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Interviews

Embracing the beginner’s mindset: one-one-one with Oculus lead designer Jonah Jones

4 min read
Dominic Vaiana  •  May 28, 2019
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Have you ever relied on Google Maps to navigate a new city? Do you ever tune into a Facebook Live stream? If you’re one of the three billion people that can answer “yes,” you’ve encountered the work of a soft-spoken Londoner by the name of Jonah Jones.

An outer space look at Jonah Jones’ work

In 2013, Jones led the largest redesign of Google Maps in the company’s history, giving more than one billion users a simpler way to make their way around the world. Earning him a spot on Fast Company’s “Most Creative People in Business” the next year. As Facebook’s London design lead, he led the Creative Labs and Facebook Sharing teams, building new features such as Facebook Live. And now, as the lead designer at Oculus, Jonah Jones is tackling the future of virtual and augmented reality.

Jones also has advised a cohort of prominent startups including Waze and SpotAngels. “My key takeaway from the last several years is to keep a beginner’s mindset,” says Jones. “When taking on new challenges, it’s crucial to cultivate humility, learn from mistakes, and ask questions…that’s how I grew.”

Jones credits a handful of mental mindsets for his sustained success: instead of assuming answers, he asks questions; instead of doubling down on gut feelings, he seeks out negative feedback from all disciplines. Even at the peak of his career, no design philosophy is ever set in stone. Furthermore, he’s acutely aware that his career is a fluid process rather than a linear journey.

Jonah presenting a talk on his work

“We’re all flawed humans with frailties and ego and blind spots,” says Jones. “It’s important to remember that not only in terms of ourselves, but of others as well if we are to become the best versions of ourselves.”

So, what exactly does a beginner’s mindset entail for one of the world’s most sought-after designers? Jones sums up his approach with three examples.

Example #1: Cut it to 20%

Physicist John Wheeler once observed that “As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.” Each win and advancement that makes us smarter simultaneously introduces us to new situations that we’ve never encountered. A useful framework as digital products open entirely new media and markets.

First launched in 2005, Google Maps quickly became an indispensable for smartphone users worldwide. But as Google continued to add new features, the interface became cluttered. After a decade of development, users were left with a design experience so jumbled that many had trouble navigating it (no pun intended.)

So, how did Jones and his team go about redesigning maps to make it as future-proof as possible? They threw everything out and went back to the drawing board.

“We were super aggressive,” said Jones. “We would ask ourselves, ‘What would we design if we could only keep 20% of Maps’ features?’”

The process, he explains, was a matter of baby steps, trial and error—not broad sweeping, unwarranted verdicts. The result was a new Maps that was minimalistic and ultra-responsive, pillars that are still evident even in the current version of Maps.

Jonah Jones

Example #2: The Google Maps “press release”

As Jones and his team embarked on the redesign of Google Maps, the designers did an exercise where they wrote a future press release announcing the product with the top three benefits. Later on during the preview launch, they wrote a second, real press release for early adopters. Finally, a year later, they wrote the release for general availability. But as Jones and his team looked back, they realized that the three releases had nothing in common.

Google Maps’ 2014 press release

“Our internal release solved problems that the design team had, the second solved problems for early tech adopters, and only the third one addressed real important user problems for everyone,” says Jones. “Had we possessed the foresight to start the design process with the intellectual honesty of the third press release, we would have been able to focus our efforts so much better, and get to a great product so much more quickly. I try to stay true to this lesson whenever I take on a new challenge.”

That would have been an easy moment to get frustrated. “At every step throughout the journey, there’s an opportunity to learn,” he says.

Example #3: Avoid the “us-and-them” trap

“When you’re designing for a billion people, you can lose the personal feel of who you’re designing for,” he says. “You might find the team focusing on large, abstract numbers and metrics instead of serving the individual and creating a great experience for them.”

Jones cautions that in this scenario the “us-and-them trap” can drag down teams when disagreement arises.

Say, for example, that a designer and engineer find themselves in the midst of a conflict. It may appear that a minor detail is at the root of the conflict when in reality it’s an unwillingness to think outside one’s own frame of reference to learn what caused the conflict in the first place.

Jonah Jones’ TEDx talk on redesigning Google Maps: “The breakthrough came when we stopped focusing on the ways people are different, and started focusing on the ways they are the same”

“It’s helpful to take things back to peoples’ intent rather than the specific issue that’s under discussion. Are you fundamentally aligned or misaligned? Are you expecting other people to understand your language or are you making an effort to understand theirs? Answer these questions before going down the rabbit hole of the blame game.”

While subtracting ego is important, adding empathy is equally critical for any designer to excel, explains Jones. It’s the ability to set aside one’s own needs and into their audience’s (or teammate’s) that differentiates the exceptional from the mediocre.

“It’s easy to fall into the trap of designing and building things because you find them cool or interesting, or because you have convinced yourself that you are solving a real user problem,” he says. “Most problems are real, but not all of them are the most important to solve. Being intentional and honest about finding the most important problems to solve for real people, and defining up front how you will know when you’ve solved it, goes a long way.”

Taking the beginner’s mindset Into the future

Today, leading a team of product designers at Oculus, Jones has another puzzle to solve that’s requiring him to stay a student: defining the future of virtual and augmented reality.

“Given the infancy of the platform, there’s no shortage of unknowns, but I see this as an opportunity rather than an obstacle,” says Jones.

The emergence of AR and VR is poised to shift the paradigm of making meaningful interpersonal connections through design, regardless of physical space. But on the flip side of this substantial opportunity are substantial challenges.

Jonah presenting Google Maps internally

“We’re transitioning from thinking in mono 2D into thinking in stereo 3D and inventing what a spatial user interface should be, with real physical opportunities and constraints,” explains Jones. “Designing for this new medium combines traditional and sci-fi thinking: learning from well-established best practices from architecture and physical design, with imagining how the future could be.”

It would be tempting to recoil into old, familiar habits to cope with such a monumental challenge. Instead, Jones is questioning everything he knows and absorbing new information like a sponge in order to help Oculus make the most of this new frontier.

Jonah’s VR motion kit

Jones is envisioning a future in which the sense of presence reigns supreme, where sharing and collaborating in virtual spaces are brought to levels unseen. As we traverse into this new era of digital experiences, you won’t need to look far to find the designers who profess to have the answers, the shortcuts, the hacks.

Meanwhile, Jonah Jones will be learning quietly, asking questions, and challenging his assumptions—like all good students do.

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