Got Ads?
  The Whole Interview with Philipp Lenssen

Philipp Lenssen in front of a Yellow gradient

Last week I posted the first part of an interview with Google Blogoscoped's Philipp Lenssen. Here's the whole thing. If you missed the first part, you can expand it inline below.

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 '' or was that just a domain you had for fun?

In my "job life", I've always been a programmer, even while mainting my blog. 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 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 ''. In fact, I'm surprised that you don't own ''. 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 and 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 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 tought 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, 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 chararcter 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. Show/Hide Part One of the Interview

Part Two: Interview with Philipp Lenssen

How does a typical day go for you - you seem to have many interests, how do you allocate the time you spend "working/earning money" vs. "creative thinking" vs. writing vs artwork etc.?

I quit my day job a few months ago to try and pursue all of my projects (which are often team projects) full-time. At the moment, I'm trying to turn some of my hobby projects, including my blogs, into an actual job, but there's still a few steps to be taken.

Sometimes, there's just a routine you go through, for example I spend about 1-2 hours blogging everyday even if nothing important happened, just to go through deleting comment spam, checking email tips I get, reading up on blog news along the subjects I blog about. If there's a breaking news then I take half an hour or an hour to write it up, so with several breaking news that might turn into several hours of blogging everyday.

At times (you can ask my girlfriend!) I'm a bit absent-minded, and that's because I'm thinking about new ideas very often through-out the day. You can look at anything around you and get new ideas, get new content, or approaches. And once you got something, you can become very restless until it's implemented, written, drawn etc. I guess to allocate all this time you need a healthy dose of disinterest in things that don't fascinate you, that you don't deeply love. I really love blogging, programming, drawing, creating, etc.

I know you like PHP, but what are some of your other favorite tools for creativity?

For layouts, I use Corel PhotoPaint, since about forever (their software hasn't improved much in new versions, either). For pixel-based jobs, like cartoon sprites, I use PaintShop Pro 4, which is really old but really great for small stuff -- like 64x64 icons and such. If you want to do pixel-based work in PhotoPaint, the first thing you'll do is disabled dozens of brush, feather, transparency etc. options and then it's also just not as precise. In fact, PhotoPaint has quite a few "off by 1" bugs. You just can't be precise in it. At one time I learned Photoshop but didn't really like it, mostly because it doesn't follow any Windows OS interface standards.

As for programming, I'm using everything that comes along or is available and that doesn't break my brain. PHP, Python, Java, ASP, ASP.NET, like C#, and so on. If I'd have to pick a favorite it'd be Python because it scores in terms of "syntax usability"... it's almost like pseudo-code, and at the same time very powerful. It's a very beautiful and elegant language, even though it's not perfect... it breaks its own syntax simplicity approach in several places by bringing back colons etc., which are not necessary and clutter the code.

In other syntaxes, I often wonder... you know, hey compiler, when you can show me an error message like "semi-colon is missing in line 12", then why don't you fix it yourself? PHP error messages, by the way, are often highly cryptic. Still, at the moment I'm using mostly PHP (5), simply because it has the best deployment/ support in common server packages, and also because it has a great giant library for lazy people. PHP5 has great HTML screenscraping capabilities, and great XML capabilities.

How much time per day do you spend in Photoshop? Are you an expert at it?

Guess I answered that one above...

And, along the same lines, how big is your monitor(s), and what is your main computer set-up like?

19" monitor, Win XP, along with a Wacom table, a scanner, and no printer.

"I often wonder... you know, hey compiler, when you can show me an error message like "semi-colon is missing in line 12", then why don't you fix it yourself?"

I think that quote says a lot about how you think and work. And it leads me to one of my favorite leit-motifs of yours - writing the future. You've done several posts where you imagine that you are in the future (trademarks of the future, blogging from the future, etc), and you look back on events. Your recent interview with Larry Page in 2038 was a tour-de-force. I think that takes a lot of creativity, and most people just don't have the patience to work it all out.

Maybe you should be a highly paid futurist strategy consultant? I'm imagining that you have become a highly paid future-sultant, but can't keep up with all the business coming your way, so you've decided to train a team of smart people to be 'future thinkers' - what would you tell them?

