Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.


Navigate / search

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.

Doug Bowman

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

Apples iPhone v Googles G1
Apple’s iPhone v Google’s G1

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.

Related posts:

  1. Using Google to reveal what matters to us most
  2. Google’s Magical Mystery Tour
  3. Seagull Vs chip – Google Street View’s accidental heroes


Nick Finck

Very interesting post, Ben. I think you have some valid points. I have been looking at the issue of Google being data-centric from another perspective as well; the lack of qualitative feedback. I have seen other businesses and agencies go the route of relying on hard and fast data to drive all of their business decisions. It’s an over-emphasis on analytics and leads to analysis peristalsis.

A balance is needed between quantitative analytics and qualitative user research. What do the users feel about the lack of emphasis on the visual design? Are users more or less able to perform their tasks based on how it was designed? When they talk about your product what is the general outcome; positive or negative? Do the users feel a sense of brand affinity to the new design? etc. etc.

I personally think the best designs are when you find a sweet spot between business goals, user needs, and technology constraints. Anything less is just either look at numbers and hoping, being a yes man, or designing for a billion edge cases.

Jared M. Spool

Great post!

I’m wondering how much of what we see at Google has to do with an impedance mismatch behind “design thinking” versus “engineering thinking.” (Please don’t confuse my reference to “design thinking” to the current Design Thinking fad.

In my experience, people, like Doug, who are designer-types, think about the design process and solutions very differently than people who are engineer-types, like most of who Doug had to work with. There’s no right or wrong way here, but they just think about process and differently.

Part of this, I think, comes from training and education. Designers who are trained through a classical Graphic Design or Art progam are trained with tools like critique and studio. Engineers are trained with a different approach, using an analytical deconstructive set of problem solving.

To produce great designs, you need both, but the disconnect in communication makes it difficult. The fact that Doug had to explain why he was choosing one border width versus something else shows a lack of fundamental understanding of the designer’s approach. (From what I know of Doug, I’m sure he wasn’t asking the engineers to make similar rationalizations of their detailed choices, so that must’ve been frustrating.)

From our research at UIE, the best teams are those that have a solid understanding of the fundamentals across the entire team. Engineers understand design fundamentals and designers understand engineering fundamentals. This solid team-wide background solves many communication issues and allows people to quickly get to higher-level conversations, necessary for solving the big problems.


Couldn’t agree more. I think the battle for the handset OS/smartphone market is going to be very much based not just on functionality but look and feel as well. It’s been proven elsewhere that the G1 with it’s open platform has huge potential. But I think crucially what Apple have got right is also the handset – for the moment I think that will win consumers over.

Ben de Castella

Thanks Nick. I think that’s a great point about the need to balance quant data with a more enquiring, qualitative approach to understand the ‘why?’: there’s an obvious danger in not seeking to understand the rationale behind user or consumer behaviour.

But also important is the need to have imagination and conviction in what you’re doing. The Henry Ford quote about faster horses springs to mind, I also like Stevenson’s point about the fact that consumers do not always tell you the truth for fear of seeming imperfect. I think we are all guilty of this at times, a good example is when asked questions like ‘How much money do you donate to charity?’.

This over-reliance on data in decision-making is becoming increasingly pervasive in the current climate, where arse-covering-at-all-costs seems to be the standard M.O for corporate managers living in fear of retrenchment. Unfortunately, the logical end point is complete inertia as doing nothing becomes preferable to taking any kind of a risk.

Related to this reliance on data, it seems that Google underestimates the importance of emotional factors. Arguably this is because, as Jared points out, it is fundamentally an engineering-driven organisation. However, to me this somehow seems at odds with its touchy-feely, “let’s break for softball and muffins” philosophy.

Nic: spot on in regard to the importance of look and feel. The iPhone is evidence of this – on launch it trailed competitors in terms of price, camera megapixels and speed of connection, yet all these factors were trumped by the fact that it looks great (both the handset and what is on it), and is a breeze to use.

I was having a conversation earlier about Android and the fact that it is designed around attracting developers to the platform. However, while facilitating open innovation is important, as the success of the iPhone app store shows, ultimately it is consumers who call the shots, not developers. Developers will gravitate towards platforms that consumers embrace, not the other way around, and look and feel matters a lot more to consumers than APIs.

Jared M. Spool

I think you’re on to something with regard to understanding the emotional qualities of a design. Those qualities are measurable, but it’s harder to do so because there’s a lot more noise in the data.

Going forward, I think we’ll see more of that come into our understanding of what makes good design good.