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Google’s Big Problem: It Ain’t What You Think

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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 (s yhoo) (for you youngsters it was a great search engine before Google) and wanted their creation – Google (s goog) – 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

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 (s nyt) 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 (s aapl). 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 (s MOT) — 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 (s msft) didn’t have a task that challenging with its desktop-oriented Windows OS. It ran on a single platform (s intc), 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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89 Responses to “Google’s Big Problem: It Ain’t What You Think”

  1. Perhaps technologists, bloggers, and the people who leave comments for them (self included) are the old dogs who need to learn new tricks ;-)

    But seriously, these are fair points, but it does strikes me that most criticisms I read about Mountain View lately have a lot more to do with style than substance.

    Their UX stuff needs work, but I think that’s hardly the company’s biggest problem. The engineering stuff, the politics and regulatory landscapes of dealing with people like carriers and whatnot, figuring out how to continue to generate the same level of growth in their business, that’s the “hard” stuff. (and admitted much less fun to read about – and much harder to relate to. Everyone can relate to UX gripes though)

    Take Android for instance: One year ago, the platform wasn’t even on the map! Today, it’s the fastest growing mobile OS out there -with multiple phones across multiple carriers! In one year, that’s a HUGE accomplishment!! This isn’t just like something that happens by accident or that anyone can roll out of bed and duplicate. We (again myself included)look at it and those continued growth rates and say, “meh their real big problem is that it takes a few more swipes than an iPhone”

    So, thank goodness for the engineers! I hope they continue their disruptive innovation even if it ain’t immediately pretty.

  2. mahesh rao

    I have been following gigaom via snaptu for about a month. From what I comprehend, II find this article an exception and far below the standards of what gigom has been posting ealier.

    Am no google fan nor am I a fan of apple or any other firms out there, nor am I a tech geek. One of the reasons why people like to follow tech stuff is primarily to understand and know it all from the experts, on the likes of gigaom but Bias is definitely an undesirable trait for people like me.

    From what I gather , the author has been trying hard substantiate that google’s in a mess rather than what mess its actually in. For example , getting in to organizational problems, further more going overboard on claims that android having issues seems weird and uncanny. I can’t help but notice that the article does claim the issue but does not go clearly in to what are the cause or atleast the effects of the same on google.

    The tone of the article actually enforces that google is in big mess which i firmly believe is’nt true at all.

    Its going to really diffcult to count on biased people for opinions. Just my opinion, if taken correctly could actually help your site.

  3. “[Android] lacks the smoothness and fluidity of Apple’s iOS”

    Not to bash the site or author, but this could have been written in 2007. It’s gotten old. Google TV is a more apt point, but I own a Google TV and have difficulty agreeing with complaints that it’s like super-mega-difficult to use. It isn’t.

    I think Google is at its best when it has carefully honed an experience after many years of tinkering. Google’s search engine today is thousands times more pleasant to use than it was at the start of the century. YouTube is now a marvel of sparse, minimalist UI and UX design honed after years of otherwise kludgy, bloated designs. The recent Gmail redesign, while not changing a whole lot, was still fantastic, especially because the contacts manager was overhauled. Google Docs’ new version launched in April, and which included a better sharing panel, is yet another example of this art form in action. My final example is Chrome; when it launched, the UI was cartoony and hard to take seriously. When Chrome 6 launched in September, it overhauled the UI to be sleek and serious.

    Likewise, I have no doubt Google will keep chipping away at Android and Google TV until they’re near-perfect as can be.

  4. JoeTierney

    Good post Om. I’m not sure if I’d qualify coming in second to Apple in design as a failure, but there is always room for improvement.

    Android is moving in the right direction. The version running on that Galaxy S of yours, 2.3, has many nice design improvements over its predecessor. I would say that general consensus may have the best Android design as being the stock Google version – the version on your Galaxy S.

    I think it would be hard for an Apple user to migrate to Android without a strong reason – if it’s not broke don’t fix it. That’s not to say that Android isn’t awesome, especially combined with core Google services, but that Apple is, well, Apple. They also have a 1 year head start which is a lifetime in the space. There is a TON of room for both platforms to grow, especially at the expense of Blackberry. If a person uses services like Gmail, Google Voice, Google Navigation, Calendar, Talk, etc. then the choice is a no brainer. I realize you can sync and all that jazz but that complicates life.

