Google’s ‘Cultural Achilles Heel’?

picture-18As reported by SEL and on Techmeme, designer Douglas Bowman has left Google — out of some frustration it appears. Here are the relevant paragraphs from his post:

When I joined Google as its first visual designer, the company was already seven years old. Seven years is a long time to run a company without a classically trained designer. Google had plenty of designers on staff then, but most of them had backgrounds in CS or HCI. And none of them were in high-up, respected leadership positions. Without a person at (or near) the helm who thoroughly understands the principles and elements of Design, a company eventually runs out of reasons for design decisions. With every new design decision, critics cry foul. Without conviction, doubt creeps in. Instincts fail. “Is this the right move?” When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems. Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data. Data in your favor? Ok, launch it. Data shows negative effects? Back to the drawing board. And that data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions.

Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such miniscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.

I’ve always discussed the “Google culture” as instrumental in its search success compared with Yahoo! and Microsoft, more mature companies that have struggled to innovate and execute in some circumstances. But these paragraphs very precisely reveal what may be Google’s great Achilles Heel from a cultural standpoint: its overreliance on data and a certain kind of rational-emprical thinking.

That approach has clearly served the company very well in most areas, but there are circumstances when intuition and instinct, individual opinion and other non-quantifiable factors drive better decision making. I’m fascinated by this.

What do others think? Is Bowman on to something or is he just expressing a personal beef because he’s not a quant or engineer?

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9 Responses to “Google’s ‘Cultural Achilles Heel’?”

  1. Rich Rosen Says:

    Greg – Yahoo tried to solve that problem with Terry Semel (intuition and instinct from the entertainment industry). Having once worked at Time Warner, I was a big fan of what Semel should have brought to Yahoo. Its a hard balance between data and gut.

  2. Carey Says:

    I agree that a balance is the optimal situation. The Internet provides huge opportunities for new designs/experiences and many of the breakthrough web experiences have been design-driven and bold, not born from pure data. Bowman’s experience also shows that cultures are really hard to change.

  3. Roland Kofler Says:

    gmail, chrome, reader, maps, adwords … all percepted as well designed
    and search considered a masterpiece!

    To me Google UX evidently works and did way better than other big players (e.g. MS, Yahoo)

  4. So Google Wants More SMB Content? « Screenwerk Says:

    [...] It’s fairly easy to imagine: conventional radio, a few well-placed TV ad buys, full page ads in some metro dailies and online video. Maybe is requires a revamp of the LBC at some level to make that more intuitive. The point here is that Google has many creative options to directly reach SMBs and build awareness, which might or might not include conventional marketing. But its general resistance to doing so might be considered another “cultural weakness.”  [...]

  5. Google Maps: What might customer service look like? » Understanding Google Maps & Yahoo Local Search Says:

    [...] problem why is Google unable to allocate the resources to provide customer service? Who knows? (see Greg’s post for a possible [...]

  6. Aaron Sperling Says:

    Is Bowman saying that his intuition is more accurate than the results from the testing? If so, it sounds like they need to recalibrate the tests. I suspect that the test are working.

  7. Google Places: What might customer service look like? | Understanding Google Maps & Local Search Says:

    [...] problem why is Google unable to allocate the resources to provide customer service? Who knows? (see Greg’s post for a possible [...]

  8. Andrew Huskinson (@AndrewsPlaces) Says:

    For 18 months I have been trying my best to provide customer support for my fellow ‘mushrooms’ or SMB’s like me. Whilst latterly most posts are adequately answered, and if users did a search for their problem first there would be less, its an uphill struggle. Google seem totally unable to read and analyse the Google Places Help Forum posts and take remedial measures. Many issue have been repeated time and time again. I do my best analysing the ‘Blue Box’ and suggesting, often simple, improvements.

    It just seems poor PR, and google are poor at many simple things, to not adequately deal with Places issues.

    It is hard to build up a good reputation, and after 18 months on the forum I have, but its even harder to start from a negative point. At some point someone within google needs to wake up to the long term damage its inactivity in the customer support area is doing and will do to it.

  9. Google Places: What might customer service look like? | iGo Mobile Marketing Says:

    [...] problem why is Google unable to allocate the resources to provide customer service? Who knows? (see Greg’s post for a possible [...]

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