Inside The Mind of Design Leaders Featuring Melanie Yencken, UX Design Lead


Creative, UX / UI Design, Kristie-Craft...


Within this blog series, Kristie sits down with Design Leaders across the industry to get their insight into their successes, challenges and advice. This week, Kristie speaks to Melanie Yencken, UX Design Lead at Google. 


Could you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into design?

I grew up in Melbourne, Australia. I started studying veterinary science but just before I did a work experience placement that showed me, I love animals too much to operate on them, after passing out in the operating room on the floor… I swapped all my sciences for arts and ended up studying Visual Communication. It was a last-minute decision. My brother James was doing the same degree at Monash University. I followed him into the role, which I am so glad I did.

I did my bachelor's, then I was so lucky to land a job as a Junior Designer at a small creative studio in Melbourne called Square Circle Triangle. I worked there for almost five years. I did branding and print design for corporations, they would always want to know how their brand would be expressed digitally. I would do some of the Digital Visualisations and realised I just love that space so much and made digital design (now UX) my speciality. I was able to design a broad spectrum of products, from large touchscreens installations, iPad web apps for sales clients to use, websites and mobile sites when that came along.

I decided to move to London about eight years ago, my father had lived there while I was growing up, I loved the city and I knew I would have access to amazing career opportunities. In London, I started at an agency as that was my background, and that was great as I got to work with clients like McDonald's, Land Rover and Oxfam. That was nice but I was really frustrated by the handover point, when you would finish the design process and then it would get into someone else's hands, we would have no more control, you wouldn't actually be able to iterate or improve it to test your hypothesis properly.

I knew I needed to go in house to have that kind of role, and I was really interested in moving into leadership early in my career. I had managed the intern programme with the first agency that I worked for, and I loved creative direction, probably more than designing. I wanted to go to a larger corporation where I felt I would be supported to do the management training. That’s how I ended up at eBay. Firstly, I worked at Gumtree as a Designer, Gumtree is a peer to peer marketplace over here in the UK. That was an amazing few years, where I started as a Senior Designer.

After 2 years in my role as senior designer, my manager ended up leaving, so they gave me the role, leading the design team. There was lots of transformation while I was there including the integration of User Research into our process, a complete redesign of all the products and the brand.

I’d been at eBay for a few years when I was approached by eBay classified’s competitor Schibsted Media, who had a fantastic woman reach out to me, Lydia Oshlyansky, who was recruited from Google to build a new global central team at Schibsted. I had such great conversations with her and one of the managers in her team, Valerie Coulton, and I thought how amazing it would be to work with these two fantastic women and be part of this global operation.

I joined Schibsted Media and I was there for a few years. I built my own central team in London and then over time inherited teams that already existed across seven countries. The team grew to about 32. Then Schibsted went through a reorg, they changed how they were set up and closed the London office. At that point, I started looking for a new role and had a quick stint at a start-up for one year.

About a year and a half ago I joined Google in my current role. I lead the UX team for a product called Google My Business, which is a tool that allows businesses to get on to Google search, maps and engage with their customers.

I'm leading a team of 10 Interaction Designers who work with a UX team of 22 people including specialties like UX Engineering, Writing, Research, Visual Design and UX Motion.    


Was it hard being a young leader / manager, or did you get the same respect?

The point where I went into formal management was at eBay and it was an interesting series of events. I just happened to be mentored by the Head of Marketing at that time and the day that my old manager resigned, we had just got a new Head of Product. I was about to go on a holiday for four weeks, so I had this tiny window of opportunity to express my interest in taking my old Manager’s role to someone who had no context about me, or the team, she had literally just joined.

I had my meeting with my mentor and she said, what have you got to lose? Just go and ask, say why you deserve this position as Manager. I don't think I would have applied for this role without having had that mentoring session that day, it was so timely when you look back at it.

