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Summary:

Google is taking it on the chin, thanks to reported delays with Google TV software. While clearly an issue, it’s part of a much larger problem for the company as it diversifies from its search and advertising core businesses to more consumer-centric applications.

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When I first met Larry Page and Sergey Brin back in the 20th century, my first impressions about them included phrases like super-smart, engineer’s engineers and minimalists. They argued against the clutter that was AltaVista (for you youngsters it was a great search engine before Google) and wanted their creation – Google – to be the exact opposite and focus on finding things on the web really, really quickly:

‘Today’s portals are not really about search, but instead they are all about pageviews and other services,’ says Page. ‘We are all about search and pure search, while the other guys think of themselves as media companies, not as search engines any more,’ quips Brin. (from my story for Forbes.com)

They knew search queries were nothing without a super infrastructure to support those queries. But more importantly, they knew simplicity of that experience would endear them to the masses. Google came up with a clean white page that featured nothing but the Google logo, one small box for entering your queries and the search button. That was a perfect solution, and I bet Apple’s Steve Jobs would have a tough time finding fault with it. One look at the page and you knew exactly what to do next.

Now for the first ten or so years of Google’s life, that simple search-box driven philosophy worked well for the Mountain View, Calif-based Internet giant. It also found a way to augment that simplicity with a text-ads-based business model, which has turned the company into a nearly $30 billion a year behemoth.

Google’s Consumer Future

As it looks at its future, Google needs to realize that it has a “user experience” problem and its simplicity — the elegant search box — isn’t enough, especially as it starts to compete with rivals whose entire existence revolves around easy, consumer experiences. To me, user experience isn’t about making things pretty and using pretty icons. Instead it’s about making simple, beautiful, usable and user-friendly interfaces.

No one can argue with Google’s ability to engineer great software — they’ve done so in the past — but that simply isn’t good enough in the new worlds they are trying to conquer. Televisions, phones, productivity applications and even Google’s own local pages are less about search and more about engagement: something not core to the company’s corporate DNA. Here are three major challenges Google needs to surmount:

  • Make software usable by tens of millions of people on a disparate array of products.
  • Overcome its history of only using data to define its future.
  • Figure out how to keep people in their playground, rather than helping people find the information they were looking for and sending them elsewhere: a radical new approach to business.

Those problems are behind the issues the company is facing with some of its products. Yesterday, the New York Times reported that Google was postponing the release of Google TV software, which in turn would delay its partners’ plans to show connected televisions at the Consumer Electronics Show 2011 (CES). Google TV software has come under criticism for being too complex.


Such challenges aren’t unique to Google TV, though they might be most acute because of its newness. For the past few days, I’ve been using a Nexus S, a smartphone made by Samsung on behalf of Google using Android OS – which is arguably an OS engineered for a cloud-centric world. The hardware, as one would expect from Samsung, is of top-notch quality. The T-Mobile 3G network delivers most, if not all, of the time. Most of the apps I love are also available on the device.

Yet the Android OS leaves me feeling like one feels three hours after having Chinese food: a tad empty. That’s not to say millions of devices won’t sell with Android on them, but the OS  lacks the smoothness and fluidity of Apple’s iOS. It takes a few more gestures to get things done on Android. When I use the iPod touch, I can feel the obvious differences in the user experience. It’s one of the main reasons why Android’s biggest supporters — HTC, Samsung and Motorola — are adding their own user-experience shell on top of Android.

Lest you call me an Android-hater, Andy Rubin, one of the co-fathers of Android, recently acknowledged at an industry event: “I would probably characterize Android today as an enthusiast product for early adopters — or wives of tech enthusiasts.”  Recently, I got the Cr-48, a Chrome OS-based laptop for trials. After using it for a few days, I pointed out in a review that the Chrome OS interface “is rough around the edges,” and that most of the Chrome OS web apps were still a work in progress.

