Sasha Verhage may have the quintessential California job―or rather three of them. There’s his job as a design lead on Google’s User Experience team. There’s his Google “20 percent time” project, which tracks data on Google’s fleet of plug-in cars. And Verhage is proprieter, winemaker, and part-time label designer at Eno Wines in Berkeley.
Verhage was immersed in winemaking before he ever set foot on the Google campus or at Yahoo!, his previous employer. In the world of fermented grapes, Google plays a smaller part: Verhage's biography on the Eno website doesn't mention his role at the company until the fourth paragraph. But from Google’s standpoint, Verhage’s three-part career is what a company sometimes gets when trying to hire the best and brightest members of what is sometimes known as the “creative class.” Verhage grew up outside of Detroit, where General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are all struggling. Would American car companies have done better if they had been run more like Google? Verhage, whose father worked in the auto industry for 30 years, thinks that might indeed be the case.
Whereas American cars have lost much of the customer loyalty they enjoyed a few decades ago, Google applications, and the search engine itself, have a reputation for indispensability: after you use them for a while, it’s hard to imagine going back. Number one among the “10 principles that contribute to a Googley user experience" is to focus on people's "lives, works and dreams," as well as on needs people can't always articulate. That’s not a bad formula for other industries, as well. Other Google design principles are also pretty good rules for a winemaker: simplicity is powerful, engage beginners and attract experts, delight the eye without distracting the mind, be worthy of people’s trust, add a human touch.
Verhage lives with his wife and two-year-old daughter in the Rockridge area of Oakland, a neighborhood, appropriately enough, known for its food. Once a year, he travels back to Michigan State, his alma mater, to teach a graduate seminar on user experience. Far more regularly, he commutes to Google on one of the company’s biodiesel-powered, Internet-connected shuttles. “When I came to Google, those were very important things: the shuttle, the 20 percent project, the encouragement of entrepreneurial spirit.” Like winemaking, development at Google is a combination of instinct and craft, “of being passion-driven, but also being data-driven, because passion will only get you so far.”
- Do you consider the winemaking a hobby or a co-vocation?
It’s definitely not what pays the bills. My primary focus is on Google. For me, winemaking started as a small hobby but has snowballed out of control. Wine is one of my passions, and it allows me to straddle two very distinct California industries. Google is high tech, of course, which is very cutting edge, always pushing the envelope―and at its core all about zeros and ones. Winemaking, on the other hand, is very connected to Mother Nature: it’s tactile, hands-on, fingers in the dirt.
- Does one inform the other?
My winemaking is certainly influenced by my work at Google. For example, we made our first white wine last year, a Viognier, which is originally from the Rhone region of France. In California, one of our favorite regions for Viognier grapes is the area around Santa Barbara, an hour or so north of Los Angeles. So instead of driving six hours to go look these vineyards, I used Google Maps and Google Earth. That told me a surprising amount. I could see which vines hadn’t actually produced fruit. I could get a sense of elevation, of neighboring vineyards and look at all sorts of different data points. I also have a small team of volunteers and an assistant winemaker―and we use Google Docs and Google Calendar to collaborate and communicate.
- And then there’
s your Google 20 percent time project, which allows engineers to work on projects beyond their immediate job descriptions.
Right now I’m working with a group called RechargeIT.
org, a Google. org initiative that collects data on Google’s fleet of plug-in vehicles.
- This is not a conventional developer’
s lifestyle. Is this a Google thing, or is it emergent within the Silicon Valley?
I think it is emergent within Silicon Valley--because I started my winemaking years before Google. In 2001, I had been laid off from my e-consulting job building corporate websites at a company called Sapient. I started volunteering at a local winemaker, which led to my starting my own brand. One day, Yahoo! wanted to interview me for a position. I told them I’d come in, but my hands are jet black and I’m working on four hours of sleep. They were still willing to talk. I went in with a portfolio and a wine bottle, and told them they represent my two passions.
- Most employers would have told you to forget the wine―they need your full-time focus.
