Google Engineering Director Says Google UI Is as Much Science as it is Art

Mickey Alam Khan’s story on Google Expects to Keep Home Page Simple, reports on a keynote address by Jen Fitzpatrick, an engineering director at Google that was given at’s FirstLook 2006 event.

Fitzpatrick: “Over time, this white empty home page became a symbol of Google’s philosophy,” she said. “Sergey always says, ‘don’t put things in people’s way.'”

Comment: This is one Google philosophy that has reached the masses and sticks with then. I co-taught a college class during the Fall 2005 semester and pointed out that many other user interfaces are clean and lack clutter. For the most part a search box and a few tabs. MSN Search, Exalead, Yahoo’s clutter free interface and even Clusty to name just a few. The students saw and understood what I was talking about but for some reason I got the feeling they thought that the Google page was better. Perhaps it was familiarity coupled with some Google “secret sauce.”

On Adding New Tabs to the Home Page

If the search engine is going to add another tab on the home page, will it drive at least 20 percent of Google’s users to that feature?

Listening to users is critical. Take the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button on Google’s home page next to “Google Search.” Entering a term takes users directly to the Web page of the first result. It’s there because of users studied interacting with the feature. They liked it because they thought Google had a personality — people behind them,” Fitzpatrick said.

On Getting it Right

The company combines internal testing, user studies, log analysis and customer feedback to constantly track its user experience. And there is room for mistakes and adjustment. “As we launch products, we expect not to get things right on the first try,” Fitzpatrick said.

Comment: Those of us who follow Google closely know that it seems like a day (ok, a week) doesn’t go by that we don’t learn about a UI test that some user group is seeing and that Google is monitoring with log analysis.

The UI

“I think the [user interface] of Google is as much science as art,” Fitzpatrick said.

Postscript: If you’re interested in seeing Jen Fitzpatrick in action. She hosts this Google recuiting video about life at Google. It’s available from Google Video here.

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