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?
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