Google's Irene Au: On Design Challenges

For most people, including its own executives, Google (GOOG) still means search. On both the query page and the results page(s), design flourishes have been legendarily kept to a minimum, with layout decisions based on what will provide the user with the fastest, most efficient service. Nonetheless, 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.

But as Google products proliferate beyond search, design decisions become more critical if the company wants a coherent brand image. That's where Irene Au, the company's director of user experience, comes in. An eight-year veteran of Yahoo! (YHOO), Au has worked at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., since 2006, overseeing some 200 designers, anthropologists, ethnographers, researchers, and interaction specialists responsible for the look and functionality of Google's products.

Au recently spoke to BusinessWeek's Helen Walters about the challenges of managing Google's design process and consistency issues raised by Google's own defiantly bottom-up culture. An edited version of the conversation follows:

How do you describe Google's approach to design?

More than anything, Google prefers to make design decisions based on what performs well. And as a company, Google cares about being fast, so we want our user experience to be fast. That's not just in terms of front-end latency—how long it takes the page to download—it's also about making people use their computers more efficiently. 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.

So the decisions are based on data rather than on subjective opinion of what might look good?

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.

Your role is to ensure brand coherence across a whole host of very different types of products. What are some of the major challenges in doing that?

We have a big culture of being bottom-up and that can make it difficult to get a coherent design experience. There's a federation of people doing whatever they think is best for their product and not looking out for the bigger picture. We don't want everything to be dictated and top-down, but we do want to find a balance.

Can you give a specific example?

Google apps all look different from each other. As you move from one app to another, the keyboard shortcuts are different, the save model is different. The interaction consistency is not there. For good reason: These were all different startups using different backends. But we're trying to pull all that together. More and more, these experiences are going to get integrated with each other, or there'll be reusable components that might be built for applications but also appear in a search experience. It's becoming increasingly critical for us to have common UIs and common infrastructure.

So practically speaking, how do you go about getting that?

You have to attack it on multiple angles. We have roadshows where we present to teams about Google's design language and principles. But to some extent a lot of people here don't care about the principles or the rationale. They just want to know what it should look like. So we've been working to document all that and come up with a style guide along with code that can be reused. The best way to create consistency is to share the code.

Do you have management support for your efforts?

There's top-down support but not a mandate. But middle layers of management are hearing loud and clear from Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] and the executives that there should be one way to do things. Inconsistency drives Larry and Sergey crazy. So there's growing appreciation and awareness and with that comes motivation. As a group, we're trying to be very opportunistic and pragmatic. The design team has to be a few steps out—we're designing the target for all the different products to converge towards.

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