Interview

Googling the Students by Bus

An interview with Google's Jeff Keltner

Last fall, Google sent a retro bus full of technology and Google Apps for Education experts across the United States to visit 10 higher education campuses. At the end of the road, CT asked Jeff Keltner to reflect on his company's intriguing Google "road trip." (Photo: Keltner speaking outside the Google Apps bus, by Mary Grush.)

What is your main reaction, reflecting back on your road trip this past fall with the Google bus to 10 higher education institutions?

It was really great to get out and talk to the students. It gave us such a different perspective from what we get a lot of times talking with administration about concerns like privacy, security, and integration. This time we spoke to the students who were actually using the [Google Apps] service, and it was fabulous.

What kinds of involvement with Google Apps did you find with the students?

I can break the conversations into two groups, very different but we saw them with equal frequency. There were some students who had used every service under the sun that Google provides, and many of them asked questions I had no idea how to answer. They are so much deeper into the products than even some of us at Google are, and they are doing all different kinds of amazing things. Some students are managing their band schedule on Google Calendar: all their gigs and who's coming. Some are managing an entire TV station: all the scheduling, the information about the equipment, and the reporting run out of Google Docs, Google Calendar, and Google Sites. But at the same time we had the students who could see doing all that, if only they had known more about it--their eyes lit up as we went through the demos.

Do you imagine that if you do another tour next year, the ratio between those two groups will change?

I hope so! If we're doing our jobs right, absolutely. In fact we saw the ratios change while we were there at the schools this past fall.

What insights did you gain for your developers by talking to students as end users?

First, we once had an assumption that students would "just find" the products. We had thought the little links in the upper left were going to be all it took--that turned out not to be as much the case as we had previously thought. Second, the students talked about the need for speed and for collaboration-two things we were already focused on, but these needs were reiterated for us by the students. And the last thing I'd say from a developer's perspective brings to mind an old quote from Henry Ford: "If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse." So we will focus more on what the user needs to do, than on what the user asks for from a feature perspective. What is the user trying to do and how can we make it easier for them, even easier than they'd expect?

Is it a goal to make Google Apps highly customizable--to develop them not only in a mix-and-match way, but in a way that gives people a sense of "this is my tool" personalization?

I think we try really hard to do that. One of a couple of major dictates that come down from the top at Google is: Focus on the user--all else will follow. If we make the user happy, all else will flow from there, from the whole business perspective. It's the absolute truth of how we look at product design and development. Now I think it's a real struggle for us, because we're setting a balance between allowing lots of customization--so you can make the tool "just the way you want"--and the user getting lost in so many options. We try to strike a balance between allowing you to make the tool really yours, and allowing the tool to be so simple that you really don't think of yourself as using it. After all, when you think of really great technology, it's technology you almost don't realize you're using.

And what did you learn about what students need to hear about Google Apps?

We don't just need to show students the tool; we need to show them what it can do. But within Google, because we all use these tools, we tend to start thinking of them as tools to do what we ourselves do with them. Yet from students we hear things like, "We use this to avoid walking outside in the cold," or "We use the calendar to track where the free food is on campus." These types of stories really drive home the point that we can't think of the tools just the way we think of them; we have to be open to the way the user thinks of the tool. And that's both in how you develop the tools and in the messaging you create for students. The last thing I want to do is to restrict the user to the way I think of the tools. I just want to make sure I don't cut them off in their creativity with the particular way I think about the tools.

Can you share some of the student stories you captured with us?

We had a video crew following us everywhere we went. We took somewhere over 20 hours of video. We really want to share the material we collected--the stories we tracked and the video we took--to start messaging the students to help them understand what they can do with these powerful tools. You'll see us doing that more and more over the coming months.

[Editor's note: The official Google Blog post on the App to School road trip is: http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2009/02/students-share-their-apps-stories.html. Click on "playlist," a live link in the third paragraph to browse through a large collection of "Appy Trails," "App to School," and "Apps student story" videos highlighting the student stories on YouTube. For a story about the beginning of the road trip, see "Driving Google Apps for Education," http://campustechnology.com/articles/2008/09/driving-google-apps-for-education.aspx.]


About the Author

Mary Grush is Editor and Conference Program Director, Campus Technology.

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