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What Google tells us about the importance of testing

What Google tells us about the importance of testing

The Google homepage has become an institution for many of us.  As comfortable as a pair of old slippers, it has guided us on our web journey for as long as we can remember.  It is so simple, so straightforward, so smart that many of us don’t even notice.  But it didn’t get that way by chance.

The home page of the largest media organisation in the world comprises a text box, two buttons and a few links that we barely notice, never mind use.  That’s it.

Why has the page barely changed since Google went online in November 1998?  Why did they avoid a portal style home page like Yahoo’s?  Why have they demoted their blogs, email, spreadsheets, videos, calendars and photos to second level pages?  Sure, the ultra lean home page has been popular and very effective since it went live almost a decade ago, but how could Google be sure that it was the most effective it could be?

Simple.  Testing.

As research students, Sergei Brin and Larry Page (please fellahs, no more photos of the pair of you looking smug, we know you’re very very rich indeed, let’s move on) understood the centrality of testing and user research to the success of their online venture.  Their research results gave them information that simply wasn’t attainable any other way.

Go to now.  There remains on that page a feature which wasn’t present in early alpha versions of Google but was added just before launch and has remained on the site ever since.  Guess what it is?

Feeling lucky?  No – it’s not that, it’s the Copyright © Google Inc link at the bottom of the page.  Why was that feature added?  It transpires that in early lab testing, the Google page loaded so quickly, and was so lean that the test users thought the page hadn’t fully loaded, and were waiting up to a minute before they would start to key in their search term.  Google realised that the addition of the copyright link at the bottom of the page gave the message to the user that the page was fully loaded and ready for action.

Google VP of Search Products and User Experience, Marissa Mayer explains “[Our beta testers] would sit in front of the Google screen for 15 seconds, 30 seconds, 45 seconds, a minute … Google was perplexed.”  She continues to explain the copyright link “It’s not there for legal reasons.  It’s there as punctuation. That’s it. (It tells the searcher) ‘Nothing else is coming; please start searching now.’”

Google’s obsession with its customers means that all of the following decisions were based on design rather than chance:

– default number of search results after a word search

– having 100KB as the most common size of Google Maps images

– drastic reduction in white space between results in 2002

– adding the copyright link as described above

Google knows design matters.  They have put the design of their systems and the delivery of their content at the heart of their business.  This obsession with their customers has removed the subjectivity from their design debates; like all other successful online ventures they know that design isn’t just about how something looks, increasingly it is about how something works.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth formed Fathom in 2011 and has been in the business of design performance for over two decades.

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