Google’s top designers on a panel at SXSW, were they motivated by Steve Jobs?


One of my favorite panels at SXSW 2012 was getting to hear from the lead designers of six of Google’s core products: Gmail, Google+, Google Search, Google Maps, Google Docs, and Youtube. It was cool to hear some of their unique challenges but my main takeaway was a reminder that we all face similar challenges regardless of how large or small our clients or brands may be.

The main part of their story started in the Spring of 2011 when one of the designers – unfortunately I forget which one - received an instant message from Larry Page that simply stated, “If you could redesign Google, what would you do.” He referred to this as the moment that “the dog caught the car”. As designers, it was the dream they had been waiting for but after a brief state of shock they needed a plan to seize the opportunity.

From here, they decided that they needed to have an understanding of what Larry’s vision was and they accomplished it in one meeting. As a team, they all took part in collecting tons of design clippings for reference from magazines and the web that included automobiles, fashion, products, fonts, etc. Everything but Google itself. They then asked him to split all of the clippings into two piles: those he liked and those that he didn’t. They proceeded to get him to describe the two piles and that was the formation of the Creative Brief. I have to say that was pretty clever.

From here they went to work, but there was one more catch: The complete redesign had to be completed and implemented before the launch of Google+ on June 28, 2011. That was about 60 days away.

The result was what we see today, at least some of us, some of the time. The other cool learning was that a small percentage of all Google users are seeing some form of an A/B or multivariate test. They test everything, all of the time and take that feedback to continuously refine our user experiences. As they make changes, all of the product designers reference one Master Stylesheet  that manges all of the global standards.  I though that was pretty cool too.

But after hearing them speak, I started reading about the meeting that Larry Page had with Steve Jobs in 2011.  In the last years of Steve Job’s life, he had quite a few meetings with other leaders in Silicon Valley. It is like he found a soft spot for other entrepreneurs and began thinking about his legacy in the Valley. I wonder if his meeting with Larry Page wasn’t the catalyst for the question of “If you could redesign Google, what would you do.”

Here is an excerpt from The Harvard Business Review that makes this connection for me:

Near the end of his life, Jobs was visited at home by Larry Page, who was about to resume control of Google, the company he had cofounded. Even though their companies were feuding, Jobs was willing to give some advice. “The main thing I stressed was focus,” he recalled. Figure out what Google wants to be when it grows up, he told Page. “It’s now all over the map. What are the five products you want to focus on? Get rid of the rest, because they’re dragging you down. They’re turning you into Microsoft. They’re causing you to turn out products that are adequate but not great.” Page followed the advice. In January 2012 he told employees to focus on just a few priorities, such as Android and Google+, and to make them “beautiful,” the way Jobs would have done.


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