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AMA: Jean-Marc Denis, Designer at Google (Formerly at Sparrow)

almost 4 years ago from , Product designer

Bonjour! My name is Jean-Marc,

I am a French designer working at Google in the Google Cardboard virtual reality team. Prior to that I designed Sparrow email clients. We got acquired in 2012. Joining Google I worked in the Gmail team on Inbox by Gmail from scratch until it’s release.

I love design tools that empower designers to create more and better. I created learning materials for Sketch to help designers ramp up and transition from older tools.

I’ll be answering your questions on Thursday, October 22 from 10:00 AM PST

63 comments

  • Claude AyiteyClaude Ayitey, almost 4 years ago (edited almost 4 years ago )

    I loved using Sparrow as an e-email client. About 4 weeks ago, it began crashing and getting a bit more unstable — I reluctantly switched to a new email client. I understand that Google acquired your company but I want to know if there was ever a time you thought of making your product open-source so other developers could build on top of it.

    I feel we have lost one of the best Mac email clients out there. Any comments on making Sparrow open-source?

    26 points
    • Jean-Marc Denis, almost 4 years ago (edited almost 4 years ago )

      Thanks for your question and kind words. While I can't comment on plans to open source Sparrow, I can say that Google put a big emphasis on contributing to the open source community and will continue to invest in this area further down the line.

      1 point
  • joe andersonjoe anderson, almost 4 years ago

    How does one start getting into designing for virtual reality?

    10 points
    • Jean-Marc Denis, almost 4 years ago (edited almost 4 years ago )

      I am actively working on a Medium article that explains my experience switching from productive apps to virtual reality. Stay tuned!

      5 points
  • Diego LafuenteDiego Lafuente, almost 4 years ago

    This is not a question, this begging: please talk Google to revive and maintain Sparrow

    10 points
    • Jonathan SimcoeJonathan Simcoe, almost 4 years ago

      N1 is making a valiant effort, but I hear you!

      2 points
    • John PJohn P, almost 4 years ago

      You must be new, that's now how Google/Facebook acqui-hiring work.

      You see when a product you like gets bought by Google/Twitter/Facebook/Dropbox then that means the product is dead, stop using it, stop relying on it, you were foolish to rely on it at all if they ever intended to sell out to the big 4.

      2 points
      • barry saundersbarry saunders, almost 4 years ago

        From what I've heard from engineers at google, acquisitions have to pass internal coding standards to be supported. Most startups have pretty poor code so they rarely get re-released, Google just end up rebuilding them as google products (in the case of Sparrow, it became Inbox)

        0 points
        • Diego LafuenteDiego Lafuente, almost 4 years ago

          Well, they can rewrite Sparrow, don't you think? Just leave it as it is but with the Google Standards. Inbox is HTML.

          0 points
          • barry saundersbarry saunders, almost 4 years ago

            they could, but it's probably not in their business interest to do so.

            (Inbox is also iOS and Android app I believe)

            0 points
      • Andrew RasmussenAndrew Rasmussen, almost 4 years ago

        I'm probably biased because I used to work at Facebook but I feel like FB is actually a lot better at acquisitions. Instagram, WhatsApp, and Oculus were all big acquisitions that have definitely not died. I'd love to hear some recent counter examples.

        2 points
        • John PJohn P, almost 4 years ago

          I'd just argue FB hasn't shown their true colours yet, let's see what happens when their main product userbase is in free fall, shouldn't be long now.

          0 points
  • joe andersonjoe anderson, almost 4 years ago

    What's the hardest thing about designing for VR?

    What's the most interesting thing you've learned since designing for VR?

    7 points
    • Jean-Marc Denis, almost 4 years ago (edited almost 4 years ago )

      When you start designing for VR, you have a lot of assumptions, most of them are wrong. As you learn more and more about the field, you realize that most of the coolest sci-fi interactions doesn’t make too much sense from a user standing point.

      One of the most interesting things I've learned is how you should physiologically take care of your users. There are a lot of ways you can create discomfort (motion sickness and so on) and you have to take that in consideration when designing.

      3 points
  • Brian Lovin, almost 4 years ago

    JM -

    Thanks for hosting this. A few questions:

    • Why do all French designers know each other?
    • What's your average PPG in a game of pickup basketball?
    • What email client do you use?

