Inside The Mind of Design Leaders - Featuring Nafisa Bhojawala, Head of UX at Google Cloud Platform


UX / UI Design, Creative, design leaders...


Kristie sits down with Design Leaders across the industry to get their insight into their successes, challenges and advice. This week, Kristie speaks to Nafisa Bhojawala - Head of UX at Google Cloud Platform. 

Kristie: Could you tell us a bit about yourself, how you got into Design, and where your passion for Design Technology came from?

Nafisa: I have always followed my curiosity, right from school to college, and through my professional career. I would never tell myself ‘this is my forever career’ or ‘this is what defines me’, it’s always what I’m interested in right now, and I’m going to learn about it. I started in Architecture and came to the United States to study it. Then while I was in Architecture school I got very interested in Design. I was taking Design courses, Design History, and Graphic Design Photography. I thought it was a more expansive Design education, I was very interested in aesthetics and the theory behind all of it.

I changed my major to Design and then in Design School, I got very interested in computers and how hard they were to use. I remember one day, I was so frustrated in the computer lab and vented to my advisor about it. She said, ‘Nafisa, you are a designer, you can solve this. Start thinking about what you would do differently’. That was my first experience thinking about Interaction Design and I was hooked from then on.

My advice is to find the thing that drives you from the inside because you will get a lot of strength and energy from that. If you don’t know what that is, spend some time uncovering that. 

Microsoft is where I learned what software and interaction design is all about. At a Microsoft or Google, you're not just concerned about what's on the screen, you have to learn the whole context of the user and also learn how products are built and business decisions are made. It was an amazing experience.

In my first years I did not think about anything but work. (I'm not recommending this, that was just how I was at that point. I was like a sponge, so it was great!) Then a few years later I realised I wanted to know how to build software. So, I changed over to become a Program Manager. Program Management is a unique role at Microsoft, it is a combination of many skills that are very transferable to becoming a better decision maker, communicator and driver, whatever your role. I was a PM for 8 years, and then I came back to UX to lead a team on Azure (Microsoft Cloud).

I joined the Google Cloud Platform team in March 2019, and have been a lead on Compute since then (Google Compute Engine and now Google Kubernetes Engine).

Kristie: That is an amazing journey through design. 

Just looking back to your point, which I thought hit me hard, was the fact you need to continuously chase the thing that is burning inside of you. I think that’s something that a lot people normally miss, either because they’re chasing something completely different, or they’re chasing the opinion of other people. When you start to figure out who you are and what you want to be, you become who you are in a pretty unique way, which is a testament to what you’ve done and accomplished.

So with your current role at Google, what does that entail?

Nafisa: I head up the User Experience team for Compute, which is primarily virtual machines and now containers. These are key building blocks of Cloud, used by every customer of Google Cloud. The users we focus on are Developers and IT professionals and Business and Financial decision makers for Cloud in Enterprise companies.

Do you remember those watches that were completely transparent, you could look at the gears and how they work? I mean as a child I had one and I was fascinated, I stared at it for hours and I would do drawings of it. This is like my world right now. It's fascinating to see how these things come together under all these services we use for work, education, entertainment, healthcare, banking, etc.

The interesting challenge here is, how does one user or a group of users make decisions and avoid mistakes at a scale and complexity that is beyond human comprehension. A lot of the work that we do is about providing clarity and comprehension, so our users can make the right call for their infrastructure. Abstracting away details so they can make decisions and know the consequences of those decisions whether they are about performance, security or cost. The scale is fascinating, and the fact that our customers are scaling up our service so rapidly is gratifying that we are solving real problems for them and making their jobs easier. We might have built 150,000 knobs, whereas they just care about five things. 

So, what are those five things and how do we enable them to just care about those and we take away the burden of the other controls. 

Kristie: It’s an incredibly complex platform, so I guess the knowledge and learning behind it must still feel like you did years ago, when there’s just a lot of information that you’re still learning every day.

Throughout your career, what challenges are the biggest challenges you faced as a design leader?

Nafisa: There are a few facets to being a leader in this space that need reflection and action. And you are hitting on the first one in your question.

The first challenge is - Making space for continual learning and growth. Personally, I have a rule for myself that I can learn anything, and I make changes in my work so I can keep doing this. You can call it practicing the ‘growth mindset’, or you can call it ‘a learner’s mind’ - there are many effective models to practice this. When you are working in an area that's being invented like the Cloud, right as you are in it, you can't expect that you will just know what you're working with. As a leader, you create an organisation that gives that safety so you can keep learning. At Google, we talk about psychological safety. That's a very powerful concept because that psychological safety actually frees you to take constructive risks, learn and do your best work. As an individual, it is saying ‘yes’ to something that you don't know yet, knowing that you will stumble and even fail along the way, but eventually, you will master it. 