Google TV (based on Android), Google Android, and Google Chrome OS are complex software that have a unique challenge: They need to work on disparate devices in disparate form factors. It’s a unique quandary that would fox any company, and is particularly challenging for a company used to offering us the web through a single search box. Even Microsoft didn’t have a task that challenging with its desktop-oriented Windows OS. It ran on a single platform, and whenever Microsoft tried to adapt it to new platforms, well, you know what happened.

When Past Defines the Future

Doug Bowman, currently the design head honcho at San Francisco-based Twitter, said in a blog post about his time at Google:

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.

Those are harsh words, but also true from a guy who worked on projects that included Google Calendar. That said, I totally understand that Google would be very careful about its user interface, especially around web services. Given it has hundreds of millions of users, one can’t fault them for being data-driven in their approach to user experience and user interaction. However, that argument doesn’t work, especially as it starts pushing more consumer-centric products.

Unlike the web and search, where it defined the user experience, in the world of physical goods, Google has to compete with the likes of Apple, which starts designing products with user experience as the life-force. Google has to learn the art of engagement — something particularly challenging.

Google, during its first ten years, thrived by helping people go elsewhere on the web. The faster it sent them elsewhere, the sooner those users would return. However, these new platforms Google is trying to build are inherently personal. Unlike the PC-based web browser which tries to help you find things, these new platforms are about bringing information to you. They are about discovery, not search.

Google is like an old dog trying to learn new tricks. The good news is that Google isn’t that old, and more importantly, the company knows it has a problem and is trying to find ways to fix it.  Rubin isn’t the only Google executive who has been vocal about building better user experiences. David Girouard, who heads up Google’s cloud efforts, told me the company is working on building better user experiences for their apps as well as other Google offerings.

Knowing you have a problem is the first step; fixing it is the next one. Hopefully, Google does that fast.

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  1. Great article, Om.

    1. Thanks Brian.

  2. Golly, wonder why this joke of a site gets almost no traffic…

    Oh wait! That’s right, it’s dimwitted fanboy posts like this one…

    How humiliating it must that Om Malik can’t even get a fraction of the traffic teenagers and college kids do on their tech social media sites.

    Om Malik, the Internet doesn’t give a damn what you have to say.

    http://s1.wp.com/wp-content/themes/vip/gigaom/img/submit.png?m=1281569096g

    1. …says the anonymous troll.

      1. Appreciate the support Ian :-)

  3. >As it looks at its future, Google needs to realize that it has a “user experience” problem

    Agree and along these lines an increasing case of iOS envy

  4. There’s a hyper critical core philosophy not mentioned in this Google bashing post…

    Google products, like Android, are for people who can think for themselves. iPhone is for the weak willed who like to be told what to do.

    That same difference permeates itself to Google TV vs. Apple TV, Chrome vs. Safari, and soon, Chrome OS vs. OSX

    As long as Google products continue to encourage you to be an independent person, even if that means putting up with the “issues” mentioned in this post, they will succeed in the long run.

    Should Google abandon the free thinker philosophy for its products, and begin to cater to the lowest common denominator of people whose wallets are a substitute for logic, ala the Cult of Mac, they be regulated to the mediocrity Om has cursed them with above.

    1. Reading your comment, “Todd”, I was convinced that you had to be someone writing a deceptively-subtle pastiche of the fanboy mind-set. Sadly, I now suspect that I’m wrong, and you actually believe this.

    2. You need to learn that gross arrogance is not an attractive personality trait.

    3. Pure crockery Ian

      1. Ooops, meant Todd — Sorry Ian :-(

    4. The OS for people who think for themselves? Oh sweetie: that old chestnut
      rang false when it was used to defend Windows. It reads even lamer now.

    5. “Google products, like Android, are for people who can think for themselves.”

      That made me laugh. I’m glad that you think a product defines your ability to think for yourself :) Good work.

