Marissa Mayer: On the hot seat

What it's like to be on the spot (and inside the conference room) with Google design guru Marissa Mayer.

By Susan Casey, Fortune

(Fortune Magazine) -- Sure, Googlers love their free ski trips and all that. But the real test of whether a company is great to work for is what it's like when its employees are, you know, working. And a good way to find that out is to observe that most hated of necessary evils, the meeting.

Judging by the vibe at Google's (Charts) weekly user- interface design meeting, which Fortune sat in on one recent Monday, these people have no problem getting down to business. Just before the proceedings begin, a dozen Googlers sit around a conference room, fiddling with their laptops. Their affect is studiously casual, but the giant digital clock on the wall gives another impression: This is a no-bumbling zone. Run by Marissa Mayer, the company's VP of search products and user experience, it's the meeting where the look and feel of Google's products are hammered out.

During the next two hours, Mayer will evaluate a stream of design proposals ranging from minor tweaks to the whole layout of a new product. Each presentation has been allotted a specific amount of time, which the clock will tick off in seconds.

On a split screen at the left, notes from the meeting appear in real time, and designers around the world drop in by videoconference. On the right, graph after graph of usability test results will be projected: What do users do when a tab is moved from the side of the page to the top? What if a box is tinted gray? In Mayer's UI group, it's all about the numbers. No one, it is guaranteed, will attempt to justify a design by proclaiming, "It looks better in scarlet" or "I just like it this way."

The first presenters, a young, hip-looking pair of guys, are reporting the results of a four-month usability experiment. Which part of the page caught users' attention? How long did they stay there? Which elements did they skip right by? Why? "We have over 100 slides," one of the presenters tells Mayer as the lights dim, "so we're going to skip a few."

To the uninitiated, the design revisions they show look like a slam dunk. Masses of numbers are being presented on the fly, but the graphs trend upward at nice angles. Mayer, however, is unconvinced. "It looks pretty noisy if you look at the base data," she says, leaning back in her chair, and she then asks if the searches/per user/per day graph is available. There is an uncomfortable pause. "Uh, no." "Well," Mayer replies, "that's a good macro statistic that indicates user happiness. So can we see that one too?" The men nod.

As the stopwatch hits its mark, another team steps up. Its design, without revealing state secrets, is less polished, and Mayer thoroughly but politely takes it apart. The page is trying to do too much, she tells the group. Better to back off and do a few things really well. "If you give users more to choose from," she says, "they'll actually choose worse."

By the meeting's end Mayer has said no a lot more than yes, but the presenters have taken her judgments evenly. They clearly prize brevity: The shorter the meeting, the sooner everyone gets back to their pet projects. Or the volleyball pit.  Top of page