Yahoo CEO Mayer talks mobile strategy, design approach

Marissa Mayer appeared with Salesforce.com's Marc Benioff at the Dreamforce conference in San Francisco

Yahoo is taking a "mobile first" approach to its product strategy, to the point where mobility could reinvent the company, according to CEO Marissa Mayer.

The Internet giant has always offered services that correlate to what people like to do on their phones, Mayer said during an onstage interview Tuesday with Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff at the Dreamforce conference in San Francisco. Once you set aside voice and text messaging, phone users are looking up weather forecasts, peering at maps and checking their stock prices, all areas where Yahoo has had popular products, Mayer said.

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Yahoo now has about 400 million mobile monthly users, according to Mayer.

"It makes me hugely optimistic," she said. "It shows we fill a core need. The services we have are perfect for this format."

Before Mayer, a former Google executive, took the Yahoo CEO position last year, the company's mobile development efforts were fragmented, seeming almost like "everybody's hobby and nobody's job," she said. Now Yahoo has grown its mobile development team to about 400 from between 30 to 60 in a year, and many of those personnel were internal transfers, she added.

Since coming aboard, Mayer has been focused on Yahoo's product design philosophy as well. "I think that if you look at the progress in design and the value that's placed on design in our culture over the past five to 10 years, it's really remarkable," Mayer said. "In the past it was really an afterthought. Get it working and then make it pretty."

The experience of actually working with the product is just as important as how it looks, Mayer said. "Companies can fall, quite frankly, too in love with design," she said. Mayer related a story about a friend whose startup failed in the dot-com boom. The company's employees wrote post-mortem white papers analyzing why the company had failed. Her friend's was titled, "Usable versus useful," she said.

Yahoo's global reach presents another challenge. "Bringing new product managers to come in and design products for the whole world is really daunting," she said. Mayer has been traveling the globe to find out "what is the pulse and the vibe of digital" in various countries.

Yahoo is also currently searching for a senior vice president of design, Mayer added.

There are about 800 million monthly users in total for Yahoo, a rise of 20 percent over the previous 15 months, Mayer said during Yahoo's third-quarter earnings results last month.

On Tuesday, she cited Yahoo's employees as a crucial component of its success moving forward. "It's my job to clear things out of the way and enable it," she said, citing a recently released Yahoo weather application that has got strong reviews. "I didn't design that, the team did it."

Benioff and Mayer's conversation was marked by an unexpected moment, when a group of people apparently protesting against Walmart interrupted the presentation with chants. Mayer sits on Walmart's board.

"If you want to do a protest you can do it outside, and it's better if you split it up that way so when that group gets arrested the other one can start," Benioff joked, comparing the strategy to the way software systems are made redundant for reliability in the event of a failure.

Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris' email address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com

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