"The Science and Art of User Experience at Google" was the topic of a presentation at Google's Kirkland, Washington, operations last June by Jen Fitzpatrick, Google Engineering Director.
She began by recounting the origins of Google’s “rather empty home page.”
Fitzpatrick noted the “utter simplicity of our homepage” has changed remarkedly little from its beginnings in 1999 when Sergey Brin had the task of building a homepage for the new service he and Larry Page were building out. According to Fitzpatrick, Brin at the time did not know html and was not interested in learning it. What Brin was really passionate about, according to Fitzpatrick, was building a search engine; Putting together a home page was simply a way to get the service up and running as quickly as possible. Fitzpatrick indicated that in some respects the Google home page of today is a “happy byproduct of laziness on his part.” After all, she noted, why bother learning html to create some fancy polished homepage when all it needed to do was get people going on the way to searching for the information they were looking for.
Google conducted its first “official” usability testing in 2000 when, according to Fitzpatrick, the Google team embarked “in typical Google fashion” on a “cheap and scrappy” effort to recruit Stanford computer science students for an hour long focus group with the lure of tee shirts and twenty dollar bills.
Seven years later, Google is formally calling for paid participants in “User Experience Research” studies and hiring User Experience Researchers.
Google FAQ on usability studies:
What am I signing up for?
You'd be helping us to improve Google products, both existing ones and those that are still in development. For example, we might ask you to try out a prototype and give us feedback on it, or we might interview you to help us plan a new product. On the sign-up form, you can tell us which of the different types you are interested in. This doesn't mean that you're definitely committing to anything – we will always check with you before we make any arrangements.
• Usability study at a Google office: Typically, you will use a Google product or prototype, and give feedback on it. You could either meet 1-on-1 with a Google researcher, or work as part of a group. Most studies are done at our HQ in Mountain View, California, but we have offices all over the world, so please feel free to sign up for this type of study even if you don't live in the San Francisco Bay Area.
• Remote usability study: A Google researcher will call you while you sit at your computer, and ask you to try out a Google product or prototype via your internet connection, and give feedback on it. You can be anywhere in the world, but need to have a high-speed internet connection.
• Field study: Google researchers will come to visit you, and interview you about how you use computers or the Web. We won't just show up at your door - we will always check with you, and make an appointment. Again, most of our researchers are based at our HQ in Mountain View, California, but we have offices all over the world, so please feel free to sign up for this type of study even if you don't live in the San Francisco Bay Area.
• Online survey: you answer questions on the web or in an email, from your own computer.
Do I get paid? Yes – it depends on the type of study, but typically we pay $75 for each hour that you spend with a Google researcher, either in person or on the phone. Most studies last for one to one-and-a-half hours. We don't pay for your travel time, or travel expenses, though. For online surveys, which you complete from your own computer, the amount varies, depending on the length of the survey.
Google job specs for User Experience Researchers:
Help us find out about our users! Google is looking for User Experience Researchers at all levels, to design and conduct user research studies throughout the product cycle. You will use a range of methods, working closely with UI designers and product teams to define new products, assess the usability of prototypes, and influence the future direction of existing products.
You will have the opportunity to work on products of all types: web sites like Google search and AdWords, web applications like Gmail and Google Maps, client applications like Picasa and Google Earth, and mobile services like Google SMS.
- B.S. in Human-Computer Interaction, Cognitive Psychology, Computer Science, or related field.
- Academic or practical knowledge of user research methods, including lab-based usability studies, field studies, and usability inspections (heuristic evaluations or cognitive walkthroughs).
- Excellent analytical ability, especially with regard to observation of user behavior.
- Strong oral and written communication skills; can present findings concisely and effectively.
- Can work independently and effectively prioritize time between multiple projects.
- Flexible: can adapt to changing schedules and different types of products, and develop new user research methods where needed.
- Can work well in cross-functional teams, including Engineers, Product Managers, and UI Designers.
- Training in research methods and statistics.
Knowledge of or experience with any of the following is a big plus:
- Early-stage user research methods such as contextual inquiry, paper prototyping, card sorting, personas.
- Working with product teams to ensure that user research findings are tracked and acted on.
- Design and analysis of experiments or surveys.
- International user research or remote user studies.
- Accessibility and universal design.
- Analysis of web server log data.
- Web design/HTML.
- Testing applications for mobile devices.
- On-line communities and social computing
In "Free Google Gmail: the high price you pay" I recommend that GMail users demand compensation from Google for serving as beta product testers:
How much is a perpetual data record of your personal and business communications worth to Google?
Google GMail may not at present be generating “material revenues” for Google, but the data the system captures, retains and perpetually stores about individuals’ personal and business activities is being mined by Google to its long-term strategic advantage...
GMail is free to use, but its users are actually selling themselves cheap; Google furthers its monetization of the world’s information by acquiring, cost-free, a treasure trove of personal and business communications data from its users. GMail users, however, are not being compensated by Google for its profiting from the mining of their data.