23 Mar 2009

Google’s User Experience Director Speaks About Design Challenges

23 Mar 2009
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BuisinessWeek has a great Q&A with Google’s Director of User Experience, Irene Au. In the article, Irene Au is asked about Google’s approach to design and brand coherence across different Google products. Not surprisingly, Google has a very scientific approach to experience design, heavily rooted in quantitative methods:

[Engineers] and analysts pore over streams of data to assess the impact of experiments with colors, shading, and the position of every element on the page. Even changes at the pixel level can affect revenue….

A lot of our design decisions are really driven by cognitive psychology research that shows that, say, people online read black text against a white background much faster than white against black, or that sans serif fonts are more easily read than serif fonts online.

When asked if “decisions are based on data rather than on subjective opinion of what might look good,” Irene responded:

A lot of designers want to increase the line height or padding in order to make the interface “breathe.” We deliberately don’t do that. We want to squeeze in as much information as possible above the fold. We recognize that information density is part of what makes the experience great and efficient. Our goal is to get users in and out really quickly. All our design decisions are based on that strategy.

I am an unwavering proponent of data-driven design because I have personally witnessed seemingly minuscule design changes make immense impacts. The only way to capitalize on these effects was through data-driven testing to find the optimal solution.

However, I also believe that science can work with art and not against it. Aesthetics have impacts that are very hard to measure. Many of those effects can have long-term consequences for product loyalty or can affect the overall brand value in ways that are not measured in completion times or conversion rates–just take a look at good ‘ol Apple.

Irene Au also speaks about “brand coherence,” which is really a question about the consistency of the user experience across Google’s products. For those in the user experience field, it is an obvious fact that inconsistency and conflicting interaction paradigms cause user error, frustration, and product abandonment. Thus, it was no surprise to me to hear of Google’s conviction to align user experience paradigms across all their products. Irene states, “Inconsistency drives Larry and Sergey crazy.” Well, it drives everyone else crazy too, so kudos to making it a priority.

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