Design Leader Insights - Nina Polson talks about UX research and design for digital navigation in emerging markets

January 16, 2023


Alex Smith: Hey Nina thanks so much for joining the show today.

Nina Polson: Thank you so much, Alex.

Alex Smith: And as we get started, you give the audience a little bit of background and context in your history and UX?

Nina Polson: Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the important things that I like to mention about my journey is that it wasn't like the standard path. I didn't take an HCI program at University. So I think if you know, anyone's listening to this and hasn't done that, that's totally fine. I was majoring in business, I was really into like the arts and the psychology and everything like that. So I started at a creative agency. I was doing more of the account work, there was one UX person out of like, probably 500 people. And I partnered with him on some nonprofit work. And I was like, Oh, my gosh, this is so cool. I didn't realize there was a career doing this stuff.  On the side, I took some classes on my own, I started reaching out to a lot of UXers, I slowly took on some freelance work, and started like building a reputation on my own that way,

Alex Smith: Tell us a little bit about where you're at now and kind of the products you're designing. 

Nina Polson: Yeah, for sure. So I am managing a team of designers on Google Maps, we have a really unique challenge. What we're trying to do is make Google Maps more simple, intuitive,  and just better for people across the globe. So my team focuses on how do we expand such a great product, which is used for people in these like, we call it the first billion user kind of markets, like San Francisco and New York where I am. Great product for us, right?  But is it so much a great product for users in India, Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil, things like that, which has just different set of challenges and needs, mental models and behavior. So really, really an interesting project and product to tackle.

Alex Smith: What are some of the considerations that designers should be thinking about for designing for, you know, different modes of transportation and different use cases of mapping?

Nina Polson: Yeah users in, you know, these other countries aren't getting in their car and putting on Google Play, or like putting on their watch and navigating somewhere, getting on a subway system, like the ones in New York. They're getting on the backs of two wheelers, they might not have really strong connectivity, so the Wi-Fi might be off, and they might need to download maps ahead of time. So really, these like super interesting challenges and like, ways of navigating that we need to think about. The data quality also is a huge one. So,a lot of times, users aren't trying to like type in an exact address, but they'll go to a landmark, they'll go to a small political. Navigate there, and then just ask the people around them. So even if maps can get you to that exact address, what we're trying to do is like use these other cues, or, or points in the navigation to like help you get where you are.  And just for like more context, in terms of our user, I think it's so important to understand what like a novice internet user really is. It means this low digital proficiency, low digital confidence, they might not see value to the internet, like we do. And I think these barriers really just are super, super challenging. And so if we don't get it right, in these kind of first few moments of like app usage, we see complete abandonment of the entire product.

Alex Smith: I guess a question that comes to mind is how are you conducting this research? It seems to me like with all these insights, you must spend a lot of time on the ground in these emerging countries. But obviously, that was probably hard to do during the pandemic. How are you getting each culture's perspective on how they navigate and what they're looking for in a mapping application?

Nina Polson: Yeah, it's so important, right? Like, so much of my team is about learning and education. We have a couple of researchers on the ground in India, just to kind of state like why we're there first. A quick little fact, there is going to be like over 500 million people online in these novice Internet user markets. And almost 200 million of that will be in India with all these different subcultures. So our first kind of approach is to kind of tackle that market, and really get it right there. We are not our users, like so the reality of our daily lives is so different from the reality of our users daily lives, that we constantly need to remove ourselves from the way we think the way we use Maps and get in the mindset of the way that users are using Maps.  So for instance, when I'm off work, I might go meet up with friends at a bar restaurant, right?  And I'm looking to Google Maps for that but users in India who who might have commuted from New Delhi are then looking to a market for all their needs. They might go to a local chain because that's so much more like prevalent there to grab food. They might look for again, traffic is super important. How can I get home the quickest, right? It's so much more important for them than my mindset of taking the L back to Brooklyn. They're thinking, do I get on the bus? Do I get on the train? Safety is such an important feature, is the route going to be well lit? Are there going to be people nearby? Am I going to pass a police station, all these other factors that truly matter to like, again, the safety of the user. So getting this right is super important. And I think that's why I take my work and our team's work really seriously. Because of the, you know, the last couple of years not being able to travel, we've really leaned into what we're calling remote immersion sessions. And what that means is, our researchers will be on the ground talking to these users, interviewing them, asking them to pull up their phone, asking about behaviors, other applications that they use. Once we get the videos transcribed, I have each member of my team watch a video so that they personally connect to a user. Engineers, Product Managers, Data Scientists, everybody gets like assigned someone. So they're almost a researcher in that sense. And then we come together, and they report back kind of like, these are the needs, these are the insights, this is what I learned. This is a memorable quote, and, and it just is a really good exercise of getting to know the user where like, every person who's participating, is then advocating for that person that, you know, they felt like they connected with where like, every person who's participating, is then advocating for that person that, you know, they felt like they connected with. And it's just so cool to really kind of like pull all those insights together and hear it from everyone on the team. I think ideally, fingers crossed this year, we'll be on the ground in India ourselves, and traveling to these countries and really getting immersed because I think that's the only way to really do it and do it well. But yeah, in the interim, we've been doing these remote sessions.

Alex Smith: Nina what type of advice would you have for junior emerging designers entering the field of UX today?

Nina Polson: Yeah, I think I have three pieces of advice I want to share.

Alex Smith: Okay awesome.

Nina Polson: Okay, so one is to just be a sponge. Look at the people around you don't just look at your manager, look at their manager. I think one of the most important things is just looking at how do those people you admire conduct themselves, give feedback, motivate their team? So that's definitely the first one be a sponge. I think the second is creating your own journey map.  So just the way UXers kind of create a journey map or a flow, what's your career journey?  My goal was always to be at Google, I knew I wasn't going to get there right away.  So what are the steps that I see other people who are at Google taking? Like, do they work at certain agencies? What programs did they volunteer for? How did they get involved? Is there someone that can mentor me and I wanted to create that path of, you know, eventually, where I am now, this manager at Google Maps a total dream. Knowing that five years ago, I wanted to get here, like, what are the steps to take to get there? And then I think the third thing is just never stop learning. What I found super important as a designer is being aware of what the other kind of your cross functional partners do. Taking classes in psychology, coding classes, just classes that are kind of programs, books, things like that, to get to know all what all the cross functional partners do. Because I think that helps build relationships, right? It's not just proving that you're a really good designer, and you can animate something. It's also, you know, working at a product place, understanding requirements, technical feasibility, do I need a content strategist for this project or a writer, and being able to like, understand all the components that really build the product, I think has been one of the most valuable kind of like things for me. So be a sponge, create your own journey map and never stop learning. 

Alex Smith: Yeah I think that last one's so powerful, like learn about those roles that you'll be interacting with, because design doesn't exist in a silo.

Nina Polson: Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah. You're never designing the product by yourself. So being able to pull those people in and ask the right questions is just so valuable.

Alex Smith: Great. And Nina, how can an aspiring Googler ask you questions if you're willing to impart any advice?

Nina Polson: Reach out to me on LinkedIn, I love looking at people's resumes. I love kind of being part of the hiring process. Google is such a wonderful place. Google Maps is such a wonderful team. If you're interested, you can reach out to me on LinkedIn.

Alex Smith: Awesome. Thanks so much for joining the show today.

Nina Polson: Thank you so much Alex.