Beyond the px — Cruise’s Cécile Parker on designing for autonomous vehicles, problem-solving, and work-life balance.

Luis Ouriach
May 28 · 7 min read

I’m really excited with this month’s edition of Beyond the PX, with Cruise’s Cécile Parker. Cruise, based in San Francisco, have been on a mission to provide the world with driverless vehicles at scale. It’s a space that’s going to boom in the coming years.


Who are Cruise?

Cruise is developing autonomous vehicle technology. Our goal is to make urban transportation safer and more accessible for everyone. We have a long-term vision of cities with fewer cars and more green spaces, which resonates with me.

What has been your design journey up until now?

I grew up on a vineyard in a small town of Provence, France. My brothers and I loved to design and build elaborate contraptions, from spaceships made of wood pallets and cut vines, to irrigation systems for my grandfather’s vegetable garden. I also loved to hide in my bedroom to draw for hours.

I wanted to become a designer, although I had no idea what it meant at the time. Instead I got a BS in mathematics, and a Masters in economics. When I was 23, I moved to the United-States to complete an MBA.

In San Francisco, I got a marketing job at a video content management startup. I loved the urgency of the startup environment, and I loved working with engineers. When our only designer quit, the CEO sent me a Photoshop file and asked me to take over.

I remember his message: “Can you figure it out? It’s easy.”

It was a total lie — Photoshop isn’t easy — but that’s what got me started. And as soon as I touched product design, the planets aligned.

It’s been 8 years now.

What does your typical morning look like?

I’m a morning person! I wake up around 7am, when the sunlight enters my bedroom. I make coffee, take a shower, then open my Slack and inbox to answer design questions and review pull requests. A few engineers on my team are in Europe and I want to make sure I’m not blocking them.

I leave my place in the Mission around 8:50am. It’s a 20-minute walk to my office, with lots of freeway overpasses and a few cute succulent gardens.

If I’m running late, I use the Cruise app to call a car. It’s one of the perks of working at Cruise.

What does your design tool stack look like?

I keep my tool stack intentionally minimal. I design in Sketch and prototype in Marvel to get a feel for the user flow, gather feedback, and hand off my projects.

There are a few other tools that I use occasionally, such as Figma and Photoshop, but Sketch and Marvel are my product design essentials.

Do you have any design hacks, or smart processes?

If I’m stuck on a user flow or a data architecture problem, I move on to something else. I take some time to clean up my component library, refine my design system, or deal with small tickets.

It also helps me to take a break and go on a walk. Even if I’m not actively thinking about the problem, I usually come back with a few good ideas to explore.

Outside of work, do you hang out with designers?

Most of my friends aren’t designers but my group of design friends is growing. I tend to stay close with colleagues after I leave a job.

There’s this cliché that designers have a big ego, but I find it’s the opposite. They’re generally self-aware and fun to be around.

You’d better not take things too personally when your job involves receiving feedback from all sorts of stakeholders.

Do you find it hard to define what you do to your friends?

The challenge is to explain what I do to my grandmother, in the South of France.

She recently asked me what I do at Cruise, and since I work on Internal tools, I had to give her an overview of what goes into building a self-driving car, from mapping to perception and planning.

We spent 40 minutes on the phone. I think she got it.

Do your career aspirations encroach your life?

They do, although I wouldn’t use that word as I enjoy the problems I work on.

My partner, Shawn Lewis, is a founder at Weights & Biases. He’s also very engaged with his work. We have to be proactive about taking time off, but I think we do ok.

We’re fortunate to have a group of friends who regularly organize weekend trips to Napa or Big Sur.

Are you actively working on freelance or side projects?

I love creating illustrations and repeat patterns. I usually have a couple of personal projects I’m working on, for fun. A few months ago, I made a set of avatars that I posted on SketchApp resources. I was downloaded more than 4,000 times, it was really encouraging!

I just got an iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil. I’ve never really worked with a tablet before, so I’m hoping to learn cool new tricks.

How do you design ‘for the future’? How do you ensure you’re not being cliche?

When you design a car from scratch, or hardware in general, you have to plan several years in advance. You have to invent trends and predict which features people will want when your product finally hits the market.

Designing software is different because the implementation process is swift and nimble. I care about designing a smart and scalable architecture — one that will allow us to grow the product elegantly — but I design what we need right now, or what I know we’ll need in two months.

If we need to re-architect the product in two years, that’s fine.

Two years is a long time in software.

What was it that drew you to the autonomous cars industry?

I grew up reading science fiction and dreaming about what cities and civilization will look like in the future. Dystopian cities tend to have roaring traffic and flying vehicles everywhere, while utopian cities are slower-paced, with a lot green spaces. I believe autonomous vehicles will allow us to reinvent our cities for the best, and I’m excited to be a part of this change.

I do not drive, actually.

I got a learner’s permit, once, before Shawn and I went on a road trip. He made me drive on parking lots and small country roads in Utah and New Mexico. Then, on day three, he “pushed” me on the freeway. I think I did well, but it was too soon, and it was terrifying.

Our car got robbed the following day, and they took my permit. I’m pretty sure that was a sign that I’m not supposed to drive. I certainly have no intention of going back to the DMV!

Can you explain your team dynamic?

We’re about 16 designers at the moment, including brand designers, product designers, and UX researchers.

Within the product team, there are two core areas of focus: Rideshare and Internal tools.

Rideshare designs our user-facing products: our rideshare app, and the in-car tablet display which is an essential part of the driverless experience.

The Internal tools team, which I am a part of, develops the suite of products that make it possible for our fleet to operate: our machine learning platform, mapping tool, fleet management, ride analysis…

I own Cruise’s mapping tool. During the week, I work directly with Product Managers, Mapping Engineers, and our users — the Mapping Ops team.

I sit with the design team. We have a few design meetings throughout the week, for updates, critique, and design systems sprints. We also have a monthly design brunch and quarterly offsites.

It’s a fantastic team.

Will your product exist in ten years time?

It’s hard to predict what lies ahead, but I trust that Cruise will be a long-term player. Our fleet is deployed in San Francisco, which is one of the most challenging US cities to drive in.

We’re tackling the hardest problems head first.

What advice would you give for those interested in starting a career designing for the market?

We’re hiring designers! Don’t hesitate to reach out.

I love how up front Cécile is with her ambitions to work on a project that resonates with her green ambitions. It’s so important to try and seek these projects out, and you appreciate your work a lot more if you can relate to the ultimate business goals.

My favourite part of this interview was Cécile’s passion for systems thinking. I’m a huge proponent of a design systems mindset, and try to instil this at my own work, so it’s great to see others are also driving this forward. Scaleable systems enable a quicker, more efficient, and happier design team.

See you next time.

P.s. we’ve teamed up with DesignLab to offer out their courses to 8px readers. Want to learn UX from some of the industry masters? They offer both short and long courses, where you’re teamed up with mentors from Github, Dropbox and the BBC.

8px Magazine

Life, by designers.

Luis Ouriach

Written by

Design honcho @UpgradePack. Newsletter writer, co-host @thenoisepod, creator of @8pxmag, @juniordesignjob, @LondonIsYours. Sarcastic.

8px Magazine

Life, by designers.

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