    To see a ChromeOS notebook of as high-quality as a MacBook Pro or Air, that’s just not going to happen. That’s OK though as there is again of ton of room for both platforms to flourish – mostly at the expense of the 90%+ PC’s running mostly XP.

  5. Great article Om. Google in many ways is the opposite of a content or end-user experience company. Mainly because of what they’re really successful at and that they reflect the wonderful open mess that is the “Internet”.

  6. BenHIll123

    I think the author misses a key point, google had zero experience in consumer platform development and they absolutely had to move in fast before microsoft, it was imperative and it was a question of time. Microsoft would have crushed android, if google had kept polishing android and delaying android and putting all sorts of conditions that microsoft is doing with WP7.

    And because Google has zero experience in consumer products, OEMs would not have rallied around android if android wasn’t first out of the blocks and if android was a license for which you had to pay. In that respect they have succeeded.

    This first mover advantage has given android a lot of advantages and it has practically ensured android will remain one of the dominant platforms. Now google will polish it.

    And by the way their chrome browser is far better than safari, firefox or IE(well IE9 is nice, but before that it sucked). Chrome browser is pleasent, lightweight and built with nice user-engagement in mind.

    This left brain/right brain is just mumbo-jumbo, yeah Steve Jobs is a freak of nature really, but even Steve Jobs is fallible. And a company so dependent on a single man is not in a great position basically. What happens when Steve Jobs steps down?

    • left/right, mumbo/jumbo — Hardly. But spoken like a true left brainer.
      It’s a must in consumer oriented markets. Jobs has built what’s considered the best team in corporate america, he leaves, the culture will go on for at least a couple decades. Look to the HP culture established by the founders, it took years and Fiorina & Hurd to finally destroy it.
      It’s yet to be determined what will become of android. Since Google controls absolutely nothing in that environment, the manufacturers/carriers could totally ace Google out of revenues. Google can’t keep it up for ever if the revenues don’t flow at some point.

      • BenHill123

        look what happened to Apple stock price when Steve Jobs fell sick and was about to die.

        Maybe people will start losing interest in Apple products once Steve Jobs retires or leaves. People are not rational or logical. They think emotionally.

        And what makes you think google is not loved by consumers ? google services are used by 1.3 billion consumers out of their own free-willed choice, not because some corporate IT head authorized installation of windows on all the computers of the company which is how microsoft grew.

        Sure google needs to learn a lot about consumer electronics and they will learn, about selling stuff online, because they have to, they have to disrupt or attempt to disrupt in order to grow.

        Maybe you want to them stop experimenting and become like yahoo a shell, scared of experimenting and just trying to protect its turf.

        Did you know google labs has released 6 products just this month. I know you would criticize ngram viewer as not accurate and pull up some competing service which does it better etc.

        Google tries to disrupt its own business, don’t you think chrome webstore or android market actually undercuts their own search from which they derive billions of dollars.

        Do you ever see Apple trying to disrupt IPhone or Microsoft trying to disrupt windows.

        This culture of experimentation is what will save and propel google forwards while the yahoos of the world languish and the Apples and microsoft look on with envy.

        PS: get that number right 1.3 billion users opting out of free willed choice. Lets see how much Apple ends up with.

      • JoeTierney

        I’m not sure the succession planning at Apple is as crystal clear as you’re stating, but I could be wrong.

        It’s not at all “yet to be determined what will become with Android” – it is clearly one of the top 2 mobile platforms. Call it the best or the 2nd best, that is a win-win-win-win for iOS, Android, Apple and Google.

        Also, Google controls the entire development process until major versions are released – nobody else has touched the Android 2.3 release. They can muck it up if they want but they’re going to find it difficult to keep up with Google’s dev efforts. Also, Google services are not included with Android – Gmail, Calendar, etc. so they have control there as well. The revenues are already flowing to the tune of $1,000,000,000+, not too shabby.

      • BenHill123

        Android is already profitable, the display ads and search ads already make more money than whatever they are putting in into it. And they are only starting out with the services of selling music, books etc. Remember android also ties in perfectly with their google apps strategy. It makes a lot of sense for google apps to go with android phones to get the best possible google experience.

