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Google's Annie Jean-Baptiste on why collaboration is critical to building inclusive products

"Build for everyone, with everyone."

Image courtesy Google. Illustration by Anita Goldstein.

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5 min read

Let's face it, navigating work in 2022 is different. So we're picking the brains of design leaders across the industry to help us navigate it all. As part of our ongoing interview series, we’re asking designers to share their work life advice, design do’s and don’ts, and secrets to effective web design collaboration. Consider it our take on the Proustian questionnaire, with the aim to give you insight on how top designers work and think about design in a time unlike any other. (And they might just spill a few work-life secrets along the way.)

Annie Jean-Baptise is the head of product inclusion and equity at Google, where she leads strategy, research, and development processes to ensure that all of Google's products, like the Real Tone camera released on the Android Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro last fall, are inclusive. Jean-Baptiste is the author of Building for Everyone, a practical guide to building inclusive products, based on the strategies and experience of her team at Google. She is also a founding member of Chief, a San Francisco-based think tank that advocates for women in roles of executive leadership.

Here, Jean-Baptiste shares her advice for leading a design team, why she acts "like a talent agent" to encourage collaboration within her design teams, and the underrated design skill everyone needs to create equitably and inclusively.

Images courtesy Google.

The key to effective collaboration is?

Active listening and creating space for quieter voices at the margins.

The most surprising difference between in-office collaboration and remote?

I think in some ways, remote collaboration has allowed for different voices to be heard. People who need more time to think, or aren’t the loudest in the room, can use a raise hand feature on Google Meet. And the chat function allows people to voice their opinions in text form instead of verbally.

When is collaboration most important?

When things are time sensitive. In those moments, people may feel pressure to act quickly, and this is where perspectives might be left out. When I see this happening, I recognize it as a sign to take a breath and ensure that all perspectives are present and heard.

What's your advice for leading a design team?

Invest in building relationships and trust as people. Bring diverse perspectives and backgrounds together. Be clear on the end goal, but open to different ways of getting there. As jazz musician Mike Farley says, when a jazz band is in a groove, they’ve got swing… when you’re swinging, everyone can be creative.”

What's your advice for making a design team more collaborative?

Create multiple modes and opportunities to collaborate. As a leader, I try to ‘act like a talent agent.” That means knowing people’s strengths, allowing them to grow, connecting people to opportunities that will allow them to shine, and get out of the way.

I also believe in creating a safe space for people to think independently, and take risks. Being able to “break” things – or adversely test our products – is important. Our team members need to feel safe in order to do that.

What's the one quality you always look for in a designer?

Humility. Product Inclusion and equity work stem from understanding that we all have bias, and there’s no way that we can fully understand everyone’s story. In order to build for, we must build with, and having humility allows you to bring other perspectives in, even if they are in friction with what you believe to be true.

"In order to build for, we must build with, and having humility allows you to bring other perspectives in, even if they are in friction with what you believe to be true."

What’s your proudest moment?

I’m proud every time my parents say they are proud of me. They’ve sacrificed so much for me to get to where I am. They immigrated from Haiti and have always instilled in my brother and I that we must be open to other perspectives, give back, and use our voices to impart change.

What was your biggest learning moment?

Learning a new skill is scary and tough. When writing my book, Building for Everyone, I learned that moving out of your comfort zone can be extremely hard—but you grow so much.

What was your biggest realization from the past year and half of working amid a pandemic?

How quickly we can adapt. That being said, we need to make sure that solutions don’t exacerbate inequities we see with historically marginalized communities.

What’s your work mantra?

Build for everyone, with everyone. This work is a journey, and my team’s job is to center those who are historically marginalized and build for the world.

What's the best advice you’ve received? (From whom?)

"Lead with yes and doors will open," from Karen Sumberg, one of my former managers.

"Lean into not fitting into one box," from John Maeda. This came at a crucial time when I was trying to understand if I should take the leap to pursue product inclusion & equity work full time. The work doesn’t fit into a box, and neither do I!

What's one design you wish you thought of yourself?

One of my favorite fashion designers, Hanifa, created this innovative way to host a fashion show during the pandemic. It created a trend across the industry. I love seeing ingenuity like this!

What's a design faux pas you’re secretly a fan of?

Wearing white after labor day. I love winter white!

What's one design skill that’s overrated?

Formal education always trumping lived experience.

What's one design skill that’s underrated?

Empathy. In order to build for someone else, you must ask, “who else?” Who else needs to be in the room? Who else must be driving the work forward? Who is missing?

What's the difference between a good designer and a great one?

A great designer knows that they should be constantly learning—and that they should learn from those outside of their bubble.

"A great designer knows that they should be constantly learning—and that they should learn from those outside of their bubble. "

What's your favorite question to ask during job interviews?

“Name 3 qualities your former team members would use to describe you.”

My answer: Sensitive, committed, honest

What's your favorite typeface?

I don’t have one, but I do love handwriting, especially handwritten notes.

How do you avoid team burnout?

Prioritizing self care over everything. Creating time and space for fun. We have virtual offsites where we’ve done baking wars, graffiti and more (shoutout to Happied Co, a business run by historically marginalized groups.)

Which song do you listen to when you’re the most productive?

I can’t listen to music with lyrics when I’m working. I grew up playing cello and piano, so classical music. I love “The Swan” by Camille Saint-Saens.

Which project from the past year that most excites you?

There were several exciting launches this past year. From Memories in Google Photos to Real Tone, we’ve taken an intersectional lens to building for everyone, with everyone.

What keeps you up at night?

The deep inequities in our world, from racism, sexism, transphobia and wealth inequality.

What gets you up in the morning?


What’s a piece of advice you’d give your younger self?

Your perceived “flaws” are actually your biggest strengths.

Design is?

Creating delight for all.

Design isn't?

Exclusive. At least good design isn’t.

What’s a question you wish we asked? (And what’s the answer?)

Q: Does caring about inclusion mean sacrificing the ability to move design work forward quickly?

A: Absolutely not. You can be intentional about bringing a more inclusive lens through design--thinking about the people you design with and for, the processes you use and how they can be more inclusive, and having equity at the center of your design process. Consumers and users want to see the beauty of the world reflected back in design.

[Related: Familiarize yourself with other famous Black graphic designers.]


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