I put together a little brief about how I had been filling some of the responsibilities already and how I had some management experience, as it was a relatively small team it seemed to be a great role for me to step up into. I prepared a little document and introduced myself to the Head of Product, before I went on holiday, and gave her a written version of it so she could diagnose and understand.

I came back, got the job and I was promoted to manager. What was great about eBay is that they had formal management training programmes. I had access to quite a lot of support to step up into that role. It was a great place to progress.

The other thing that happened to me at eBay was that I was also part of their Women's Network e-win. During my career so far I had experienced the symptoms of being outnumbered in the spaces I was in by my gender. I hadn't really articulated what that meant and how that might be holding me back. Being part of this network really clarified what the traditional problems are with lacking gender diversity in the tech space.

I was inspired to then start my own Women's Network, London Tech Ladies. This is still running today with 4000+ women participating. We're going through a rebrand now and have built a new leadership team to take the network forwards. After leading LTL for the last five years and organising 45+ events, we’re now getting a team in place so that I can be an advisor.



How important is it for designers to be part of a community outside of their role?

It's so important, firstly to be part of the community but also to find those mentors for you. They don't often tend to be your actual manager. What I found at eBay, my mentor was the Head of Marketing, and they weren’t managing me formally.

I feel like that mentorship is so important because when you're younger you lack confidence, you're underestimating yourself in so many circumstances. Especially for young women, I feel it's pretty common that we underestimate our abilities, lack the ability to negotiate and ask for what we want.

Now I’m working as a manager myself and looking at my experience hiring in London, at one point, the team was 11 people, made up of 6 men and 5 women s. All of the men asked for more money and only 1 of the women alluded to a negotiation, the others just accepted what they were offered.

I know that’s a very small sample, but it really showed me how much support people need in those kinds of discussions, because it adds up over time. If someone gets 3000 to 5000 more with every job change that they do, by the time they get to the higher levels of their career, it's a 60,000+ difference in salary.

Early in my career I had people mentor me and help me with my transitions. They helped me to speak out loud about how much money I should ask for, or how to negotiate for more money. Now I'm doing the same, I'm trying to help other women with those kinds of negotiations.


What are some of the top challenges you've faced as a design leader or manager?

A common challenge is that women feel impostor syndrome and feeling out of place. Am I supposed to be here? Am I going to get caught out?

When I took my first manager role, I didn't have management experience. I thought, when are they going to realise I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m just making it up as I go?

It's not until you get the confidence to overcome impostor syndrome, that you realise everyone's just making it up and doing the best they can. That's literally how almost everyone feels, studies have shown that 80% of successful people feel impostor syndrome at some point in their career.

Then, another challenge is the change from designing to managing specifically. The skills are so different, and we promote good designers into management roles but it's a completely different skill set for managing people and setting vision and strategy, hiring your team, recruitment and mentoring, coaching, etc. - all of those skills you don't necessarily learn as a designer.

It was originally super hard for me to let go and delegate responsibility of the design execution work, because I was so efficient as a designer. I would be feeling this compulsion to micromanage and want to just do that work quickly.

Luckily, I had a good management coach whilst starting at eBay, so I was able to get feedback regularly from my reports and articulate I had these issues. I really needed to let go, I needed to allow others to fail to learn, so they can grow and be as efficient as you've been.

As I've had more seniority, the challenges become very different. I've done a lot of work in more recent years trying to articulate the value of UX, and how to show that to senior leaders who don't necessarily understand the facets of the role.



What key skills and qualities do you look for in a person when recruiting global teams?

Obviously, the design experience and the portfolio review is important, but it's everything that happens after that point which is the most important to me.

Understanding the Designer interpersonal skills, because Designers are not just “Designers”. To be successful in their role and in a team, they have to be collaborators, presenters, persuasive negotiators, facilitators of workshops, engagers of stakeholders and influencing experts.

Often those skills aren't necessarily articulated in the role of design, but if you want your design to be successful, for the end product to actually materialise to what we were imagining in the early stages, you have to be able to do many of these soft skills.

