Google at 10: Talking with Marissa Mayer: product management, prototypes and 20% time (part 3)

by David Eckoff · 0 comments

Marissa Mayer photo I had a chance to conduct a one-on-one interview last year with Marissa Mayer, Vice President, Search Products & User Experience at Google. In honor of Google’s 10th birthday, I’m publishing excerpts of the interview on my blog.

DAVID ECKOFF: Could you talk about the product management process at Google, how you go from idea to product, a high level overview?

MARISSA MAYER: Every product has its own genesis. But we gather ideas from all over the company. Some of the ideas are top down, us realizing we have strategic holes in what we’re offering our end users. A lot of the ideas are bottoms up, engineers and other employees coming up with ideas and prototypes of what they’d want to build.

From there, there definitely are phases of a product.

For example, a prototype at Google is worth 100,000 words. It’s one thing to talk to someone about an idea; it’s a whole other thing to be able to show a series of mock ups and/or a functioning website that illustrates your idea.

From there we try to put a small team on it, sometimes a volunteer effort with what we call 20% time. 20% time is a notion we have at Google that we want employees to work on whatever they want to work on regardless of it is part of their core assignment with about 20% of their time. So some of the times the prototype is developed voluntarily, other time by a small team. But generally it’s a couple of individuals who develop the prototype.
And then we launch it. We try to send it out to Google Labs as quickly as we can.

We try to launch early and often and then change the product, iterate it based on user feedback, adding more resources as something gains strength and popularity.

DAVID ECKOFF: What kind of return on investment do you see with 20% time?

MARISSA MAYER: We call it 20% time, that’s our slogan that provides our employees with a creative license to know they are empowered to spend 20% of their time to do whatever it is they feel most passionately about. Because we believe it is that kind passion that creates really great and beautiful products. At the end of the day it’s about building something that you think will be particularly powerful.

What we’ve found is that often supports the core and gives us a disproportionate return on investment.

Someone once asked me to quantify the outputs of 20% time, and I looked over our launch calendar which had all our historic launches for a 6 month period, tagging where the different ideas came from. And we realized over that 6 month period, over 50% of the products and features that had launched, came from 20% time. So it was disproportionate by a factor of about two and a half. So for us, it is very worthwhile.

DAVID ECKOFF is President of Revolutionary Ventures, a consulting company that helps businesses create new growth through innovation. Previously, he was Vice President, New Product Development & Innovation at Turner Broadcasting (CNN, TBS, TNT, Cartoon Network); Senior Director at RealNetworks; and Senior Vice President at He is currently developing a new online business dedicated to aggregating the explosion of news and discussion on the web and filtering/organizing that content by niche topics of interest to passionate fans.

Photo credit: jwowens

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