AMA: Jean-Marc Denis

VR Designer at Google — Previously on Inbox, Gmail and Sparrow

This article is a summary from the original AMA published on DesignerNews.

Bonjour! My name is Jean-Marc,

I am a French designer working at Google in the Google Cardboard virtual reality team. Prior to that I designed Sparrow email clients. We got acquired in 2012. Joining Google I worked in the Gmail team on Inbox by Gmail from scratch until it’s release.

I love design tools that empower designers to create more and better. I created learning materials for Sketch to help designers ramp up and transition from older tools.

Why did you become designer?

Curiosity and passion. One led to the other. It’s like video games..
You know that moment when you stop and realize you spent hours playing. I spent so much time having fun designing that it was obvious I wanted to spend my days doing it.

Where does your creativity and inspiration to design come from?

I get mainly inspired a lot by passionate people, but not exclusively designers. It can be anything from a great color palette to beautiful shapes or a great light setup.

If you have one minute to advice an upcoming designer, what will that be?

Not my words but…

Steve Jobs Stanford Commencement Speech 2005

What direction would you have liked to take Sparrow in, had it not been acquired?

We were really interested in a person based, group chat approach.

What do you think is most important reason why some people still prefer native clients like Sparrow, over a web-based client like Inbox?

Most of the users are ok using web based clients. In that regard, people that prefer native Mac OS client are a minority (which I am part of). People feel like native is faster and more reliable. It also creates a more focused experience.

Any comments on making Sparrow open-source?

While I can’t comment on plans to open source Sparrow, I can say that Google put a big emphasis on contributing to the open source community and will continue to invest in this area further down the line.

How was your transition between France and San Francisco?

My transition was very bizarre because it was a huge shift. Working with 3 persons, from home near my family and friends to a new country, speaking English all day long, working with a bug team, away from family and friends. I am not going to lie, it takes time to adapt but in the end, I really enjoy my new life here. I have been able to make new friends and for designers, the silicon valley is a huge huge opportunity. Even more when you compare to France. Regarding food (yes it matters) SF has lot of great restaurants, andd you can find pretty much everything you could find in France, cheese, bread, wine even foie gras! (no it’s not cliché)

Why do all French designers know each other?

French people are scared by the unknown, and honestly we are so proud when another Frenchy arrives in the Valley!

How does it feel working for a tech giant after being independent?

Both have pros and cons.

One is not better than the other, it’s just a different experience. Keep in mind that I was the only designer working on Sparrow so when we joined the Gmail team that was a huge change. The team was 10 times bigger. Working with a team of designers was a new experience for me, and it felt a bit scary the first weeks.

On the long term, that was one of the best things that happened to me as a designer. Being able to get constructive feedback and helping each other made me a better designer and person.

On a product level, big companies have resources to research and make sure your strategic design decisions are going in the right direction. As a small company we often had to bet on our gut feelings. It paid off for us, but it’s not always the case.

Another great thing is that big companies have different projects with different scale. Google has a lot of small teams that move fast. On top of that being a designer at Google today is awesome because people value design, and there is a strong design culture.

What were the biggest differences in your experience in creating Inbox compared to that of Sparrow?

Both proposed different approach to make it easier to deal with your daily load of emails.

In one hand, Sparrow approach was to remove a lot of visual clutter, create a blazing fast and lightweight mail engine. We wanted a seamless experience whichever email provider you were using.

On the other hand, Inbox provides a set of tools for users inboxes to be an organized place to get things done and get back to what matters. With features like reminders, bundles, snooze and pin, we wanted to remove boring tasks like email triaging.

Why didn’t Inbox support basic functionality issues like there is in Gmail from the get go?

Inbox was built from scratch. The first versions are rarely fully featured and it’s a lot of work to built them the correct way from an user experience and engineering way. Inbox/Gmail team is working really hard to bring you all the good stuff!

How do you gather and synthesize data, observations, feature requests and ideas to decide what to do next? How long is your road map?

The design process looks a lot of like any other product design teams. Understand, Identify, Execute. It’s a perpetual process of iteration until you get it right. We do user studies to understand where and when things worked or failed. Data is valuable when you use it as a tool to create better experiences.

I can’t talk much about the future since I am not part of that team anymore but I trust them to keep creating and enhancing the product.

Have you ever written a production code before? Is worth a designer’s time to be super fluent in coding?

I haven’t. Even Thought it would be a massive plus, I don’t think that “being super fluent in coding” is a necessity. Being able to have a dialogue with engineers to make sure we understand each other and avoir friction is.

You worked on email apps and communication tools for a long time. Why did you choose VR as the next step as a designer?

I have been tackling the communication problem for a while and I was looking for a big change. The kind that forces you to learn new things every day, adapt and get better and better.

The funny thing is that design is still design, the rules are just not the same.

I was really intrigued by VR. First because I am a gamer, and second because I see it as an uncharted territory for designers. A virgin medium where everything has to be thought through, imagined, designed and built. It’s very exciting!

What’s the coolest & most impressive use of Google Cardboard you’ve seen?

I really like VRSE, Cardboard Design Lab and Sisters!

How have you tackled the challenge of bringing what been flat content into an environment where spatial and temporal relationships give additional context and meaning?

That is a great question! When you start designing for VR you have a lot of opinions about how things should be and even more about how they should not be. Like in every new medium in history, the first step needs to be predictable, understandable and familiar for the user. Introducing a new medium is scary and the transition is very important

One example I can provide is the iPhone and the skeuomorphic design. It was a questionable direction for a lot of people but, a direction that was making a lot of sense for users. The user interface elements which had a predictable behavior was a big part of the success. As people get more familiar with the medium, things will evolve organically.

What has been the most surprising thing you’ve encountered designing for VR?

How close you are to the user. You control a lot more parameters than 2D because of how much immersive this medium is.

What’s the hardest thing about designing for VR?

When you start designing for VR, you have a lot of assumptions, most of them are wrong. As you learn more and more about the field, you realize that most of the coolest sci-fi interactions doesn’t make too much sense from a user standing point.

One of the most interesting things I’ve learned is how you should physiologically take care of your users. There are a lot of ways you can create discomfort (motion sickness and so on) and you have to take that in consideration when designing.

Do you find this will be the future or just a trend that’ll fizzle out?

I think this is a very powerful medium in a very early stage. Eventually, technology will catch up and will remove any frictions with the experience. I see VR as an open platform for any kind of creators. Gaming, movies, productivity and so on. All industries have an open field for innovation.

How do you think VR will influence software design for our existing slabs of glass?

I don’t think it will in the short term. Obviously, the more developers and designers will get into VR the more it will influence existing mediums.

How do we start getting into designing for virtual reality?

I am actively working on a Medium article that explains my experience switching from productive apps to virtual reality. Stay tuned!

What email client do you use?

Inbox (and Sparrow).