Irene Au on scaling design at Google and beyond

4 min read
Eli Woolery
  •  Aug 23, 2017
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I first met Irene Au when I interviewed her for DesignBetter.Co in 2016, but during the course of our more recent interview for this podcast, I learned that her work had impacted me in some unexpected ways. Au was part of the team that designed early versions of Netscape, one of the first commercial browsers.

Irene Au, design partner at Khosla Ventures

I grew up a computer nerd in the 80s, so I was familiar with early pre-incarnations of the Internet like BBS’s and Prodigy. But as an undergrad in the mid-1990s, I remember being blown away by my first exposure to the world wide web as viewed through Netscape’s browser, and was equally amazed to hear that Au played a big part in designing those experiences.

A screenshot from the PINE email client

When she tells the story about when she first came to Google in 2006, she mentions she had discussions with Larry Page about how he viewed the optimal user experience with Google’s products.

He held up UNIX as an example of an efficient, ideal user interface. This made me smile, as I spent hours typing away on PINE during my undergrad years and had a love/hate relationship with the stripped-down interface of this UNIX-based email client.

“At Google, the thinking was we should push the envelope…so we can offer better experiences.”
– Irene Au

As you’ll hear in this episode, eventually Page came around to embrace things like white space and other more considered, but still efficient, design fundamentals. It was great to hear how Au played a part in the story of Google’s design maturation, and how she continues to help companies embrace user-centered design.

Here are a few other things to listen for:

  • How organizational design affects product design
  • When design is outnumbered by engineers, what can be done to help strike a better balance
  • How important EQ and soft skills are in building great products
  • How company values affect product quality

Au has had an amazing career, leading design at places like Yahoo, Google, Udacity, and now as a design partner at Khosla Ventures. We hope you enjoy our interview with her, and get a lot out of the insights that she shares.

This is just the first episode of many to come.

If you like what we’re doing, and want to hear the stories of more great designers like Au, it would help us out a lot if you subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and leave us a review.

Thanks for listening!

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