Design Leader Insight - Sam Horner on Fostering Creativity in UX Teams

February 27, 2024


Alex Smith: Design Leader Insights is brought to you by Fuego UX. Fuego UX is a leading UX research, strategy, and design consultancy. Hey, Sam. Thanks so much for joining the show today. 

Sam Horner: You're welcome, Alex. How's it going? 

Alex Smith: Can't complain. But yeah, as we get started, can you tell the audience a little bit about your journey in design? 

Sam Horner: Yeah, of course. Well, my name is Sam Horner. I head Apps UX for Google Play. And I've been, I've been in the industry for too many years at this point where I can't count. I used to count. I think everybody counts and then they stop where they realize it's not a healthy thing. My career in design started at the BBC. I mean, I studied web design at university. That's when web design was like all encompassed. There was no like front end, back end design. It was just like web design, go, go do it. And I got really into visual storytelling. I got really into Flash, creating games basically. And the BBC picked up on that. They were, they were really cool. And they dragged me down to London. I had no, no idea I was going to have a career in design. They dragged me down to London. It kind of went from there. I spent nearly five years at the BBC working across a bunch of really cool strategic projects, the 2012 Olympics, and this new iPad thing that got released and we're like, what the hell is this? What are we going to do? It's these smart TVs, we're just coming into the world. So figuring out how do we make amazing BBC style TV experiences. now powered by the internet. But then I fell in love and I moved to California. Everybody thinks I moved to California for the tech industry. I didn't.  I fell in love. I met my now wife and moved out to California. Did a couple of years in agency. And then this little startup called Netflix knocked on my door and said, hey, we work on TV stuff. You've done TV stuff. Would you like to come and do some stuff with us? And I was like, yeah, that sounds cool. So I went and did four, four amazing years of Netflix. And then I've spent the last six years. It's my six year Googleversary, as Googlers call it two, a couple of days ago. So I've since I've been there, I led the Google one design team. I was the first designer that built that team of researchers, designers to launch that product, a couple of us, nearly, nearly six years back. And I've spent the last four years on Google Play focused on entertainment products and right now figuring out how to just make, improve people's lives with apps and I love it. I love it every day. 

Alex Smith: Nice. That's awesome. That's quite the journey and thanks for sharing it. What I want to talk to you about, it's something that sounds like every leader should, should focus on is like, it's UX, it's product design, but there's still creativity. People still need to think and have time to think. So how do you create or allow space for like a creative culture to kind of grow? 

Sam Horner: You always hear these talks and they're all very valid about the balance of UX being this mixture of art and science. And at some point design and art and creativity turned from a sporadic moment of genius into a nine to five, people working in booths, coming in and commuting, starting at, starting at nine, finishing at five, and then going home and creativity in the brain doesn't work that way. And it's something I, I talk about my team and have talked about my teams a lot, is that sometimes you just can't find that trigger moment. And that's natural and normal, but it's also natural and normal to feel like I have to stay at my desk. I have to work on these things. Like, and we have enough distractions. There were enough meetings in the day business climate, all of these other things going on, but you just can't control when you're creative. Juices like spark and when these, these moments of creativity kick in. The things that I focus on with my team is knowing what brings you creative peace, I guess, is like, what's, what's this moment where you can switch off and detach from work and find your, your creative energy. Like for me, I talk about it with my team a lot. I surf, I'm not a good surfer, but I surf and I really enjoy it. And when I'm sitting on a surfboard. Focusing on not drowning trying to surf and have a good time. I can disconnect from work and I usually come back feeling far more creative. And I have done it probably to my boss's dismay where I've left in the middle of the day to go surfing because I was bringing zero value to what I was doing at that moment. But I know it's going to energize me and not everybody has the power to do that or the situation. And frankly, it takes a long time for me to go surfing. So you also have to find these other micro moments. Like some people, you know, it's grabbing a coffee. It's that water cooler moment. It might be going for a run. It's really trying to understand who you are, what you need. And it's not necessary. Most people know what helps them relax and gives them creative energy. It's empowering them to do so and saying, hey, you know what? It's cool. If you get out of here early today. I know you're going to put the hours in this isn't about hours. This is about being productive and getting the most out of your creativity. I'm empowering you to take that time to find it for yourself. Be flexible with what you need versus what you've seen other people do. But look at the techniques. Look at what they're trying to do with those tapes. And I think, yeah, work, work when you feel like you can bring your best energy.

