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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 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 (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. It sounds like you are not an early adopter, and certainly should not get near beta software. Comparing mature software and new software and finding the new rough may make for headlines, but it certainly doesn’t make for sophisticated analysis.

  2. Roman Geyzer

    I think Google is being rightfully criticized on the user-engagement front. Unlike certain web initiatives where you can throw it against the wall and see if it sticks, you just can’t do that with consumer-products. People pay real money for those things!

    That said, I think the pace with which Google is updating its critical products is so astounding that there is a good chance that this won’t remain a problem for long. I happen to be using a Samsung Fascinate (not even on Froyo yet) and its still a great product.

    The real question is whether Google can continue to rollout product updates at such a rapid rate once they have to incorporate greater input and iterations from product designers. We shall see.

    A key point Om implied, but didn’t say explicitly was that consumer confidence in a brand is often defined by whether its products are considered sexy, easy to use, elegant, hip, etc. Apple gets it. Sony gets it. Audi gets it. Google needs to learn how to get it….fast. I remain confident they’ll get there sooner than we think.

  3. nexus
    your article only hints at google’s inadequacy as a cia spyware. you exemplify what you criticize, piss portals with empty categories, google ad “pageviews and other services”. mostly google has a constipated nerd control problem. they (maybe you) want to control the user’s thoughts, anticipate our behaviour and then redirect us like good little lemmings to the brink of paypal. well, fuck google and the billion dollar microsoft engine they rode in on. i am awaiting the next best alternative and you guys are miles behind. when is someone going to create something useful that supports the user experience. facebook is an inbred socially misfit confessional and dating service. twitter is psycho babble for fools and idiots. ted.com is painful discussion on why i got out of bed this morning. youtube is media file dumping house for left over garage sale culture like mtv. news services run opinion commentaries slanted to corporate interests with little local or factual reporting. it’s all conjecture. independent media is being blocked by search engine robots. there never was a web registry except to sell name domains for exorbitant prices. where is the content? email is a depository for corporate spam suppositories scammed up your ass by every website that requires a log-in. blogging is dead, as soon as something is posted it becomes obsolete. news services are glorified world entertainment centers focused on bankruptcy and global warming. where is the value? where is the soul and the content of the internet? gone with aol, geocommunities and anglefire. it has wiped out an entire community of music sharing that defined western and world culture. art sites are constantly going missing. anything useful has been shut down by some mercenary selling machine. one can’t even find any useful educational and not for profit information out there. the new regime demands tight right wing social political control and user sign-ins that baffle the password registry. google wants to control that too. it feels more like search and destroy than search and discover. got any more bright ideas? yes, google is a propagandist nazi spy device for corporate rape by the industrial military complex and world banking cartels. google cannot find my ass from a hole in the ground. nor can amazon. big data is big bullshit, capitalist proprietary propagandist bullshit. fuck the fed and free the net. “oh yes, and death to america!!” – osama bin laden said that. do you ever wonder why?

  4. Hi!

    Great writeup.

    I don’t know much about google and interfaces, I am not a big gadget fan… but,

    just wanted to say you should keep in mind Gmail! Gmail’s user interface is awesome, and it really changed the way we view mail.

    Cheers,
    Pedro

  5. Hi Om, from Australia.

    Good article – definitely got the old brain cells working. I have to admit, given my complete lack of Android experience (+ owning an iphone), it’s a tad difficult to make a comparison between the 2.

    Having said that, I am just waiting for a half-way decent android-based tablet to come out, instead of buying an iPad, so in 3-6 months time, who knows :-)

    I think your comments about the simplicity & effectiveness of the google search engine vs the need for engagement with other services is spot on.

    As a web marketer, I spend most of my time helping clients not just getting visitors to their site, but (MUCH more importantly) getting them to engage with the site and ultimately contact the client about making a purchase.

    The mindset there is very different, and I can totally see how that would translate over to a Google service that required the user to “hang around” & interact with it for long periods of time. Search – by its very nature – is in-out and move onto what you were looking for.

    The Apple (iphone/ipad) interface isn’t perfect, but it’s definitely fun & compelling, and that’s one of the reasons its so popular. Apple totally gets that it’s not about the technology bells & whistles (tickabox tech specs) – it’s about the user experience. For most “normal” folks, Apple stuff is cool – that’s why people pay 3-4 times the price for an ipod as they do for a no-name mp3 player that does the same thing – play music!

    For now, that is one of their major competitive advantages, and I am quite sure it will keep them ahead of the market until they lose their way (Jobs dies, leaves or goes to work at M$ LOL).

    Google – as an engineering company – is awesome at the tickabox tech specs stuff, but not so good at the engagement, fun stuff.

    Methinks Sergey, Larry & Eric need to hire some gun user experience specialists, give them carte blanche and tell them to make things sexy, fun & appealing to the more common user. Lay their efforts over the top of Google’s awesome engineering tech and you have a winner that even Apple could struggle to deal with.

    Regardless of what troll idiots like Todd might say, the VAST MAJORITY of Google’s “customers” are normal everyday folks, not left brain elitist tech heads who love to hack their tech.

    Anyway, like you, I eagerly look forward to the next chapters in this story. We definitely live in interesting times. :)

    Eran

  6. Part of Google’s problem goes far beyond UX. It’s a brand problem. Their brand is fairly narrow in its focus. Apple doesn’t have this issue as they ARE a hardware based brand. If Google can address their brand problem, the UX issues, if any, will soon go away.

    Re: Apple and UX – as far as I know, they design by proxy. They’re not concerned with standard UX methods.

