synthetic zero

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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2 responses to this post:
  1. magdizzy says:

    shit man, that’s bleak.

    March 13th, 2010 at 7:49 pm
  2. Wikileaks on China and Google – NYT | Abalinx says:

    [...] Good luck, Google, but I’m glad I left [...]

    December 5th, 2010 at 4:14 am

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