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Saturday, 30 March 2019

MY FAVOURITE VIZ OF ALL TIME

How Google used vizualisation to become one of the worlds most valuable companies

At VizDynamics we have done a lot of 'viz'-ualisation, so I’ve seen more than several life-times worth of dashboards, reports, KPIs, models, metrics, insights and all manner of presentation and interaction approaches thereof.

Yet one Viz has always stuck in my mind.

More than a decade ago when I was post start-up exit and sitting out a competitive-restraint clause, I entertained myself by travelling the world in search of every significant thought leader and publication about probabilistic reasoning that I could find. Some were very contemporary; others were most ancient. I tried to read them all.


A much younger me @ the first Googleplex (circa 2002)

Some of this travelling included regular visits to Googleplex 1.0, back before they floated and well before anyone knew just how much damn cash they were making. As part of these regular visits, I came across a viz at the original ‘Plex that blew me away. It sat in a darkened hall in a room full of engineers on a small table at the end of a row of cubicles. On this little IBM screen was an at-the-time closely guarded viz:

The "Live Queries" vizualisation @ Googleplex 1.0

Notice the green data points on the map? They are monetised searches. Notice the icons next to the search phrases? More “$” symbols meant better monetisation. This was pre-NPS, but the goal was the same – link $ to :) then lay it bare for all to see.

What makes this unassuming viz so good?

It's purpose.

Guided by Schmidt’s steady hand, Larry & Sergey (L&S) had amassed the brainpower of 300+ world leading engineers, then unleashed them by allowing them to work independently. They now needed a way for them to self-govern and -optimise their continual improvements to product & revenue whilst keeping everyone aligned to Google's users-first mantra.

The solution was straightforward: use vizualisation to bring the users into the building for everyone to see, provide a visceral checkpoint of their mission and progress, and do it in a humanely digestible manner.

Simple in form & embracing of Tufteism, the bottom third of the screen scrolled through user searches as they occurred, whilst the top area was dedicated to a simple map projection showing where the last N searches had originated from. An impressively unpretentious viz that let the Data talk to one’s inner mind. The pictograph in the top section was for visual and spatially aware thinkers, under that was tabular Data for the more quantitative types. And there wasn’t a single number or metric in sight (well not directly anyway). Three obviously intentional design principles executed well.

More than just a Viz, this was a software solution to a plurality of organizational problems.

To properly understand the impact, imagine yourself for a moment as a Googler, briskly walking through the Googleplex towards your next meeting or snack or whatever. You alter your route slightly so you can pass by a small screen on your way through. The viz on the screen:

  • instantly and unobtrusively brought you closer to your users,
  • persistently reminded you and the rest of the (easily distracted) engineers to stay focused on the core product,
  • provided constant feedback on financial performance of recent product refinements, and
  • inspired new ideas

before you continued down the hall.

The best vizualisations humanise difficult data in a visceral way

This was visual perfection because it was relevant to everyone, from L&S down to the most junior of interns. Every pixel served a purpose, coming together into an elegantly simple view of Google's current state. Data made so effortlessly digestible that it spoke to one’s subconscious mind with only a passing glance. A viz so powerful that it helped Google to become one of the world’s most valuable companies. This was a portal into people's innermost thoughts and desires as they were typing them into Google. All this... on one tiny little IBM screen, at the end of a row of cubicles.

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