Alex Smith: Yeah, I remember in 2012, iPad comes out, smart TVs come out. It feels like tech is going to like truly change everything. And now I'm just bringing this up because you mentioned play store and it sounds like you work with mobile devices, every iteration of a new phone. I'm like, wait, the camera got slightly better. They're like, what happened to like stuff changing? So I guess my question for you is how much longer you think users are stuck to the six inch device, or is that, do you see that being the interface? For the next decade still, or like, what, what do you think is really going to come down the pipeline in terms of innovation?

Sam Horner: That's the question you ask somebody and they don't want it recorded, Alex, because they're likely to be wrong.Through history, there's always been fears about people spending their times doing too much stuff. Like the generation, they were melting their brains on, on the TV. For my generation, like my, my dad hated the fact I played video games. Now it's mobile devices. We're getting to this new generation alpha post Gen Z where TikTok will have been the norm. Like the last generation, tablets were the norm, like born with tablets in their hands, able to do it. Those things are going to continue to adapt and change. I don't know if that change will be as radical as we saw it happen, really, with the iPhone. I think the screen is always going to be important. I think the way that they are focused on people's specific problems versus just a barrage of needs. It's kind of why I love tablets. Like tablets have certain needs. It's entertainment. It might be video calling with somebody. Kids love them. The phone does a million things. It can do so, so many categories of apps. And that's what I really focus on a lot with my team now is like, let's start with the problem and then come with the right app for the right moment. How do we make phones work around your life versus you working around your phone? Which is what we see today and why people spend so much time on their devices. Because the device isn't helping them understand what they need in that moment. It's giving them all of the information. And I think we're seeing that a lot. I think you're going to see that a lot from all of these different devices, these different innovations. 

Alex Smith: Sam, what advice do you have for new designers entering the field today?

Sam Horner: And I take your question a little differently because we started talking about factors that I think really help managers and I think lots of designers coming into the field, stay creative, stay, try things. You don't have to be an expert. I think that's something Instagram does to us today. We see experts at one thing, like you can try a million things, like you'll appreciate it when you're older and you've tried everything and you've tried all these things and you've experimented. For managers, new managers coming into the field, it's keep thinking about one, how do you keep your team focused on bringing their best creative energy, but also remember the people that gave you your start, what did they empower you with? Who was that person that empowered you? I had a manager called Mike Albers. I shoot him. I like, we'll talk about him all day. He's the guy that changed my career and made me rethink about how I design. Who's that person for you? Remember that and remember that you needed it to get to where you are today. And how can you be that for the new generation of designers coming through? How can you empower them? How can you make them less wary of what's happening in the world of tech right now, bring them comfort, make them creative, and give them all the skill sets that they can be successful if the phone disappears, Alex, as you may be predicting in the next 10 years. And just remember, remember those people that got you to where you are. I think that's super  important.

Alex Smith: So true. So true. Sam, you also have a podcast, better than mine. Where can people go to find that? 

Sam Horner: Well, better than yours, I can't say that all these podcasts are really great at helping. Just helping educate around the industry. Yeah. I have a podcast, which I co host with the amazing Leshi Cabello and it's called Design Tracks. It's available on Spotify and Apple and all the places you find podcasts. And we've been really focused in DEI, learning about different people's approaches. We have some new episodes dropping in the next month. So look out for those. And it's been, it's been such a wonderful journey for me, a new skill set, something new to try. You know, again, trying all these different things. I've not hosted a podcast for years. This is something new for me. And also check out Design Matters Conference. We have our 10 year anniversary in Copenhagen this October and tickets are available there for And yeah, I'm on Instagram /Hornerlas because yeah, when I was 13, I was obsessed with Lord of the Rings, Legolas, and it hasn't dropped off. So that's  /Hornerlas. 

Alex Smith: Thank you so much for joining the show today. 

Sam Horner: Oh, thank you, Alex. And thank you for doing something like this that can really help lots of new people in the industry. It's great that you do it.