Édouard Wautier

Édouard Wautier — Alan

Product Designer based in Paris, after successfully launching 10 IoT products at Withings, Édouard is now health a great experience at Alan.

What led you into design?

My father is a maker in many ways, most of the furniture I grew up with was his work. Early on, he taught me to use wood, metal, the process to go from an idea to a working realisation, thinking with my hands and my brain at the same time. Younger, I also had an uncanny interest in the ugly grey boxes that were computers at the time.

Later on, I decided to study applied art, with no clear career plan. A lot of drawing at first, then a mix of Graphic/Furniture Design, then Industrial Design. Somewhere along that path, my geek past kicked in, I met a few great teachers that were ahead of the wave of interaction. I learned a bit of coding and started designing fully digital “objects” (apps, experiences) for my school projects.

I couldn’t figure out if it was an actual discipline or what would be the associated job title. At the time, Web design was slowly evolving into Interaction Design, which was mostly a fancy word for “building websites that moves a lot in flash”.

Out of school, I was lucky enough to find a job in one of the few companies that seemed to need skills like the ones I had developed. The iPhone came out, kick-starting the revolution of design in the tech industry. The web became a more mature platform capable of offering great and rich experiences.

I learned what traditional applied art schools didn’t teach me about the job by doing it and reading a lot!

What does a typical day look like?

I wake up around 7:50, drop kids to school at 8:20 (I have a young 9 months old boy and a 3.5 years old daughter). If I work from home (Which I do 2 days a week), I will go running and start working at about 9:30.

Alan — where I work — has pretty solid no meeting policy. It works because we communicate a lot in writing (using Git Issues for long conversations and Slack for shorter ones). That means I spend a significant amount of time in a day either reading or writing.

Thanks to that, I get to organise my day as I please, with almost no live meetings interrupting my day. I like to have about 90 minutes chunks of time where I focus on a topic before moving to a new one.

We also work in an environment that favors ownership and designers with a large set of skills. Designers are embedded in small product teams charged with tackling a high-level problem; They get to work on the full process, from ideation to delivering the final product.

In that sense, I don’t really have a typical day; Someday I will work on leading a Design Sprint, the other on a particular flow, the following on UI, User Research or Usability Testing.

As Alan is growing pretty fast, I spend a large part of my time on hiring and working on the methods, processes, and organisation of the company.

Depending on the day, I’ll have lunch with candidates, other designers, and teammates, or guests (We have great people coming over frequently at lunch to share interesting experiences).

I’ll stop working between 6 and 6:45PM, get the kids if my spouse did not, cook dinner and enjoy the evening!

What’s your workstation setup?

Where do you go to get inspired?

Getting inspired is a very mysterious process!

In my case, it seems to require two things: Feeding the brain with as many exotic materials as possible, then giving it a processing time to make uncanny connections.

I do “feeding” as most people do. I listen to podcasts (99% Invisible, The Theory of Everything, Reply All, Sound Exploder, The Kitchen Sisters present, High Resolution…), I read a lot online (on medium, blogs of great companies, like recently Shape Up from Jason Fry at Basecamp), playing games (it is a constant source of inspiration when it comes to experience, interaction and simplicity), watch movies… I also have kids that are full of surprises.

I do “emergeance” by running, 2 to 3 times a week. It’s a great moment where I get to let my mind wander, like in a very very long shower or a two-hour drive.

While wandering, I often stumble upon solutions to problems I have, or suddenly realise a problem I had failed to identify or identify a new idea. It seems to be a background process that requires acquiring letting time to the brain to analyse and make connections.

What product have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?

I recently bought an Oculus Quest (the latest headset from Facebook-owned Oculus). I have been curious about VR for a while, had tried many headsets over the years and never been convinced of experience until this one.

At pure interaction level, I have been amazed by how simple it is to use. It is a full-body interaction system, meaning the user can move around, body and head, the system will track the movement and replicate it in VR. Hands are tracked as well and visible in VR.

