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Designing at Google with Rachael Feinman

Jun 23, 2022

Rachael Feinman

Season 3 Episode 9

In this episode we meet Rachael Fineman, a senior user experience designer who’s worked for both the Google Maps geo discovery features as well as more recently the merchant experience embedded within maps and search. 

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Megan Luedke

When was the last time you opened Google Maps on your phone, used an onboard GPS in your car, or explained to a friend the directions to get from one location to the next? Whether you were aware of it or not, we wouldn't have GPS if it wasn't for the brilliant science being done aboard the International Space Station. Maps are everywhere helping humans navigate the world.



Megan Luedke

They also represent a form of universal design, adopted, and understood within many cultures and countries.



Rachael Feinman

It's intimidating and you must be on your A-game. And they come at me with these questions that I'm just like, well, I always want to have an answer for them. And I'm but I'm also the first person to be like, you know what? I probably could have done it this way. And sometimes we discuss it, and things change.



Rachael Feinman

And I'm like, you know, I'm not ever. Nothing is sacred with me. I am always happy to change it. I just want it to be the best thing for the users and I want it to test well.



Megan Luedke

That's Rachael FINEMAN, a senior user experience designer who's worked for both the Google Maps Geo Discovery features, as well as more recently, the merchant experience embedded within maps and search. Her love of design began at an early age.



Rachael Feinman

Yeah, so I kind of knew I wanted to be a graphic designer at a young age, which is quite odd, especially given the fact I was born in the nineties, and I feel like it wasn't a super well defined career path. But I, I knew that I had I would really like some form of design. I was always quite creative.



Rachael Feinman

I was very into art as a kid, but I didn't really know what that looked like as far as a career sense. But I started looking into what graphic design meant probably at the age or around 15 and 16 when I started to kind of understand what I wanted to do, you know, majoring in school. And then I found that graphic design is a thing that I could do, and it is something I could study.



Rachael Feinman

And I was really excited about that. So, I went to the University of San Francisco for one year and was studying graphic design, and that was an interesting school because it was a bit more art focused. So, I was doing everything from I mean, they called it like computer design back in the day and we didn't have UX at the time.



Rachael Feinman

But and then, you know, everything from Illustrator and art, a lot of art history, a lot of art theory, painting, stuff like that, which was great because I was already quite creative and really kind of loved. That is like a base for the understanding of why you make design or art decisions. And then I ended up transferring to University of Arizona, which is just because I kind of wanted a different scenery, and they have a great Bachelor Fine Arts program.



Rachael Feinman

And so, I transferred into their graphic design program and stuff like that for the following three years. And in that time, I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do, but I was finding out that I was decent at this this design thing. So, I started working, moved back to California. I'm from San Diego, originally moved to Los Angeles, which is kind of where the work and a lot of the jobs were started a job at Disney as a production artist, which was not creative and not exactly what I wanted to do, but I was like, you know, you get your first job and you're like, it's in my feels like I've done



Rachael Feinman

it. You know, I'm not working it. I'm not working at a random place. So yeah, that was really, exciting. And then from there, it’s kind of my career kind of oddly progressed in different ways. I started doing more like marketing design and fell myself as like a branding slash marketing designer in like the ecommerce space. I worked at a few different jobs in Los Angeles and me again, this was at the time where we didn't really understand what the user experience was.



Rachael Feinman

I was becoming kind of its own path, and I just I really was frustrated by the fact that I that everything was subjective. Like I would make a design decision and I would have our directors come in and be like, change that. Because I said so. And I really hated that. I was very kind of analytical person, and I was just like, I want data to like to be able to support these design decisions.



Rachael Feinman

And I realized that's very much of what user experience designers do. So yeah, I ended up kind of following that path. I applied for this program, which is through an agency called Huge, and they do a ten-week user experience design crash course, and you kind of learn everything about user experience from the people that are working there.



Rachael Feinman

You learn about working with clients, and that was really my gateway into the agency world. And so, I worked at agencies for a long time, and I really loved that because I loved the ability to work on so many different projects, so many different clients. I got to be part of the rebranding for like Hulu TV and got to do things with like Morgan Stanley.



