Inside Google's Design Process

Posted by: Helen Walters on September 23, 2008

Chrome.jpgWhile many eyes are trained on Mountain View for the official release of the new G1/Android phone from Google and T-Mobile, I got an insight into Google’s design process from the company’s VP of Product Management, Sundar Pichai, and Group Product Manager, Brian Rakowski. These two spearheaded the launch of Chrome, a browser I’m truthfully still getting used to, but whose design certainly adheres to the company’s overarching philosophy of superficial simplicity disguising sophisticated functionality (for an indepth look at Chrome’s development, check out this really fine Wired article by Steven Levy.)

A problem that has beset engineering and technology-driven companies in the past is the disconnect between its various departments. Engineers dictated what should be done thanks to what could be done, technologically speaking. They then handed the ideas over to designers who were charged with making sense of it all. The disconnect often resulted in poor products, annoyed engineers and frustrated designers (and, ultimately, often, displeased CEOs.)

Clearly, Google is also rooted in engineering, but in its case neither technology nor aesthetics has a superior role. Instead, engineers are as invested in the design as in the functionality. As Rakowsi put it: “It’s an integrated approach where engineers are responsible from start to finish.” Such continuity ensures that aesthetics and functionality are one and the same. I’ve written before that sometimes the results aren’t as visually sophisticated as they could be, and some designers might feel that they’ve been left out of the equation altogether, but the logic of the approach is hard to reproach.

“Design is integral to everything we do,” said Pichai firmly. “We don’t say ‘here’s a feature, here’s a spec, now go and build it.’ We design it, we build a prototype and we make it real… Every pixel in Chrome represents countless discussions and people agonizing over the right decision.”

Of course, that agony is balanced by Google's obsession with data analysis, which is harnessed for the design approval process too. "A lot of our design is opinion driven but we do usability testing to make sure what we're doing is well received," said Pichai. "We don't go with something just because someone feels strongly about it, if the data says people aren't clicking on it."

By way of example, the pair pointed to the download manager toolbar, which caused them real problems and which required many trips back to the drawing board. The issue: How to resolve the tension between a single user's different requirements. Should the toolbar interrupt, to alert a user that the file is all present and correct? Or should it sit quietly in the background? Given that at various times, a user might prefer either result, the design solution wasn't initially clear. "We couldn't get it 90% right," remembers Rakowski. "The design needed to be flexible enough to support all of the potential different uses."

Chrome2.jpgTheir answer took on board complaints/feedback/suggestions from early users and was both simple and radical. Now, a large arrow briefly points to the downloaded file at the bottom left of the browser screen. It's there when needed, you know it's there, but it doesn't interrupt your work flow. It's an elegant solution -- that works.

Chrome isn't perfect, but Pichai and Rakowski are probably more aware of that than most. Even now they're working on adding new functionality, such as autofill, as well as on versions for Linux and Apple (those should come "early next year," they say.) But that's the thing about an evolutionary design process: the best is always yet to come.

Reader Comments

florencia

September 24, 2008 5:41 PM

I value the courage of taking out a product while it's not complete. google has done it for a long time and it's worked. Check out my blog for more on this.

rajesh

September 25, 2008 5:52 AM

Hats off to google for the kind of products they launch. Even though not a great innovation, but they redefine "Simplicity". gChrome is a part of it.

Steven

September 25, 2008 5:24 PM

I think this article fails to actually deliver the promise of its simple title.

All I got from this article is that Google's engineers are engaged through-out the process and that Google designs, prototypes, and then makes it "real".

These are things that nearly every software company does - this is all the author could gather when they got "inside" Google's design process - wow how disappointing

Erick

September 25, 2008 9:09 PM

I am not sure if the writer of this article uses Firefox. Every single thing that has been detailed here as a design innovation is found in Firefox, and there are hundreds of features there that are not yet in Chrome. I also like the 'simplicity' of my Firefox at the moment; Chrome's ugly blue simplicity is more a distraction than anything else. In terms of speed, Firefox and Safari are both equally good.

Competition is good, so I welcome other thoughts and implementations for the browser, but we don't need to fawn over something half-baked (oops, I mean, beta) just because it's from Google, until it actually deserves it.

mike

September 25, 2008 11:47 PM

oh please. what a bunch of propeller-heads. they do not put 'design' or 'experience' first. there is obviously not any emotion in it -- just braniac vs braniac. google is ultimately doomed to the same dweeb disease that infects microsoft.

Joe

September 29, 2008 3:02 PM

Google predicates their design based on 'simplicity'. So why would any users expect different from the Chrome?

As a user of many Google's services, the expected things that you get from the products are clean interface, easy navigations, and good user experience.

What I don't expect Google to do is to come out with something that's overly complicated in the design that sacrifices the ultimate goal of doing what the software is 'design' to do.

Just take Windows Vista as the perfect example of how Microsoft invested way too much time/money/effort to promote the look and feel of Vista, but fail in the actual user experience of the OS

Ajay

September 30, 2008 12:34 AM

Google's non-intrusive approach to browser design is neat, but after Gmail, they seemed to have lost their appetite for ground-up designs that are revolutionary. Here's hoping they dont fade away to doing more me-too designs that are just free alternatives to paid products.

Sridhar

October 2, 2008 1:00 PM

Clearly lacked Google's touch. As one of them in Firefox said, people would definitely download chrome , use it and return back to Firefox.. That's what is exactly happening... This one has not worked for Google...

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What comes next? The Bloomberg Businessweek Innovation and Design blog chronicles new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.

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