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November 21, 2008

User Experience at Google

At CHI 2008, Google presented a paper called "User Experience at Google – Focus on the user and all else will follow".  It's an overview of how the UX team at Google operate and how Google gets that super important job done.

Here they discuss their bottom-up 'ideas' culture, their data-driven engineering approach, their fast, highly iterative web development cycle, and their global product perspective of designing for multiple countries.  Google's core products are search, applications and commerce.  The UX team is located all over the world.

Here are some highlights:

Lots of cool stuff comes out of the 20% scheme but the UX team have to make sure they're not just technically feasible and fascinating but also useful to the user.  There are also so many projects that the UX team has to be super organised to include all the projects.

The UX teams educate and inform all of the teams on good user experience practice and work hard to make sure it is ingrained in their minds.  In fact they word it very nicely they say "UX aims to get user empathy, and design principles into every Google engineer's head".  This is what they call "entering the corporate DNA".  

All nooglers (new Googlers) are sent on a "Life of the user" training.  The UX team also hosts "Field Fridays", "any Googler can attend field studies to connect them with the everyday problems and “delighters” of our users."   There are "Office hours" sessions for each product area where Googlers can get involved hands-on.  20% projects get some help in these sessions.  

They don't do usability tests for each feature, instead they bundle up testing into "Regular testing programs" for any product area.  They streamline the recruitment process and spare 5-10 minute "Piggy-back" slots are made available for smaller projects.  They have a "User research knowledgebase", to make information accessible to teams by product area.  

As for the whole of Google, they use a data-driven approach.  Absolutely everything is tracked at Google, which is really sensible.  Also computing people do have an unnatural passion for data I might add.  Some UX experts work on usage data where they gather things like page-views but also product growth, number of "active" users (they mention that defining these isn't straightforward) but for Blogger for example they use a variable-length time window, based on what is typical for each blogger because this product isn't the same as the others.  They also use A/B testing but of course it doesn't stop there, there's a load of qualitative and quantitative data as well.  

Updates and changes to products including new things coming out means that they have to use: "a number of agile techniques such as guerilla usability testing (e.g. limited numbers of users hijacked from the Google cafeteria at short notice), prototyping on the fly, and online experimentation." They'll use live instant messaging also.

On a global scale, they have to make sure that the cultural, regulatory and structural differences between locations are addressed correctly.  They use Global Payment as an example, which impacts Google Ads and checkout, as well as having financial regulations  tax issues.  Geotargeting also comes under this.  How can they predict the location of a user, or their language?  This is why the team is global, and they carry out global projects.  

I think it all sounds really exciting and well structured.  I would love to see that data :) 

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