I will be asking design candidates through the interview process, how they manage difficult feedback, how do they work with engineering, what engagements are they having in their design process, how inclusive are they in the way that they design and really bring people along the journey with them.

Rather than working in silo, the collaboration aspect is a major point for me. If you have someone who works collaboratively and they’re open to other people's opinions, incorporate them well and bring them along the journey, they're much more likely to succeed in the role.

Especially at Google, that is so important because of the way Google works. You are often working across different teams product areas, you need to get a lot of different people aligned to the vision and it's not a top down structure in terms of the work that you're doing.

It’s not necessarily different for global teams. I think it amplifies the need for empathetic collaboration when you're in a global environment, because it's so much harder to build trust with someone who you’re not in a room with every day.

When I was at Schibsted, my team was split across London, Spain, Mexico, Hungary, Finland, Belarus and Morocco. We got together twice a year with everyone in the room and then we did mini gatherings depending on the work. When we were together for the week, we spent a very small amount of time doing “work”. The majority of the time was focused on building team empathy, learning to trust each other and figuring out who we are as individual people. The trust factor would be completely topped up, as I would see behaviours and collaboration degrade over time, people would start to feel distant from one another and stopped trusting each other. So then we needed to get together again, and top that back up.

When you're in a global setup, having empathy in terms of how you collaborate and the transparency you do in your work is amplified. Especially in these times today, where you can't get together. So the ability to form a connection, bring people along with the work that you're doing and expose the work at the right time is so much more important.

Do you feel like you’ve been more effective, or has it been harder to keep everyone engaged with the same vision working remotely?

I think if we were just working from home and not trying to work at home during a pandemic, then I think we would all be just as productive, even possibly more productive.

We're lucky at Google, we're already using all our own tools that are made for you to collaborate online. My team uses Figma for design. Everything is super collaborative.

The reality of the current situation is that we’re not just working from home, we’re trying to work whilst we experience a lot of outside trauma. We're seeing people going through really tough experiences, not just COVID-19, but with recent racist acts being highlighted and the social unrest in society. A lot of our teams are based in the US but everyone’s feeling that globally.

We just started a planning cycle for the next quarter, where we told everyone to expect to operate at the 70% productivity that you normally would, so we can reduce expectations by at least a third and help predict and plan for the loss of productivity that you'll feel.

I don't know about you, but I've had days where I just feel like there's a fog in front of me, and I cannot be productive in my job that day. I’ve been saying to the team that it's completely okay to not feel okay, because we're all just processing such intense emotion right now. That’s what's going to be our reality for a while.

Thinking about it sustainably, so that you don't burn out and you have a healthy work life balance is important. I'm part of a big wellbeing initiative internally for us to manage all this setup while we're in this completely different environment.

We're seeing that it's very hard for people to disconnect because the work and home environment is completely blurred. The ability to step away and have that time to de-stress is really affected in this setup. A lot of people have carers responsibilities, which makes it very hard for them to focus with kids and families to take care of.

We're also seeing some employees are having a completely different experience to others. For some people who have a good setup at home where they have the right kind of space to do their work, they're getting less distractions, and they're experiencing more productivity.

Then we have people getting the exact opposite of that, completely distracted all the time, all of these caring responsibilities and they just feel like they cannot do their job, and they're exhausted.

It's really polarising, we're seeing lots of different ways that people are experiencing this.

What is great about Google is that they've been so supportive in recognising this, that we're not working through normal times at all and we're going to have to work together to really make this work.

One of the things that is common across employees working from home, is the theme that we are all united in missing each other. We miss collaborating in person, and we miss connecting. I'm trying to work with the team to form different ways that we do that, find connection without taking away precious break/personal time. We've been doing a series of videos, sharing some of the things that are unique to us as an individual and changing some of our meeting practices, so that it's more effective and easier for people to contribute, rather than having everyone together in the room.

