How design can turn a house into a home – Kate Freebairn


BY Sam Davies


21 October 2020

Reading Time: 11 minutes

In this podcast:
UX Design • Culture • Leadership • Pausefest

It was an absolute pleasure to meet and chat with Kate earlier this year at Pausefest. Kate has followed her curiosity and passion and found herself the Director of Design at Nest, which is now a Google company. She studied industrial design here in Australia and had dreams of designing more human connections with computers. She started her career at Emu Design in Brisbane at a time when there were only a handful of serious product agencies here in Aus. Her career has taken her to Finland working with Nokia and to the heart of Silicon Valley with Twitter and Amazon. We spoke about some of the differences in culture across these companies and how they let their employees flourish at work.

“…be purposeful with everything we touch, and therefore make it better.”

I am really interested in the bridge between industrial design and interface design. I think back to 2000 in my final year of high school, in my design class we worked on designing mobile phones, looking at new form factors (mine looked like a slightly slimmer 5210 🙂 I can’t help but wish we had focussed on the interface design at that point in time. An industrial design ethos lends itself very well to UX/UI and Kate and I discuss these parallels and how they have helped shape her career across both hardware and software design.

Kate talks about the concept of ambient computing and how she imagines a world where we seamlessly glide between products and interfaces with little friction. Her experience at Amazon and Nest has given her some unique insights into this world and it was great to hear about how she sees the future of technology in the home!

If you would like to find Kate you can on LinkedIn or Twitter and also check out Google Nest


Kate Freebain - Digital Noir

Transcript of Sam Davies in conversation with Kate Freebairn

(1:00) Talking around experience design and products, an intersection of those two things, and how she sees the future of computing and how software and hardware integrate with our lives. I was also really interested to hear about how some of the different corporate cultures that she’s worked in and how they allow their staff to flourish. Kicking off our second season at Humans Aren’t Robots, I thoroughly enjoyed it and I hope you will too, let’s jump in with Kate Freebairn.

(2.24) How a design can turn a house into a home – when designing technology for the home, it’s really the personal side, speaking for an industrial design team we design products that look beautiful in your home and also blend into your home. And then from a user experience point of view, how do we make that easy and also be there when a customer needs us, but get out of the way so a customer can get on to their life. That is part of what makes a home, it’s the people in the home, it’s not the technology taking over or a LED beeping at you, it’s you and family in your own space.

(3:30) One of my philosophies is if I’m going to touch something, whether that something is little in our app, let’s make it better because we touched it. I think that philosophy also applies to products, so at Google we are being purposeful with everything we touch and therefore make it better.

(4:20) Career trajectory – It’s nice to stop and reflect on these things. I think a lot of it is definitely following my curiosity and my passion. I studied industrial design and I got excited about toy design and looking at companies in America and Europe really inspired me. By the end of industrial design, I felt I would love to be part of designing computers. There’s so much opportunity to design something different there that’s more human. After university, I worked for a small industrial design agency in Brisbane for 5 years. Then I moved to a company that was more focused on experience design, that was my transition of doing a lot of industrial design to finding this bridge between hardware and software and being really fascinated by it.

(5:34) What kind of products were you working on? One example was a security camera back in 2003 and they just wanted me to design the housing to go around the camera. As industrial designers we are trained to understand the whole human experience, so I need the whole picture so that I can design something useful.

(6:07) Another one I had was in a consulting company, and we had a project with Cochlear, one of Australia’s top innovators. They were developing a remote control to help people set the modes for their hearing aids. I was able to look at it from both sides, industrial designer and user experience designer.

(7:24) As an industrial designer with that mindset, how does that help you become a UX designer working with software? In industrial design they teach us to look at the whole cycle, how are people experiencing products in the built environment , so I think ask the questions, what is the purpose. As a designer, truly believing in the problem you’re solving.

(8:43) Traditional graphic design is probably less focused on testing and how the end result is actually going to interact with people, whereas industrial design is much more about how things actually have to exist in the real world and I think that’s really useful as a user experience designer and interface designer.

(9:03) So then after that second job? Nokia was one of my clients, and there was a really interesting project. We were looking at mobile phones and mobile phone technology 5 years and 10 years on, so it was more one of these forecasting projects that are less common today. But it was really fun, it was back in 2005 maps weren’t big on phones, it was something we were working on with Nokia. After that project, Nokia contacted me on Facebook looking for a designer who has hardware experience and software experience. I went over to Finland a couple of times to interview and then they offered me a job, a few months later I moved over to Helsinki in 2008.

