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Interview
September 15, 2021

Olena Milutina

Project Management with Google Design Sprints

September 15, 2021

Building an effective workflow for your department can be a tough task for any manager. This time, we spoke to Olena Milutina, Senior UX Designer, about the frameworks she uses to successfully manage the design team at Google, why the revisions are necessary, and asked if it's possible to find a line between structure and flexibility in work processes.

Olena Milutina, Senior UX Designer at Google

Over 15 years of experience in user interface creation have given Olena the unique ability to create products for people by concentrating on user needs rather than on particular interface pieces, styles, or short-term business goals.

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OLENA, CAN YOU EXPLAIN THE PROCESS OF WORKING ON NEW PROJECTS AT GOOGLE?

 

My process starts with understanding the scope of the problem. I always try to look at it from different angles and perspectives to make sure I have a clear view of what we are trying to solve. 

 

I start by building an initial design in my head and testing multiple versions that I think might work. This is also where most creative thinking happens — trying different design versions without too many contingencies or limitations. Then, depending on the project, I may do a wireframe or, if we're building a solution on top of existing frameworks or within existing projects, I will jump straight into creating the initial designs.

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I believe that all perspectives, even the crazy ones, are extremely important and bringing them up may completely change the direction of the initial design concept

After that, I  continue to review and iterate designs with the team until we have a solution that covers user needs, fits the product direction and meets optimal technical specifications. Once we identify the most suitable option, I create a more detailed design that includes all possible scenarios and interactions and develop design specs for the engineering team. Throughout the process, I tend to keep in touch with the engineers to address their questions and make sure we're building the solution according to plan. 

 

This is where the hard skills come into play — finalizing designs, checking compatibility with the existing design specs and negotiating a prototype with the engineering teams. 

 

After that, the solution will be tested with users, changed a few times based on the feedback and, hopefully, launched!

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HOW DO YOU ENCOURAGE YOUR TEAM TO VOICE ALL THEIR IDEAS, EVEN THE CRAZY ONES?

 

At Google, I've been very fortunate to work in an open-minded environment that encourages the sharing of ideas. I believe that all perspectives, even the crazy ones, are critical and bringing them up may completely change the direction of the initial design concept. 

 

I also specialize in running Google Design Sprints, which is a methodology that encourages collaboration and helps test business ideas over a short timeframe. It highlights that sharing all ideas is crucial for the end product. We know that only by discussing a wide range of opinions and never limiting ourselves to existing ideas, we can find the best possible solution or even discover something completely new.

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WHAT ARE THE STAGES OF A DESIGN SPRINT?

 

The sprint is a five-day process of answering critical business questions through the design, prototyping and testing of ideas with users.
 

Here's an illustration that describes the essence of each step; this might come in handy when discussing Design Sprints with your colleagues.

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HOW DO YOU BRAINSTORM IDEAS AT THE BEGINNING OF THE PROCESS?

 

I usually start with the 'analog process' — sketching in my notebook. If I need to brainstorm with my colleagues, we would come together in the conference room with a whiteboard. Before working from home became a reality, we used all the creative spaces in Google's offices to discuss problems and ideas. 

 

Since the start of the pandemic, we've moved towards various online solutions, but I would still sometimes start with sketching, then share the sketches with my colleagues and walk them through my ideas. 

 

Sometimes I would build a small prototype to show what I want to develop and why. I think that with WFH, the necessity for prototypes increased significantly: it's much easier to demonstrate the potential solution on a working prototype rather than just talking about it.

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We always strive to figure out what works best for us rather than religiously following a specific process
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CAN DS STAGE TIMELINES BE MODIFIED BASED ON PROJECT COMPLEXITY?

 

Yes, timelines depend heavily on the project and its scope. Right now I am working on a project where a large part of my process is understanding the problem space. The technical delivery of this project is very different to what I would usually work with.

  

We have a very dynamic team and we always strive to figure out what works best for us rather than religiously following a specific process.

Olena's list of productivity tools that work:

Figma
Figma

I use Figma (and Sketch) for design-related tasks

ProtoPies
ProtoPies

ProtoPies and Origami are great tools for rapid prototyping

Google toolkit
Google toolkit

We have a lot of internal tools that come in handy when collecting feedback on designs

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HOW OFTEN DO YOU TOUCH BASE WITH YOUR TEAM?

 

We believe that everyone should do their part and take responsibility for it. We give our team members a lot of freedom and trust them to deliver the expected results. But, at the same time, I think it's important to have regular check-ins to make sure that all the different pieces of the project are moving cohesively in the right direction. 

 

I believe that when you create an atmosphere of trust and responsibility, everyone feels included and contributes 100% to the project goal.

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HOW DO YOU ENSURE THE QUALITY OF THE PRODUCT AT ALL STAGES? HOW DOES DS HELP THE PROCESS?

 

With revisions, it depends on the project and its scope, as well as the scale of the company. When I worked for smaller startups, it was acceptable to have short reviews as in this way, it was easier to establish coherence and understanding within the team regarding projects and the company’s vision. 

 

With projects that I've recently been working on — at Google-scale — it's better to have many reviews with multiple stakeholders to include all views that overlap or are even slightly related to your design, rather than just making a rushed review. Sometimes reviewing sessions might feel like a burden, but with time and experience in projects at this scale, I can now clearly see how much they mean in the longer run. 

 

It's important to find the right balance between the number of reviews and delivery speed. Establishing a straightforward decision-making process and including the owners as early as possible in the process will pay off in the end. You can use Design Sprints to speed up this process, as you have the chance to bring all of your stakeholders together during the validation stage. You can get feedback and approvals within the same day.

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Never assume you know enough or everything
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HOW DO YOU MOTIVATE YOUR TEAM TO STAY PRODUCTIVE DURING FAST-PACED WORK PROCESSES?

 

In the last project I worked on, it was actually relatively easy to keep the team productive as we were working on something that no one else worked on before. Since it was a brand new area with no existing solutions, the project team stayed highly motivated and gave 120%. The levels of excitement and creativity were high at all times. 

 

After considering past projects, I started introducing some of the Design Sprints activities like mini-tasks or mini-sprints each month to reinspire the team’s creativity and encourage thinking outside the box. We also have a habit of sharing inspirational references whenever we come across one to keep each other motivated and inspired. 

 

When it comes to productivity, I like to make sure that every person on the team is aware of the deadlines and launch dates. We work backward from this point and set the important milestones for everyone to hit, based on the actual launch date. I always try to explain all the elements of the project to my team to show that small details can influence the whole product ecosystem.

Olena recommends the book:

Google Design Sprints is a framework that encourages collaboration and helps test business ideas in a short timeframe, and
"Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days," tells you everything you need to know about this framework.

Read more
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FINALLY, ANY TIPS FOR YOUNG DESIGNERS WHO WANT TO START A CAREER IN THE MODERN DESIGN INDUSTRY?

 

Try to stay creative and open-minded. Never assume you know enough or everything. Try to learn from every single interaction you have with people. There's a very cool saying that I like, "When you're the smartest person in the room, there's a high chance you're in the wrong room". 

 

The most valuable tip I ever received is to look at examples of creative solutions from industries that are not directly related to your own. In other words, look at how industrial designers solve issues even if at the moment it’s not entirely related to your problem. Sometimes you may even find inspiration in how nature solved some of its own problems, so don't forget to look around.

 

Liked this interview?

If you want to learn more about Design Thinking and the basis of the Design Sprint framework, read the article 'Design Thinking from A to Z' in our Design blog.