The Making of Maker Experience
When teams feel great, they make great products. So we built a team dedicated to the experience of making.
At Google, we want our products to exceed expectations, attain our goals, and improve the lives of our global users. To make that happen, the teams that make them have to be exceptionally well-prepared and well-connected.
In other words, if we want to make great experiences in our products, we have to feel great about the experience of making.
That’s kind of a cool slogan, right? But what exactly does it mean, and why is it so important? I’ve been at Google for almost six years, and I’ve spent a lot of time unpacking and exploring the experience of making. Finally, earlier this year, I was able to crystallize the idea and form a team around it: The Maker-X Team (aka Maker Experience Team) in Reach UX (the product design org for Google Ads and Commerce).
Here are some highlights from the journey so far — the paradox my team and I uncovered, examples of work we’re doing to address it, and some key takeaways that might help others make progress in this direction.
Passionate People, Persistent Challenge
When I began at Google, leading UX program management in Search, Maps, and Identity, I was attracted to the company’s lofty goals at massive scale: Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. That’s huge!
Soon I learned about this notion of ‘Googleyness’ that was (and still is) a big deal at Google. It’s the idea that if you work here, you should care not just about what you do, but also about how you do it. In other words, people pursued those lofty goals that so appealed to me while staying grounded in core values of helpfulness, trust, execution, and sustainability. I was stoked!
My energy and enthusiasm have stayed incredibly high over the years because we’re a culture of makers. And solvers. And dreamers. We’re passionate and persistent in our belief that no challenge is too big, no problem is too complex, and no person should be excluded. That makes Google a really exciting place to work.
But I’ve also had to wrestle with a persistent challenge: The tension between loving what you make and loving how it feels to make it. For people who work in product development, does the quality of the journey matter at all, or is it all only about the destination?
The Paradox of Holism in Mechanistic Systems
As I moved along my career journey at Google, I kept bumping up against this obstacle: While the commitment to mechanistic excellence is baked into our product development DNA, we address the holistic needs of product teams with more of a patchwork quilt.
Making is, by nature, mechanistic. Mechanistic capabilities like technical expertise, subject matter expertise, business insight, process optimization, and complex problem-solving are all essential to the creation of Google’s world-changing technology. And they exert a powerful influence over core operations. Key processes like hiring, role definition, resource allocation, and performance recognition are intensely focused on what you might call ‘mechanistic’ impact. All of these mechanistic making skills are super important, but it’s also important to remember that the makers themselves are still people.
In fact, companies have learned over time that the most successful, innovative, and effective product teams balance their mechanistic yang with an equally important holistic yin. Our own Project Oxygen research — respected and influential work both within and outside of Google — showed the critical importance of things like psychological safety, inclusion, sense of purpose, open communication, and authentic connection. Yep, all that stuff is all about the experience of making!
And that’s where the patchwork quilt comes in. It’s a high-quality, functioning, well-intentioned quilt, to be sure, but it’s still a patchwork. We cover the holistic priorities with peer-led courses, turnkey guides, ad-hoc initiatives in teams, and centralized shared-services groups offering some direct support. It’s all good quality with best intentions, but it’s still not the same as investing in actual people in the product org focused only on the holistic, working hard to supercharge the vast majority who are focused on the mechanistic.
Doing What’s Right, Not What’s Understood
My roles at Google have all had broad purview over large UX organizations, so while I saw the need this disparity between mechanistic and holistic investment created, I wasn’t sure how feasible it would be to rally a massive structural change to address it.
So I just started doing what I thought was important.
I focused on building connections and trust across big orgs to help UX execs show up as authentic leaders, and to help all team members feel like their unique opinions, emotions, and idiosyncrasies are valued and respected… along with their work.
It hasn’t been easy to explain the impact of what I do in the existing institutional evaluative frameworks — those systems weren’t really built to recognize this kind of work within product teams. But the value was evident to my teams and stakeholders, so I kept building momentum and connecting with fellow travelers along the way, and that eventually created an opportunity to spin up a team dedicated to bettering the maker experience!
All About the Makers
Maker-X is a small but mighty crew of five, embedded in an org with 650+ UXers across dozens of product verticals and global locations.
Because we’re small, we have to be strategic and consultory as much as possible. This is hard, because things like connection, clarity, vision, and inclusion are not really standardizable. Every team has a different chemistry, and different strengths and issues. So we need to get close if we want to make a difference, but we can’t get so close that we can only make a difference for a few teams out of the larger organization.