  5. Great Post OM.
    I dont think Google (and probably any other company) can compete with guys like Apple on user experience, while Jobs is still at helm. They have been doing this since inception …many incumbent feel this pain from digital to latest Nokia, etc …

    But what’s after user experience? and why does not Google try to tackle things from another angle. Not just get into what others have created (social from FCBK, user exeprience from APL…).

    I think the Evolution of Needs looks like this
    – Ph1 : Perf, reliability, efficiency
    – Ph2 : Usability, ease of use/User Experience …
    – Ph 3: User creativity ( getting the user to interact with your product creatively…thus adding their own touch).

    Not sure what next after ph3 …but sounds like something higher (in needs ranking) than User experience…

  6. @Todd lets his Fandroid show, misses the point. Lets hope Google doesn’t think the same way he does.

    Now let me say I’m typically an early adopter myself.. have been in the tech industry for years, am an enterprise architect for a Fortune 500 company, and spend my free hours working on my own internal home data center. I love the new stuff. I don’t fall into the bucket of early adopters using Android though – to me its just not (yet) worth the trade-off of what I get out of the entire family of Apple products. Maybe in a year or two, who knows, I used to be a Microsoft fanboy and now buy Apple. I go where the quality is, not quantity… and frankly I don’t buy the whole “open” BS that so many Fandroids can’t see past, and fragmentation – my god, its a killer.

    Love Chrome browser though.

    1. you need to come over to the darkside, far more fun than the puerile and boring disnified apple world. Steve Jobs reminds me of CLU from tron legacy :) I am glad there is no monopoly in smartphone due to android.

  7. @Om: Good insight. I agree with your points. I like Google very much and it’s still my default search — I also enjoy using their products (gmail, Google Docs, especially). But when it came time for me to pick a smartphone a year ago, after a lot of deliberation, I had to go with an iPhone.

    @Todd: I guess that’s makes me a lemming to your free-thinker ;-) … IMHO it’s not about being “told what to do” vs. “thinking for yourself” — it’s about a UI that’s intuitive and easy to use. Just like “classic” Google search, it was easy as Om mentioned: You get to their homepage, see the search box and you know what to do. That’s how I felt when I picked up an iPhone and compared it with the Android phone.

  8. Good article, but have you tried Voice Actions on Android? Stepping off a plane and asking your Android phone, in plain English, to call a hotel in a certain city, can be an eye-opener. Also, dictating email and text messages, or asking the phone to navigate to a specific restaurant.

    I love iPhones, and agree they just feel better to use, but I see Google making strides in user experience on a variety of fronts, from Voice Actions to Priority Inbox, sync’d search records, etc. 6 months ago I would have called Google insensitive to the opinions of people outside of their own company, but just watching the strides they have made with email (making conversation view an option) and Exchange support (admin security powers for Android phones) have made me re-evaluate. (Now if they would only stop their evil impulses long enough to enable Exchange email search on Android – shame…)

    And we may be over-emphasizing the value of social features. Sure, I like to know where my friends go and what they think is important, but I also want to break beyond the echo chamber of my relationships. Google is well-positioned to expose me to things preferred by people I have no access to. This is a key to social mobility and cultural growth, and it is data-driven, not relationship-driven.

    1. Paul

      Thanks for the comments. You make excellent points and I won’t argue against most of them.

      What I am trying to point out where is a larger philosophical shift the company needs to make as it chases more consumer centric markets and works with different partners. I am a big fan of Voice Actions — already wrote an extensive post about it — but the issue are much larger.

      I don’t think my observations have anything to do with social web. Instead I am arguing for the company to build products with higher level of engagement and better user experience.

      As I said in my conclusion, Google is a lot more open to listening to other people and is trying to bring in new UX/UI talent into the company. I commend them for that — but it still is a problem from them.

      1. “Instead I am arguing for the company to build products with higher level of engagement and better user experience.”

