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Design and Google

By - March 23, 2009

Another note in the ongoing opera being written as folks leave Google, this one quite declarative. From a designer leaving Google and blogging about it:

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. Data in your favor? Ok, launch it. Data shows negative effects? Back to the drawing board. And that data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it sounds like the very cultural rift I predicted in January would keep the company from being a truly media (and human) driven player (not that it has to be, mind you, just that it’s in the media business and will struggle with this dichotomy).

I’ve often compared the paths of Google and Microsoft, so his closing quote caught my eye as interesting:

Google was a massive aircraft carrier, and I was just a small dinghy trying to push it a few degrees North.

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9 thoughts on “Design and Google

  1. Roger McNamee says:

    Two hypotheses about how Google’s focus on data is hurting the company:
    * Google hires people based IQ, GPA and other numbers – ignoring interpersonal skills – so the only upward feedback comes from complainers, rather than producers.
    * Every internal Google process has metrics that can be gamed by old timers; the result is that old time Googlers live in Lake Wobegon, while seasoned execs brought in from the outside take the blame when things go wrong.

  2. The other divide is between media/ad sales and engineering. Google’s newish UK head is a media man (ex Trinity Mirror). And the effect of the recent product restructuring is that ads are on more products, perhaps giving some more power to the ad teams over the engineers whose pure products are now sullied.

  3. Justin Watt says:

    I thought this was the most illuminating:

    “When I joined, I thought there was potential to help the company change course in its design direction. But I learned that Google had set its course long before I arrived.”

    Then again what does one person in a company of 10k+ employees really know?

  4. Ethan says:

    He may be right, but I’m disappointed by the subtle sense of entitlement and the lack of consideration that perhaps he failed at this job. I would assume that at some point “moving aircraft carriers” is a required skill to work at a place like Google. I’m not seeing any reflection of self-doubt or gracious remorse at not being able to succeed. It’s Google’s fault. Might be true. Or might be a DIVA! :-)

  5. JG says:

    As any good information scientist knows, what you measure, and how to choose to interpret your measurement, is often much more important than the measurement itself.

    What it sounds like to me is that this designer probably wasn’t as directly put off by the fact that there was measurement going on. Rather, he noticed that the very nature of the evaluations themselves, the interpretations of the quantitative measurements, were already powering full steam ahead in a certain direction.

    And you can’t change the outcomes if you can’t affect the way a company culture interprets the raw, measured data. I suspect this fellow is not a Diva. I suspect instead that he found too many entrenched minds already made up to measure in certain ways, and to interpret in certain ways. And if you’re up against that, you’ll never be able to create something fundamentally different or better.

  6. Eugene says:

    Ethan may be right. This departing Google designers sense of entitlement seems to be what’s being referred to by a Google design manager who writes of his team:

    Perhaps what differentiates this team of designers is that we don’t expect the rest of the company to bow down to our design wisdom. We earn respect by demonstrating the value of good design through our work day in and day out. By working with our partners, not in spite of them.

    (From http://www.grahamjenkin.com/blog/2009/03/hello-google.html)

  7. Eugene says:

    It appears that the link I gave above is not working. Here it is again:
    http://www.grahamjenkin.com/blog/2009/03/hello-google.html

  8. Gazete says:

    This is an excellent perspective for any discipline at any organization. There are many very talented people out there with individual styles and talents that have grown their careers at organizations working with a common culture. As one moves further along in their career, its almost more important that the job seeker screen the culture of the position than the company screen the seeker. That being said, if a cultural fit cannot be met, then moving on is the best thing for both parties.
    -Bill VanderMolen (no relation to Doug van der Molen, although I admire his Dutch purist spelling of the name)

  9. Bud says:

    At the end of the day, I agree with the notion that all disciplines are in the service of the company’s mission.

    When you go to work for a company, it’s actually to do a defined job inside the money making machine the company has built (for google, search + ads). In that context, the desire to make daring design statements has to be slated as a personal goal. Fair enough, but it’s not clear the company should fund you to do it. The company pays you to do your role in its machine.

    Mind you, I’m fully aware that the process I’ve just described is what kills innovation inside of companies. I think one of life’s lessons is learning that you have to deal with the inertia represented by that process. Sometimes the method of dealing is by leaving.

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