Google user experience talk

By Brian Donohue

Of the 40 million or so products that Google has recently spat out, Google Video is one you might have come across without actually intending to check it out. And one of the ways Google is promoting their software (or perhaps that’s a cynical read of it) is by inviting you to peer in on their internal talks. In other words, they’re making public (at least some of) the talks that their employees get to go to. Last month, Google’s user experience manager gave a talk on the “Science and Art of User Experience”. It’s nearly a half-hour long, so I’ll save you some time by summarising the good stuff from the talk here.

  • Simplicity from laziness: Google’s much-talked-about simplicity of homepage design originally came about because Sergey, or Brin, or one of the two founders, didn’t really know HTML and was too lazy to learn much of it before getting his site live. And now there’s lots of debate of whether the design is a paragon of simplicity or just a clean door to a very messy closet.
  • Focus on what to leave out: Jen Fitzpatrick, who gave the talk, emphasised that the most difficult decisions are in figuring out what to leave out of web applications, not what to put in.
  • “I’m feeling lucky” — tone over function: This was the most interesting anecdote. I’ve often wondered who actually uses the “I’m feeling lucky” button — after all, why not just do the search and see what turns up first? It turns out that in their early user tests, most users didn’t really find the feature useful either. But users did report that they liked the personality expressed by the button. It helped to make Google distinct, and to make Google feel like a group of people with a sense of humour instead of just a faceless corporation. The fact that that button still survives on Google’s bare-boned homepage is testament to the importance and difficulty of establishing a voice — or a sense of personality — on a website.
  • Data-driven decision making: Jen made clear that major and minor decisions at Google are driven by data rather than just by opinion or hunches. No doubt that’s one of the reasons why Google bought Urchin and turned it into Google Analytics.
  • User-test everything: All products at Google are user-tested, usually multiple times. Even with their expertise and budgets, Jen said that they rarely get it right the first time. Google relies on incremental design changes, informed by user testing, to find the right solution.