    But seriously:

    • You worked on email apps and communication tools for a long time. Why did you choose VR as the next step as a designer? What has been the most surprising thing you've encountered designing for VR?
    6 points
    • Jean-Marc DenisJean-Marc Denis, almost 4 years ago (edited almost 4 years ago )
      • French people are scared by the unknown, and honestly we are so proud when another Frenchy arrives in the Valley!
      • Very low, always because of the wind, though.
      • Inbox (and Sparrow)
      • I have been tackling the communication problem for a while and I was looking for a big change. The kind that forces you to learn new things every day, adapt and get better and better. The funny thing is that design is still design, the rules are just not the same.
      • I was really intrigued by VR. First because I am a gamer, and second because I see it as an uncharted territory for designers. A virgin medium where everything has to be thought through, imagined, designed and built. It’s very exciting!
      • How close you are to the user. You control a lot more parameters than 2D because of how much immersive this medium is.
      3 points
      • Jonathan SimcoeJonathan Simcoe, almost 4 years ago

        I purchased the Sparrow Mac App Store version and it is no longer available for download. How can a person go about using Sparrow? :)

        1 point
  • Mauroof Ahmed, almost 4 years ago

    What are some resources and tools which you recommend for someone interested in VR?

    3 points
    • Jean-Marc Denis, almost 4 years ago (edited almost 4 years ago )

      As mentioned before, I am working on a blog post. There is a part of it that gives a brief intro to VR. I also referenced a lot of learning materials.

      0 points
  • Ola LaurinOla Laurin, almost 4 years ago

    I would love to know more about your design process in the Inbox team. How do you gather and synthesize data, observations, feature requests and ideas to decide what to do next? How long is your road map?

    2 points
    • Jean-Marc Denis, almost 4 years ago

      The design process looks a lot of like any other product design teams. Understand, Identify, Execute. It’s a perpetual process of iteration until you get it right. We do user studies to understand where and when things worked or failed. Data is valuable when you use it as a tool to create better experiences.

      I can’t talk much about the future since I am not part of that team anymore but I trust them to keep creating and enhancing the product.

      0 points
  • Darin Dimitroff, almost 4 years ago (edited almost 4 years ago )

    Hey Jean-Marc, big fаn of yours since the Sparrow days. My Macs haven't ran such a polished email client for years.

    My question: how does it feel working for a tech giant after being independent? I'm sure there are many benefits, but I'm more interested in the downsides. Perfectly okay if you decide not to answer this one.

    2 points
    • Jean-Marc DenisJean-Marc Denis, almost 4 years ago (edited almost 4 years ago )

      Both have pros and cons. One is not better than the other, it’s just a different experience. Keep in mind that I was the only designer working on Sparrow so when we joined the Gmail team that was a huge change. The team was 10 times bigger. Working with a team of designers was a new experience for me, and it felt a bit scary the first few weeks. On the long term, that was one of the best things that happened to me as a designer. Being able to get constructive feedback and helping each other made me a better designer and person.

      On a product level, big companies have resources to research and make sure your strategic design decisions are going in the right direction. As a small company we often had to bet on our gut feelings. It paid off for us, but it’s not always the case.

      Another great thing is that big companies have different projects with different scale. Google has a lot of small teams that move fast. On top of that being a designer at Google today is awesome because people value design, and there is a strong design culture.

      5 points
  • Marc EdwardsMarc Edwards, almost 4 years ago

    Yo Jean-Marc!

    Given your experience in desktop, mobile and now VR, how do you think VR will influence software design for our existing slabs of glass (phones, tablets, laptops, desktops)?

    2 points
    • Jean-Marc Denis, almost 4 years ago (edited almost 4 years ago )

      I don't think it will in the short term. Obviously, the more developers and designers will get into VR the more it will influence existing mediums.

      1 point
  • Dirk HCM van BoxtelDirk HCM van Boxtel, almost 4 years ago

    How's working at a company the size of Google? How much impact do you find you have, and how big is the team you work on? :) Maybe a little run-down of day-to-day business?

    No need for an essay, just some key factors will do :)

    1 point
  • cliff nowickicliff nowicki, almost 4 years ago

    The possibilities seem endless to use with VR. Do you find this will be the future or just a trend that'll fizzle out?

    1 point
    • Jean-Marc DenisJean-Marc Denis, almost 4 years ago (edited almost 4 years ago )

      I think this is a very powerful medium in a very early stage. Eventually, technology will catch up and will remove any frictions with the experience. I see VR as an open platform for any kind of creators. Gaming, movies, productivity and so on. All industries have an open field for innovation.

      0 points
  • Christopher Downer, almost 4 years ago

    What's the coolest / most impressive use of Google Cardboard you’ve seen?

    1 point
  • Kevin GutowskiKevin Gutowski, almost 4 years ago

    I remember over in the SpecFM Slack channel you talked about Ash Thorp's UI course from LearnSquared. I was wondering why you are taking the course - what are you hoping to get out of it (Do you have any ideas for your project yet)? For me, I'm interested in learning about how UI can capture imagination and techniques that I can bring into building usable systems.

    1 point
    • Jean-Marc DenisJean-Marc Denis, almost 4 years ago (edited almost 4 years ago )

      I am mostly interested in that course for inspiration and learning techniques he is using. Ash Thorp comes from a different industry where UI does not require to be usable but need to look impressive, complicated and pretty. What is certain is that I'll learn a lot of things during that course.

