Using Data to be a More Influential Product Manager: an Interview with Google PM Rio Akasaka

Written by Published in Conference, Interviews, Product, Product Management

rio akasaka Rio is a product manager at Google who will be speaking at our upcoming Product Management Festival. His background in human computer interaction (HCI) and time spent at IDEO and on several popular Google products affords him a unique view to designing intuitive products on a large scale. He shares with us below how he became a PM for Google, incorporates design thinking into his daily role, and uses data to help influence product direction and decisions.

Could you tell us a bit about your professional journey?

Rio: I became a product manager in a rather unconventional way; but then again, I think this may be true of many! I was always interested in the intersection of how humans interact with technology. I saw the emergence of new software and hardware as a unique opportunity not to understand what new things we could build with them, but rather how our human ability to understand and interact with them affected why they were used at all in the first place. I started on this journey in earnest when I attended Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. I pursued a dual degree in Engineering and Linguistics, the latter because I realized that one of the most common interfaces to technology — the one most anticipated but really misunderstood — was language. Understanding the structure and complexities of language gave me a deeper understanding of what it meant to design with it in mind.

I took that study further with a Masters degree in Computer Science at Stanford. There, I explored other methods of interaction — data visualization, primarily — and had the chance to intern at IDEO, a company that truly embodies design thinking in all its forms. I joined Google shortly thereafter, and have worked on several different products in my capacity, including YouTube, Google Maps, and now Google Drive.

You have a background in human computer interaction. Could you share a bit about how that has helped you in your role?

Rio: Human computer interaction is really a broad term of a variety of disciplines designed to further our understanding of how users need to be designed for whenever we propose new technology. But the rigor of HCI takes its form primarily in a process of design thinking, which I’ve seen incorporated in my own role at Google. The process of ideation, iteration, prototyping, and evaluation is very much taking hold at Google, and that process has helped me design better products for our users.

Could you share a couple things you love about your job?

Rio: The thing that I enjoy the most about my job is the ability to think at scale, and to really reflect that scale in looking at everything very analytically. Data is a big deal at Google, and data rigor as well. One of the key themes I hear a lot from other product managers is that we often have influence but little authority, and having a lot of data easily available at your fingertips really makes you a more influential product manager. And this is data that isn’t purely about performance of the product, or usage. It’s also metrics and numbers about user happiness, retention, engagement, adoption. Things I’ll be talking about during my talk at PMF 🙂

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

Rio: I remember the kind of surprising attachment I had to my first PalmPilot, and later learning that the interface that I took so much for granted was designed in large part by Rob Haitani, who talks about his involvement in the book “Designing Interactions.” There were two things that I was truly impressed by: the realization that our everyday surroundings reflects the way we prioritize the important things we want to have access to, and that software should reflect that, and to remember to make the most frequently used things easily accessible. They are simple tenets, but so easy to forget when we have other important priorities and interests.

Rio will be speaking at this year’s Product Management Festival on using data to inform product decisions, like for Google Maps, on a large scale. To learn more about Rio and other speakers presenting at this year’s event, visit our PMF speakers page.

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