Blog Post

Don Norman: Google doesn’t get people, it sells them

Don Norman at dConstruct“What is Google? What do they sell?” asks Don Norman, the author of The Design of Everyday Things and a demigod of the design world.

It’s a question that gets asked a lot, especially as the company’s power and products continue to expand. In a talk on Friday at the dConstruct conference in Brighton, England, he pointed out that –despite the complexity of the organization — the answer usually looks pretty simple.

“They have lots of people; lots of servers, they have Android, they have Google Docs, they just bought Motorola. Most people would say ‘we’re the users, and the product is advertising,'” he said. “But in fact, the advertisers are the users and you are the product.”

Then he went further. “They say their goal is to gather all the knowledge in the world in one place, but really their goal is to gather all of the people in the world and sell them.”

These aren’t exactly new allegations. “You are the product” has become a popular rallying cry over the last couple of years, with plenty of ammunition fired at Google, (s goog) Facebook and others for their apparent invasions of privacy, their ability to track what we do online, and their ambitions to profit from it.

Nor is Norman’s dislike of the company a sudden conversion. Now 75, he has a distinctive track record of piling on Google — including a famous essay in which he attacked the idea of Google’s simplicity, claiming that “Anybody can make a simple-looking interface if the system only does one thing.” In addition, as a former vice president at Apple, (s aapl) which has come increasingly into competition with Google over the years, you can imagine that he’s not exactly a disinterested party.

Still, his comments were forceful, and they have taken on a new meaning given the context of recent events.

For example, Norman argued that the company’s inhumanity — its inability to understand what is emotionally true about products like Apple’s — is a serious problem. More particularly, he suggested that Google’s approach to emotion, and to people, is the real reason for the debacle over real names on Google+.

“Real names, they say, turn out to be the names on your driver’s license and your passport and your credit cards so that they can track you. Are you happy to be a product?”

I saw more than a few developers in the audience bristle at this apparently uncomfortable idea, or taking umbrage with Norman’s attack. But Eric Schmidt himself admitted that the real names approach is about becoming a broker of online identities.

Ultimately, his charge was one that Google has seen many times before: that it is a machine which needs humans but doesn’t like them very much. Whether it’s in its social networks, its interfaces, or other elements of its design, Google is merely applying a thin veneer that often apes Apple’s approach without understanding it.

“Google doesn’t understand people,” he said. “Have you ever spoken to a Google support person on the phone? They don’t have them. Sure, they’ll direct you to their blogs — where you’ll be lucky if you can find the answer you’re looking for — or they’ll let you give feedback. But do they ever give you feedback on your feedback?”

161 Responses to “Don Norman: Google doesn’t get people, it sells them”

  1. I’ve been trying to sign up for Google+, but the site has been saying it’s in ‘limited Field Trial’. What happened to Beta? it used to be most of Google’s products were perpetually on Beta. If I have to wait for much longer, I’ll probably just skip Google+. I don’t update my facebook as often anymore, so starting + will not have much of an impact.

  2. BlueCollarCritic

    If any non-celeb were to say this they are typically labeled a “Conspiracy Theorists” and or told to take off their tin foil hat. Maybe the bit about Google not being so “GOOD” after all is something to give serious measure to?

  3. I tried once, but my comments disappeared, so I’m re-entering. Apologies if it results in duplicate posts.

    Gmail/Google Apps has a tech problem. If you transfer too many emails out per day, the account shuts down. I’ve been able to trigger the shutting down of my Google Apps account by transferring around 80 emails from one IMAP folder to another.

    Google lists this as a known problem, and Google says it is working for a solution. But cynically, if you search the Google help forums, this problem has been there for 3+ years. Don’t tell me Google can’t fix a problem like that in 3 years.

    No, I suspect Google are keeping the problem, because it presents a practical impediment if you ever wanted to transfer your IMAP email data out of Google. It can be done technically, but this bug will prevent you from doing it.

    This is so sneaky.

    To see the problem, search for — Gmail “too many simultaneous connections”

  4. I just discovered that, once you place your email data into Gmail/Google Apps, it is impossible to move it out. Sure, it is technically possible to move it – but Gmail/Google Apps has a frailty that, if too much data is moved in a 24 hour period, the account shuts down. In my experience, even copying about 80 emails from one IMAP folder to another is enough to shut down the account for a few hours. Google says they are aware of this tech problem, and are trying to solve this – but you must be sceptical when you find blog posts of people having this same problem for several years back. The practical consequence is that, if you ever wanted to shift your IMAP data to another IMAP provider, the sheer amount of data transfer would cause your account to lock up for 24 hours. Thus, by conveniently not fixing this so-called technical problem, Google makes it effectively impossible for you to move your IMAP email data out of Google. It’s quite disgusting.

