Project Oak

Giving shape to Google's new open-source privacy technology by designing user interfaces and imagining new products & services

Google AI: 4 months

Product strategy, interaction design, UX patterns, advanced prototyping, early-stage technology, enclave computing, security, data privacy, systems thinking, policy
Although Project Oak is open source, this work is confidential, so we can't talk about the specifics. But here's an overview of how we worked.

Speculative design and prototyping

Project Oak changes how data flows through operating systems, apps and services. At the early stages of an ambitious technical project, it can be difficult to explain and discuss it because conversations are abstract.

Our approach on this project was to use speculative design and prototyping to interrogate and evolve the vision - design isolated edges of the system to give shape to the whole. In doing so we create mental models that will form the basis of user interface, and move project teams forward by making abstract ideas concrete.

Our entrypoint to this is Oak ‘policy’ - data rules that are set by you and enforced by the system at a hardware level.

Now: Once personal data leaves your device, you lose all control of what happens to it
Oak: Personal data remains in Oak enclaves, obeying rules that you control

Our process

Understand - To ensure our work is relevant to the technical reality, before we jump into the design phase, we look at the tech - from the low-level interactions with the CPU up to distributed systems of networked enclaves. What is Oak doing at each of these levels? And the contexts: where would Oak operate?

UX patterns for trust - What user interfaces are required for users to interact with policy? How do users differentiate between Oak (verifiable, secure) and non-Oak (unknown, potentially insecure) UI?

Applying to existing models - How does Oak integrate with models of computing that exist today. What user interfaces are required? How would this impact business models and software ecosystems?

Unlocking possibilities - Personal data in an Oak system is bound by strong guarantees of security and privacy. By dramatically lowering the risk of using personal data, what opportunities does this unlock for new products and services? Where will the biggest impact be on the computing world of the future? What new modes of interaction exist?

Resolve - Consolidate findings into a final deliverable, framed back to engineering teams to take advantage of the ideas as they begin building Oak into the hardware and operating systems of the future.

'Nord became a true extension of our in-house team within a few weeks. They are tremendously generative, with a deep understanding of the relevant technical aspects and a lack of preciousness that allows for rapid iteration, collaboration, and critique with Engineers, UXers, and everyone in between.'

Alison Lentz, Design Lead, Google AI

Alison Lentz
Design Lead, Google AI

'I've greatly enjoyed working with Nord: their hands-on, flexible and interactive approach allowed us to learn as we went along and tweak the remaining work to suit. We also found their very physical approach to prototyping particularly useful as we thought through various use cases.'

Ben Laurie, Principal Software Engineer, Google AI

Ben Laurie
Principal Software Engineer, Google AI

For more information about Project Oak, check out the open source project.