Rachael Feinman

So, there was so many different areas I got to focus on and kind of worked my way into the product house experience that way. But yeah, it was such an interesting journey that I was so surprised by starting out as like someone who just really liked to paint or draw and then suddenly, I'm a user experience centre at Google and I'm kind of like, how did this happen?



Rachael Feinman

You know, it just I think I got lucky as well with kind of where the trend of careers was going with the design field.



Megan Luedke

After her various roles and jobs, she decided it was time to level up her career. After applying to Google, she heard back and began one of the most difficult interview processes she's ever taken in her life.



Rachael Feinman

Oh man, I couldn't have the Google interview process for days. It takes days to. Yeah, so I think I don't know. I think about it with my parents because my mom is a teacher and she's very creative and my dad has a Ph.D. and he's a therapist. And so, I felt like I was always very much like 5050 left brain and right brain, you know, and I, I was good at math, and I liked math, and I liked problem solving.



Rachael Feinman

Like algebra was oddly one of my favourite subjects because it was very much, I know it's so strange. I was surprising myself by that, but I was so confused because I was like, you know, I really love like I'm very artistic. I was I was in choir. I played piano. Like, I was so on that side of the brain, very creative.



Rachael Feinman

But then I also really loved, like, math and problem solving. And I really feel like I found myself in this sweet spot where I'm able to do both, where I like to have a very strong creative side. And I think a lot of my job, when I'm not able to be creative, I actually do find ways other outlets like I need to go spend the weekend at the museum or I need to go pain in my free time or I need to go make music like I need to do something that still fulfils those if I'm not getting that for my day job.



Rachael Feinman

But I feel like I was doing so much graphic design and I was really missing kind of the data, like I said, behind why we were making those decisions. And I started working with a few different agencies, and the one that actually kind of sealed the deal for me was when I worked at an agency called US two, they asked if I would go be a part of the embedded team at every me in San Francisco.



Rachael Feinman

So, I flew I lived in New York at the time, and I flew out there and Cisco and I spent six months like embedded in a team in, you know, inside, inside the team. And it was amazing learning experience. And I realized, like, the amount of impact you get to have and the control you get to have designing in-house versus as a client like or is it at an agency you're really, you know, at the hands of what the client wants and you're making design decisions based on kind of what those requirements are.



Rachael Feinman

And you're not getting the full picture of like, what is the journey that we're trying to solve? Like, what are the needs, what are the user needs, what are the markets like? All the stuff you get to learn about when you're in house, I realized, oh my God, this is like so exciting that I get access to all this information in the research and the market data.



Rachael Feinman

And that was kind of my gateway. And as I was working at Airbnb when I had a recruiter at Google approached me and I had been approached by Google before, and I had started the interview process and I was, and I didn't get it. And I was heartbroken because it's such a rigorous interview process and you get halfway through it and then to not and the worst part is most frustrating part is that you don't get any feedback.



Rachael Feinman

You go through this whole process and they're just like, I'm so sorry, it's not going to work out. Have a good day. Like that is. And I'm like, Can I have any point of feedback as to what I can improve upon, you know? And they're just like, no, we're not allowed to tell you. And I'm like, okay. So that was frustrating.



Rachael Feinman

So, when I got approached the second time, I said, No, thanks. I was like, I don't really have time for this. Like, you know, the interview process is like a full-time job. Like it's like I think I spent 25 hours on the entire preparation before the actual process began because at the time you had to complete the design challenge.



Rachael Feinman

So that and we and Google has gotten a lot of feedback around how it can be biased because people obviously that don't have that aren't working at the time and are interviewing at Google are allowed is able to spend more time on it right. Versus people that are working in a full-time job you can I was working around the clock trying to make this design challenge work.



Rachael Feinman

And so luckily, I'm happy to say that they've just removed the design challenge like this year, which is great because I think it's unfair. It's, you know, you already do so much. And then to also must go into this, you know, the whole separate challenge and then to present your work and all that. So even without that, you know, you still you have interview conversations with people and then you have an on-site, which is about 8 hours and that is just a grill situation and you're meeting people Rapid Fire and then you go on a lunch break.



Rachael Feinman

But your lunch break is also an interview, so it's just intense. I remember the day I did it, I came home, and I just laid on the bed and I couldn't even speak. I was so mentally drained, you know, you're talking for 8 hours and you're having to constantly use your brain. And I remember my now husband came in and he just asked me, he's like, turns on the lights and he's like, how was it?