  5. Teajai Stradley

    I’ve contacted Google support and they are extremely helpful and real. And if the goal is to gather all the people in the World in one online location and give them what they want I don’t see how that is bad for either party. Isn’t that what true sales is all about? Everyone gets what they want out of the deal? Really surprised to see the thoughts by Don Norman, not at all what I expected.

  6. Tiago Reis

    This article seams to be talking of a different Don Norman, not the one I saw giving a talk yesterday in Portugal.

    He told exactly that, we are google product, but it didn’t had the negative stance that this article is implying, and to prove it he said that he uses an Android phone (along with a lot of google products) and has no problem with it.

  7. Apple’s breadbasket appears to be the hardware their software is designed to run on, and software extensions. To that end, their gimmick or incentive appears to be intuitive OS software and easy integration of purchased extras. Their OS software tends to be constantly refined and given away or sold very cheaply, but you pay for the hardware and extras.
    Google’s breadbasket appears to be information on it’s customers and other mined information, sold to third parties and/or used to target people for advertisement. The gimmick, or incentive, is open source software refined and focused for mass consumer use. The real product is information on you, you searches and online habits, sold in a way where the average customer probably has no idea who is buying your information or what they are buying or what they are using it for.
    If one business model is “scarier” than the other, I think it’s the one where everything seems free but your information is really being sold for who knows what. Maybe one thing that would make me more comfortable with google’s model is full disclosure of their customers that purchase your information, or exactly what on you is being sold or given to who. It seems at some point, information on you and your habits or what you store on their servers and sell to someone else is something you have rights regarding as well.

  8. Microsoft is evil (said Apple users). Apple is users (said PC users). Google is evil (said by former Google employee).
    Google IS evil. Search criteria is limited and “ranked”. Google’s APIS flaws. Google’s email breaches. Injection of Google picture searches. And that is just what the users see. Ever been to Google? each floor is like a college dorm chat room with communist food outlets (if Everyone likes the drink, it will be stocked). The only hire young talent (5yr, double masters, and PhDs need apply) and discriminate over-35 (and rightly so if you haven’t made your +1Mill by 40). Google took over the yellowpages: money made over names, advertising and statistics. don is 100% correct but also a hypocrite because Apple does the same thing (internally). Apple is Form over Function. Google is Marketing. Google+ is too little, too strict, too late.

  9. Thomas Lingo

    Wait…. so you’re saying that they’re not getting their fortunes by simply providing free stuff, therefore defying all concepts of business? AdSense as been around for years.

    As usual, like Apple, this guy finds something old and treats it as his great revelation to the world.

  10. You know, reading through these comments really saddens me at just the level of ignorance we live with in society. Some of you are so mindblowingly ignorant, it’s really just sad. But it’s not only the ignorance that’s sad, it’s also the immaturity and complete obnoxious behavior that’s even worse.

  11. Ian Betteridge

    The thing is, this is true of every publisher too. What GigaOm sells, for example, isn’t content – but us, the readers, our attention. Google is just more precise about it (at least in theory) because it knows more about us as individuals than any single site or publication can ever manage.

  12. Moriturimax

    So let me see, of course Apple cares about us as people. Take jailbreaking, people make the most awesome features for the Apple iPhone day in, day out. They work, they do things with the hardware that is nothing short of amazing. And yet… apple doesn’t put them in to the phone legally. Wow, apple really “gets” the “people” who buy their stuff.

  13. Listened to Don Norman yesterday and I think this article misses some information (which I don’t know if he mentioned at dConstruct).
    He clearly stated yesterday that we are the product of Google and that in a certain way that is strange (and maybe worrying). HOWEVER, he also states, as he did yesterday, that he “is not a fan of the Apple business model” and therefore uses an Android phone.
    I think his comments on Google actually show a concern for the company and for the overall issues of privacy for all of us. Moreover, he also highlighted yesterday that “Google is run by a group of really honest and good-hearted people”.

  14. James Wallis Martin

    People have always been a commodity since the dawn of civilization. Nothing has changed there except the marketing message. Apple wants to make you think they built it for you, Microsoft want to make you think they built it for your business, and Google says we built it for you to use, but the usage statistics and data belongs to us for selling.

    Personally I don’t have an issue with that. Credit card companies, banks, and supermarkets have been doing it for decades. Privacy is an illusion. Don’t believe me, read the Patriot Act.

  15. spindrift

    Since patent harvesting seems to be all the rage at the present time

    Why doesn’t every individual patent themselves; at which point nothing about them can be used without permission – otherwise it is a patent infringement and a revenue generating scheme for the individual concerned

    This would be one sure-fire way of preventing people being used as products/tradeable commodities

    i.e. Google has to pay each time your details are used

  16. tim jones

    hey iSheeps, Bing this: FRUIT THEMED PHONE MAKER Apple’s IOS operating system (OS) has fallen eight per cent in popularity over the last year, while Google’s Android OS market share has doubled

    • Don’t let the facts get in the way of your inane ramblings, sport. iOS is the most popular mobile operating system, by over a 50% margin. The iPhone 4 and iPhone 3GS are the #1 and #2 selling handsets. The only market segment where Android is “winning” is mobile phone OS. That’s like saying that Apple is the most popular OS on >$1000 laptops. It’s true. But meaningless in the big picture. In fact, it’s much less meaningless than Apple’s position in the laptop market. Apple’s winning the high-end of the laptop market — Alpha consumers, who are much more valuable commodities to companies. Android is winning (again ONLY on mobile phones) by inundating the market with BOGO or free-with-contract phones.

