Google AI’s Sr. Product Designer, Tony Aubé, on the Significance of Visuals in UX Portfolios

Following his fantastic talk at AMUSE, we sat down with Google AI’s Senior Product Designer, Tony Aubé, to discuss portfolio and career tips, the impact of AI on the work of designers, his experience designing for children at Osmo, and networking hacks for introverts.

If you’ve ever read a UX portfolio guide, you might find Tony Aube’s portfolio tips a bit unorthodox at first. Still, he makes strong points that you should take into consideration if you are struggling to land a job or find clients.

Tony Aube, Google AI's Product Designer

Hi Tony! Thank you so much for coming onto our blog! Can you share how your career began?

At the age of 12, I had already figured out my passion. When my teachers asked what I wanted to do in the future, I’d reply “I want to draw on the computer,” as I didn’t have a better word for it at the time. Later, in high school, my dream was to get into game design. Following my counselor’s advice, I went on to study Graphic Design at Cégep de Sainte-Foy in Quebec, for three years.

In the beginning, I was terrible at it. My teacher even pulled me and a few of my classmates over, urging us to improve if we wanted to make a career in graphic design. This lit a fire under me, and I started working much harder. Within a year, I did all the Photoshop tutorials I could find, building a solid technical base for my design skills. After all, I finished my studies with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design and a master’s in interaction design.

In 2013, I got selected for a student design competition at the CHI conference in Paris. Meeting designers from Apple, Facebook, and Google at the conference made me realize that I could also work at one of these companies. So, I moved to Silicon Valley, to begin my career at Osmo. I found it to be a promising product with two extremely smart founders.

During that time, I kept applying for design jobs at Google, without any success. In 2019, when Osmo got acquired, I reached out to one of my ex-workmates who was now working at Google. He gave me a recommendation, and the next day a recruiter from Google called me. This made me realize how important recommendations are to cut through the noise, especially at a big company like Google.

At what point did UX come into the picture?

During my masters, I have learned about concepts like UX design and user research. We had classes where we conducted user research, studies, interviews, and user testing. I enjoyed these because they made things more grounded and objective compared to graphic design. It was also good preparation for my first job, at Osmo, where I designed completely new types of interactions in AR, so user testing was crucial for validation.

Did you have anyone to mentor you outside of academia? Do you think it is important to seek mentors as a junior?

Yes, I would say so. Before moving to the US, I worked for a web design agency in Canada. There I was on my own and it was tough to manage the entire design process, talk with clients, ascertain the design solution, and so on. I wouldn’t recommend anyone fresh out of school to go into a startup as the only designer. Though it proved to be very helpful in the end, at the time it was very, very hard.

With Osmo, I got lucky since the team was amazing. I found the right set of people to mentor me and I learned a lot. Initially, I was working with one of the co-founders, Jerome Schoeller, with whom our approach was very complimentary. 

Jerome developed his design skills on his own, which allowed him a more intuitive perspective. On the other hand, I had a more formal approach, having eight years of design school and all the books behind me. This allowed us to look at the same problem with different lenses.

At Osmo, you designed for children. How does the design process differ when you are designing for children vs. adults?

There are many differences. Take buttons for example. Children don’t have the same hand-eye coordination as adults, their input is less precise. Therefore, you will need much bigger buttons. Depending on the age-group, they might not even read yet, so you must create a UI that doesn’t rely on text.

“Testing with children is brutal because they are extremely honest with their feedback.”

Testing with children is brutal because they are extremely honest with their feedback. We had cases when kids got bored with the app that we were testing and clicked the home button, heading to play Minecraft instead. Adults, on the other hand, are always too polite and tend to hide what they really think.

On the other hand, kids can get intimidated while testing because they feel like they have to impress their parents if they are in the room. You need to be very friendly to make them comfortable otherwise they might freeze up.

When designing for kids, some people create cartoonish UI, which I think is disrespectful to kids. Look at iPhones and iPads: these are refined interfaces designed for adults, yet kids use them without a problem. You don’t need to dumb down the design with cartoonish UI elements.

Now, you are working with Google, one of the most recognizable brands out there. What do you think are the pros and cons of working for a smaller company vs. a bigger company?

I would recommend starting at a bigger company. It is easier to get started when you have a set brand and design system to fall back on. Also, at these companies, you’ll find experienced people to give you feedback and guidance.

At the same time, I feel like people who spend their careers at big companies with limitless budgets can lose perspective of the real world. In startups, constraints inspire creativity and resourcefulness. You learn to be scrappy, to make progress with minimal resources and you become a design generalist.

At Osmo, I was the only designer for a while, so I was working on the app, the website, and eCommerce. I learned new things such as marketing, PR, how to run a business, and even photography, as hiring a photographer every time would have been way too expensive.

Now, I bring all these skills to Google, allowing me to have a strong and informed opinion on matters that most UI designers never touch on.

So, you are an advocate of being a jack of all trades?

It depends on where you want to work. If your plan is to work for startups, you must become a generalist because you will be delegated various tasks anyway. At a bigger company, you can be more specialized. For example, at Google, you can meet someone who spent a year designing a single button. (But billions of people will use that button, across thousands of devices.)

