Understanding how people react to what you build.

User experience researchers study how people interact with products. Arne de Booij specialises in user experience and online privacy. Stephan Micklitz is Director of Engineering for Privacy and Security, and is focused on building privacy and security tools.

Arne de Booij, as a user experience researcher at Google, you analyze how users interact with privacy and security tools. What have you learned?

Arne de Booij, Google UX Research Manager: It might sound obvious, but people want to feel safe and secure online. They want their data to be kept private. In recent years, as the internet has grown in size and complexity, people have questioned just how safe they are, whether their privacy is adequately protected. Those are reasonable questions to ask, given how much we all use the internet these days, and the stories we all read about data leakage and so on.

In conversation: Arne de Booij (left), UX researcher, and Stephan Micklitz, software engineer

And how do people actually behave online when it comes to privacy and security?

De Booij: Over the last couple of years we’ve conducted studies with people in multiple countries around the world, and we hear from all of them that privacy is really important. Historically the reality has been that people don’t tend to spend a lot of time reading privacy information or adjusting their privacy settings. Other studies show that people barely hesitate before entering their contact details on unfamiliar websites – to take part in a competition, for example. So it’s incumbent on companies like Google to make sure that we are crystal clear about how we use data and that we give them easy-to-use controls to manage their online experience in ways that work for them.

It’s our job to explain it to people in a way they can understand.

Arne de Booij

Stephan Micklitz as someone who is in charge of ensuring data privacy and security, what conclusions do you draw from this?

Micklitz: We simply aim to continue developing services that give users control over their own data. Data privacy and security tend to be topics that people don’t address intensively until a problem comes up – for example, their account is hacked, or they read in the news about something bad that’s happened. The important thing is that in those moments, people know how to check their online activity and change their passwords if they need to.

De Booij: The reality is that no one gets up in the morning and thinks to themselves, “I’d better check my privacy settings in my Google Account right now.” That’s not how it works. Data privacy and security are among the things that most of us put off till later. Which is why, in recent years, we’ve started prompting people to check their settings regularly.

So how do you actually get the insights that help you build better products?

De Booij: There’s a whole array of options. Online surveys are good for analyzing how people navigate an application like Google Account. If you’re looking into opinions and emotions, individual interviews are more telling. In order to learn more about cultural differences, we conduct surveys around the world – on the street, in market research studios, or even in users’ own homes. The latter is particularly interesting, because there people have access to their own devices and data, making their user behavior much more authentic.

Arne de Booij (left) obtained an MA in experimental psychology at the University of Groningen and a professional doctorate in engineering at Eindhoven University of Technology. He says: “UX researchers ensure that users’ needs are being recognized.”

Do you have an example for us?

De Booij: Once, some colleagues of mine visited a woman at her home in Japan to talk to her about Google Account. She wasn’t familiar with the service, and when she opened it she instinctively turned the monitor away from us. But she was positively surprised to learn how Google Account works, how she could delete information and choose how Google uses data.

Stephan Micklitz, have you also observed such interviews?

Micklitz: Yes! For example, when we were prototyping what is now Google Account, we wanted to test it and see how people reacted. The first participant opened the page and stared at the screen for a long time, doing nothing. Then the second person came in and reacted the exact same way. I thought, “Okay, this isn’t going the way I imagined.” It was clear those users didn’t understand Google Dashboard.

UX research plays an important role in the development process.

Stephan Micklitz

Did you rework the user interface as a result?

Micklitz: Several times! We kept going until the product was finally easily accessible and understandable for people.

UX research has helped you make real improvements to the service then?

Micklitz: It plays a really important role in the development process. That was the case, for example, when we were working on the Inactive Account Manager, which is now a part of Google Account. It allows users to decide what should happen to their data if they have been inactive for a certain period of time. This product was entirely new; none of our competitors had ever introduced anything like it. So we developed a prototype, tested it, and built a second prototype. We went through several cycles of that process before we ended up with a product that has been very well received by our users.

It must be very satisfying when your research leads to concrete changes.

De Booij: That’s the great thing about this job. We’re ensuring that users’ needs are being recognized.

Photographs: Conny Mirbach

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