      0 points
  • Philip AmourPhilip Amour, almost 4 years ago

    Bonjur, JM! I have a couple questions for you.

    1) What's the most challenging problem you are currently tackling? :)

    2) Should designers learn how to play flute?

    1 point
    • Jean-Marc Denis, almost 4 years ago (edited almost 4 years ago )

      1- There are a lot, nothing specific. Usual designers ones.

      2- They should, while prototyping though.

      1 point
  • Aldo Garcia, almost 4 years ago

    Hey jean, I'm From latin america, but want to work at Google, I'm a UI Designer, can you give me any advice? what type of work can get my a job at google? an if you think my (being from another country) can get a job at Google and Move to the US.

    1 point
  • Antoine PluAntoine Plu, almost 4 years ago (edited almost 4 years ago )

    Hey Jean-Marc

    Thanks for this AMA, few questions:

    1. Why did you become designer?
    2. How was your transition between France and SF?
    3. Do you regret some professional choices?
    4. Have you planned to work on other projects like sketchdesign.io?
    5. Do you do some curation to keep different knowledge? How do you manage it?
    1 point
    • Jean-Marc Denis, almost 4 years ago (edited almost 4 years ago )
      1. Curiosity and passion. One led to the other. It’s like video games… You know that moment when you stop and realize you spent hours playing. I spent so much time having fun designing that it was obvious I wanted to spend my days doing it.
      2. My transition was very bizarre because it was a huge shift. Working with 3 persons, from home near my family and friends to a new country, speaking English all day long, working with a big team, away from family and friends. I am not going to lie, it takes time to adapt but in the end, I really enjoy my new life here. I have been able to make new friends and for designers, the silicon valley is a huge huge opportunity. Even more when you compare to France. Regarding food (yes it matters) SF has a lot of great restaurants, and you can find pretty much everything you could find in France, cheese, bread, wine even foie gras! (no it’s not cliché)
      3. I don’t, I am happy where I am, and it’s all because of my previous choices.
      4. Yes, the more I design for VR, the more I think it would be great to have a solid intro to it. It takes a lot for time though so nothing in certain.
      5. I stay connected a lot with the design community as I used to be. At the same time, I try to get into VR ones. It’s not as developed yet, but it’s the best way to share knowledge and grow.
      1 point
  • Jim NielsenJim Nielsen, almost 4 years ago
    1. You're at home and plan on ordering in for the night, what do you order?
    2. Do you have tickets to Star Wars VII yet?
    3. I come to DN when I'm trying to procrastinate. Are you procrastinating right now?

    Love your work, Sparrow the most.

    1 point
    • Jean-Marc Denis, almost 4 years ago
      1. I feel like I should order Indian food.
      2. Yes, thanks to Christophe Tauziet.
      3. I am not as of right now, but I concede that I browse imgur too much.
      1 point
  • Brian BimschlegerBrian Bimschleger, almost 4 years ago

    This is super interesting. I've been a huge fan of Sparrow and Inbox, and just recently demoed Cardboard. Talk about an incredible opportunity. Looking forward to following the AMA.

    0 points
  • Patrick SmithPatrick Smith, almost 4 years ago

    How would you separate the scope of Sparrow and Inbox? What were the biggest differences in your experience in creating Inbox compared to that of Sparrow?

    0 points
    • Jean-Marc DenisJean-Marc Denis, almost 4 years ago (edited almost 4 years ago )

      Both proposed different approach to make it easier to deal with your daily load of emails.

      In one hand, Sparrow approach was to remove a lot of visual clutter, create a blazing fast and lightweight mail engine. We wanted a seamless experience whichever email provider you were using.

      On the other hand, Inbox provides a set of tools for users inboxes to be an organized place to get things done and get back to what matters. With features like reminders, bundles, snooze and pin, we wanted to remove boring tasks like email triaging.

      1 point
  • Sagi ShrieberSagi Shrieber, almost 4 years ago (edited almost 4 years ago )

    Hey Jean, Thanks a lot for doing this AMA. Loved Sparrow. My question is actually around Inbox. I tried inbox, and had to go back to using Gmail since Inbox lacked some basic functionality that I was used to in Gmail. I'm talking about really basic stuff like like RTL support, and dragging email into the fields.I don't remember all of the stuff that bothered me, it was about 5 months ago that I switched back to Gmail, but let's take the RTL and email dragging as examples. So I was wondering: why didn't Inbox support basic functionality issues like there is in Gmail from the get go? I never doubted that there was great product reasoning behind this, but was always curious about it since this was technology that already existed in Google Gmail. Would love to hear your input on this.

    And again - thanks a lot for this AMA and keep rocking!