Rachael Feinman

And I was like, Talk to me tomorrow. Like, I could. I could. And I was like, I'm done for the day, but it's very intense. And then you think, well, you know, could I possibly actually get this? You want it so bad, you know, it's so hard to get. And then you get it, and you get in and you have crazy imposters syndrome.



Rachael Feinman

And everyone's telling you this is normal and you're working with the smartest people ever. And I've learned so much and just the three years that I've worked there, because I'm truly working with people that one cares so unbelievably deeply. Like you see these people that just want truly the best experience and the best product for everyone, and then they are just so intelligent.



Rachael Feinman

And I've, I feel like an imposter because I come from the state school, I was studying art. I'm like, what am I doing here? I'm here with like people from Harvard. So, it’s. But you but you feel like, you know what, I worked hard to get in here. And I think that's the respect everyone has for what we call New Glarus because you know that there's no way to cheat your way in the system.



Rachael Feinman

Like you got to be good. So, you get in and you're in, you're feeling good.



Jens Bringsjord

One of the most interesting things we've learned from Rachael is that Google sends teams of people to various regions of the world to understand the culture, the people, their need for navigation, and the overall research to facilitate the product experience of Google Maps and all we have come to know within Google Maps experiences in our mobile devices.



Rachael Feinman

So, everything is based on market research. So like we have researchers that literally go to these new markets that Google wants to invest in and they get on the ground and they talk to people like I was lucky enough to go on a one of our research trips because I was new and it was kind of like, Hey, do you want to go to Mexico City and learn about kind of this new market we're investing in?



Rachael Feinman

And I was like, absolutely. So, I got to go. And I worked closely with the researchers, and we literally spent that entire week doing a bunch of different things, one just going out and exploring the cultures. So that was obviously quite fun. And we had kind of like pod leaders. You get broken up into pods and we would hire locals to come and give us a tour of a market or a tour of this famous place and really talk to us about the culture and help us understand a bit more of how these users are different.



Rachael Feinman

And then we went also to people's houses, we interviewed them, and we literally just asked them, you know, how do you use Google Maps? And, you know, so like really on the ground, kind of not nothing fancy, just really talking to users. And I think that's something that Google will always do and that's something they really, really focus on, is making sure that we're building the best thing for our users.



Rachael Feinman

And it is what people want. Like everything we design is based on what we hear from our users, and we get feedback from our users, and that is literally how we create our initiatives. We don't want to build things that people don't want to use, and we want to meet people where they are. We don't want to build new apps and new tools and new features that they then must go down with another thing, find another, you know, access to another thing.



Rachael Feinman

We want to bring it closer to what they're already doing. So, I think that's kind of how I'm sure they found out about this project was like they went to India or wherever. They ended up launching this project and they were talking to people, and they were like, Yeah, I don't feel safe walking home. And Google Maps only gives me the route that's the fastest and it's not always the safest.



Rachael Feinman

And then in the end, I was like, well, I think we should work on this. And that's really yeah, I think that's amazing because Google, Google is really kind of push for these initiatives. And that's why I feel like we do so many great projects because the people really care.



Jens Bringsjord

Coming from an agency world. Rachel was used to wearing so many different hats and being in so many different roles to push a product out into the world.



Rachael Feinman

And then you come to a place like Google and they're like, no, no, no, we have someone for that. And you're just like, Great. So, you get to learn. Yeah, you get to learn very quickly. So, I mean, okay, I work with a quantitative researcher who has a PhD in decision making, so that's just incredible. I was like, where do I even begin with how awesome that is?



Rachael Feinman

So, I work with client researchers, I work with qualitative researchers which run most of our UX studies and research studies, and they really test the actual product and help us do kind of initial consulting. And then I work with UX engineers, which is I've never heard of it before. They're awesome. They basically are so incredible and know all about kind of our user journeys and they're very user focused, but they have fun and building capabilities, which is awesome.



Rachael Feinman

And then they I've worked with some that are really, really accessibility focus. So, we have like a guy on our team. That's his whole initiative is around accessibility, and he's taught me so much about how to design for a screen reader, how to design for someone who's partially impaired, you know, all these different accessibility needs, how to create the right green lines and specs for him to build this product.