      Hugs and kisses!

  17. It’s amazing that you are all so clueless about how you are sold at every company. Everything you do “online” is tracked. If you are reading this, you are currently being tracked. Watch DirecTV, use Verizon, or your fantastic iOS or Apple products? Yes you are being tracked and sold.
    If you have done anything of these things while thinking you were some kind of magical mystic online that went un-noticed, you can raise your hand to the “I’m an online idiot” club.
    You can make Google out to be something “evil”, but you better go find a cave and toss your tech world goodbye if you want to try and feel “free” from being just another product to a company. I bet you are the same fools that shop at Wal-Mart… Wal-Mart, but they wouldn’t hurt us… they love us. They wouldn’t track me… or would they? Awe wait, they do it too! Damn you just got fooled again.
    How can they track me at Wal-Mart? I didn’t use my bank card or my Visa. I even thought I would be smart and say screw it to paying for it. I’m so scared of being tracked or used as a product I just stole the damn item I wanted. Please don’t abuse me Wal-Mart, please don’t, you are my only friend. Have you tried it or did you notice the security cameras on the ceiling? If you are lucky, you can get away with it, but for how long? Chances are you will probably be picked off by security. No way I am the master thief, they will never catch me… Everyone gets caught sooner or later, why do you think the jails are so full of scum. Just think about how great it will be when you do get picked up for petty theft, how great the abuse/tracking will be at the station. Once again you will be entered into a computer database, tracked and filed.
    But Apple doesn’t use the information? Ever have a problem with a device? (I’m sure you are going to say no, because Apple products never break. While play with your magical Elves and living in your day dream world, because Apple is so great). All electronic items will have issues either new out of the box or years down the line, it’s only a matter of time. It is after all, tech. When request help for your broken iTunes account that is not working, it must be magical how they are able to find you, yes you on their system, because you are such the master of deception. Or they can’t track me… I just switched out my old iPhone for a new one, they wouldn’t know who I was… no way. Sorry to tell you, but you have been tracked. Yes you are being used. You cheap little product you..
    How else is a company going to stay on par with what a customer wants if they don’t abuse your information and track what you are doing? Kind of crazy how they always seem to know at iTunes what the most popular songs are across the country. (Must be freaking magic right? throw your hand up idiot).
    Close your iTunes account down and see if your “special” information is truly deleted from their system. I’m sure the great customer service at Apple would all but bend over backwards to assist you while hitting the delete button repeatedly. Just for special old you. I bet they are removing your personal information as you read this, just for you so you are not going to be their abused little product monkey. Only a fool in a fool world would ever think that they are not being used as a product.
    When it comes to your personal information… Well try committing an online crime. Your computer, device, service provider knows who you are. The government with permission or without can easily track you down. They know who you are, you give them the answers with your account, Facebook, email, itunes, internet service, DirecTV, Verizon, your IP address. Don’t you feel so tricky now? So special because this isn’t happening to you?
    This article is pointless and says nothing new that people have not been doing for centuries to others. Maybe this will pop your magic bubble and bring you back to the real world.
    – As a side note
    By the way the fastest computer to be hacked still is the Apple… makes you feel safe doesn’t it? But damn it looks so nice….you poor product you (but wait… Apple cares about us, they want us to be safe… Then why the security loop holes that have never been corrected?)

  18. silent254

    Well … I don’t love Google … nor do I love Apple …

    But at the end of the day, it’s only an ‘ad’. People are supposed to, and they do, use the filtering process of what they want and what they do not. An ‘ad’, it’s promoter, and producer are not Almighty!!! They cannot force you to buy anything, unless you really want to.

    And the same goes for Apple products. No one can force an individual to buy anything … NO ONE … except the individual himself.

  19. Man, you Apple haters are pathetic.

    This is really true about Google. And anyone who tries to lead the conversation away from the criticism of Google (as if it’s the anti-Apple) is obviously missing the point, and are just looking for excuses to vent their spleens against Apple.

  20. It’s like the old Playboy ads. “His lust is for life”, went the tag line followed by a description of the demographics, young men with money. Playboy wasn’t selling women, it was selling men.

    • Rodrigo Alvarenga

      THEY are algorithms… you think THEY are real people spying everyone every milisecond of all stupid lifes around the world. If THEY really can do it… then THEY are GOD by definition. If you dont like it, just dont use it. I am very happy programming using linux and playing blurays on windows and writing here using android. But I really hate iThings