        I agree, but with the some of the products that Google creates they can only do so much. Android features and UI are subject to the whims of the carriers. I’m *guessing* Google TV is the same with Logitech and Sony being able to change the interface at will.

        I’m not even sure it is Google’s engineers that are the cause of these issues. I’m seeing firsthand how middle management or focus groups determines how products are made and how the user interacts with them. That, in my opinion is the biggest failure. Marketing should let the experts be experts and marketing and middle managements are not product developers, user interaction designers or designers of any sort.

        I think it was here that a supplier commented on the difference between Apple and Microsoft being meetings with Apple never began without designer representation whereas in Microsoft the designers were never heard.

        I also recently watched a Stanford Business School presentation from the founder of Pixar. One of the things that stuck with me is a great team can make a great product from a mediocre idea, but a mediocre team will never make a great product.

        In short don’t blame the engineers at Google. Blame the lack of designer input there and middle management at companies that take Google products and slap their name on them.

      2. Andrew – Yes you can blame the engineers. especially the ones named Larry, Sergey, and Erik. You can probably throw Melissa in there too even if she’d not an engineer – They created the culture.

      3. @PXLated

        I can see it as a matter of perspective. I see it as the engineers are doing their job. Leadership (or product/UX design if they exist) is failing to let the non-engineers do their jobs.

        If I read you correctly, you expect engineers how to do non-engineering tasks, and I disagree with that.

        Cheers

      4. Andrew – “If I read you correctly, you expect engineers how to do non-engineering tasks”

        No, not at all. Have worked with many engineering-oriented companies. Luckily they have all understood that engineering is just part of the equation. I don’t think Google understands that “at the core” so will have a very hard time changing. They only feel comfortable with data.

        If I recall correctly, the straw that broke the camels back and drove Bowman out was when they tested all those blue (web) colors. In that case, you can’t realistically even test those in the real world as monitors vary so much. What one person sees is not what the next does. It’s this over reliance on numbers and “hard” data that kills them. So much is “soft”, right brainy things and they – at their core – can’t deal with those.

        Larry & Sergey probably made a mistake hiring Erik – He was a kindred engineering spirit but unsuited to what’s needed overall.

      5. @PXLated

        Fair enough.

        I’m experiencing the exact opposite in my environment right now. Middle management ignores testing results, fights against basic usability best practices, and refuses to accommodate our users’ core 3-4 tasks.

        The examples you cite for Google again seem to me to be basic leadership principles being ignored, but I think we agree on both the symptoms and the need for change. No need to discuss it to death. :)

        Cheers

  9. Great Article Om.

  10. I think once Android 3.0 is released with GPU support you will then finally see a mobile OS that can hold its own. Until the GPU support is delivered Android is not a full OS.. and it isn’t fair to compare the two. But, if we have to.. I can say quite certainly that every iOS user who I have let borrow my Samsung Galaxy S for a minute has given it back with a look that reminds me of a little boy who got nothing for Christmas. Listen, Apple will always be there with their one handset! But one handset isn’t going to cut it, and I don’t think Apple has the manufacturing power to do battle with the entire CE industry who are all manufacturing 10-20 models each of Android handsets/tablets/car stereos/appliances/etc… It’s a war of numbers in distribution and deployment. Remember, in 1999 everyone had a Palm Pilot. How many people have one now? Google isn’t going to necessarily “win” this. But I think its safe to say as developers that we will be drowning in Android for the decade to come and only coming across iOS when specifically dealing with the Apple market.. and that market isn’t really that big when you take in consideration the world.

    1. I want to like Android – yes I’ve been an iOS faithful, but every handset I’ve used (including an Evo) makes me feel empty like something is wrong. It’s not a GPU problem though I don’t think. Oddly enough I used a WP7 the other day and actually thought it had a great experience, so it can be done outside of iOS (and I’m not such a huge fanboy that I can’t appreciate a good phone). I hope Google gets it right, but for now I think Om is spot on.

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