Ryan Lawler

26 January 2021

28 min watch

Scaling Waymo from a fully autonomous vehicle project inside Google to a standalone autonomous driving company has required developers to keep one eye on the road and the other on product design.

During a Web Summit 2020 masterclass on “Scaling New Products and Services with a Design Mindset,” Waymo head of design YooJung Ahn and Samsung Next head of product Travis Bogard agreed that design helps define the soul of a product.

Waymo, which recently opened its service to the public in Phoenix, is a subsidiary of Alphabet – Google’s parent company. The company was launched in 2009, and is now on the fifth generation design of the Waymo Driver – its fully autonomous platform.

During the Web Summit session, the two product leaders discussed how design and an understanding of human needs combine to transcend cultural, societal, and economic differences when scaling products and services.

The integral role of design

Ahn, who is responsible for developing a consistent design language for Waymo and its products, said design goes beyond core functionality.

“I believe the role of design is to be the true partner to product development,” she said. “A designer doesn't just tell you how things should look and feel, they will tell you the experience and ecosystem behind the product, and how it will affect the lives of future customers.”

While Waymo’s focus is on carving out a new space in the automotive industry, there are some universal design imperatives. In particular, design has to fundamentally solve real-world problems, and that sometimes includes re-educating customers. Smartphone designers, for instance, had to develop new designs that facilitated usability without a physical keypad.

“When the user doesn't quite know that a problem exists, let alone exactly what we're solving for, in my experience, this is really one of the key places that design can play a really formative role in defining what that category is, as well as the product,” Ahn said.

Agile workflows in product design and development

Product design also has strategic implications that range from engineering specifications to user experiences. In the case of a new category like fully autonomous cars, the overarching goal is to help people move around with as little hassle as possible.

Ahn said design considerations at Waymo have to be grounded in the goal of developing an easy-to-use transportation solution. “Designers need to understand the technology very well, because it will provide some potential solutions for the experience in the product we want,” she said.

Factoring in user experience – what future customers need and want – requires a design that works for the product, the business, and the end user. “In my opinion, it only works through a really, really intense collaboration between design and engineering, as well as a lot of prototyping and testing,” Ahn said.

The earlier design is part of the development process, the better. “A lot of startups and tech companies understand this model very well,” she said. “They are developing the technology, the product use cases, and the design at the same time.”

Unlike a classic waterfall process – in which product development follows a sequential process – scaling rapidly requires a model that simultaneously implements design, construction, testing, and fine-tuning. That includes developing hardware and software solutions concurrently, while constantly keeping the end-to-end user experience in mind.

Solving problems in fully autonomous vehicles

One of the many challenges in scaling a tech startup is clearly articulating and understanding what the new product or service is solving for. Framing a problem requires a clear understanding of both the marketplace and consumer pain points.

At Waymo, like lots of tech companies, a common pitfall is falling in love with solutions that have not been tested yet. “We have this amazing technology. We know it so well and we think that it's awesome,” Ahn said. “But we just forget that people don't know yet. And because of that, they may have a lot of skepticism, and sometimes even fear.”

From a design perspective, one of the problems that startups need to address is perception. That means helping make the connection between a particular technology and consumer perception of that solution.

While Waymo has to address problems related to autonomous driving, it also has to change how people think about driving. That means thinking about what people fundamentally want: the ability to move around easily.

Holistic thinking is a two-way street

For designers to make a lasting impact on product development, they have to understand their company’s underlying technology and business strategy.

“It is important the designer understand the holistic ecosystem and the product,” Ahn said. “Then they can actually approach the design so they can come up with the right design for the company and the business.”

Conversely, a company’s engineering team needs to consider design as early as possible in the development process. “If design is involved too late,” Ahn noted, “the designers cannot do more than put lipstick on the pig.”

Good design starts with cultural competencies and market knowledge

Design also plays an important role in creating products that will resonate with consumers in different markets around the world. Waymo is currently in 25 cities in the United States, but the design and engineering teams are already thinking about what it will take for growth at scale.

“When it comes to the global audience,” Ahn said, “I don't think the logic is different. The same principles apply. But we’re going to have to design differently.”

In order to facilitate scalability, the initial design focus is on what is similar across markets. That commonality will help Waymo iterate without re-inventing the proverbial wheel. But, Ahn added, “There will be lots of difference between different cultures, and different countries. Basically, we will have to understand the people there.”

Ultimately, designers have to understand what their company is solving for, and help define the soul of their product or service. Scaling requires a keen insight into the user experience and, in particular, how a new product or service is going to resonate with customers. After that, designing to scale is a journey that has to be guided by a combination of iterating on what works everywhere, and understanding how to adjust to specific market characteristics.

For Waymo, scaling will require a lot of back-seat driving to ensure that fully autonomous cars are a success.

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