Hector Ouilhet: Making Technology Human

In teaching computers how to communicate with people, Hector Ouilhet, Google’s head of design for Search sees in the technology the same ‘painful yet interesting’ learning phases that a young person goes through when becoming an adult. To train computers in the art of questions, Ouilhet looks to the questing period of his own youth and to his four-year-old daughter for models of both simple and complicated questions that he wants computers of the future to understand.

Hector Ouilhet, Google’s head of design for Search and Assistant, is part of a rare breed in the tech sector. He appreciates the sartorial grandeur of a fine necktie and regularly wears one to the office. Today, he’s chosen a tangerine-colored Hermès cravat crawling with blue alligators and parrots that perfectly matches the pantone of the flower pinned to his left lapel. “Hermès ties are so intricate and interesting, and they usually help me strike up a conversation,” says Ouihlet. “And accents in somebody’s outfit say a lot of things about who they are.”

Ouihlet has routine and experiment days, where he’ll either play it safe or start with the accessory, like the tie, belt, or pocket square, and build the ensemble from there. With age, he’s gotten more adventurous. “Years ago, there were certain colors I’d never wear together,” he says. “Now I wear things that don’t feel fantastic yet, but I can see will eventually come.”

An eye looking toward the future is also central to Ouhlet’s work at Google, where he leads the design team making the products and interfaces that a good chunk of the population will be using in the next few years. His career trajectory was anything but a straight line. He was born and raised in Mexico City, then moved to South Korea in his teenage years to live with a relative (it was a youth rebellion phase).

Later, he studied fine arts, sculpture, and computer engineering in Mexico and then interaction design in Italy. Since 2008, he’s worked at Google in New York City and now in Mountain View, California, with a focus on the intersection of design, communication, and technology. He remains one of the most stylish people in the Bay Area. Ninety Nine U recently spoke with Ouihlet at Google’s San Francisco office about Google’s next-gen projects, including creating voice-controlled “conversational interfaces,” how his team is trying to make technology more human, and what he learns from watching his four-year-old daughter interact with his prototypes.

What’s the most exciting new idea you’re working on right now?

I’m currently working on how you design a platform that is able to give you the right answer no matter what you’re looking for. It could be something very specific, like What is the weather right now? Or more broad, like When should I change the tires on my car? Then how do we apply that way of thinking to a new set of devices? The new set of devices is particularly interesting, because people like my four-year-old daughter won’t really know what certain devices are. She recently grabbed a keyboard, and she thought it was a guitar. She was touching the keys and asking, “Why is this not making music?” She saw a keyboard as an artifact from the past. And I’m also excited to look at how you mimic this notion of human-to-human conversation in human-to-technology conversation.

Actual conversations, with back-and-forth dialogue where the machines understand us?

Oh, yeah; that is where we’re heading. Communication works with two main pieces: audio and visual. Depending on…

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