Rachael Feinman

So, it's engineers. We work with UX writers and again, they're slightly different than content strategists, but they are way more understanding of kind of how they help me with like the culture understanding and the right wording that we should be using and making sure we're, we're using positive affirmations versus negative. So, thinking about like don't do this, but like you could do this.



Rachael Feinman

So just the way we write and the way we talk to the user is so important. So, I work very closely with, with UX writers and then so I'm the I'm a user experience designer, but I also work with visual designers. And sometimes in the past I've seen I think a lot of the world today is, you know, we call them product designers and that's kind of what I was having a visual design background.



Rachael Feinman

I was a bit of both, but it's nice now knowing that like, yes, I can lean on that visual design side, but the visual design, our, our team really helps with the like thinking about all the different components in our design library and making sure that everything is compliant with that design surface. Because we have one design language for Google Search, and we have another for Google Maps.



Rachael Feinman

And they're different. They're different stylings, they're different fonts or different buttons, things like that. And he's amazing at really making sure everything's just spec. Everything is using the appropriate design language system. So yeah, visual designers and then obviously we have just a few engineers at Google. I think the ratio is 30, 30. Yeah, just a few. I think the ratio is 30 engineers to one designer.



Rachael Feinman

So, as you can imagine, you are constantly working with engineers and it's, it's, it's amazing to think about, you know, I have this idea and you work with this engineer and they really help you bring it to life and they're so great at, you know, really making sure that we it's feasible. And, you know, everything we're building is in the right timeline.



Rachael Feinman

So, work obviously a lot with engineers. Yeah. And then glass I'll say is product managers carry out product managers. They really help drive strategy work. They help us focus on where the product should be going. Are we aligning to like the stakeholders needs? And I would say my role probably works closely with the product manager and we think about kind of what makes the most sense to really work on right now.



Rachael Feinman

It's exciting. I love the end of the year because we get to focus on like, what does the next year look like? Thinking about all the kind of strategy work that we want to do. What did we not accomplish this year that we want to accomplish next year? So, I think that is really that really comes down to product and design, of course, with engineering to make sure that everything's feasible.



Rachael Feinman

But the kind of high-level strategy stuff comes for product managers, and I work with some of those brilliant product managers that really like shape the way Google products are being used.



Megan Luedke

Google listens so much to its users, which turned out to be critically helpful during the COVID 19 pandemic. The company's pivotal action and nimble direction really helped millions of people around the world reach the audiences. When we were so close to each other. It's so far apart due to social distancing measures.



Rachael Feinman

For better or for worse, we Google will change the strategy and change the organizing options and move things around, like at the drop of a hat if they need to. So, you know, and obviously it can impact people that are working on the ground and people that are on teams. But we have different, you know, records and different structures.



Rachael Feinman

And I feel like they happen kind of quite often, I would say. And it can be obviously hard if you're working on something and then, you know, you must shift to work on something else. But that also has made me understand that that's because Google's like, you know what, we're starting to go in this direction and it's not actually where we want to go.



Rachael Feinman

And yes, it's going to be a pain, but we're going to move to the right direction because that's the right thing to do. So, I think that, again, you know, for better or for worse, I try and believe in like we're doing the best thing for our users and we're trying to make the right decisions. But I think I'm happy to see that there's a place like Google where they are happy to say, you know what, we were wrong and that's not actually what we want to build and that's not going we're not going the right direction.



Rachael Feinman

So, we're going to shift gears and go over here, even though it's a pain versus just being like, you know what, it's too hard to like to tell everyone that they must now change the direction of what they're working on. People are going to be upset. We're just going to keep building the wrong thing. And I'm like, you know, that nobody wants nobody wants to be a part of that.



Rachael Feinman

Even though you can say, yay, I finished my project. So, I think I don't know, that would probably be the thing that I was kind of surprised by the most is that they are happy to switch it up often, which can be intense and frustrating. But you got to go with the flow.



Jens Bringsjord

Yeah, the design process at Google can be quite different depending on the project, the people, and the tasks you are equipped to handle during your day.



Rachael Feinman

Basically, every quarter you have your planning, and you work very closely with your team and me being the design lead now versus when I started three years ago was much more I wasn't as involved in the planning of what we were going to work on. So it was more of like, you know, what do you need me to do?