I suppose I'd tell them to think different, to look into the past to understand where we are now and might go, and to put things into a bigger perspective. I once read about something, like, aliens watching our planet through their telescope... and they would make totally wrong cause & effect assumptions. Like, they might assume that when people have an umbrella, that this will cause rain... I suppose it was Douglas Adams who wrote this, he wrote a lot of stuff in this direction. I guess futurists are a bit like those aliens, watching humans from afar and making assumptions, and only some of them will turn out to be right. Lucky for futurists that judgment is passed long after they're dead...

Alright. Back to terra firma. What is it like sitting in Germany and observing Google (80% of the time)? Do you think that many of your casual readers would even guess that you are German, and are rather far removed from Silicon Valley? I guess I wonder if you think it is remarkable and if there are any specific obstacles to being an international blogger?

Sometimes my time zone is a bonus, sometimes it's not, depending on the time Google releases stuff. I'm covering Google with a focus on the web sites, not the company. To me, the recent Billion dollar AOL for example is an interesting footnote, but I find it far more exciting to hear about a new Google service. Because that's the stuff we can use, and mostly it doesn't matter where you are, and that's the stuff readers of my blog can immediately play around with.

Of course, sometimes it does matter where you're located. For example, Google Maps is far less exciting to me because it doesn't contain any noteworthy details for my country. Google Video is completely disabled, unless you use the Google Web Accelerator. These things make my life a little bit harder, but then again, I also gain a valuable perspective. I guess it's kind of hard to tell what it would be like to be blogging from the US, I can't really compare as I've never done this. Naturally if I'd live next to the Googleplex I'd visit more often (if they'd let me in). I did blog in Malaysia, and it wasn't much of a difference. I guess the web is truly global. The world slowly adapts.

You implied above that Google's user interfaces show that it is more focused on the needs of its users than Yahoo. What else do you think sets Google apart? And what do you think they need to change in order to stay on top?

What else sets Google apart? Well, they don't announce things. Take Microsoft. They announced IE7 ages ago (in web time). Google doesn't announce, they just release. Sometimes I wake up in the morning, check the web for news, and I realize Google released yet another service over night, seemingly out of nowhere. This makes it a lot of fun to have a Google blog, even when it's often the hectic kind of fun.

Maybe a few months ago I would have added that their services always scale and are faster than the rest, but that's not true anymore. The recent Google releases have almost all been slow, sometimes to the point you couldn't use them. Before this only happened with Orkut, which was more of a "powered by" thing than a real Google product. But now, it's happening with core Google products. There's a phase of release frenzy which hopefully is followed by a phase of consolidation, or if they can pull off both at the same time, even better.

What else? Maybe that they're kind of following their own vision without caring too much of what the rest does in terms of web technologies or trends. They sort of kickstarted Ajax with Google Maps, Google Suggest and so on, and then everybody follows them. Naturally that's no way to win the competition, to look at their current tools and then build on the same to be released in 1 year... because in 1 year they might have the next big thing. (Look at Gmail, and how competitors like Yahoo then updated their mail clients as a result.) They also get a lot of stuff wrong, no doubt, especially when it comes to W3C, semantics and so on... they kind of just released a spec for homepage widgets which contains some very "short term" limited scope syntax details (the "title_url" attribute, for example). But in general, I think Google is really a long term company, without thinking too much about today's web competition. If they will be successful with that, and keep that vision, who knows...


Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Subscribe to GotAds?


Recent Posts

The Whole Interview with Philipp Lenssen


February 2005 /  March 2005 /  April 2005 /  May 2005 /  June 2005 /  July 2005 /  August 2005 /  September 2005 /  October 2005 /  November 2005 /  December 2005 /  January 2006 /  February 2006 /  March 2006 /  April 2006 /  May 2006 /  June 2006 /  July 2006 /  August 2006 /  September 2006 /  October 2006 /  November 2006 /  December 2006 /  January 2007 /  February 2007 /  March 2007 /  April 2007 /  May 2007 /  June 2007 /  July 2007 /  August 2007 /  September 2007 /  October 2007 /  November 2007 /  December 2007 /  January 2008 /  February 2008 /  March 2008 /  April 2008 /  May 2008 /  June 2008 /  July 2008 /  August 2008 /  September 2008 /  November 2008 /  December 2008 /  January 2009 /  March 2009 /