I enjoy being a generalist because I don’t like working on the same thing for more than six months. It’s refreshing for me to one day work on an app, the next day on a logo, and then an advertising campaign.

Banner showing a screen with an open portfolio

As someone with great insight, what do you think about the potential impact of AI on UX?

People are underestimating how AI will change things. They’re skeptical about computers ever replacing them because they are creative. But with time, AI will prove that computers can be just as creative as humans.

Already, there is AI that can replicate Mozart so well, that even experts fail to distinguish between real and replicated pieces. The same goes for paintings and digital art.

AI-powered tools will be incredibly useful for designers. When I started out in school, it took 30 minutes to remove the background of an image in Photoshop. My teacher used to say that we had it easy because in his days it would’ve taken hours. Today, with tools like Remove.bg, we can do it in a few seconds, without any technical skills. AI is slowly taking work away from designers, but it is also speeding up the creative process.

“With time, AI will prove that computers can be just as creative as humans.”

Designers worry these new tools will make them irrelevant. But really, who wants to spend two hours removing a background? I’d rather spend my time on something else, so I’m happy with these new tools.

I think designers should embrace these developments instead of complaining. Those who complain will be left behind. By embracing these new tools, you will become faster, more efficient, and you’ll have more time to work on harder problems.

Which skills should a junior designer perfect?

First, technical skills; learn how to translate whatever you have in your mind onto the screen. This is the foundation needed to become a good UI, UX, or product designer. 

Once you have that down, you can work on your taste for good design. You can do that by examining how you interact with a new product. When you start using a new product, you should ask yourself: “Is it good, is it bad? If so, why? How would I design it differently?” Having that internal discussion helps to refine your taste. You will develop strong opinions about what is good design, and that is an important skill.

Engineers are good at building the product, but they are usually not very opinionated about solutions. It’s your job as a designer to be able to make these calls. Of course, user testing helps but sometimes you must rely on your own judgment.

What do you think are the most important ingredients of a good UX portfolio? What would you look for?

I believe UX portfolios have too much text and explanation about the design process, while they don’t have enough visuals. The truth is — and I have learned this the hard way — recruiters respond a lot more to visuals than to text.

When I had to hire other designers at Osmo, sometimes I had only an hour to review around 50 portfolios. It was impossible to spend more than 2-3 minutes reviewing a single portfolio.

What I usually do when reviewing portfolios is a quick scroll-through a page, searching for visual cues proving that the person has a good understanding of design. Things like proper color, good spacing, typography, layout, and navigation.

Visual design isn’t rocket science. It is the easy part. If you can’t figure out something as simple as proper drop shadows, I doubt you will do a good job on a multimillion-dollar purchase flow redesign. So, my recommendation for junior designers is to focus on building a strong visual portfolio first.

“My recommendation for graduate designers is to focus on building a strong visual portfolio first.”

I had a UX designer friend who was having a hard time finding a job. At some point, she started the Daily UI Challenge. At first, I mocked her, saying that this is art, not design. But after 14 days of sharing her daily UIs, so many recruiters reached out to her that she had to stop with the challenge to focus on interviews. It blew my mind!

It’s necessary to explain your process in a few sentences; explaining the goal, the problem, and the solution. But be mindful: designing a portfolio is like designing a product. You have to think about the user. In this case, the user is a busy recruiter who doesn’t have time to read a novel.

Banner showing a screen with an open portfolio

You put yourself out there with your website, speaking at conferences, blogging, etc. Do you find this to be an important part of your professional life?

It’s important to build an online presence if you want to progress in your career. Also, creating content is one of the best networking techniques, especially for introverts like myself. I figured if I share my thoughts and work on Medium, YouTube, and speak at conferences, like-minded people will come to me. This scales your networking game to a whole new level: People who think alike will want to associate with you and come to you naturally.

“Creating content is one of the best networking techniques, especially for introverts…”

What final advice would you give to juniors just starting out in the field?

Don’t be afraid to work hard early on! When you’re young, you can afford to spend hundreds of hours on Photoshop tutorials or other similar projects. As you get older, you won’t have the same time and energy. You will have a lot more responsibilities and other things that tie you down. So, make sure that you get a head start very early on. The effort you spend building your skills will compound over time, exponentially improving your career down the line.

If you want to learn more about Tony, you can follow and message him on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. You can also read his design and career-related articles on Medium and watch his videos on YouTube.

Check out some of our other interviews with UX and product design professionals for even more career and portfolio inspiration!

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Also, UXfolio can helps you in the copywriting part with great examples and guiding questions. And you can even ask for detailed reviews on your case studies before applying for your next job.

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UX career expert & creative @UXfolio. I've been participating in and writing about UX design for 4 years. In my free time, I read, listen to opera, and work out.

Hit me up at akos@blog.uxfol.io

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A typical mistake I see in UX portfolios is lack of content explaining their contribution to the effort, the images are only the final product and not the process to get there.

UX is very much about strategy and if the person is not showing how they got from A to B, they appear to be another UI trying to move into a UX role.

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