      • BenHill123

        hey I couldn’t resist this :). So if the carrier installs bing as default on android phones, people will stop using google search on their android phones? is that how a right brainer thinks?

    • Jason Howlin

      You really think Microsoft could have crushed android? They’ve always had a mobile phone product out there. You know why it never crushed android? Because it sucked. It was the same old windows on a tiny screen, not built for fingers at all.

      The iPhone made MS say, “Now that we’ve seen this done properly, we’re going to trash our entire platform and start from scratch.”

      • BenHill123

        you don’t seem to realize the significance of time. If google had dawdled on trying to copy iPhone strategy exactly, no modifications by Carriers, OEMs etc and had released android at the same time as windows phone 7, windows phone 7 would have crushed it as google has zero experience(not anymore of course) with carriers, OEMs who would have all gone in with windows phone 7. The 2 year lead over windows phone 7 is what has given android more than a great fighting chance, as carriers and OEMs desperate for anything that could compete with IPhone flocked to android like bees to a honeycomb. Time is of the essence. Gamble has paid off.
        It is the exact same reason why google is struggling to build social sites like facebook, twitter, they have lost too much time. Not because they are left-brained or engineer heavy or what not that the tech/business analysts(who don’t have any clue as to how consumer thinks) like to spout thinking they know how to analyze things better than Google.

  7. Great Article Om.

    Here are some observations by the way..
    lets looks at what caused this shift in Google’s ideology ?

    – Microsoft foray into Search to kill Google’s Cash Cow
    – Facebook and Twitter becoming the Search Blackholes that Google cannot penetrate.
    – Fight with Apple to get a Mobile foothold.

    This lead to products like Android, Chrome OS and now foray into Social Networks (Wave ?)

    So clearly Google struggled to fight competitors , But they did exceedingly well in all the projects that they started where competition was not the real reason e.g Cleantech, Car software etc.

    There is no guarantee that Twitter and Facebook wont face the same competition if Google is successful in getting a Social Product like the way Microsoft Got Bing going to get a foray into Search to counter Google’s Search Dominance.

    Facebook and Twitter are yet to go IPO which would be their real litmus test as they are yet to justify their valuations.

    Google would do better to spin of different teams with less control and less integration into their core teams where dealing with competition and look at acquistions route to ward off competition.

  8. Good post Om…
    Google is totally left brain oriented. It starts at the top and extends down through every level. Their hiring practices (quizzes, scores, grade points, etc) ensured that. So, even though they are a relatively young company I can’t see them managing a change – I actually can’t recall any company so steeped in a culture that has managed one.
    They could hire a thousand right brainers and it would create frustration and fighting with no real change. They can’t graft on a right brain, it has to be part of their core and it’s not nor ever will be.

  9. So what you are basically saying, they have an intellectual monoculture, engineering and in engineering a very specific form or engineering.

    What’s so special about FB? I would say their backend data organization, personalized data structure.
    What was so special about the iPod? Personalized playlists with the supporting backend iTunes.
    Search vs. portals? Search delivers the results in a more “personalized” way based on ones search term.

    Data can lead to the feeling of de-personalization on the costumers part. That’s where the problem starts, throw in an intellectual monoculture, most likely strong hierarchical setup where founders are some form of cult leaders and you got a pretty set company. A few UI experts who try to slap a personal touch on de-personalized services won’t change that. Ever heard about Eric or the two others answer or even be in touch with a customer? SteveJ answers some email, I wonder why?
    Guess why Microsoft is pushing Bing as the decision engine or WinP 7 as more personal and … I once asked Steve B if Microsoft uses features the same way IBM used KLOCs, since data can also lead to featureitis, which is just a symptom of de-personalization.

    I think Google always thought of search as algorithms and not as a personalized service.

  10. GTV as a flop was so easy to spot it just boggles my mind they released it like they did especially with a keyboard as a controller front and center.

    Google should have had a silent low-key release. They shouldn’t have told anyone about it. Hell they probably should have just left it as software for HTPCs for starters. And not involved any hardware partners until they developed an experience worthy of the consumer market.

