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Google Glass's Lead Designer Talks Us Through Her Work Process

Wearable tech is only as good as the design and technical teams' ability to work together.

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about wearable tech. While some products get heat for not being high tech enough — the fashion-focused bracelet designed by Opening Ceremony and Intel would be one such item — it's more often the "wearable" part of the equation that gets called into question. 

It's both understandable and unsurprising. But it's also helpful to remember that designers of traditional wearable products (i.e., fashion and accessories goods) haven't been working closely with hardware engineers for very long. Theoretically, the better the two understand each others' motivations, processes and limitations, the better the odds they'll create something actually worth wearing.

In the interest of learning how those things are coming together, we rang up Isabelle Olsson, the lead designer of Google Glass, to hear about how she and the rest of her team operate. With her background in jewelry design and a fluency in the ins and outs of the fashion calendar, Olsson isn't the first person you'd expect to be making a tech product — which makes her exactly the right person to be designing a wearable device.

What brought you to the Google Glass team?

I moved from Sweden about six years ago to work for Fuseproject with Yves Béhar. That place was super diverse in terms of the types of projects we worked on: jewelry, furniture, some pieces of tech. My background is much more in furniture and jewelry. But I started working on tech and I found that fascinating. I realized I could contribute a completely different point of view. One day I got a call from a Google recruiter through LinkedIn. I didn't know they did design or physical product, but I didn't move across the world not to take risks. I went to the Google campus and they were very passionate and interesting. I also saw how different I was from the team, and thought I could contribute.

For me it was all about [Glass] having the human values that you can touch and feel, so what I did was show them materials and how you can draw inspiration from that. If you think of the world of tech it’s been about black, square, glossy products. Now moving into fashion and tech and their coming together, you have to pay a lot of attention to [the materials]. To me it was about bringing that world into tech, but then learning about the constraints [of hardware]. We're doing these tough tradeoffs. Obviously the engineers want more battery, more camera, more everything, and that’s when you have to go back to how to make this as useful as possible for everyone.

The prototype was in its very early stages [when I joined]. There were cables running off of it. They told me, 'Make this comfortable and make this beautiful.' That freaked me out a little bit... You walk into a glasses store — how can we start to compete with that? They have thousands of styles. 

My approach was to set up really clear principles for the team and guidelines that we could get behind. Our principles [from the beginning] were lightness, simplicity, scalability and usefulness. The scalable part is a weird word, but it’s this idea of: How can we create something that we can transform over time? It takes years and years and years [to develop a tech product]. In fashion we have pre-fall, pre-spring, cruise collections. It’s so fast-paced, and it’s very difficult to keep up with that on the technology side. From the first version, we designed it to attach to different frames. These are the kind of things that you have to design for in the very beginning. 

These are principles that I set out three years ago. It’s easy to forget how long it actually takes to make this, but we show that process to the world. We took this stance that we wanted to design this with the world because it is so new and so innovative. That also exposes the real time it takes to take a product to market. Most [companies] do this behind closed doors for seven to 10 years.

How did you build out your team?

I set out to build a very diverse team. A product like this needs people from different backgrounds with different perspectives — and probably not a tech perspective. None of the people on my team are from tech at all. I have a team of industrial designers, graphic designers, design strategy, and space and interiors. We do everything [Glass consumers] touch and feel. The packaging and showrooms, but also the accessories. And for me it was very important that [the team] was very diverse in terms of background and gender. It's 50/50 men and women because in the end the product you put out is a reflection of your team.

And who's on the technical team?

It’s a mix of people. Everyone from scientists to engineers to human factor designers.

So how do the two work together?

One of the most exciting things for me is how closely we work with our engineers. It’s quite unusual. There’s always this focus [in the press] on how [the two teams] can’t work together. But there’s a huge overlap — I sit right next to the mechanical engineers, so as I’m 3D modeling something I can ask a question like, "Is this possible? Is this wall too thin? Can we push it a little harder?"

We work together on a daily basis. That’s the only way we can work as quickly as we’re doing. I think that part of the biggest challenge is that we didn’t have a benchmark [for how to create a wearable tech device]. If you’re designing a new chair you can see what there was before and make it better. With Glass there was nothing. We needed the benchmark, which was the [first] version.

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Instead of showing beautiful renderings [at our first meeting], I brought a quote to the team. It was, "Perfection is not when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away." I think for people in [the tech] world it was a new thought to them. It was not the way they thought about it, but it's the only way we can create something that you can wear not just practically but also visually. 