Rachael Feinman

Where can I help and how can I make sure we meet our goals and our deadlines? But now being understanding a bit more, I'm able to see a little bit of I like to say it's like above the water, right? Like my head was always slightly underneath the surface and then it was peaking and now I'm above the water and I'm able to kind of see this is this team is working on this and this team's working on that.



Rachael Feinman

Like, this is how it all comes together. And my question is always like, what are we trying to do? Like, what's our goal? What's our vision? I think coming from an agency background, I've been very vision focused and I really need a North Star. I need a very clear North Star, or I can't drive the ship that you're asking me to drive.



Rachael Feinman

So that is always kind of been what I've been wanting to understand. And so then, you know, each quarter and a year we try and tackle goals that meet that kind of North Star for that year. And so, what the beginning recorder, you kind of work, the designers work with the product managers to understand, okay, what are our objectives this quarter?



Rachael Feinman

What are we going to try and tackle? How are we going to do so? And then obviously you work closely with engineers to ensure that this is something they can support, that they agree with this. I would say the kind of three trio the best situation is where you have a product manager, a designer, an engineer, and they usually try and partner in that way.



Rachael Feinman

So, you're working in a very tight unit and then, you know, you go into hitting all those objectives. So, I will start by doing sometimes a few different things. I could do foundational research to understand more about what I want to be designing in that space. I feel like at this point I'm well privy to what the market is and what the user needs are and stuff like that.



Rachael Feinman

So, I will do like an assumption made kind of list and so I'll basically write out all my assumptions, all the questions I have, and then sometimes try and designing and just kind of like throwing something out there and seeing how users will respond to it and then testing those assumptions. Right? So, I have an assumption that if I'm going to design this thing, the user will then result in doing it this way and then I test that.



Rachael Feinman

And then if that's true, then that's great. We can kind of move forward. But if not, then, you know, I want to go back to the drawing board. And so, with me, I've been focusing more on desktop search. So, I am the design lead for the search experience for Merchant. But you know, I work very closely with my counterpart who is the lead for the Google Maps experience.



Rachael Feinman

So, we want to obviously make sure that everything we're doing like has the same thinking behind it. We're spread across London in California. So, the time zones can be tricky. But if we do, for example, like we're doing a content strategy workshop right now, we want to make sure that we're spending time every week translating the thinking and the knowledge back to the team in California, and then they're working on their own goals.



Rachael Feinman

So, I think a lot of the thing I struggle with sometimes the most is the number of meetings that you have, because like I said, you have so many people that you work with across so many different time zones and it's amazing to be able to like lean on them and learn from them. But that means you must spend time out of your day listening, absorbing, talking, sharing knowledge, and then suddenly, it's 6:00 and you're like, well, I haven't even started the design thing I need to do today.



Rachael Feinman

And so, I struggle with being present in all the meetings, sharing the knowledge, and then also executing on the designs. But ideally, I would, you know, then keep design my, you know, going through my design process, testing those. We do a lot, a lot, a lot of research. So, making sure that we're doing at least 1 to 2 studies a quarter, planning that out with our researcher.



Rachael Feinman

And then and then it's not really a waterfall experience. Like we must work very closely with our engineers and make sure that they are building what we were designing. And the engineers are so brilliant that they will come back and ask questions, why did you make this decision? And I'm now learning that I must basically have a deck that's like these are all the research studies and all the answers that we have.



Rachael Feinman

And this is exactly I literally did this last week. Like, I don't agree with this. Like, why are we why are we talking about in this way or why are we, you know, and I'm just like, well, this is literally the entire deck I did six months ago that that proves that that's the reason why I made this design decisions.



Rachael Feinman

And it goes back to me loving that I can do that. And I squash the conversation right there and it's not it's not a biased thing. It's not you know; it's just focused on the data, and everyone cares about the data. So, working closely with your engineers at the end of the day to make sure that you're building the right thing and they're asking amazing questions.



Rachael Feinman

They're thinking of cases. I jump on calls with them and they're like, hey, and they're very proactive to like engineers I've worked with. Don't just sit around and wait for your answer. They will go off and build it and be like, hey, I built it this way. I built it that way. Which way do you think works better?



Rachael Feinman

And you're just like, so they keep you on your toes. And I would say I work with them more near the end of my kind of ideation phase, but they're very involved in the entire process.



