synthetic zero

February 28th, 2010

In case you hadn’t seen my invites on Facebook, Twitter, etc., already: I’m curating another Synthetic Zero Event at BronxArtSpace for March 3 and 6, come on by (and email me if you want to get on the announcement list).

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February 23rd, 2010

I just typed “Google Buzz” into Google’s news search, idly curious to see if the global zeitgeist about the service had significantly shifted, but instead I came across a barrage of articles like these: Allen Stern, in “Welcome new Buzz User. Now Get Outta Here!”, writes “the user experience is miserable and probably pushes away many new users (especially those who aren’t ’social media experts’)”; Danny Sullivan says, in “How Google Buzz Hijacks Your Profile”, “My profile has been Buzzjacked, as I like to call it”; Harvard Law student Eva Hibnick has filed a class-action lawsuit against Google over Buzz, technology analyst Charlene Li calls Buzz a nightmare for parents when it comes to children’s privacy and safety, and in “Why I’m dropping Google” industry commentator Kirk McElhearn references Buzz along with a series of recent Google blunders, including their deletion without warning of years of posts from several prominent music blogs for his decision to delete all his Google accounts.

The fact that one can easily find all this negative press while using Google news search itself is a testament that “Don’t Be Evil” still has weight in Mountain View, of course, as does their brave stance on China, and I certainly don’t believe Google is actively trying to be evil. But I do believe that Google has systemic structural problems which make these sorts of problems far more common than they ought to be, as I’ve written before. When I left Google after only five months I thought that perhaps my experiences might have simply been my bad luck; perhaps the issues I saw were really issues only on the teams I’d encountered. But I’ve actually been surprised at how many spectacular design and user research blunders Google has made in the months since I left, indicating the problems are far more widespread than even I’d suspected, and go back years, with the more stark results of these problems only now being rolled out. It may well be that the problems do in fact come, ironically, from Google’s strength as a bottom-up engineering-driven company: because it is bottom-up and engineers drive design, the company doesn’t have a feel for design, they do some user research but don’t take it seriously enough, and they are perhaps too convinced by their early success that they are overconfident in their internal processes. What Google has been unequivocally successful at is search, and while they have succeeded in other areas (email, maps), it wasn’t by inventing new applications but simply making better engineered versions of existing applications. They’ve stumbled time and again when it comes to really new designs, and I think Wave and now Buzz have unfortunately entered the gallery of examples of Google’s inability to embrace or understand design or user experience concerns beyond their core competency.

I honestly do wish Google well; I still have friends who work there. I left Google for largely personal reasons, and I still think it’s a great place for many engineers to work; at the time, I thought it was simply that the sorts of things I want to do I can’t do at Google, but that doesn’t make it a bad place to work for everyone. But I’m beginning to think the problems Google is having may be worse than this, that these problems will cause them difficulty in many areas as they move forward, and perhaps I joined Google at an inflection point, where its structural weaknesses were just beginning to become really noticeable: just as Microsoft reached a similar stage when it shifted, imperceptibly at first, from cool to uncool, Google may also be hitting that point. Given the way the company is structured (bottom-up) I’m not sure how anyone can really turn that ship — it’s like trying to turn a giant amoeba. I think the problems with Google may be uncorrectable or at least very difficult to correct, precisely because it was consciously designed to be governed in a decentralized way (I should note that I’ve always been a strong proponent of decentralized management — but in my view, any decentralized management approach has to empower people with different backgrounds, and in Google’s case it is far too weighted towards the engineering approach to problem solving, without nearly as much expertise in user experience, design, research, and so forth). Good luck, Google, but I think I’m glad I decided to leave when I did; seldom have so many real-world events conspired to confirm me in an early assessment as in this case. I do hope you can find a way to turn it around, though I have strong doubts.

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February 22nd, 2010

Susan Estrich asks “What went wrong?” and lazily asserts, based on what is clearly little to no research, that it is because Obama and the Democrats are trying to fix health care when we can’t afford it and it really isn’t that broken anyway.

What really went wrong is Democrats sat idly by while Tea Partiers and others took over the public airwaves selling fear and misinformation. A majority of people falsely believe that health care reform will force them to change insurance. Majorities actually support the components of the plan when they hear what they actually are. The endless mantra of “government takeover” of health care resonates as a sound bite with some people. But the facts remain: if we do nothing about health care, we really will bankrupt the nation. Health care costs are rising at twice the rate of inflation. As a nation we spent roughly twice the percentage of our GDP compared to the average industrialized nation on health care, yet we have waiting times worse than many other countries which Republicans have lambasted for their nationalized programs. While we lead in a few areas, like cancer, we lag badly in others, like infant mortality, and overall our health care outcomes are no better than other countries which spend a far smaller percentage of their GDP on health care. Premiums are skyrocketing, more and more people can’t afford health care, and businesses are having to cut back on health benefits or drop it entirely. Medicare spending is going through the roof.

We have an absurd system where many insurance providers make an unconscionable amount of profit, yet at the same time we have no meaningful cost controls. Providers are paid on a fee for service basis rather than on quality of health care outcomes. Huge amounts of time and money are wasted on paperwork. We have no incentives in place to streamline health care information technology. And even those with insurance are not safe: you can have your coverage cancelled when you get seriously ill because of trumped-up fraud accusations on the part of insurers.

And no, Republican claims that we can solve this problem with “small” reforms are engaging in fantasy thinking. New York State tried to stop insurers from denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions. The result? Many people decided not to buy insurance until they got sick, which of course is the inevitable result. Insurance premiums skyrocketed, and continue to go up. The only way to solve this problem is with a comprehensive approach of some kind.

The health care proposal currently under discussion will REDUCE the deficit according to the OMB. Furthermore it has incentives and pilot programs designed to encourage experiments in alternative payment systems, such as bundled payments rather than fee for service, and other sensible cost control measures. Studies have shown that health care outcomes can in fact remain as good or better even as you reduce the number of specialists assigned to a patient and reduce excess tests and procedures.

We can’t afford to deal with health care now? We can’t afford NOT to deal with it now. Yes, it is a complex issue but it angers me when pundits bloviate out of their asses on issues of national significance without bothering to do research or carefully think through the positions they so sloppily broadcast to the world. I don’t need to know that you’ve done the extensive research of consulting your memory about a sample size of one: your personal experiences with health care, while spreading your ill-informed opinions about what ought to apply to the entire country. It’s a combination of laziness and hubris. If you have a national audience, for God’s sake take some responsibility and learn about the subjects you write about. Wake up and smell the Google: it doesn’t take much work to figure out what is going on with health care in this country, but it does take some work, work which Estrich and the many other political talking heads out there seem to be unwilling to bother themselves with. Of course, if even pundits don’t bother to do research, it’s no surprise many Americans don’t either.

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