Interview with Pravin Sathe, UX Design Lead at Google

Pravin was born in Pune, India and grew up in Strongs Neck, New York. He has a BA in Politics and Economics from NYU as well as a Masters in Professional Studies from ITP. He has had many professions including cancer researcher, art assistant, high school math teacher, and designer at HUGE. Pravin currently lives in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn with his wife Anna and 2 boys, Sachin and Ronan.

If you have any questions or are interested in being interviewed, feel free to DM me on Instagram or reach out on LinkedIn!

How did you get into design and UX?
A combination of right time, right place and my background. I grew up painting and drawing and was lucky enough to be taught by an amazing art teacher whom I took lesson with: June Jermyn (her daughter coincidentally works at Google too). At home, we had an old black and white TV, didn’t have a cassette player or a record player, but we always had the latest computer. Both my parents are engineers and my mother is a Software Engineer that worked at Brookhaven National Lab so I had this great exposure to the tech side of things with her and at home and the art side of things with June and the art lessons I was taking.

What do you think makes a great designer?
Two things:
1. Empathy for the problem you’re tackling
2. Execution, ideas are a dime a dozen, tackling a problem from start to finish and making sure everything is completed

How do you approach the design process with PMs & engineers?
This is a great question because we sometimes lump ourselves, PMs and engineers into reductive buckets. I’ve learned over the years how much it matters who the person is you’re working with that sets the direction for where the project will go (good and bad). And so I start by picking collaborators who are extraordinarily open to the team getting to the best solution possible. This requires, everyone to do more than their job and sometimes switch roles (to a certain degree). The process itself then is iterative, where ideas come from all parts, as does feedback, and with the knowledge that we picked the right people to make the right tradeoffs in the end for the most coherent feature/product we can.

Do you have any side projects you’re working on?
They are all in a state of in progress / half done but here’s a few:
1. I am part of the founding team on the board of a computer science and technical education charter school in the South Bronx call Comp Sci High that we just opened (our first class of ~100 9th graders this September). Super excited about and what the teacher/students/admin is doing there. If you’d like to be involved let me know!
2. We’re thinking about renovating our bedroom so I’m doing some drawings for that
3. I have a dream of renovating my childhood home so I’m doing random drawings for that (if I ever get to do it I want to be prepared :)

What are some of the challenges/obstacles you’ve faced at work?
It’s evolving:
When I started on the Knowledge Graph team 7 years ago the design team was tiny relative to the features and products we were launching (6–7 designers) and the challenge there was how do you load manage in your particular area which for me was Sports and Finance. As the team as grown to almost 300 across all of Search, it’s become increasingly challenging to balance team/feature/product autonomy while creating a healthy level of process that lifts the feature/product development process rather than hinder it. I think it’s natural growing pains but it feels acute on Search because the ethos of the company was letting thousands of flowers bloom.

How do you see UX evolving in the future?
Great question. From a skills perspective, I love the idea that more and more designers are looking to be full stack designers (code, interaction, visual, motion). I think traditionally these folks were considered unicorns but it’s getting to be the tools (Sketch, Principle, Framer, XCode etc) and frameworks (Angular, React et al) we use are easier to learn lowers the barrier to entry and gets folks using their designs earlier rather than later.

From a discipline perspective, the introduction of voice into the mass market is going to be interesting to follow, as is sense of how to weave privacy concerns into the fabric of the product itself. Whereas previously the solutions were agreed upon and relatively similar across many products, it’s not clear what the right experience model is where others can hear what you’re saying and what the response is.

What are the most common mistakes you see in UX portfolios?
A lot of flash not a lot of substance. And by that I mean, the product looks phenomenal, the screens are perfectly rotated 45 degrees and the mocks have been laid out in these beautiful grids, and it makes you want to buy / use the product immediately. And that’s great for marketing, it’s not great for feeling what it’s like to use it and talking about what this design did to help a user in a moment in time. I saw a portfolio recently I loved, there was one case study that went into the why and how of creating a particular motion design to indicate liveness and when data would update. The attention to detail there was amazing because it clearly articulated the problem and then set about showing why the solution was optimal. On the other end of the spectrum, I also love portfolios that are higher level where they used metrics and research to drive to a solution that which may not be featured on dribbble per se, it was extraordinarily valuable to the user. In both cases, it told me the designer cared about helping the user’s accomplish their ultimate goal.

What’s your biggest design pet peeve?
I’ll reference my answer to the portfolio question: there are many moments in the world where aesthetics and functionality combine to form the pinnacle of design and we all cherish those moments and we all strive to reach those heights and so what I’m about to say is based on my goal of achieving that balance BUT I’m not a fan where the aesthetics start to supersede the function and so when I see designs that are meant to help users do something become all about how it looks I get annoyed

Do you have any tips for anyone looking to get into the UX field?
Great question, I’m from the East coast and at least with my background my exposure to the field of UX was more via my mother’s job. She designed the control systems for the particle accelerator on Long Island (the biggest one at the time) One of the things I remember my mother talking about was visualizing the collisions that the RHIC particle accelerator allowed for and how those visualizations were helping scientists perform experiments etc. She never called it UX but it helped me better understand that someone was responsible for those things and that that could be a job. I didn’t foresee it being what it is today but the exposure was key

What are the most important things when pitching your design work?
Identifying the core problem and why this solution is elegant for it. Showing work so folks understand there’s other options. Rationale for why those other options are sub-optimal. Nothing profound, try a lot of things, show it, and be open to feedback to keep refining.

Is there a project that you are particularly proud of?
For the Assistant I’m particularly proud of the assisted cooking experience. You can ask for a recipe and we’ll give you ingredients and step by step directions with voice control. I’m particularly proud of it because it was a passion project and the team was super small and scrappy.

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