Jens Bringsjord

Design systems are such a critical element in today's design industry. Google uses figma and fig jam to handle their design systems and equips its teams with an extensive documentation library of guidelines to follow.



Rachael Feinman

There are so many different design systems within Google, and you must. It takes time to really understand, you know, where you need to be designing for which surface great news is Google is incredible at documentation. Like you said, we have an entire internal system that you can go to where you can see the basically a carbon website that explains.



Rachael Feinman

You can write and you can search button and it shows you an entire section about buttons, how to use them, where to use them, the different ways in which you use them. You know, like all these different product examples, it gives you source code, it gives you a link to the Design Sigma file, like it's awesome. And so, when I came to the London team, it was something that we were currently working on because our product was basically the first and possibly only product that had to sit on three different design systems.



Rachael Feinman

Like we literally had a chart on our wall that was like, okay, I'm designing for this page. And you'd go and you'd be like, Okay, so it's on search, but it's in a dialog, but it's, you know, and you had to basically go through this chart and this flow chart to figure out what button to use and because.

Rachael Feinman

So, yeah, with our, with us, you have one design system for Google search. So, if you're on the search page, your buttons need to look a certain way, your typography is a certain way. And then our product is in a dialog experience sitting on top of Google Search. So that is another design system. And that means there's different buttons, different rules, different styles.



Rachael Feinman

And then you have Google Maps, and that's the third design system. So, you had three different design systems and every team that we have like feature teams that we work with. So, a feature team would be like the services team who's designing the services experience within Google? My business and they would come to us, and they'd be like, which they would be like, Here's my flow.



Rachael Feinman

Can you help us understand if we're using the right components? And that was like a lot of what my job was in the beginning is I kind of just carved this out for myself with a few other designers because there was no one really doing this. We didn't have a merchant designing system framework, and we worked with this incredible UX engineer who like loves this stuff.



Rachael Feinman

And he really it was like me and him and two other guys and two other designers, and the four of us really kind of became this design system team, but like scrappy. Like we weren't, I was just basically putting together since I would find, you know, references and Google or are different guidelines over here and different guidelines over there.



Rachael Feinman

And then I'd be like, okay, well then, I think, you know, this is what the button needs to look like, this is what the typography we should be using. But then to your point, there was a lot, a lot of a lot of times where we didn't have components designed, and then I would basically design them and I would have to go through the entire approval process with not only my stakeholder leads, but then the leads from the search and the leads from maps.



Rachael Feinman

Because we wanted design for both. And like I'm talking about; I design an entire banner system. So, we have an alert banner, we have an info banner, we have a warning banner and then we have like contextual messages. And so, you had to think based on the different use cases for something like business information is a really, complex part of the product and we must communicate so much at so many different levels that we didn't have all the right components to communicate all the different things based on product requirements.



Rachael Feinman

So, I'd be like, all right, well, we need a banner to communicate this at a high level. We context communicate this at a lower level. We need an iconic, you know, there's just so many different things. And I basically, with the help of the other designers in the team, would create these components coming out of the use cases from the future teams.



Rachael Feinman

They'd be like, you know, we've been through your documentation. We don't see a component that's going to fit our need. Can you help us create a new one? And then we go through the approval process on that. And that's how our design system has grown. And now we it's amazing. We have like a dark version. We have a light version.



Rachael Feinman

You can literally plug and play like you can use them prototyping, like we've built it out so well. And I'm proud of that because I've never done that anywhere before. And it really came from just the fact that we needed it needed to be done. We weren't like there was not a design system team for the merchant experience.



Rachael Feinman

There was one for Google Maps and we worked closely with that team. There was one for search, but we just became the scrappy team that kind of built out our own library. And it's awesome because now I also know the components super well, so I can just design quite quickly.



Megan Luedke

While our third season on this podcast is primarily focused on the world of outer space and the connection of engineering, science, technology and design, the Google Maps experience is a testament to all of these categories directly being combined as well, from taking photos of our planet and a state of the art Google Street View product to seeing satellite imagery captured from outer space to the interactions with cultures and people from all over the world to better understand humanity.



Megan Luedke

Even in the far corners of the world, Google really has shaped a world of stronger connectivity through one of the most powerful navigation apps out there. When people come together to make the world a better and more discoverable place, magic truly does happen.



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