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Google: The early days

You’re probably familiar with the lore: founded in 1998 by two Stanford PhD students, incorporated in a Palo Alto garage, with server racks built from Lego blocks. What’s less well-known is that several members of the early team, including co-founder Larry Page, had studied in Terri Winograd’s Human Computer Interaction (HCI) group at Stanford.

This early interest in the human side of technology became central to the company’s culture: “Focus on the user and all else will follow” is the first principle in our founding philosophy. It also set the precedent for Google’s very first user tests in those startup days, which consisted of engineers showing prototypes to students on Stanford’s campus, and gathering feedback. But as Google and its products expanded over the years, this direct and immediate contact with the people using our products became harder and harder to maintain.

Google’s response was to hire experts, like myself in 2006, to make products that are simple, easy, and joyful to use. In those days we also built usability labs—simulated office environments with desktop computers—to test products for ease of use and simplicity.

I spent most of my first years at Google in these labs. We’d run our usability tests, and afterward, I would often send annotated prototypes back to designers and engineers, with suggestions for improvements. This process was used to polish many of our products, and it helped Google become known for the simplicity of its designs. At the time, the all-white homepage with a single search box was quite radical amidst a sea of websites using every single pixel.

Though we were becoming very efficient at testing and improving products, there was also a feeling that we had lost some of the spirit of the early startup days, when everyone on the team, not just specialists, had direct contact with the people we built for. What’s more, the labs were located in our own offices, which meant we were in touch with a limited population of people.

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Finding inspiration outside the office

When I took over the UX Research team for Google Maps in 2009, an opportunity arose to improve the directions feature. It just seemed wrong to study wayfinding while seated at a desk in a lab, so we took to the streets to observe and talk to people in different environments: mega-cities, rural villages—and everything in-between—in the Americas, Europe, and Asia.

We sent the entire team—not just researchers but engineers, product managers, and designers, too—out to investigate. Placed in the field, they got to interview people, note observations, and try navigating by themselves in unfamiliar environments.

These trips resulted in usability fixes, but more importantly, they were often the seeds for new ideas, new features, or improved functionality that would be taken forward by the engineers and designers who felt inspired from participating in the research.

One example is landmarks. While traveling in India, the team noticed most people prefer to use landmarks over road names when giving directions. Even with clearly marked signage, people might say: “Turn right after the petrol station.” This crucial insight, experienced by the team firsthand, allowed us to add landmarks to driving directions in Google Maps—a feature that’s beneficial to people navigating anywhere.

The early trips in 2009 helped improve our product, but they also laid the foundation for a way of working that would take us on many more journeys. What started as a single undertaking became a pattern of team immersion trips, and we’ve since built many products and features in this way. Two-wheeler navigation, a new search experience in Google Go, and Google Maps commuter features are just a few past examples.

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The sparks of innovation

Why do we place so much emphasis on field trips, team immersion, and hands-on research? After all, we already know a lot through metrics and market reports. It has a lot to do with our culture. We sometimes, and only half-jokingly, refer to Google as having a “Montessori culture.”

If you’re not familiar, Maria Montessori revolutionized education over a century ago. She discovered that students learn better from each other through experimentation, often outside the classroom, and—most importantly—when allowed to make mistakes, students have their own epiphanies and eureka moments. These moments, when everything suddenly falls into place, provide the enthusiasm and motivation for learning. This isn’t just true for students; sparks of insights are just as essential for anyone working towards innovation. I’ll explain why.

Creative jobs are sometimes portrayed as fairy-tale professions where everyone sits in architecturally stunning offices, walls covered in colorful Post-its, having one great idea after the other. The hard truth is that the road to innovation winds past many failed attempts, goes through valleys of doubt and uncertainty, and has many forks with no signposts. Without the energy released by eureka moments, it’s hard to sustain the momentum required to “stay the course” and achieve true innovation.

What leads to eureka moments? In my experience it comes back to three things: participation, empathy, and intuition.

We can go through hundreds of pages of slide decks with market insights and trend projections, and watch hours worth of video footage. But in the end, what creates the most energy and momentum in a team is a sense that they’ve had a meaningful breakthrough, often after a frustrating period of failing to see the forest for the trees. This active form of insight gathering is much more powerful than absorbing someone else’s report.

The second trigger for eureka moments is having direct, first-hand encounters with people from outside your own social circles. People with different backgrounds and interests, who live differently, and have unique needs and perspectives. Establishing a human connection with others widens our frame of reference, and gives us a level of empathy and understanding that is otherwise difficult to gain. Most critically, it also provides energy and a sense of purpose for the hard work and struggles that eventually lead to creative solutions.

Of course, we do all the other things as well: we synthesize data and do large-scale surveys. Without grounding in metrics, quant data, and careful context setting, there is a risk that the eureka moments we create are just a firework of energy—bright, dazzling, and good entertainment, but without lasting, meaningful effect.

Metrics are vital because they allow us to test ideas formed from direct observation, and they also help us decide where to look. But there’s also a risk of over-relying on them. With readily available quantified data, we may optimize for what is easy to count versus what truly counts—for what’s measurable versus what matters. From my experience over the years, I believe identifying and defining what matters also requires our human powers of intuition. And intuition is built from years of varied experiences and learning—often triggered through direct participation and exploration.

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Day-to-day eureka moments

In the early days, Google engineers got feedback on their prototypes in direct conversations with people at Stanford. We recently wondered: How do we bring back what the 20-person Google did, when we currently have over 100,000 employees? This is how “meet the user” was born.

We now regularly invite users of our products to come and meet the engineers who build them. For an afternoon, each guest explains to an engineer how they actually use the products, how the products fit into their lives, and what they think could be better.

Googlers typically start off feeling somewhat skeptical: “What is this visitor going to teach me about my product?” Then the conversations happen, and the energy in the room is transformed—pre-conceptions are shattered, world views changed, and afterward everyone is keen to share unique insights from their one-on-ones. I’ve run some of these sessions myself, and they’ve been among the most satisfying moments of my career.

The world—and technology—will continue to change. Our profession will go on reinventing itself. After moving from the web to mobile and now to AI, it might be hard to see what the stable foundations will be, what the essence of our profession really is. I believe creativity that’s inspired by empathy and supported by data and intuition will be one of those stable pillars that remain intact throughout these changes—and not just for product design and research, but business more broadly.

From a more personal standpoint, the last decade working in and growing Google’s UX team has taught me a lot about how to create an environment that’s fertile to creativity and innovation within a culture that prizes engineering excellence. Interestingly, this has often meant leaving my own “expert” status at the door and instead enabling my team members and product team partners to have their own epiphanies. That is, to create situations that let them gain new and memorable insights, to experience the dopamine release that comes from making their own discovery, which then provides the energy to see an idea through to implementation.

I believe what’s worked well here at Google is likely to work in other organizations because it speaks to a fundamentally human joy we experience when we reach a new level of understanding—from our own observations, and yes, our own struggles and epiphanies.

This essay was originally published on Medium. Watch Jens explore similar territory in talks he gave at the 2018 Web Summit in Lisbon, and 4YFN/MWC in Barcelona.

07/01/2021
User Research UX Thought Leadership

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