  7. Hi Om,
    Excellent post. The fundamental issue is that Google is a great infrastructure company. It built a phenomenal, revenue-generating advertising platform (which people seem to forget all the time – Google is about search/advertising, that’s what really pays the bills, that’s Google’s DOS, for those who still remember…:-). The same infrastructure happens to make many other things possible, almost as a side-effect, BUT they are not what Google set out to do. Rationally speaking one could argue that Google is already spending too much time on “non-core” areas, especially given the fact that the critical nature of the infrastructure it operates will lead to increased oversight and regulation (Google is our power grid and will have to be treated by the society the same way). Given that, there is a strong argument to be made for Google to “peel off” certain layers (e.g. the user experience) and allow others to focus on it exclusively at some point in the future (otherwise the inevitable antitrust arguments will follow).
    Apple set out to build a great user experience with a revenue-generating technical and legal infrastructure behind it (iTunes is a masterpiece of licensing more than technology – and this is not a knock against technology:-).

    Bottom line: I think you are right, but I’m not sure the UX “re-focus” that you and others are foreseeing/hoping for (I am too:-) will actually happen.

  8. Om, am sure you mean well, but chinese like chinese food and can eat chinese all year long.

    American immigrants learn to eat and enjoy american food, likewise, Android is a cultivated taste for iOS users.

    Happy holidays!

  9. Jason Howlin

    From day one, Android has been a copy of the iPhone. Three decades of user interface experience went into the development of the iPhone, and it single-handedly changed the industry and set the gold standard. The app store, app icons, finger tip operation, swipes – none of that existed prior to the iPhone.

    They are a search engine, a purveyor of other people’s content. In fact, for an “innovative” company, very much of what Google does is copy existing technologies:

    Search engine – Yahoo, Hotbot, Lycos
    PPC – Overture
    AdSense – Doubleclick
    Gmail – Hotmail
    Google Maps – Mapquest
    Google Docs – Office, OpenOffice
    Android – iPhone
    Chrome – Netscape, Firefox
    Reader – RSS reader, newspaper content
    Books – Famous libraries, author’s content

    They build these products not because they want to do good in the world (“Don’t be evil”…heh), but because they want to get you, the consumer, wrapped in as many of their tentacles as possible. They are TERRIFIED of losing their search engine revenue, which accounts for 95% of their sales, because another search engine came along and became the new verb. There are no switching costs for going to a new search engine, while email, office docs, and cell phones are another story.

    But Om, to the point of your article, I think their lack of usability is especially apparent in their AdWords system. Show me another form of advertising where it is so difficult to spend $30,000 a month! They are running a big campaign now to increase AdWords usage. Try making it more user-friendly, less complicated, and provide some service!

    Great article, Om!

    • BenHill123

      IPhone : Nokia N series, Motorola Razr
      Facetime : Fring,Qik
      iOS : based on Unix a 4 decade old technology
      AppStore : many mobile operators had an appstore prior to Apple Appstore.

      • Jason Howlin

        If you think the iPhone was built on “razr technology” then it’s understandable you believe that fingerworks was responsible for the user interface of the iPhone.

        Apple changed the game with the iPhone. The iPhone interface and design influence are recognizable in every touch screen phone on the market. And they’ve continued to innovate, which makes it harder for competition to catch up.

        The subtle differences in fluidity, responsiveness, and simplicity make all the difference in the world.

        Google understands this to an extent, which is why it’s someone’s job there to protect, to the death, the straight-forward and uncluttered homepage for search. I just don’t believe that a search engine and advertising company can suddenly jump into the world of consumer electronics and expect to produce anything the caliber of an apple computer.

      • BenHill123

        the gap between razr and iphone might be great but it is lesser than the gap between yahoo and google search. You made a great comparison between the crappy yahoo and google, between the crappy mapquest and google maps, between the crappy hotmail with 2MB limit and gmail, so it is fair game comparing razr and iphone :)

        PPC model was copied, but it was just a great monetization scheme, but people had to google first in order for google PPC(adwords) to take off.

      • BenHill123

        so IPhone is better because it takes some microsends/picoseconds lesser than android phones in recognizing gestures ?

        IPhone feels better because of first mover advantage, and once the idea is planted, it is hard to remove from their heads, but IPhone strategy is hobbled with what google brings into play. A lot of consumers are heavy google users, they will probably go with android phones just for that reason alone, I am not even talking better distribution, lower prices, having keypads on some models (apparently 20 percent of mobile users still like keypads) and of course all those OEMs constantly releasing android phones just to keep their heads above water.

  10. Interesting thoughts here. Personally, I think Google could substantially improve their UX just by taking a step back from developing and read their forums. Nearly every problem or suggestion I’ve had for a Google product has been addressed repeatedly there.

    For example, someone at Google had the good idea to add Listen to Google Reader. So they did a half-assed job tacking it on, totally ignored the fact that people don’t *listen* to podcasts the same way they read news feeds, and haven’t touched it since then. The forums are littered with good ideas for improving it, and Google either shoots them down or ignores them, 100% of the time.

    I love my Android phone, but Google has little to do with it other than providing the OS. Fortunately, App developers care a little more than Google about UX.

  11. Another poor victim of the Apple cult in need of re-programming.
    There’s a lot of things I use in my daily life that provide exceptional utility and yet I don’t care deeply for them, I don’t even really love them.
    This is an essential part of the Apple scam; that you need to love your device. I’m all for more love, but it’s just not a pre-requisite for things to be of value.

  12. Good discussion all around so far. I think UI/UX is over rated in the mass market where the objective is typically “good enough”. Mass market products are a race to the bottom, and Google’s approach of giving away software will guarantee it a presence in the consumer space. Premium products (iPhone) will always dominate at the top end, but I doubt that Apple and shareholders want to fight it out at the low margin of the industry.

    Google’s approach can come back to haunt them if device partners flood the market with poor products (think Video Game Crash of ’83).