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[Herald Interview] An interaction designer talks about Silicon Valley

Han Seung-heon discusses his journey from LG Electronics to Microsoft, Disney and now Google

Han Seung-heon, during a video interview session with The Korea Herald. (The Korea Herald)
Han Seung-heon, during a video interview session with The Korea Herald. (The Korea Herald)
Encountering the word “designer,” one generally imagines a creative person with artistic talent -- someone who shows artworks at a gallery, or who takes the commercial route and sells stylish, sleek items they have created.

But an “interaction designer” is something else.

Silicon Valley-based Han Seung-heon, who holds this position at Google, works for the Google Assistant team. He and his colleagues recently launched a service called Family Notes, which can be used with a smart display device to coordinate tasks within a household. These can range from sharing notes with your roommates to dividing up household duties among family members. Han focuses on how users can comfortably share information while still maintaining their personal space and privacy.

The Korea Herald met up with Han in a video interview to hear what happens when tech meets design.

“An interaction designer is the one who designs the intercommunication between people, machines, technologies, and thus leads to information,” Han said, speaking from San Francisco.

He compared his role to that of a chef. “Engineers invent raw materials, which are original ingredients. And then the designer comes into play, boiling, baking and stir-frying the materials to make it presentable and delicious to the public.”

Han spoke with enthusiasm, his eyes gleaming. “But our priority is to make the ingredients easy to digest for the public, just like serving a good meal.”

Starting his career at LG Electronics in Korea straight after college and tackling projects head on, Han was eager to learn more about the field of interaction design. With the money he saved, he moved to the US to study the subject in graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University.

After graduating Han landed a job at Microsoft, working for the Microsoft Office Design Studio as an interaction designer. After three years he moved to Disney, and finally he landed at Google.

Han presents his research at Carnegie Mellon University. (Han Seung-heon)
Han presents his research at Carnegie Mellon University. (Han Seung-heon)
“I can’t deny I felt alone at some moments, but looking back, each step I’ve made, shifting gears from one place to another, was an exciting and fulfilling experience,” Han said. He explained how the three companies where he’d worked in the US had different visions that influenced their employees’ work process and achievements.

“When I was working, Disney’s motto was making it the world’s happiest place, while Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” A company’s mission shapes its workplace environment, leading employees to set goals together and collaborate on new projects while staying on track.

Rather than generalizing about company life in the US and Korea, Han specifically addressed the recruitment process. “There is a long-standing system called open recruitment in Korea. It’s a way of selecting the talent that the company needs each year during a given period.”

Han pointed out the downside of this process, saying it leads to passivity among job seekers, who try too hard to fit themselves into the particular skill set that the company is looking for.

“In the United States, as far as my hiring processes went, you develop your own skill set first. Companies hire newcomers from time to time all year round, so often the situation flips, where the company looks for you. At the end of the day, you feel that you just happened to work for them instead of being so desperate.”

Han chose his words carefully when discussing the differences in corporate culture that he’d observed between the two countries. He mentioned work-life balance, which nowadays is an important factor that people consider when choosing a job. Both countries have positive aspects, he said, but for Han -- whose personality made him a self-taught learner of different fields, including designing programs, which is now his specialty -- the US companies where he’s worked provided the optimal environment. Han much prefers setting his own objectives and having greater freedom and personal space.

During the video interview, Han reminisced about his college years in Korea. “I was clearly not good at studying, nor did I enjoy it. As a matter of fact, I constantly got low GPAs before my senior year, when I came to my senses and understood why I had to study.” Confessing his low marks in college, Han laughed cheerfully.

When asked about the school curriculum during his teens, Han spoke with a clear but stern voice. “I frankly think youngsters in Korea lack the ability to think independently, to know that the world does not give out multiple-choice questions and answers like exams do. Schools should spare some time to educate young people on how to contemplate and build their own future.”

Han tries to resist social pressure to focus solely on the long term, sacrificing too much in the present. “I never dream of or plan on what I will become 10 years from now. Instead, I always look to tomorrow.”

Speaking of tomorrow, Han said with confidence, “I want to be a better self than I am today, a better interaction designer … inviting the public a step closer to an efficient living and working environment using my projects tomorrow.”



By Kim Hae-yeon (hykim@heraldcorp.com)
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