The introduction scene is extremely well built, explain the basis of interaction from zero to autonomous so well that even my 70 years old dad had it working without my help. They also solved the problem of the user moving around in a room with walls in a very elegant, simple and enjoyable way. As a result, the player can play in a very small space (2m square is enough).

They also nailed the experience around the device itself; It connects well to your smartphone. Users can purchase items directly from an app, the games are automatically downloaded to the headset.

But I was truly amazed by the way they solved the biggest blockers in the experience of VR by making radical technical choices. They built a stand-alone headset on battery; As a result, computing power is very limited, but there are no wires. They also clearly put a lot of engineering effort into a full-body tracking that does not require installing anything in the room (the tracking is made by cameras on the headset directly).

I believe they made those constraining technical choices because they realised that raw processing power and graphics quality was not key to a great experience. The key was a super easy setup, portability, and full-body interaction.

The product is far from perfect, much like the first iPhone was not perfect, but it is a real glimpse at what a full working experience.

What pieces of work are you most proud of?

At Withings, I loved working on small pieces of micro-interactions, like the calibration process for a Withings watch.

The handles of the watch are controlled by small motors that could lose their calibration. Engineering was spending resources trying to make an image recognition software to recognise the handles and their positions. It was very hard because watches came in lots of different colors, the glass above the handles added reflections, light conditions were not always perfect…

The technical hurdle became a fun feature that users loved to play with.

I also loved working on Hardware interactions and very low-quality screens. It required going back to design fonts at pixel level and building the UI around the qualities of each screen. I’ve detailed that process in those articles:

One of my favorite works was the Withings Thermo. I was involved at the earliest stage as the product manager (on top of my design role), which gave me a key position to guide hardware choices with design at a moment were a lot of options are available. The process of going through different shapes, forms and hardware interactions, testing screening systems, making interactive mockups, finally boiling it down into a final proposition was super interesting.
And I get to use the device for my kids on a regular basis!

Finally, I love the work I’m now doing at Alan. It is much harder to showcase, as it is never about a particular screen or flow. It’s about re-thinking how an entire industry (insurance and health) work and build a team up to the ambition of the task.

What design challenges do you face at your company?

Right now, Alan is scaling up fast. Less than a year ago, I was the only designer in the team, working on everything design, including branding, communication…

We are now 4 product designers, still hiring and the team needs to grow on to specialties like User Research, Brand Design, UX Writing or Creative Coding.

On top of hiring, the challenges I face in the company now are about making sure the product organisation grows with the company. It means working on processes and methods to maintain consistency and efficiency while preserving ownership and freedom and keeping design at a central place in the product and the company’s strategy.

What music do you listen to whilst designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

Own your craft: Ambition is great, make sure you put it in the right place!

Be ambitious with the products you build and the experience you make, not with your career path. I meet so many young designers that have been designing for 2 to 3 years who want to “be a leader” or “manage people”. You have all the time in the world to make a career; Start with building real skills on the basis of your work or you will quickly meet a glass wall.

Find mentors: Try to work with designers you respect for their work. Find mentors online, try to meet them. Read books. Good mentors will help you gain years in your personal development!

Have no ego, use collective intelligence: It is easy to believe that your job is to have ideas and create a vision. Your job is to harvest the best ideas around. If someone has a better idea than you do, embrace it, don’t be proud.

Everything is your job, challenge everyone, always understand why: You are smart, you can understand the logic behind anything. If someone is not able to explain an idea in a way that makes sense to you, it’s probably because it’s not solid.

Focus on impact, not the pleasure of building things: A lot of young product designers are so eager to “build stuff” that they forget to check that what they build is actually needed. Start small, validate your assumption, make sure that you are doing the minimal amount of work to validate your hypothesis.

Find a company that has traction: Nothing replaces having actual users and the visibility that goes with a successful company. Public recognition is the one thing that will give you credibility.

Anything you want to promote or plug?

The podcasts I mentioned are all worth listening to!

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