Page last updated at 11:49 GMT, Saturday, 7 June 2008 12:49 UK

Google's experimental Gmail toys

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

In a first, Google is opening up its testing process by calling on tens of millions of Gmail users to put new features of the service through their paces.

Gmail Labs has launched 13 settings for users to play around with and tell engineers directly what they think of them.

screen setting
The most popular features will become part of the Gmail product
The new developments, which are only available in the UK and the US, show up as a red tab at the top of the page.

Gmail product manager Keith Coleman says: "This marks a big change in the way the company does product development."

Generally speaking products are tested internally on Google staff for weeks if not months and then refined before being released to the public.

Never before has the firm opened up the testing process and brought in outsiders on such a large scale. Smaller scale usability tests have been done with invited visitors.

Mr Coleman says: "We want to take the next step and let Gmail users help us do that refinement."

Old Snakey

The new settings include things like Pictures in Chat, which puts portraits in chat sessions, and Superstars, which lets you put different icons on mail. Old Snakey lets you play the classic game in Gmail and E-mail Addict forces you to take a screen break by locking you out of the Gmail for 15 minutes.

Keith Coleman of Gmail
Keith Coleman: "We are looking for little nuggets of innovation"
Mr Coleman says the features are "really rough and have gone through no filtering in terms of product analysis or design analysis".

"They have just gone through a general code review process to make sure they are safe to run.

"They have also gone through less testing than a typical feature would. But what this is is a way to take our ideas and get them out to the public."

After testing, users will get the chance to tell the developers directly what they think of them. The most popular are likely to become a regular part of the Gmail product.

Time for ideas

The service was unveiled to a small group of journalists, including the BBC, who had been invited to Building 47 at the Googleplex for a rare view of the team at work.

ideas board
Every idea is treated as having value

Normally such spaces are off-limits to people outside the company.

As well as being shown the new service ahead of release, we were also walked through the offices where engineers take 20% of their time to come up with ideas and work on them. The 20% time is part of Google's core ethos.

"The idea behind Labs is that any engineer can go to lunch, come up with a cool idea, code it up, and ship it as a Labs feature to tens of millions of users," explains Mr Coleman.

Staff write suggestions on a whiteboard to keep track of everything being played around with and who is working on what.

Another display shows how many bugs an upcoming application needs to get fixed and which engineer is working on it.

Spam Tsar

The whole workspace is divided into areas covering various aspects of Gmail from the calendar to documents and from the reader to spam.

Brad Taylor
Brad Taylor, the Spam Tsar who keeps Gmail free from offers you don't want

The guys fighting to keep spam out of the Gmail inbox are tucked away in a dark corner of the office. Brad Taylor is known as the Spam Tsar, a title he quite enjoys.

He has been working on Gmail since its public launch in 2004 and says he has seen a real growth in the amount of unsolicited e-mail flooding into the system.

"Originally when we launched 25% of e-mail was spam. We caught a lot of that. Over time it's grown and grown and currently around 75% of all e-mail is spam and so our job has got a lot harder."

Top secret

In the heart of this open space is the so-called "war room".

Here half a dozen engineers are huddled into a cramped office to work on top secret projects. Everyone there was tight-lipped about what the next big thing coming out of the room would be but helpfully quipped that it was a new colour.

war room
Dreaming up the future of Gmail
Todd Jackson, another Gmail product manager, was more serious when he said that the engineers didn't leave until they had either solved a particular problem or fully developed a new feature.

Situated next to the office cafe is the Usability Lab, where Gmail invites small groups of six to eight people to test new applications to see how they will fare with the general public.

Nika Smith, who helps run the Lab, says instead of having a two-way mirror to watch participants and how they interact with a product, they are a little more high-tech.

"We have this little hidden camera next to some flowers and one in the corner of the room. We just want to know how they use Gmail and see from the users' perspective what their experience is like.

"Then we just watch how they interact with the product and work out what improvements are needed."

A-Team

Perhaps one of the coolest areas in the Gmail Lab is the site reliability room, which is just past a sign that says "Hippies Use Backdoor".

Decked out with a slew of monitors and computers, there is also a selection of drinks, a drum kit and a couple of guitars. On the wall hangs a whiteboard with a wish-list of things like "surround sound, a Wii Fit machine and a bigger TV".

The overall Lab space is like any other nondescript office, albeit with a few fun quirks here and there such as naming every printer and copier after TV shows like The A-Team and All in the Family.

But sometimes things do get serious, and everyone is on a pager and gets an alert when something goes amiss with the site.

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