Second is Knowing your users, your business, and the unique value that your product and its design can bring. And using this knowledge to guide your work and your effort. It's a very competitive marketplace where our users have great choices. There is a lot of pressure to make sure our product that our customers value and need. We can't fall in love with our own ideas, even if we are Google.

Third is in creating a culture of true partnership with other disciplines like Engineering, Product Management, Marketing, Sales, etc. I'm always thinking ‘How do I break down the walls between our various organizations?’ Because for true partnership to happen, which we absolutely need in our space as we are co-creating these things, how do I put mechanisms in place where my partners are part of our process and we are part of theirs. 

For me as a design leader, It's basically all in the realm of demystifying design and integrating with how software is built, sold and supported. I was a Program Manager at Microsoft for a number of years, and I use my experience there to put myself in the shoes of my partners. On the flip side, I expect the same from my PM and Engineering partners and believe that this partnership needs to go both ways to be effective as an organization. And the most important one to me is creating an inclusive team, and in technical organisations, you can feel excluded for many reasons. I have always felt like an outsider. 

I work in technology, but I'm a creative. I’ve often experienced dismissive behaviors because I was not deemed “technical enough” or not “assertive enough” or “not something enough”... I'm also a woman. Often an only woman in a room. I'm also an immigrant in the United States and a person of colour.

User experience teams can often be marginalized and not seen as areas of investment for a business. I stay connected to the value I and my team bring to our users, business and larger team culture. As a leader, I make sure that people know that they are equally valued as team members. Creating inclusivity when there is systemic exclusion takes effort and courage. I think about that a lot. As a leader, that's one of the things I will keep working on.

Kristie: I really like your approach. Feeling like you don’t belong is completely different for everyone. It might be that you’re in design, so you don't really fit into the tech side of things or, I mean personally, I'm from Zimbabwe. I come from a bit of a different background, even coming to London, it was completely different. How I talk is completely different to everyone else. There are so many things that everyone faces personally to ‘fit in’. So to create that environment where you feel like you're part of a team where it really doesn't matter where you’re from, what you do, or what your role is, but that you all have the same goal. Isn’t it incredibly challenging?

I know you've mentioned keeping true to yourself, do you have a design philosophy that you live by?

Nafisa: One thing that I like to do is to make sure to understand the holistic context of the problem before deciding on how to solve it.

First of all, when problems come to me and I don’t accept the definition that’s given to me. I have to define the problem before I solve it. It's my way of understanding it completely before jumping into the solution. From Don Norman, one of my favorite design thinkers: “ A brilliant solution to the wrong problem can be worse than no solution at all: solve the correct problem.” I think it is a designer or researcher’s job to ask - is this the right problem to solve?

The other one is experimentation to reach the solution. There is no expectation that you're going to get it right the first time. Make a solution, try it out and then improve it, change it as you learn more. If you stay with that expectation that it really is about iterating rather than creating perfection at any given point in time, it gives a lot more freedom to actually look at the solution from your user’s perspective and make the right decisions.

Kristie: It takes the pressure off you trying to make something perfect or having to get a specific solution.

Nafisa: Absolutely, there's an interesting nuance here because craft is really important, right? But you have to know your craft and you have to do the best job that you can. So strive for perfection in your craft, but don't fall in love with a solution and say that it cannot be touched. Approach it like a craftsperson with dedication to details, precision, beauty, delight - all these things that we bring to our work. But be prepared to erase it all and start over to get to a better solution.

Kristie: Are there any books or podcasts, anything that you are watching that has either inspired you or that you use today in leadership or design?

Nafisa: It’s a long list and it changes depending on what I am interested in at the moment, there are a few that have stayed constant for me over the years. I follow the latest books etc. in our field. But I have a few favorites that have endured over the years.

I have been listening to Debbie Millman’s podcast, Design Matters. I find it really inspiring to hear from other creatives about how they approach their life and their work.

I really like Dan Ariely's work, his books are approachable and engaging and teach a lot about human behavior. His personal story is inspiring and his blog and podcasts are worth checking out as well.

I have long been a fan of Don Norman's books, articles, and talks. I found him inspiring as a young designer and his design philosophy still resonates deeply with me: Good design is in service of the human on the other side - the user. My favorite quote from Don (that is very applicable when you are designing tools that you want people to master as we do on Cloud): “ Good design is actually a lot harder to notice than poor design, in part because good designs fit our needs so well that the design is invisible."

I also read a lot about Cloud and how it's evolving, because it is my playground right now! 

Thanks so much, Nafisa!