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Google design? What Google design?

Posted by: Helen Walters on March 20, 2009

Earlier this week, we published a Q&A with Google’s user experience director, Irene Au, who discussed the challenges of trying to create design consistency within an engineering-driven culture. “To some extent a lot of people here don’t care about the [design] principles or the rationale. They just want to know what it should look like,” she said as she described trying to set out design guidelines for the company’s many products. So I was interested to read a post from Douglas Bowman, Google’s visual design lead, describing why he’s leaving the company.

He writes: “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.”

That echoes what Au said to me, though she put it in rather more positive terms: "A lot of designers want to increase the line height or padding in order to make the interface "breathe." We deliberately don't do that. We want to squeeze in as much information as possible above the fold... Our goal is to get users in and out really quickly. All our design decisions are based on that strategy."

For Bowman, constant analysis of data and removal of the human touch clearly became too stifling to bear. Au, who has a background in electrical computer engineering and human computer interaction, is looking to embrace that data to come up with a consistent look and feel.

Of course, it’s not like metrics don’t matter. But when it comes to online products, design *is* the details. Usability isn't simply efficiency. Appreciating aesthetics isn't a failing. I hate to trot out the example of Apple yet again (Apple's certainly not perfect, after all.) But Apple is a company that regularly demonstrates the value of applying its chosen aesthetic consistently throughout every product and experience. It marries technology and design to ensure that every element of every electronic product works elegantly.

Take the screens on an iPhone, for instance, which bounce gently to show you you're at the end (or the beginning) of a set of images. Adding this type of minor-seeming detail to an experience might not even cross the mind of an engineer laser focused on getting some hugely complicated technology to work, and in fact it undoubtedly adds x number of steps and time to that process. Yet it's precisely the kind of touch that elevates an experience from functional to magical and helps Apple to charge a premium for its product.

For Bowman, the absence of an executive who "thoroughly understands the principles and elements of design” has led to an aesthetic vacuum. At Apple, Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive worked in tandem to forge the company’s aesthetic and grow a consistent, far-reaching business. As Google reaches its tentacles ever further into consumer (and, it hopes, enterprise) lives, beyond its current core business of search, its executives can't afford to ignore the fact that the validity of the user's experience goes hand in hand with the enjoyment thereof. Both, together, will foster loyal users and repeat adoption (and bigger business.) Google may be proudly engineering driven, and it may be at the forefront of technological innovation, but it can't afford to ignore the impact that design will have on the adoption of those innovations. Au claims that Google management is now paying attention to matters of design and functionality consistency. Is that enough? What do you think?

Reader Comments

Fred Collopy

March 20, 2009 8:43 PM

John Gruber explores the impact of these two company cultures on the people who work in them:



March 21, 2009 2:38 AM

Au's answers seem to betray a lot of confusion at Google. She says on the one hand that they rely on cognitive psychology research to improve the design, then in the next answer says that their pages have high information density, which cognitive research has shown to slow people down. She also says that they do what's best for users, but that the founders believe there should be one way to do things (presumably whether that's the way that performs the best or not). Sounds to me like what she's really saying is that they rely on human judgement when it comes to certain people (Larry and Sergey), but when professional designers try to use their own judgement (to suggest more line spacing, etc) that judgement isn't enough. That's less a coherent approach to design and more a hierarchy of who's opinion counts. And not surprisingly in a tech company, sounds like designers lose.

Bruce Temkin

March 24, 2009 10:30 AM

Helen: Great content (blogs and article). I'm torn between my deep appreciation (left brain) for Google's analytical approach and my gut feeling that something is missing (right brain). I'll be writing about this in my blog "Customer Experience Matters" later this week.


Helen Walters

March 25, 2009 3:12 PM

Hi all, Thanks for the comments and insight. I really do think this is a critically important topic for both executives and designers. Yahoo's Tom Chi has a nice post on the need for balance between engineering and design. He writes: "The interplay of all disciplines (engineering, design, research, marketing, sales, QA, product, legal, customer care, etc) is where the magic happens. Metrics are an absolutely critical interface between disciplines, but when wielded and controlled by only one discipline they can greatly limit the potential of the others"

I'd recommend reading the whole post (link below) and also welcome further discussion of the topic -- any companies out there really managing this well? Any other horror stories? Would love to hear...

And the link to Tom's blog post:

Joe Remo

March 26, 2009 1:57 AM

I have been frustrated for so many years with management's decision with UI design. I recently wrote a similar comment on BW's The Tech Beat about Facebook's UI. I don't blame Facebook's UI team, I blame management who makes the final decision. I wonder when will we ever get better UI and when we will ever get better managers.

Helen Walters

March 26, 2009 11:21 AM

Joe -- can you be more specific about your experience? Are you a designer yourself? Are there any common themes of feedback that you have experienced? Isn't a part of the UI design manager/team's role to explain why exactly the work is critically important/should not be sidelined by management? I understand the finger pointing, but I would also love to try to get further into the heart of this problem. Meantime, thanks for the comment.

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