Of course you do need to load balance, but fortunately, my bosses at both Yahoo! and Google tend to like my wines: that helps. But the more important point is that these jobs are really about being entrepreneurial and passion-driven. That’s why I moved to Northern California from Michigan―without a place to stay, a job, or a car. I think those ingredients, passion and entrepreneurship, contribute to the wonderful trajectory of technology innovation that you see here. Google is part of that. They reward people for following their passion. They encourage that in the 20 percent project. To be clear, my 20 percent project is not making wine. It’s focused around Google and innovations.
- How entrepreneurial can you be on your basic job: interface design?
Very entrepreneurial. A lot of times, we are going in unchartered territory, and we really have to think about what will differentiate us in the marketplace. To cite just one example, from the beginning, Google Maps has given users the ability to drag the map with the mouse. That was very different from the previous interaction models of Mapquest and Yahoo! Maps, in which you are clicking on corners and zooming in and out. The core interaction is really what differentiates us. People say: “ah, that’s exactly the way it’s supposed to work.”
- Last April, designer Douglas Bowman resigned Google and moved to Twitter, saying he thought the Google interface design was too data-driven. But you seem to imply that data matters. Is this a difference in philosophy?
Somewhat. I should clarify that Doug did visual design, which is focused on design systems, color theory, icons, and typography, whereas I’m more responsible for interaction design flow and interface design. We worked closely together because they are obviously coupled. That said, I do think we are indeed data-driven, and data is critical to my success. We try to look beyond the small number of users we may have brought into the lab. Data based on the cumulative experience of millions of people can really can help determine what direction to take.
s a common the look and feel among Google applications. It seems to me it’ s some kind of simplicity with a lot of depth below it. Is that how you perceive it?
Yes, that’s my sense, as well. It’s one of our core missions to hide complexity without inhibiting the powerful features. You see that in Gmail, for example, as well as our advertising products. We use techniques like progressive disclosure in which functionality is hidden, so that the people that need to make use of them actually have access to them, without impeding the user satisfaction of everyone else. We hide functionality under controls and fly out menus [which appear when the cursor passes over a link]. That allows for several interactions within a single page.
- Where do Web designers go wrong?
The pitfalls usually relate to blindly embracing a concept without really thinking through the problem. I have been part of teams in which the technology can get ahead of what the core user actually needs. In fact, that’s my role―to keep the team focused on the actual problem we are trying to solve and the best interface or interaction model to solve it. We have various techniques to help us with that, including cognitive walk-throughs, usability studies, and live testing.
- Cognitive walk-throughs?
That’s a technique in which people play the role of primary users. We present them with designs and ask them what they would do in response. It’s a pretty common technique. We also use a technique called the RITE Method: for Rapid, Iterative Testing Evaluation. Here we make changes based on feedback and then tomorrow morning we do it again.
- Is this a branch of agile development?
In philosophy, yes. But instead of getting a hundred users in to test the same design, we run it by ten to find the glaring problems, fix those, then get another ten people in for more fine tuning. The result is that we can whittle down and address the design challenges in a nimble way.
- How did you get interested in electric cars and the PowerMeter for your 20 percent time project?
I grew up in Detroit, and my dad worked for Peugeot and Citroen for 30 years, so I’ve been steeped in the automotive world for much of my life. I looked at some of Google’s commitments, from the large number of solar panels on campus to RechargeIT, which is about accelerating the adoption of plug-in cars―including plugging your car into those solar power panels. It was inspiring. So I gravitated towards that.
This was one of the reasons I was drawn to Google. I was impressed coming on board with their commitment and that’s come from Eric Schmidt, and Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin], as well as the senior vice president of engineering that I work under. So it’s not empty rhetoric―it’s really steeped within the culture.
- How does the program it work? Do you devote a specific day or time for it, or is it ad hoc?
It’s any way that it works for you and the teams -- both your current team and your 20 percent team. The first project I was involved in was Google Earth awareness.
- [Google chief executive officer] Eric Schmidt said he thought the 20 percent program is what makes it fun to come to work every day―because there is always something new and surprising.
Yes, I agree. Having been around larger industries, like the automotive industry, I think that innovation has not always been given the necessary outlet. At Google, there is an an innovation “escape hatch”
. It’s not empty rhetoric. There’s something very true, very tangible, concrete and inspiring about it.