(10:48) And what was that pivot like for you? It was really bizarre because I was on the other side of the world and it felt like I was at university, to begin with, but getting paid. Culturally the Fins are completely different. I loved and thrived in that environment because being a consultant, I could get about the way I knew how to do work, hunt down people, collaborate, do work together. So I didn’t have much structure, looking back I can see how that helped me. In terms of feedback, if you hear nothing you’re doing well.

(12:42) In your experience, in terms of culture and working with some different companies, like Nokia, is that something that has constantly got to be reimagined, or it’s ingrained in the DNA?

(13:01) Back then it felt really ingrained in the DNA. Nokia had such an interesting history, they were like a bit of a phoenix bird of a company, 60 years old and it had become a big company and then gone back to the ashes, then reformed and the mobile phone division being enormous took over.

(14:22) What kind of stuff were you working on from a design perspective? I was part of a new team they’d formed, we were developing a completely new OS and it was a touch based OS. The touch phone, Iphone happened to come out with it first and disrupted the market. I had never built an operating system, it was the operating system and then all of the apps, and then working really closely with the industrial designing team. The product we worked on was the Nokia N9. The big lesson there for me was beautiful design in isolation doesn’t mean good business.

(16:54) Four years in we shipped the N9 and then a few months later Nokia partnered with Microsoft. We did such a mind shift and the Microsoft software was going to be put on our hardware. I had this really interesting role where I would work with our hardware team to define the hardware portfolio for like the next 3 years, but then also work with Microsoft and that’s where the hardware and the software came together. That was the work I did towards the end of my time in Nokia.

(20:57) I loved my time in Finland, there’s a lot of culture and design everywhere. Coming from Queensland it was a big change, for example the winters.

(21:38) People from Scandinavia have a strong sense of identity. We have the Australian identity but it’s quite different from what they have. The winters were dark, so that was a huge change for me and to begin with it was such a novelty. To have those seasons, Queensland doesn’t really have such distinctive seasons. Just such a different culture to Australia.

(23:29) How do you see us going forward continuing to embrace technology but also focusing on the positives rather than the negatives? You start to look at this phone addiction and think how did this happen? And there’s this craving to not have it. I think the positives is that the internet opened up the world to connect. Part of that is giving people some control back. Particularly with our display producers we need to think about what research can we do and how can we get ahead on these products when we look 10 years ahead? How do we get ahead of that in a positive way? These are questions we are asking ourselves, because we love what we are doing, but we do need to have some awareness that the things we are creating we might not know about.

(25:38) Ten years ago when working on the Nokia product, were you thinking about how people were going to use it, about gamifying the operating system and adding in some of those hooks? No, we were more thinking about how to make apps useful and that people could understand, because apps stores were new back then and we wanted to help people navigate apps. How to make the apps look consistent so when people come to them they know how to use them, versus every app you dip into is a new thing.

(27:43) After Nokia what was the gap then to? I had worked on mobile phones for four and a half years and I loved it, but I didn’t want to become the mobile phone expert, cause you could in this world just keep designing mobile phones. Amazon offered me a job and I moved to San Francisco with the industrial design team. The job was to run across the hardware software between UX and industrial design. Amazon is more of a hierarchical company and the design language, like the visual language, was different across products and we wanted to have a cohesive portfolio. The job I was hired for was to run across all of the different projects and look at it from a frameworks and a design portfolio point of view.

(30:21) Alexa was a game changer. I remember the day it launched, it was Amazon’s style, pretty humble trying to reach most people, and it just took off. Voice assistants had been tried before, but they just hadn’t landed, and it was this amazing sweet spot.

(31:32) You spoke about ambient computing, tell me what you see as ambient computing? I think the simple premise of what it is, is products working together. At the moment you go from your phone to your computer and they might work together a little bit, and then you have a voice assistant in your home and they’re all sort of separate experiences. What if everything would work together and it didn’t really matter what screen you were looking at? It also has that intelligence to start doing stuff on your behalf, like everyday routine things you do. It could just start going on without you having to manage one system versus another system.

(33:29) How do you define design? It’s being really intentional about designing and creating experiences that benefit people. Human centered design has a methodology and a process, depending on what you are designing, sustainability can be a really cool function. It’s that responsibility of when making something where does it end up, who does it end up with, part of design is that consciousness and awareness of what we are creating and why.

