This Could Be Google’s Design Moment

Last week’s news that Apple CEO Steve Jobs is taking a medical leave of absence led many people to wonder whether the company truly has a vision that will sustain it in his absence. I happen to think that in the short term, at least, Apple will be just fine, but it’s interesting to note that implicit in this worry is whether Apple’s singular attention to good design will continue to prosper. Which is to say, perhaps the paramount anxiety surrounding Jobs’ leave — and his inevitable departure, whenever that is — is whether it represents the point at which Apple’s ability to design wonderful products went on the decline.

It’s true that when visionaries leave a company, a lot can go wrong, though of course right now it’s impossible to know for sure what will happen. But by the same token, major shifts in leadership are also an opportunity for a company’s design acumen to improve.

This is what I’m hoping happens over at Google where, as also reported last week, Eric Schmidt is handing over the reins to co-founder Larry Page. Page is an engineer, of course, and quite private, so I have no particular insight as to whether he has any meaningful appreciation of design. But as a founder he has a unique power to influence the priorities at his company, and as the new CEO he has a unique opportunity to imbue his organization with a new design sensibility. If he wants to.

And hopefully he does. Few companies seem to understand the concept of design so cannily and yet so incompletely as Google does. It’s abundantly evident that they pay exceedingly close attention to usability and they slave over getting that right. And yet the total, intangible effect of their hard work is little more than the sum of its highly efficient parts. Google products are rich with design intelligence, but they also suffer from a paucity of design inspiration. They could be so much more than they are — they could be surprising, witty, fun and, yes, they could be truly beautiful. (Read former Google designer Doug Bowman’s notes on this for added perspective.)

We tend to think that design is a function of good process, well-structured organizations, and copious time and budgetary resources. But design is just as much a function of leadership. Who’s in the top seat matters very much to whether a company can design well. If the leader cares passionately about producing amazingly well-designed products, then you can get a string of indelible successes that capture the popular imagination like we’ve seen at Apple for the past decade-plus. We haven’t seen that kind of result from Google during that same span of time, though. Beyond the iconic minimalism of the original Google home page, not one of their subsequent products has truly inspired us. I hope that Larry Page realizes that, with the resources and design talent he probably already employs, there’s no reason that has to continue to be the case.

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  1. As has been mentioned in the past, Apple and Google should have made babies long ago. MobileMe would be impressive and Google would have a wonderful looking set of applications.

    That said, we seem to get along just fine with what Google does offer — it’s not the prettiest thing but it’s so Google, that it’s accepted. That their design at least is fairly consistent as to be design.

    It’ll be interesting to see what happens.

  2. I totally agree with you, as that is the general view I too think of when thinking about Google. Probably because their user interfaces manages to spell out the word “sucky.” But at the same time, Google manage to squeeze in a little inspiration here and there.

    I was truly fascinated by the personal thank you video the vice president of Google AdWords sent to me for thanking me for being a Adwords user. It was 3 minutes of goofy video which hilariously captures many ways the Google scientists tried to thank me using their advanced technology. One after one, they tried to feature the name of my website. Each one failing, either because their robotic bees stopped responding and went haywire, miscommunication with helicopters blowing away millions of dominos meant to spell my name, or lack of energy because their thermal powered laser went bad when trying to project my website’s name onto the moon. But each one managed to show a glimpse of my name before their techno gags of showed itself. It really pushed the technical envelope to mix data and video together to spell a different video for each of their millions of users. However, here are a few other ideas and videos that inspired the Google user in me.

    1. Google Translate for Animals
    2. Google Pac-Man anniversary – gameplay on homepage
    3. This cute Japanese video

  3. I’m not sure Larry wants to or is committed enough to make the same type of sacrifices needed to truly change the culture at Google from an engineering company to a design company. And even if he wanted to, changing a culture of 28,000 strong would be a monumental task that wouldn’t be pretty to watch.

    Consider how Apple got there the second time around. In the years around 97-98 when SJ returned, thousands of Apple’s 13,000 employees were laid off. The company restructured to focus on key products. Due to financials, they had to. One of the biggest casualties of this “restructuring” was the usability group. Apple used to do lots of usability testing and had gurus and experts and they were almost all fired and their labs shutdown. These academics and PhD’s were smart folks, but they weren’t product people. In essence, they were asking users to design the products. And SJ showed the team the door and worked closely with the HI and ID teams to focus on core products and the platform.

    Apple today rarely does usability testing. Everybody in product development is expected to put design first, starting with engineering. A lot of talented engineers come to Apple and then leave soon after because they don’t fit in with this culture. Most of the engineering managers are excellent designers (though they may not be pushing pixels). If you don’t care about design, you won’t get far there (in any product development role).

    Google doesn’t need to or even want to have a culture like Apple’s. But it is interesting to note how different the two companies are. Can Google focus on just a few great products? Think about how many academics there are at Google, both in engineering and user experience. Not many Google engineering managers or teams ever put design first. And I’m not sure if Larry is ready to either. But that’s what it would take to crank out products that will inspire designers and creatives. I have a feeling Larry is more interested in inspiring the engineers and techies. And that seems to suit them and their shareholders just fine.

    In the end, all consumers seem to be adopting products from both of these companies like crazy. So I don’t expect the recent management shake-ups to significantly change the culture in either of these behemoths. But if either of them start consistently missing their numbers, things might be very different.

  4. MK: Really excellent points. I tried to point out in my post that this change in leadership at Google represents an opportunity. Whether or not Larry Page will seize the opportunity is a separate matter. As you say, it would mean a painful change in the corporate culture. I would tend to agree then that it’s unlikely to happen.

