Google: the limitations of design by data
The recent departure of Google’s Head Designer, Doug Bowman, has sparked a flurry of debate across the internet on Google’s design philosophy. Google’s ability to efficiently harness information has been central to its success as a search engine. However, there are question marks over whether an over-reliance on data in design has hampered Google’s visual identity and ultimately its ability to create a brand that people will pay for.
The drawbacks of design by data
A post on Doug Bowman’s blog explains his reason for leaving the internet giant: namely that visual design is not taken seriously at Google. Bowman, now Creative Director of Twitter, highlights the fact that Google operated for seven years without a classically trained visual designer. This resulted in a culture that favours hard data over creative thinking, something that has had a detrimental effect on Google’s visual aesthetic:
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.
In one sense, Google can be seen to have had a clear design strategy from the outset. When it first hit the mainstream, Google’s search engine instantly stood out from rivals such as Yahoo and AOL due to its simplicity and clarity of purpose. Indeed, usability has always been a strength of Google’s and that has continued with more recent ventures such as Gmail.
Don’t get me wrong, nothing is more frustrating than those turn-of-the-century flash sites where you had to wait ten minutes for the splash screen to load just to access the menu of your local Chinese takeaway. Analytics and consumer testing have played a key role in promoting usability and Google should be recognised for its commitment to this. However, while data can tell you what works and what doesn’t, it can not be relied on to create compelling user experiences in the first place. Scott Stevenson (via Rob Morris’ beautifully designed DigitalMash) argues that for Google, the missing piece is imagination:
An experienced designer knows that humans do not operate solely on reason and logic. They’re heavily influenced by emotions and perceptions. Even more frustratingly, they often lie to you about their reactions because they don’t want to be seen as imperfect.
But it’s not just empathy that data lacks. The one indisputable advantage humans have over data is imagination. I realize this is often overplayed and sounds like hyperbole. But I mean it literally. The ability to step outside of what you’ve seen and consider how something that doesn’t exist yet may yet exist is at the center of everything we do. Imagination is what allows us to consider if we should try to gather a different kind of data.
If a designer in Bowman’s position has to spend every day trying to educate an unreceptive audience, that person will eventually no longer be able to do the job they were hired for. It’s no surprise, then, that designers gravitate towards places where they can skip the education step and get right to work.
History books portray Einstein as a brilliant physicist, which he was. His understanding of scientific methods allowed him to refine and articulate his ideas. But that alone wasn’t the reason he changed the world. His genius was imagining things that no one else had thought of, which he then set out to describe. He was two things in one: a scientist and a dreamer.
Putting a price on design
Given Google’s phenomenal growth and ongoing popularity, some might think this entire discussion is pretty academic, one for the design geeks who just want another excuse to bang on about Apple. However, there’s an important distinction between a product or service that does the job and one that is a joy to use: according to Landor’s Larry Green, that difference is whether people are prepared to pay to use it:
Since so many technology companies covet and would love to emulate the kind of phenomenal success Apple has had with the iPhone, maybe the time has come to begin taking visual design seriously. Perhaps now is the time to focus on transforming visual design into a competitive advantage, a way to build relevant differentiation into products…Customers know ugly when they see it. And it’s not really a trigger for driving purchases, or a recipe for premium pricing. Did you notice, by the way, that Google, Facebook, and Twitter also have something else in common? They’re all (currently) free.
Larry Green, Corporate Web Director, Landor Associates
Green is right to highlight the iPhone. In internet search, Google may be untouchable, however, where visual design may let it down is its next major battleground: mobile phones.
While people may not be prepared to shell out for PC software, mobiles are a different story. Mobiles are the ultimate lifestyle accessory and one that consumers are used to paying for, even if indirectly through operators. While design may not be too much of an issue when you’re getting something for free, when you’re shelling out hundreds of dollars it suddenly becomes more important, particularly when it is something that goes everywhere with you.
Google’s lack of control over handset design puts it at a disadvantage from the outset: the importance of a visually rich, premium user experience is therefore paramount. If Android is to topple the iPhone, perhaps Google needs to think again about the emphasis it puts on visual design.
To find out more about Google’s attitude to design, check out its User Experience Principles.