The Google UXA Model


It’s hard to come up with an idea that will help a company change for the better. It’s even harder to convince them to put that idea into practice. It’s harder still to make that idea come to life, let alone getting the idea supported for the duration of its useful life.

Focusing on the third thing – manifesting a noteworthy idea – we’ve been exploring several models. One model that’s fairly well-documented is the agency model: pay someone outside your company to do it for you. Another that has a strong historical backing but little public reference material is the Skunk Works model: create a truly autonomous group within the company to design, develop, launch and support solutions to broad problem sets. Another is the tennis camp model: send talented members of the company to a place where they learn to be great (by doing) and then have them return to the company to perpetuate great work. There’s another that I’d call the auteur model, where one individual holds court over everything that happens within that company, and great things happen by their will.

There’s a really interesting fifth model that’s being explored at Google, highlighted in this article from Fast Company, looks more like a roving cabal of experts than anything else. Quick synopsis: in an effort to improve the quality, usability, design sophistication, and cohesiveness of Google’s universe of digital tools, it created a smallish task-force with quality as their mandate. This group seems to roam the company, working with divisions that need help and have a high profile. And instead of handing down a set of design guidelines or administering/policing protocol, they just sit down and get into it with the people working on the project at hand.

“To help make it happen, there’s a small group of a few designers in New York called Google UXA. It’s a relatively secretive group, its web footprint limited to just a few job listings, but the size of its presence at Google almost can’t be overstated. The UXA team…works on ‘designing and developing a true UI framework that transforms Google’s apps into a beautiful, mature, accessible and consistent platform for its users’ and focuses on keeping that vision consistent across all of Google’s products.

“UXA works with all of the lead designers for Google’s most important products on a regular basis. But its small size and even smaller public face makes it unique, and in fact may help the core design team work better with the rest of Google, where collaboration between teams is the name of the game. In fact, Google doesn’t publicly mention UXA by name.

“…like any true Google institution, the way its work turns into actual product is a curious mix of informality and relentless work ethic. Speaking more generally about how design meetings go at Google, Wiley says ‘We get together, we have lunch, and we talk endlessly.’

“…designers for various iOS apps have a ‘casual get-together, but on a very regular basis, to talk about feedback we have for each other and things we’ve tried.’ That’s not to say that these design meetings dictate the final look and feel for apps, but they seem to act more as a guide.”

This isn’t all instantaneously or easily transferable to all organizations; Google’s massive resources, talent density, and numerous pre-existing open digital systems makes it an especially fertile substrate for this type of group.

Looking forward, I can imagine that this model would have powerful long-term impacts on company culture and overall output, but would be held up in places by a variety of natural biases against outsiders. In many ways, I see this as the opposite of the Skunk Works model, where permanent cultural gains are sacrificed for focus and specific, measurable output.

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