to promote or plug?
This is a shameless plug but our team just launched restaurant search feature in Japan. This project is special to me because we started this in Japan, inspired by Japanese users living in a more dense city such as Tokyo. This only works in Japanese so most of you will not be able to use this but stay tuned for more update. :-) And until then, please watch this promotion video we put together: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zCKPAgjRhhc (and Yes, she’s the show hostess from Terrace House)