In some cases, we create a reusable resource to address a common issue (e.g. our newsletter party pack with templates, materials, and guidelines). Other times we have a more direct engagement with a team, but we try to leave them with new skills, not just solved problems. When it comes to holistic balance, our goal is to teach teams how to fish, rather than just making them tuna sandwiches for their next offsite.
As we started to pick up steam across the organization, we were thankful that we had invested the time up-front to develop a clear sense of purpose and strategic pillars to support our program. With an org this big, there’s a huge ocean of opportunities and issues in which we can swim (or sink!). Our three high-level principles are the pontoons in the Hobie Cat that keeps us afloat and sailing along:
How can we enable a clear sense of purpose, efficient information flow, and access to key resources?
How can we make the experience of working in Reach UX as dynamic and inclusive as the products we build?
How can we empower teams, spark creativity, and solve problems with innovative approaches and healthy collaborative relationships?
Our portfolio of work is a super-burrito, an everything bagel, or a thali dinner of projects, always striving to deliver creative ideas that enhance the experience for teams, groups, and individuals.
Here’s one sample from our smorgasbord of maker delights: We created a welcome kit to help increase excitement and connection for new hires and managers.
Getting hired to a big UX team at Google is indeed exciting, but it’s also pretty daunting! The company is huge, everyone’s moving really fast, and even before WFH, teams were often distributed across multiple locations or multiple floors.
The kit features some organizational branding and high level information, customizable templates, a note card for managers to write a personal message, a bit o’ swag, and even a little zine with some puzzles for those early days when you’re not busy yet, but you’re dreadfully worried about about looking not busy.
The idea was to place kits at all office locations so managers could quickly grab-and-gift to new hires, but we successfully pivoted this approach for WFH. Now the whole thing can be put together online by a manager, and it’s customized and drop-shipped directly from the vendor to the new hire.
Welcome to Reach UX! And, um, welcome… home?
And that’s just a taste… The full menu by Maker-X is pretty big!
- A ‘drip-campaign’ with weekly actions for allyship? Yep.
- A workshop to help teams stay connected and deal with change? Yes indeed.
- An org-wide global summit, a DEI council, guidelines for successful newsletter creation, coaching to build stronger and more diverse networks? Without a doubt.
- Dot-connecting, ‘hallway’ conversations, shoulders to cry on, ears to bend, elbows to grease, hands to lend? All that and a bag of chips!
Making Maker-X Work
Big product design organizations are like organisms — huge, seething, shifting, surging, resource-hungry beasts. It’s hard for small teams with horizontal purview to protect their precious time and scope. So we try to be rigorous about the programmatic scaffolding for our work, to make sure we don’t get re-prioritized for every latest fire drill.
Here are some of our keys to success, so far. I hope you’ll find them useful too if you’re trying to improve the maker experience at your company:
Develop a clearly-defined set of high-level strategic pillars, aligned with known organizational needs. People need a well-crafted conceptual frame for this kind of work because they don’t have many precedents to refer to.
Don’t pitch the roadmap, pitch the problem and possible solutions. You need leeway to explore when you’re spinning up this kind of program, so avoid details that lock you too quickly into specific workstreams.
Establish an engagement model that enables ‘diplomatic selectivity’ (sometimes known as ‘saying no’). And remember, being selective isn’t actually about saying no, it’s about knowing what to say to keep your priorities straight.
Have a standard project brief template, that summarizes project goals and aligns to principles. This helps you show the connection between what’s likely to be a wide range of projects. Write a brief for any project that will take longer than one RadioLab podcast to complete.
Lab? Incubator? Craft? Culture? Innovation? Fun? Studio? Tiger Team? Swat Team? Center of Excellence? Forget these kinds of buzzwords when you’re naming or describing your team. They’re all either loaded, played-out, or just not taken seriously. Let your team name reflect the unique value of what you want to do. Or just call it Maker Experience!
No Venn Diagrams
There’s no step-by-step formula for this kind of work, and no Venn diagram that shows exactly where the sweet spot is. We’re learning as we go, and hopefully influencing others along the way. Ten years ago, how many UX orgs had a Conversation Design or a Research Operations team? Perhaps ten years from now, Maker-X will be just another standard component in the UX org stack.
If you think Maker Experience matters too, and you like talking about it, feel free to hit me up on LinkedIn. I don’t have all the answers, but maybe I can help you ask the right questions.