We’re still learning how to make this work.

Coming from Melbourne to London, did you find it challenging to translate your skills?

I think I was lucky enough. I’m not the biggest fan of design exercises because I believe all that does is exploit people who are basically doing free work and people don't necessarily have enough spare time to be doing this.

I did a design exercise which allowed me to show that the creative skills that I had could apply to the different circumstances, like this agency was working with, even if the things in the portfolio didn't necessarily completely match to what they were doing.

I think the challenge was the culture difference. My father lives in San Francisco. I've got an American/ Australian accent. I've been exposed to the American culture. In Australia, it's pretty common that you're able to speak up and be a bit more forthright about what you feel and what you want to do. Compared to the British culture, you don't talk about your feelings.

It's been interesting working for American companies, based in London. It was definitely a learning curve when I first came over in understanding how the different cultures manage situations in the workplace.

I've done a presentation recently about how I do inclusive management in the team. One of the rituals we do is a design critic every week. We came up with a written format, where everyone could write their thoughts on their own and then we go through the whole group one by one to share them verbally. We’ve had much more diverse feedback, we had everyone’s opinions being represented. There are lots of different ways to change the way you run forums to make the space for everyone to have the opportunity to contribute. Giving everyone a specific space to share, written or verbal, will give them the defined space to contribute. It seems like a small thing to do, but it means the meeting is actually inclusive for everyone and you don’t just hear from the loudest voices.

Do you have a design philosophy that you live by?

‘Fall in love with the problem, not the solution.’

The amount of times I've seen roadmaps full of features extending past 12 months, and I’m thinking, how could you possibly know that feature is going to be the right thing to build without having done any of the analysis, research and experimentation?

The way I like to work is to understand, what's the user’s problem that you're solving? Or what's the user need that we're trying to build for? Because as soon as we start iterating and understanding that, we will probably have hundreds of different solutions that we could come up with to solve that need or problem.

What you commonly see is people who are so in love with the feature, that they're blind to the indicators that tell them no one's going to use that thing, because it's not solving any problem that they have, or any need that they have.

I guess the ethos for the team is, test, test and experiment.

Designing on your own is going to be a big mistake. One of the designers in my team has been recently working on a really great new framework, which is an assumption framework where you get the whole team to sit down and write down all of the assumptions that your team is making when you're working on a feature or a new project. Then you can go out and test if those assumption are true.

Often these assumptions are just like myths that have occurred in the team rather than coming from analysis, or real insight so you’re able to figure out fact from fiction.

Blogs, books, podcasts or any resources?

Sprint by Jake Knapp, which covers the sprint process and how you do the whole UX process in a condensed period with different people in the organisation. This was so important for me and gave me so many ideas to work with. I run so many Sprint's using that methodology.

It's so successful it makes the UX process accessible to anyone who doesn't necessarily have to be a UX Designer. You can do it in five days, we usually do them in 2 or 3 days. You can go through that process and completely understand the role of UX and the value of it by the end. It's so powerful for stakeholders and people from other backgrounds to participate in.

Another book that was important for me in my career was Lean UX by Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden.

I was at a conference when they were just launching it and I did the workshop with Jeff. It was the first time that I understood the intersection between Measurement and Analysis and the role of Analytics and the role of UX, and the need to experiment and learn.

Often the UX process is seen as a long process. The methodology of Lean UX is that you do a very small amount of work to almost fake the thing that you think you might want to build, just to get some feedback. So instead of building a whole app and launching it to see if anyone wants to use it, you just make the fake website that describes the app and you see how many people sign up. You can get some signals to educate you about whether your assumption of that product is actually going to make anyone want to use it.

Another book I love is Hooked by Nir Eyal, a guide to habit forming products. It’s a fantastic book about the human mind, how we form habits and how you can leverage that to make a product.

Just one really good podcast, Recode Decode. They do amazing interviews with CEOs. 

Thanks Melanie!