  11. The comments about Chrome and Android seem to be strictly opinions about aesthetics. As someone who owns an iPad and an Android Phone (Evo 4g) and uses Chrome, Safari and Firefox, I prefer the user experience on Chrome and Android over the other products by a significant margin. I find the ability to control and personalize my individualize user experience VERY appealing.

    If Google has a problem, I don’t think user experience is at the core. IMO, the Big G’s biggest problem is their inability to gain much traction in the way of any of their Social offerings.

  12. dineshvadhia

    I’d be cautious of injecting new dna where none has existed before. Many successful companies have come a cropper by believing the grass is greener on the other side. Google’s business is capitalized on its search and ad business. If anything it should double down its focus on this business as it is their dna.

    YouTube and Gmail have higher levels of user engagement (than search) and people don’t complain about the UXI too much. One way forward is to invest in acquiring more startups and companies that deliver a higher level of engagement and better user experience.

  13. Hello Om,

    Great story. But what if Google was to do just the opposite of what you suggest?

    • Make software usable by tens of millions of people on a disparate array of products.
    o Instead: Provide the structures and services that enable others to support tens of millions of people on a disparate array of products
    • Overcome its history of only using data to define its future.
    o Instead: Refocus efforts on using data to solve problems
    • 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.
    o Instead: Figure out new ways to connect people and information, especially if this means sending them elsewhere (since doing so can be monetized)

    So, rather than trying to be something different, why not just refocus on what you are naturally amazing at? These “insteads”, to me at least, seem to still have huge upside and potential.


  14. Great read – I’ve long argued that google was a toll booth operator for the internet with a revenue model founded on enabling movement between otherwise unconnected locations on the internet and inherently dependent on the quality of those locations.

    Perhaps the problem for the consumer in terms of finding what they want on the internet has transcended the ability of straight search and we are coming full circle to the curated experience, that social search in some respects provides.

    I think more and more the user will end up with flipboard type applications rolling up in a rich, personalised , but standard format, their social and (paid) editorial content .. like NYT etc… and google for everything else.. but.. (and an important but for google)… despite the fact that the lions share of the time people will be walking inside their personal walled garden… when they do need to search, it will be with google… where as they will be able to get their ‘flipboard’ from countless providers… and when they do search (and are searching for something of a commerce related nature).. then any paid placement returned is worth far more to an advertiser

  15. Good article.

    I’m struggling with cause and effect. I can’t articulate it but I’m wondering if you’re just describing the “symptoms” as the causes for their dilemma. Perhaps they’re doing things they should not be doing. I wonder if they’re blinded by the AAPL star and drawn to copy. Kind of like the star QB jealous of the artist who is getting the girls attention and takes up painting. You could critique his painting all day, it’s easy to do as he’s not really an artist, but do you instead just say “Get back to throwing the football if you want to meet girls?”

  16. I think it is too late for Google to change direction. They’re an engineering-driven technology company. That’s just fine. We should not judge them on their efforts to become an end-user product company and unless they’re willing to rip apart their innards, they should stay there. Invest or create other companies to deliver products to an end-user marketplace.

    Google has excelled at creating _the_ platform engine for other efforts that others are best equipped to deliver. I’ve viewed their attempts to get into a consumer market as pilot/demonstration products so others can see the possibilities and then execute better based on Google’s platform.

    As far as Todd’s obvious troll goes, I’ll bite. I don’t care what technology it is, I don’t want to think about how to use it. Computers, software, phones, TVs, automobiles, etc are all means to a different end for me. You may be a hobbyist or developer who loves to tinker, and that’s all well and good, but that’s not me. BTW, we’re probably relatively aligned in that we would probably see a focused Google as a company that continues to deliver technologies to those who take advantage of the hooks, bells, whistles, etc to create more polished end-user products.

  17. John Drefahl

    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.

    • lynchseattle

      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.

  18. 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.

    • 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.

      • Andrew the Lesser

        “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.

      • Andrew the Lesser


        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.


      • 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.

      • Andrew the Lesser


        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. :)


  19. Velvet Elvis

    @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.

  20. @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.

    • BenHill123

      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.

  21. 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…

  22. 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.