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Google at Serious Play Conference in Pasadena.

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on May 11, 2008

I had a blast at the Serious Play conference put on by The Art Center College of Design last week. The theme: play is seriously creative and innovative if you take it seriously. Play is collaborative, iterative, experimental and generates new moves, new sounds, new music, new games. Play is natural to all primates and when you take play away, development is curbed in people—and monkeys. My takeaway: we should incorporate play, if not the principles of play, into our lives and our work to make us all more creative. Taking play seriously means taking design, design thinking and innovation seriously

Play is also culture-bound. It has rules, organization, expectations, history, leaders—everything. Which is why the talk given by Google’s director of user experience, Irene Au, was so interesting. She said that “Larry designed the first Google page” and a photo of it shows that it was pretty close to what it is today. In the early days, Google designed for itself. The idea was that the employees were the first adopters and the rests of the population would soon follow. It worked—until Google realized that much of its search was

happening outside the US. Today, 70% of Google traffic is outside the US and Google can't simply design from the inside out anymore. Google has to design from the outside in.

Google has to design for other cultures now. So it's hired an army of anthropologists to do field research in India and other countries to understand Google users. Irene points to the fact that you simply can't import Google Maps to India--because there are few street signs in Indian cities. Some other way of signaling direction has to be created.

Irene also said that it was hard to change Google's culture and turn it into an outside-in organization. Why? It is still an engineer culture that believes in traditional inside-out design. If you can't write code, you don't have credibility and the anthropologists didn't have credibility. "You have to convince the engineers to get anything done," she said. She used workshops, brainstorming sessions and cartooning--cartooning--to transmit the anthropologocial research to the engineers. With varying degrees of success, I expect.

Bottom line, Google learned that the US is no longer the center of the earth, that it needed to learn about cultures all over the world, and that it had to change its own internal culture and organization to do that.

Changing your organization and culture to engagee a multi-centered, multi-cultural world is the BIG MESSAGE. It is integral to what Fareed Zakaria is saying about US foreign policy in his book The Post-American World. GE, P&G and other corporations are moving fast to remake themselves. We all have to understand that WE ARE NO LONGER THE CENTER. We must network with the periphery. That means the old periphery of villages and towns and cities in Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East--Mississippi. And it means the new periphery--the new communities being built every hour on the web by like-minded people creating their own cultures. Mommies with blond twins and green eyes. To engage them, to create with them, you must "get" them.

Design=Social Research
Innovation=Social Research

Reader Comments

Pete Mortensen

May 11, 2008 10:55 PM

Thanks for sharing the story, Bruce. I agree with a lot of the points here. I don't quite buy the last point, mainly because of the terms used. Social research is slightly too clinical for the kind of enormous cultural change that you're talking about. In a lot of ways, the biggest obstacle between a company like Google and people in India is just recognizing that they aren't users -- they're people. That basic connection between people is the most precious asset that any company can have. Creating more of them, quickly, is the challenge facing any company that wants to grow over the next decade.

Ravi Sawhney

May 12, 2008 6:16 AM


Being at the conference as well I had additional take aways. Primarily I agree with what you are saying as a teaser of greater conversations to come as you have touched on some many topics simultaneously in your story.

The conference was humbling in that during the same day we saw local JPL scientists from Pasadena describe how they control all the devices studying the universe later to see how Google is now seeking ways to better connect with their audience. Going from animations showing us the vastness of the universe at 100 billion galaxies (can that be right)? to connecting with the self and the vastness of the human intellect is a hard one to condense.

Will you break this all down for later discussion?


May 12, 2008 7:09 AM

I guess that the bottom line here is that companies can no longer compete solely on price. As technologies become cheaper and easier to copy, companies need to seek new ways to achieve competitive advantage.

This is where design research fits in: by really understanding the needs and wants of your user, companies can develop products and services that address those needs, and more importantly, create an emotional connection with the customer. This, in turn, leads to competitive advantage.



May 12, 2008 3:04 PM

Funny, reading both the comments above caused the movie Little Big Man to come to mind. As we grow global the world shrinks to the size of a golden rule.

Christa Avampato

May 13, 2008 2:15 PM

Hi Bruce,
Thanks for this update. My boss was at the conference as well and really enjoyed it. Connecting is the name of the game. I'm thankful that the times of siloing businesses may quickly be drawing to a close.

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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