    0 points
    • Jean-Marc DenisJean-Marc Denis, almost 4 years ago (edited almost 4 years ago )

      Inbox was built from scratch. The first versions are rarely fully featured and it's a lot of work to built them the correct way from an user experience and engineering way. Inbox/Gmail team is working really hard to bring you all the good stuff!

      0 points
  • Cody IddingsCody Iddings, almost 4 years ago

    What is your workflow for an iOS app, such as Inbox? (What tools do you use, how do you communicate ideas, how do you deliver files, what articles have you referenced, etc)

    0 points
    • Jean-Marc DenisJean-Marc Denis, almost 4 years ago

      As we designed Inbox, we really did put efforts into making the product consistent across platforms since we launched on iOS, Android and web, at the same time.

      The workflow is close to any other product design teams. Understand, identify, build and iterate. I personally use Sketch but we were pretty open to the tools you wanted to use. Motion designers worked with AE and our prototyper worked on XCode.

      0 points
  • Chimdindu Aneke, almost 4 years ago

    Where does your creativity/inspiration to design come from?

    0 points
    • Jean-Marc Denis, almost 4 years ago (edited almost 4 years ago )

      I get mainly inspired a lot by passionate people, but not exclusively designers. It can be anything from a great color palette to beautiful shapes or a great light setup.

      0 points
  • Stefan Rauch, almost 4 years ago

    How have you tackled the challenge of bringing what has up until this point been entirely flat content (since the time of gutenberg) into an environment where spatial and temporal relationships between content give additional context and meaning, without just showing flat planes of content in a 3d space?

    0 points
    • Jean-Marc DenisJean-Marc Denis, almost 4 years ago (edited almost 4 years ago )

      That is a great question! When you start designing for VR you have a lot of opinions about how things should be and even more about how they should not be. Like in every new medium in history, the first step needs to be predictable, understandable and familiar for the user. Introducing a new medium is scary and the transition is very important. One example I can provide is the iPhone and the skeuomorphic design. It was a questionable direction for a lot of people but, a direction that was making a lot of sense for users. The user interface elements which had a predictable behavior was a big part of the success. As people get more familiar with the medium, things will evolve organically.

      0 points
  • Moaaz SidatMoaaz Sidat, almost 4 years ago (edited almost 4 years ago )

    Hi Jean-Marc,

    Thanks for taking out the time to answer questions today! A few questions:

    • What direction would you have liked to take Sparrow in, had it not been acquired?
    • What do you think is the most important reason why some people still prefer native clients like Sparrow, over a web-based client like Inbox (I love both, use both)?
    • What are some of the challenges that you foresee with regards to the current tooling for designing for VR?
    0 points
    • Jean-Marc Denis, almost 4 years ago (edited almost 4 years ago )
      • We were really interested in a person based, group chat approach.
      • Most of the users are ok using web based clients. In that regard, people that prefer native Mac OS client are a minority (which I am part of). People feel like native is faster and more reliable. It also creates a more focused experience.
      • That is a topic I am deeply interested in. Building bridges from 2D to 3D will be a big challenge with great opportunities.
      1 point
  • Chimdindu Aneke, almost 4 years ago

    If you have one minute to advice an upcoming designer, what will that be?

    0 points
  • Chimdindu Aneke, almost 4 years ago

    Have you ever written a production code before? If yes, Is worth a designer's time to be super fluent in coding?

    0 points
    • Jean-Marc Denis, almost 4 years ago

      I haven't. Even Though it would be a massive plus, I don't think that "being super fluent in coding" is a necessity. Being able to have a dialogue with engineers to make sure we understand each other and avoid friction is.

      0 points
  • Alexander KäßnerAlexander Käßner, almost 4 years ago

    Hey Marc, just a simple question: how do you work at Google? It's such a huge company with so many employees, teams and products and I always wondered how it feels to work there. How do you manage these big teams? Do you have some special tactics? Would be nice to hear some insights about the daily work days as a Designer at Google. ;)

    Greets from Germany.

    0 points
    • Jean-Marc DenisJean-Marc Denis, almost 4 years ago

      Thanks for asking! Yes Google is a big company and teams size is very variable from one project to another. You meet a lot of people from different teams because our products and experiences have to be consistent. If you are curious, everyone is always happy to meet and talk with you so you can learn about what they are working on.

      There is no "tactics" that I am aware of, just be curious, there is so much to learn and get inspired by in all big companies.

      1 point
  • Tobia Crivellari, almost 4 years ago

    Hi, my name is Tobia.

    I wold like to know more about your practical process when you approach a design problem or task.

    I love hear real stories and real issues that arise while approaching a design (UI/UX) issue. I think that this helps to learn from great designer like you Jean. And a personal experience is always worth to hear.

    Thanks.

    Best, Tobia.

    0 points