The process started out with: What are the concise guidelines that we can set out to make something that's comfortable and beautiful in the end? Simplicity [was one principle], and that’s tough when it comes to the type of components and ingredients that I was given. I think that’s also why a lot of [wearable products] come out and it doesn’t feel right — because it doesn’t have the right ingredients. 

I was given a camera module that was designed for a phone or tablet. It was a square, cubical object. The [human] face is not square and flat, so what happened as I tried to integrate it [into the design] is that it was just atrocious. I went to the engineers and asked to see the CAD of the internals. There was a lot of additional plastic that I didn’t think was needed to hold the optical pieces. [One of the engineers] said, "It’s too hard to change it." I sanded it down to the point where I still thought it was big, walked over to him and said, "Plug this in and see if it still works." He almost had a heart attack. The camera still worked. This meant that we could create our own shaped camera that could fit the curve of the face.

I could take every single component in [the device], and it’s a similar story. You can’t cook a beef stew with vegetables — it really boils down to the ingredients you have at hand. And you have to pay attention to them.

I’m really lucky in the way we’ve built the team and how we’re working together. Everybody in the beginning aligned to the principles. If we say it has to be as light as possible, that’s what [our technical team] will strive to as well. Our wall thicknesses are less than 0.4 millimeters in some areas. If you went back [a few years ago], they’d tell me the minimum thickness was 1.5 millimeters. The guys here are really with me in terms of pushing the envelope. 

How do you incorporate consumer feedback into your design process?

For me and my team, it's really an amazing tool to help us prioritize. Mostly when we share [an update], the feedback is not unexpected. It’s something we’ve discussed that was maybe deprioritized at some point. Really, hearing public opinions and comments from people who are [in our Explorer program] helps us bump up some things that weren’t as important to us.

A huge piece of feedback is something that I saw from the beginning, which was the idea of being able to choose your own style. There are some limitations on how many designs we can create, but over the course of time we can release different collections. When we released our titanium collection, people appreciated being able to make it their own. We have a collaboration with Luxottica. We're building more on that idea of having people make [Glass] their own. They can pick out their favorite sunglasses. They should be able to pick their Google Glass shape.

How does the design process change when you're working with a team outside of your own, as with the DVF for Glass frames?

The DVF collaboration was very natural because she was the one that embraced Glass from the very beginning, especially in the female market. My mother and sisters called me going crazy when she put Glass on the runway for spring 2013. It was just really exciting to go in and select expressive colors, whereas with the titanium collection we had to be more restrained.

[The process] kind of goes back to the very beginning, when we designed the prototype. We made it so you can remove the frame or the eyewear, so basically what we gave [DVF's team] was all the specs of how you fit in the glasses on top of Glass.

What should consumers be thinking about as they look at wearable tech designs that come out today?

Just remember that it’s very, very early days. I think it’s about finding the piece that is useful to you, to make sure it really fits in your life.

For some people I think it’ll take a little more time before they’re open to it, and I think that’s okay. When tablets first came out people had the idea that it’s a big phone, and I'm going to walk around with it by my head all the time. Both from a hardware perspective and from a usability perspective on what people want to use it for and love to use it for, that’s also in its very infancy.

We’re rooted to our goal that [eventually] you don’t think of Glass as technology anymore. You can’t draw cues from existing tech objects. [You have to consider] how it fits with your style and things you’re already wearing. The finishes, the look, your complexion, your hair — those are the things that matter the most for wearables. Creating things with sharp angles or glossy pieces make no sense. You get finger prints on it, and it’s not pretty. So just the same rules don’t apply. One thing that you can argue we have in common [with a player like Apple] is just that we consider the entire experience. We pay a ton of attention to our packaging. It’s really the frame that frames the painting, in a way. We're making sure that that’s a delightful, calm, beautiful experience. Some tech products do that well, some don’t. That’s one [area] where we have [consumers] with really high expectations, and they should.

Then the challenge is how you create something that lasts over time. You can’t push out a piece of technology every second month — or yearly is even challenging. So how do you create something people want to keep [in the long term]? We're drawing from things that are great over time. Saint Laurent. A bunch of Swedish designers — I’m prone to like Swedish ones. Jil Sander. Just minimal, simple pieces that last. That also comes down to quality, and that’s something we focus a lot on. We're testing things and making sure the materials age well over time. You have cables at home that look yellow and greasy, and that’s not paying attention over time. That’s extremely important with wearables. I think it’s inspiring to pull a bag out that your mom had in the '70s and make it [part of your style] today.