When you're the lone social scientist in the room at Google, sometimes it's your job to spoil everyone's fun. That's life for human factors psychologist Dawn Shaikh, PhD, who runs research studies for two teams of what she calls "hard-core computer science geniuses" who are creating Google's new fonts and font-related tools.
She's tasked with keeping her cohorts focused on what people say they want in a font or tool she's testing — a role that often involves nixing features her engineers want to add for their own merriment, such as an option to sort fonts by designer that her data show no one will use. "The engineers here can literally build anything," says Shaikh. "Sometimes they want to build something incredible, just because they can. But we don't always need all the bells and whistles."
One of the two teams Shaikh works with is creating fonts for use in less industrialized nations. "In a lot of countries, there aren't fonts that are appropriate for onscreen reading and we are trying to change that," says Shaikh, who is based at Google's Kirkland, Wash., offices. One example is Ethiopic, a 277-character alphabet that supports five languages spoken in and around Ethiopia. Working with translators, Shaikh spent a week in New York earlier this year interviewing Ethiopic experts and asking native speakers to evaluate a mock-up of Ethiopic's characters and spacing on a mobile device. She'll pass data to designers and engineers who are creating the Ethiopic font, which Google will own but anyone will be able to use. "We have a saying on our team, 'What's good for the Web is good for Google,'" says Shaikh. "By creating more fonts, we are enabling more content we can index on our search engine."
Times New Roman, Meet "The Girl Next Door"
The other half of her job involves running studies for Google's Web fonts team, a group that's creating new typefaces to liven up online content, distinguished by such quirky monikers as "Cherry Cream Soda" and "The Girl Next Door." Shaikh surveys Web designers on the look and readability of established fonts and the ones they're creating. Her team is also building an online tool that will help people choose the best Google font for their Web pages.
A Balanced Soul
Life as a "Googler" has few dull moments. When Shaikh isn't traveling to New York, London, Dublin or Munich for conferences or research, she's in Kirkland enjoying her office's climbing wall, foosball tables, on-site catering, coffee bar, soda fountain and other perks. Unlike many employees, she rarely works nights or weekends, so she can spend time with her husband and two daughters, ages 14 and 12. "I took a hard stand on my work time," says Shaikh, who worked as an intern at the company before coming on full time in 2007. "I've always had supportive managers who don't want me to burn out."
Favorite Google Perk
When Shaikh visits the "Googleplex," the company's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., she loves to use the assortment of bikes they provide for employees to trek around the expansive campus, especially the facility's seven-seat conference bikes. "Meetings are so much fun when you're on a bike with six other people," says Shaikh.
Big Adventure Ahead
Shaikh and her family will spend 2012 in India; Shaikh will be working as an "engineering ambassador" in Google's Bangalore office, with the job of increasing employee awareness about how research affects design and engineering. "I'm looking forward to learning about Indian culture and work life, and eating lots of fresh mangoes," she says.