  5. If Larry Page wanted to make design a priority at Google he likely would have made some visible attempts already. He, Brin and Schmidt have ruled Google in a truly shared manner; Schmidt has publicly described how individual founders did multimillion dollar acquisitions and told him after the fact.

    Page could not have unilaterally instituted a design culture but he could have pushed Google to a less design hostile approach (as dexcribed by Bowman). I have seen no accounts of this.

    Yes, he’s got more power now that he has theCEO title and it’s tempting to hang hopes on him, I think mk has it right when he guesses that Page cares more about furthering the engineering ulture than design, eg to catch up to Facebook. But we’ll see.

  6. For me, I’m seeing good design more and more of a consequence of environmental factors created by — as you say, Khoi — leadership.

    Really, if there’s a good environment, then good design can be allowed to happen. That obviously happens at Apple, and probably Mr Jobs is pivotal in that: he’s created that environment and it will probably remain to some degree after he has gone.

    The question over Google? Well, it sounds like that environment doesn’t exist, so unless Larry Page creates the environment (or people around him do it), it’s doubtful Google will turn a corner. Good design in the Apple sense just isn’t part of Google’s DNA.

  7. In my opinion, organisations driven by technical excellence will always struggle with approaching design with the same importance. Perhaps only a matter of priorities, perhaps something else. At least as long as ‘development’ is separate to ‘design’ that is. At Apple these two seem to be forming an unbreakable tandem, one discipline pushes another forward.

    Google does look as if it was designed by a developer ‘with an eye on design’. It’s funny that because it seems Design is far more stable in terms of principles then development – technology just changes too quickly. And you can already see how Google struggles to catch up with reality and starts to rip others’ ideas off – buzz. Very much the route Yahoo! took and it is where it is.

  8. The experience of using Google’s web search is very similar, at least for me, to Craigslist.

    After the initial problem of how to develop their services, Google and CL seem to consider UI before design, which is why both services are always fluid, easy and can be controlled as quickly as you can think.

    As a designer, I agree with the primary focus on usability. Despite the history of Apple (thanks to mk’s comment) I feel that Apple more-or-less considers usability before design as well… but they also pursue design perfection as ruthlessly as UI. I’d love to hear some examples otherwise, but I think it’s mostly true.

    Great write-up.

  9. Thanks, Khoi. I agree the opportunity is there and I’m glad you wrote this post. There are so many of us visual and creative minded folks that really want Google to seize this moment. They’ve become so big, it’s nearly impossible to avoid their products. If Google were to really focus on design as a corporate value, it really would make our lives better. And while I may be skeptical for the reasons already mentioned, I still play out the scenarios of it happening just like you do. I guess we’ll all soon learn what type of leader Larry will be.

  10. great post.i truly agree with the notion that a passion for beautiful, inspiring design must come from the very top of any company, large or small. i just blogged about this on my site, out of frustration from working in an environment where implementing visual design consistently took the back seat to stakeholders dictating that the product team “just make it good enough to sell” :-)

    at least google cares enough to make usability a priority. it’s pretty hard to imagine not caring about design or usability and having ANY traction with the average user. at this point though, hasn’t google’s bare boned, back end developer-esque design become it’s branding? a change in the look and feel or overhaul of the design paradigm might be it’s downfall based on that fact alone. at present it simply can’t alienate anyone since it offers nothing beyond usable function.

    apple is mistrusted by a huge demographic who will only use microsoft products-as though if something looks fun and visually appealing it must not be a serious tool. i have heard this from many CEOs as well as my parents (who finally bought a mac-ha!). if google does take the opportunity to enhance its visuals my guess is they will take pains not to offend anyone and will avoid looking too playful or surprising (much to a mac user’s dismay).

  11. MK: you wrote:

    “Hasn’t google’s bare boned, back end developer-esque design become its branding? a change in the look and feel or overhaul of the design paradigm might be it’s downfall based on that fact alone.”

    I think this is true. By no means am I suggesting that Google products should look like Apple products. In fact, where Google’s design has often been its worse is when they’ve tried to emulate Apple products — almost always without much success.

    A new design Google philosophy, in my opinion, shouldn’t focus on making everything merely more beautiful. It will look to integrate aesthetic virtue with all of the engineering-centric brand that the company has already established. It would be something new and different, not just Apple mimicry.

  12. thanks for your comment, khoi. it will be exciting to see what changes, if any, are made. i would love to see google’s design bar raised ever so slightly. a little polish would go a long way! the icing on the cake would be if they did something completely unexpected, clever and unmistakably their own.

  13. Give Google a break. Gmail forced a lot of web mail providers (Hotmail, Yahoo, etc) to significantly change their UI to meet design demands that its happy users came to expect. The Android logo is cuter and more “fun”/aesthetically pleasing than any iconic figure apple has come up with:

    Link

    Link

    Link

    Link

    How can you look at those and not smile? You can’t. They’re awesome, and may be a hidden reason behind why android is going to eat iPhone’s lunch.

    Just because they don’t wear cardigans and have pompous announcements to sell over-priced pieces of stripped down technology doesn’t mean they don’t have an eye for design.

    From a software architecture perspective, for example, the design of the Android OS is quite elegant. The simplicity of the Google Chart API for HTML developers is a boon.

    They design well, but they design for a different audience. Don’t throw them under the bus because their design emphasis doesn’t align with what you codify as “design” without defining. Design is a multi-faceted beast, see Fred Brooks The Design of Design.