Tríona Butler, the Tipperary-born but Silicon Valley-based Google Home UX lead, talks about the company’s odyssey into smart speakers and AI.
The world of screens is giving way to more tactile interfaces such as smart speakers, and we are only scratching the surface of this particular revolution.
All of the tech giants have skin in the game. There’s Amazon’s Echo with its Alexa voice assistant. Apple has had Siri on iPhones for years now and is beginning to transform smart homes with its new HomePod smart speakers.
‘Design is quintessentially about understanding people, and having empathy is part of the job’
– TRÍONA BUTLER
Google has also been in the voice interface business for some time and recently launched its Google Home family, consisting of the Google Home and Home Mini devices, in Ireland.
Having trialled both devices for the last few weeks, I have to say they turn a person’s notion of the internet on its head. Instead of it being a screen-based experience, you can ask Google Home to do the work for you. You can update your shopping list, it gives you the weather, it will assess how long it will take you to get to work judging by the present traffic conditions, it gives you the news headlines and can play your favourite artist from Spotify or YouTube.
In essence, it is the internet with a speaker at the end of it.
Google Home and Home Mini are available nationwide for €149 and €59, respectively, and have the potential to redefine how smart homes are run and how ordinary consumers get information and entertainment.
The Google Home device is a cylindrical speaker about 5.6in tall that features coloured LEDs as well as capacitive touch controls and a high-excursion speaker with dual microphones that can support far-field voice. It has a button at the back to allow users to simply turn off the microphones.
The Home Mini, also known as the ‘small and mighty’ among Googlers, is a smaller, flatter, palm-sized and fabric-covered machine that pretty much does everything the Google Home smart speaker can do. Users can easily link them together to control IoT devices or play music or radio around the house – ideal for parties. One particular feature of the Mini is how it allows you to stream shows and movies to your TV through Chromecast. Just say ‘OK Google, play Stranger Things on Netflix’ or ‘OK Google, play soccer videos on my TV.’
But few people in Ireland know that one of the designers of these game-changing products is Irish.
Google Home is where the heart is
Tríona Butler is the Tipperary-born and Silicon Valley-based Google Home user experience (UX) lead who spearheaded the UX design of the devices.
Proud of her Tipperary heritage, Butler showed how, with a single voice command, she could listen to a Gaelic football match on Tipp FM via TuneIn Radio and have the game follow her around her house by linking up her various Google Home and Home Mini devices.
She also showed how they could control various IoT devices around the home, such as the Nest thermostat or Philips Hue lights to make it “warm and bright” just with the sound of her voice, or even launch a playlist with Spotify.
“Both devices have a whole team with a variety of skills to create the end experience for these products. It’s been really great. I’ve been working at Google coming up to seven years and working on products for Home for the last four-and-a-half years,” Butler told Siliconrepublic.com.
“I started working on Google Wi-Fi and helped create that product. We created a team basically to try and address the problems people had with Wi-Fi in their homes and with their routers, and then from there our team came together to work on Google Home.”
UX is considered one of the hottest sectors in tech right now and is one of the most sought-after areas of expertise, even though the skillset didn’t formally exist 10 years ago.
“Like most people who have ended up working in UX, when we began, there was no term for it. After graduating in communications studies from DCU, I joined my brother’s digital agency where he was doing a lot of web stuff at the time, some 3D, mixed multimedia stuff. I started working there because some of the stuff I was doing in my undergrad was useful for them. But I really got into design on the job and knew there was more to what I was doing when I was designing these websites and products, making them usable, fit for people, but didn’t know the words for it at the time.
“Then I discovered this programme in UL and did a master’s in interactive media, gained a lot of user experience in human computer interaction (HCI) design thinking, and from there it all came together in that year and I thought, ‘This is it!’”
Butler went on to work with Burberry’s digital design team in London. “I was always interested in fashion but being able to bring the skills I built up to the table was a great experience and opportunity.”
Shortly after that, a job opportunity came up with Google in Zurich. Paris followed and after that Silicon Valley, where Butler has been ever since.
Data is the new design fabric
I put it to Butler that in terms of design, data is now also a fabric or material.
“It does turn design on its head. I’m not sure if anyone has realised it yet but it does. When I worked in my brother’s digital design agency, there was that big transition from web to mobile and that was a big moment for designers. ‘Hold on, everything has shifted, people are on the go, different contexts, the screen is smaller, we have apps, there is a whole new set of things to think about.’
“I feel that right now, we are at a similar point but it is bigger with voice and AI and all of this new wave of content.
“In the past, when you were thinking about designing for visual displays, we knew what the content was; that it was an article or a photo or content we wrote about.
“Now, it is very dynamic, requiring a different set of content for me versus you, today versus tomorrow, so we need to think about creating new visual UX systems that can respond to that, and voice is a whole different wave.
“So, we are thinking constantly about conversation design and we have visual user interface [UI] designers who are specialists thinking about voice and conversation. We have to think about what will people say, just helping us to understand the whole framework of voice and conversation, so it is super-interesting.
“What is great about Google is we’ve been investing in this space for quite some time, building on the back of a decade in voice search, building up maps – all of that is coming together, and having this really nice natural interface we call voice brings a nice way to interact with all of that.
“We definitely find that it is a really accessible way to interact with technology for everyday tasks.”
Butler recalled how a woman wrote to the team to tell them that she had bought a Google Home device for her mother who had progressive MS and was no longer able to even hold a phone.
“With the Google Home speaker, she was able to get back her independence, play her favourite movies on Netflix and call her daughter. You can set reminders and add things to your shopping list. It is a really interesting time for computing in general with all of these pieces coming together.”
For people considering careers in UX design, Butler said the key thing to think about is to be constantly envisioning how products work or could work better.
“One of the things we talk about in my team is ‘total user experience’. What is the whole journey consumers go through to research a product, decide they want it, what do they see on the packaging, what is the unboxing and setting-up like?
“We really try to think about making it as fluid as possible for customers.
“I didn’t know that UX was a thing when I started but now I think that programmes like the interactive media master’s in UL are amazing. You need to research all the programmes but I am sure that there are lots of avenues to get people started in this space.
“Design is quintessentially about understanding people, and having empathy is part of the job. You can have tools and skills to do UX research, but being able to talk to people, observe what they’re doing, hear what they are saying but ask ‘What does that mean?’ and ‘Why are they saying that?’ is important, too.”
Another aspect to UX is problem-solving. “It is about understanding where are the needs and what are the problems, and using design to properly design solutions in that space.
“You can come at those from lots of different angles, but end up there and end up there for a reason. You may start in architecture and other areas of design and end up here or in totally different fields – there are lots of ways to get there.
“I am not formally trained as a graphic designer but lots of people I work with are. Lots of researchers have a background in psychology and fields like that. And there are undergrad and master’s courses emerging focused on UX.”
Butler said the next big challenge for UI is figuring out how it melds with artificial intelligence.
“But really, the fundamentals of it come back to the basics of UX: we need to understand people, what are their goals and needs, and then design a system that solves for that. Even though a lot of technologies are new and things are evolving quickly, there are foundations there that we just keep coming back to.
“It will be really interesting to see and we definitely want to help make it more relevant and contextual to you with your permission … and learn from you.
“It does mean you get a great system in the home that creates a great ambience, is useful and delivers the right information in a very accessible way.”