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12/29/2005
  Philipp Lenssen Interview

Philipp Lenssen in front of a Yellow gradient
Philipp Lenssen is the genius behind Google Blogoscoped -- which is the top blog for Google watchers. I really admire his blogging because he combines up-to-the minute news on Google with original wit, humor, and creativity. An example is his brilliant interview with Larry Page (in the year 2038).

That post inspired me to do my own interview of Philipp. Below is part one.

Philipp, when did you decide to start a blog mainly about Google?

That was in around May 2003, while staying in Malaysia. I was reading Elwyn Jenkins' Google Village blog at that time and greatly enjoyed it, but it didn't have enough daily stuff to satisfy my information hunger, so to speak... so I created just the blog I was looking for to read at the time.

What did you do before you were a blogger? Was it related to 'outer-court.com' or was that just a domain you had for fun?

In my "job life", I've always been a programmer, even while maintaining my blog. Outer-court.com was just a domain name to host my first "homepage". I started out at (gasp) Geocities in 1997, then moved to Tripod, and a bunch of other free homepage providers. Finally I got so annoyed by them introducing ads and popups, so I got my own server. I guess only when you pay for something to you have the right to expect really good service.

As for the name itself, I was looking for court.com which was taken, so I chose the next best thing. I sort of imagine an "outer court" to be a meeting place kind of thing, so I liked it. It didn't have any specific meaning so it gave me the freedom to put online whatever I felt like at this domain, which later on included my blog at a sub-domain. Nowadays, I wish I would have chosen a domain instead of a sub-domain, but at that time I didn't know how important the blog would become to my life.

When I work on a project, I always like to have the domain name. And I think you have several cool domains, like 'feeeds.com'. In fact, I'm surprised that you don't own 'googleblogoscoped.com'. Why not?

OK, I guess I already answered that one now in the previous questions. The only bonus I can think of really is that with a sub-domain, people aren't linking so much to both www.blog.outer-court.com and blog.outer-court.com. Maybe that's the only bonus of this approach. Today, I believe moving is too much hassle for my visitors because they have to adjust bookmarks, RSS readers, etc. I could just do a forwarding from somedomain.com to my blog, but then again, I'd end up with several URLs people link to, and I like to keep it extra simple.

About how many domains do you own? Do you still look to buy domains, and do have a strategy when you look for new domains?

I don't buy domains unless I have a clear idea what I want to do with them. But I guess due to the experience with my blog, I'm more willing to quickly register something for a new project, just so it's easy for people to enter the URL. There's one thing that's a pain to change later on in a web project, and that's the address.

So let me check... I have 18 domains, plus a bunch of sub-domains.

Philipp, you mention keeping things simple, and many of your posts deal with simplifying the user experience on the web. You even have made several suggested redesigns, although I can't find the post where you simplified CNN and Yahoo and others.

I suppose you're referring to the ultimate reduction usability test, in which you remove everything which you don't use from a given site...

So I'd think that you were a UI designer at one point? Is that right, or are you mainly an expert hobbyist in that area?

I'm just a hobbyist in this area, though I can use this at my job as well. I did design work and usability work in my past. I don't think there's such a thing as "usability engineer" or "interaction designer" in Germany. Often, the job descriptions are split up into concept, graphics, management and programming. I actually prefer the synergy of overlapping teams and skills in a job. Usability really is common sense, but often people don't trust their instincts and this results in overtly complicated sites... or they're just not users of their own system.

Usability to me starts with the layout, the way forms and links are set up (As Spolsky says, every time you're presenting a button or link or checkbox, you're asking the user to make a decision), continues to the way a page loads (what loads first? what will be displayed while loading? will the loading progress look smooth?), and then down to the level of HTML and CSS.

I believe there's a paradoxical difference between something that looks good and cool and professional, and something that's usable. Take the Google logo, for instance... every designer will tell you it looks like crap (pardon my French), a very amateurish design. And I agree it's kind of childish, kind of amateurish. At the same time, people love it. Sometimes simplicity and some imperfection in design can lower the psychological barrier for starting interactions. I believe if you would have presented a flashy portal to someone in 1998, and you would have presented him the Google homepage, the portal would have appeared to be much more hip, cool, and technologically interesting to people. Of course recent internet history taught us a different lesson.

Do you think the web overall is improving, in terms of simplicity?

There are different trends. While some sites are putting effort into making things simpler -- apparently inspired by Google's success -- there's also a trend more towards portalitis. Ironically, Google now is starting to be part of that trend (just think of the Google Personalized Homepage, and its new API). But overall, I think the trend is towards simplicity. For example, there's search.yahoo.com, there's a new simpler Amazon product layout (I believe it's still in a test phase).

Still, not every company is "getting it". You might think it's obvious that simplicity is great for users, but then just go to look at the web reality and compare Yahoo products with Google products. If you analyze every link, every headline, every button, you will quickly see that only one of the two companies is completely user-focused at this point.

Another area of design you seem to be very interested is in digital character design - especially sprites and small logos. I'm thinking of the the characters in your chat room and the little logos you create for some of your frequent commenters. I also remember that you gave away logos just to test the services that create logos on the web... Can you tell me more about digital characters/logos, and your interest in them?

I like to design and draw. Logos are one way to be creative on a website. I also like to draw comic book characters, cartoons, stuff like that. When I was younger, I used to read a lot of comic books. I read Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics" as a teen, and that made a big impact on my thinking... you can even apply his theories on usability, or programming. This comic book on comic books is really a great read, and it has a broad perspective, going back to social interactions of cave men. Really, you can apply everything to anything. Painting, programming, making music, and whatever.... these are all different ways of expressing ideas. Sometimes out of the synergy of these different areas, you get new ideas, which might turn into new sites or products.

 


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