The User is Never Wrong – Larry Page’s Insight

I have always been curious about the “origin stories” of startups and founders. If you had asked me to guess the deep interests that fueled Larry Page to co-found Google, I’d have guessed algorithms, AI, data mining and the like.

Perhaps they were. But I’d have missed the big one.

From The Innovators by Walter Isaacson.

The college course that made the greatest impression on him was one on human-computer interaction, taught by Judith Olson. The goal was to understand how to design interfaces that were easy and intuitive.

Page did his research paper on the display of the Eudora mail client, estimating and then testing how long it would take to perform various tasks. He discovered, for example, that command keys actually slowed people down by 0.9 second compared to using a mouse.

“I feel like I developed an intuition for how people interact with a screen, and I realized those things were pretty important,” he said. “But they’re not well understood, even to this day.”

At one point, they compared Google to Alta Vista (arguably the top search engine at that time) by searching for university and Alta Vista returned a list of random pages that happened to use that word in the title.

“I remember asking them [Alta Vista], ‘Why are you giving people garbage?'” Page said. The answer he got was that the poor results were his fault, that he should refine his search query.

“I had learned from my human-computer interaction course that blaming the user is not a good strategy, so I knew they fundamentally weren’t doing the right thing. That insight, the user is never wrong, led to this idea that we could produce a search engine that was better.”

I find it striking that Larry Page would consider “the user is never wrong” an insight.

I’d consider “the user is never wrong” a good (if somewhat obvious) principle to follow, but not an insight. Yet, by viewing it as an insight (if not a fundamental truth) and building his product so that it is consistent with this truth, Larry has built one of the greatest companies of all time.

Obviously, a great many things happened to make Google successful, but I find it inspiring to consider that this simple philosophy, brilliantly and relentlessly practiced, played a critical role.

I wonder how many cliches and platitudes out there are really insights in disguise, waiting to be put into practice?


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