(35:11) Design is at the forefront a lot about what business is doing now and now is everything. I have seen more companies soak up design inhouse. There is so much value in design and you can see it across a lot of businesses.

(37:25) After Amazon I went to Twitter for two years, that’s the first time I haven’t worked on hardware and it was a bit of a different pivot for me. I led a chunk of the consumer design team at Twitter.

(38:44) How have you found leading? I began leading officially when I was at Nokia and I resisted it. It wasn’t until I arrived at Amazon that I realised that trust and getting to know each other and team leadership and I really turned a page on what leadership was and how I dedicated my time.

(39:35) Was there any mentors or books or things that you used at that point that you turned? A couple of the managers that I had through my career. I learnt how they empowered me, very selflessly, they would be helping me grow and they empowered other people around them. I was inspired by that and it helped me with my philosophy of leading from behind and setting people up. I love the concept of positive tension, that you can have completely different ideas, but your intention of designing something successful is you’re both on the same page, but you can have healthy debates.

(41:37) Twitter is the microphone for the world and there was an amazing design culture, thoughtfully done. But it was about 3 to 6 months into Twitter I missed hardware terribly. I loved my job but I was a little bit burnt out.

(44:34)The pivot then was to get back into hardware? Yeah, I got a phone call from Nest and it made me think how far I’d come in my career. The recruiter spoke to me all about the great things about the company and how the design is at the core of Nest. The design team was strong and they needed a strong leader.

(45:39) You came in as a designer leader? Yeah, I came in and I was leading. Nest was a little bit smaller than we are today, before Nest was fully rolled into Google. We had our own brand, our own CEO, we were on a different campus. It was also one of the smaller companies I had worked for and that’s what I was looking for. There was more autonomy and almost this feeling of family.

(46:57) It’s now been fully rolled into Google? When I joined, I led the entire design team so the UX team, the industrial design, research, all the disciplines that fit in that . We were a small enough company without the portfolio that as a team we could look across everything that was going on.

(47:30) Where do you see Nest and ambient computing going in the next few years? When you look at ambient computing, a lot of the initial work is infrastructure because we’re talking about things working together. It’s a lot of fixing things people expect to work anyway because there’s a certain expectation that things just work together, but they might not necessarily. A fair bit of infrastructure work ahead of us for the next few years and then we can start building experiences on top of that. Breaking down barriers of moving from one product to another or one experience to another that’s one of the areas to work on to make it smooth.

(48:36) Future proofing as well ? Yes, how do we make our products and services more accessible? People need to be able to access our products and afford them.

(49:33) Having the ability to control more elements of our life by technology should we be embracing the positive side of things? Completely, somehow the negatives get us distracted, but there’s so many positives. Like you’re saving energy, because your heating’s off but a couple of hours before you get to the house you can heat it up so you’re comfortable when you get there.

(50:03) We’re all, as humans, just becoming more interested in tracking and measuring everything in our lives, fitness tracking and food tracking and energy’s a great one. In Australia we all should be using solar energy. If we work out how much we generate and with tracking it really shows you where things could be better as well.

(51:04) It’s that application that makes it meaningful to you. I can see the next stage of making data helpful to people. That data you’ve been given isn’t just data, you can apply it to your life and you can actually feel that was useful and that empowered me somehow.

(51:29) Are you excited about the future after working in tech for your career? I am really excited, I think we’re just beginning. It’s something that gets me ridiculously excited about Google, cause it’s about our leadership and also where we’re at. We’ve been given the chance to define things for the first time and I look at my industrial design brain, also my experience, and there’s very few companies at the moment that are giving us a clean slate to go and decide what to do. It comes with a lot of consequences like we have to be really responsible, but at the same time I think this is amazing.

(52:27) If people want to find out more about you and also Nest where can they look? There’s LinkedIn, my name’s Kate Freebairn, Twitter as well so I’m @kickass on Twitter so that’s an easy one.

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Sam Davies

Sam has been running a Digital Agency in some form or another for almost a decade. He loves the internet and the positive changes it has brought to the world but still loves time away from the glowing cubes. Surf, Fish, Drink, Cook, Laugh….Drink! You can follow him on Instagram @samdaviesdn and on Snapchat @digitalnoir