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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. Ahmed Dawod

    I don’t agree with you sir
    I had many experiences with Google support and they help me every time
    and for privacy, I tell you that if you this that there is a way or a company that keep you private on the web so you are wrong .
    all companies record data about customers
    and I can’t understand how people compare between a hardware company (Apple) and a web services company (Google)

  2. g-shocked

    Do you really think that was good? It sounds like a bitter ex-Apple Exec who is angry that Google developed these services, while Apple was focusing on the thin veneer of humanity for their products.
    Yes Goggles’ business model is to track what you do on-line, *while using their free products* … which is why they are free. You don’t have to use them, if you don’t like this. Just as, if you don’t like your phone tracking you movements in an encrypted file, you don’t have to use an iPhone. Is he suggesting that iTunes, Amazon or AppleTV don’t track usage to suggest new products. I have no time for this false outrage when others are just as guilty of using you usage to sell you products … but Google is just better at it.
    I find it also hypocritical to attack the simplicity of their interface. Just look at Yahoo! It was a very clever and practical decision in the early days when internet speeds were much slower and other search engines took ages to load.
    People have different priorities, some are happy with cheap’n’simple things that just work. Others are focused on luxury and products that make people feel better. Both Apple and Google know this and who their customers are. The argument about “Humanity” is entirely bogus.
    It sounds like he may have suggested something to Google and it got rejected. Not that I would expect much of a “Customer Support Facility” for *free* products. But before anybody mentions customer support they should consider Jobs’ response to the iPhone4 reception problem. This is a classic example of people who live in glass houses should not through stones.

    I think they will let anyone make speeches these days. I wonder how much he got paid for this tirade. I expect his next speech to be about the how kids in the neighborhood keep kicking their ball into his garden … ;^)

  3. Richard Scott

    The same thing can be said of free advertising-sponsored over-the-air TV: you are the product, the advertisers are the customers, and the TV shows are the lure to acquire more product (eyeballs) to sell.

    That means Google and Facebook are selling the exact same product, they just use different lures to get the product they sell.

    The big difference is, they can only estimate how many people are watching in aggregate. There’s no fine-tuned demographics capable of isolating individual people from the crowd.

    Google, however, has those demographics, and that gives them a much more powerful product to sell: instead of aggregate audiences, they can sell anonymized individuals.

    • Google uses open standards for almost all of its products. You always have a choice to leave Google. Have you ever heard of data liberation?
      Though some may agree that we are the product for Google, but te point is that we are always treated with high priority and respect in all google services.

      For Apple fans, have they implemented flash yet? Are they listening to you?

  4. Cuty Miffy

    I don’t see anything wrong with Google’s true intention. Sure that they are tracking everything about you, but that’s what you are compensating them for using many of their free products. It’s simply a trade, that you use their products for free by letting Google get more information about you. If you don’t want to let them get your information, then simply don’t use Google’s products. Regardless of what you think about Google, the world needs Google, so if you don’t like Google? I suggest you STFU…

  5. Consider?, in a world that has war!, gaining power by less extreme methods than war surly exist.
    We are living now at a point just before explosive exponential technological growth. Synergy of AI,Bio,and micro/nano circuitry enter rapid exponential creation.

    The point is on the horizon where the web will be considered another dimension of our environment. Four dimensional data, that is 3D plus navigating time, The 4th dimension being time in the form of past records. Whether or not we care about being tracked now, Humanity is going to face the result of the action. It will be as real as any powerful technology that enters the hand of humanity. Always consider human nature, its naive not to.
    Granted the tech is not here, nor tomorrow, precisely when doesn’t matter the point remains. For many of us it will be in our life time.
    We are living now on the line between the old world and a world where the physical world and the matrix are considered normal environments we enter for daily life. Not suggesting like the movie Matrix. Take the web, real time data, global mapping, 3d screens or head gear, search engine, social data, a game maker such as Zynga. Add the exponential technological growth we are now at the edge, AI,bio,micro/nano/photo circuits mash it together and we are there! in an augmented reality, or 4D matrix.

    We will probably be more concerned about the, implied consent data tracking modlel? For now, out of site out of mind.