Irene Au

Director of user experience

[Background: Formerly VP of user experience and design at Yahoo; interaction designer at Netscape Communications.]



“My group has a mantra: Focus on the user, and all else will follow. It’s easy to say but actually really hard to execute. It’s pretty common for user researchers to feel that their work is so late-stage that it can’t have an impact. When I got here, a lot of the user research was focused on usability testing, after the product had been designed. But using our work earlier, during the right stage of development, is more strategic. That’s been a huge shift. The logs data tells us what users are doing, but they don’t tell us the why, whereas in usability we understand the why.”


“In a few years, most Internet users around the world will be coming off of non-PC devices. So we did ethnographic research. We followed people around for a day or so and watched how they used technology. Then we littered the walls with stories and observations on Post-it Notes. The profiles are really descriptive one-pagers: This person is 27 years old, this is his typical day–that sort of thing. They make patterns very tangible.

If you look at India and China, Internet use is completely different. People in Asian countries are less inclined to search because it’s hard to type the character set. So we developed Google Suggest; it predicts what you’re searching for so you don’t have to type the whole thing. Those user stories went into a database that we shared with other teams. That’s how we cross the silos.”


“On your first day, everything is so well planned. All the laptops are delivered, and you type in your password, and boom, you have your account set up and everything. There’s such incredible efficiency and infrastructure in ways that I think are just luxurious for a company.”


“Google was a chance for me to come to work in a culture that is almost exactly the opposite of Yahoo. For two companies to be in such competition with each other and to approach the business in such different ways is very stimulating and exciting to me.


Google is run in a very unconventional way. There’s a lot of learning as you go, which I find amazing. It’s also much more chaotic. We want to have an ecosystem of ideas where we just build stuff and see if it works. If it sticks, then we continue development. So things aren’t as carefully planned, and things like resource allocation are really challenging.”


About the author

Chuck Salter is a senior editor at Fast Company and a longtime award-winning feature writer for the magazine. In addition to his print, online and video stories, he performs live reported narratives at various conferences, and he edited the Fast Company anthologies Breakthrough Leadership, Hacking Hollywood, and #Unplug.