User Experience: the Google Way

by January 12, 2005

Tuesday’s BAYCHI event featured Marissa Mayer discussing The User Experience at Google. After a walk through of Google’s UI principles (complete with examples and anecdotes) and extensive Q&A, Mayer revealed a lot of what makes Google’s UE tick.

Marissa began by questioning whether a particular user experience could be a sustainable advantage as it can essentially be copied. In practice, however, Google has found that competing sites have a hard time maintaining the level of feature restraint that Google adheres to. Mayer pointed out that it is quite difficult to remove something once you have added it. This is especially true in large organizations with pronounced vertical structures and vertically based incentive systems.

To maintain its “simple” UE, Google follows a 20/5 rule for feature inclusion. If a particular feature or function does not have 20% adoption (based mostly on click through data), it does not show up on a core page. If a feature does not have 5% adoption it does not show up within Preferences. This UE strategy seems to have arisen through happenstance. Sergey Brin developed Google’s simplistic look because he “did not do HTML” and Google’s user base latched on (and still refuses to let go). As a result, user experience has become a defining brand attribute demanded by Google’s customers and defined by:

  • Giving users what they want, when they want it
  • Introducing cautious, well-measured changes and introductions of new features and products
  • Remaining “well liked and obvious”

This philosophy is quite impactful; it recognizes the role of user experience in defining the company and its products while keeping feature creep down to a minimum. That said, Mayer’s analogy of Google as a “closed swiss army knife” potentially has shortcomings. Marissa’s showed how Google handles UPS tracking numbers, bar codes, math equations, and more all through a single search field. The basic problem this points to is “How do users know Google can track their package?” As Mayer said one of the things Google does not do well is integrate “push” into their products. Of course, UPS tracking might fall into the 19%- 5% UI algorithm Google has developed and not really matter to most users.

The notion of user experience algorithms is alive and well at Google where UI is “a science not an art”. User Interface decisions follow a scientific process that reduces the role of opinions. Products are usability tested and live tested to verify the validity of design options and it seems like even single variable testing (black text vs. red text) occurs. Strangely enough, within this rather rigid design validation process, Mayer pointed out that usability testing is often mixed with focus group questioning. This loose combination of objective (design validation) and subjective (opinion) data gathering blurs the line between user and consumer research. I’ve always been a bit cautious of adding too many questions like “do you like this?” into task-focused usability tests.

Google recognizes the user experience as vital to its success and over time I believe this will allow the company to evolve its design process and organization to encompass user experience solutions that go beyond the formulaic and the testable. Stay tuned