Last week Google exposed private aspects of Gmail accounts by default in its introduction of Buzz and then backtracked to offer what can only be described as user-hostile instructions to remedy it. Even the generally knowledgeable analysts are being naive about how this could have happened:
Google is a $170 billion company. It employs thousands of engineers and developers. It tests, tests, tests, and tests more. In fact, its “designers” once unable to pick a shade of blue tested 41 variations of it. It’s ludicrous to think that the Buzz fiasco was simply a result of under-testing. Indeed, it was not an implementation snafu at all, as often described. It was a reflection of the strategy with which Google has decided to capture the enormous territory left up for grabs by the decline of Microsoft.
Not how but why
As mentioned in Google Buzz: The Big Misdirection, Google introduced Wave last year in its much abused “beta” form to a yawning public. After much hoopla prior to its introduction, Wave has virtually disappeared from public interest:
Wave remains an over-engineered and under-designed product that was poorly prepped for general introduction beyond a small developer base, which has become an all-too-familiar Google ritual. This tweet cleverly captures what unites Wave with Buzz:
Google clearly feels pressure from Facebook and Twitter in terms of social networking, personal data access and real-time search, as well as location info from myriad geo-apps and smartphones. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been able to deliver products that have captured the imagination of broad segments of the consumer market lately. From Nexus One to Latitude to Talk, Google is in danger of being relegated to servicing geeks.
Unsure of its ability to successfully roll it out as an independent product, Google must have then decided to force feed Buzz through its Gmail user base of 175 million. Google executives likely reckoned that in a single day Buzz would garner more users than Twitter has been able to in two years after all that celebrity publicity. That really is why Gmail users woke up one day to find their private account details exposed to the public, unannounced and unprepared, because without such default exposure Google executives likely didn’t believe they could deliver a critical user base for Buzz. That’s not “improper testing,” it’s a platform strategy. And the fact that Google reacted quickly to public pressure doesn’t negate the fact that its arrogance was thoroughly exposed. The correction isn’t significant, the exposed intentions are.
Why would they do that?
Microsoft became the largest technology company in the world primarily by leveraging its two widely used platforms to enter into new product areas. But having missed search, advertising, online services, digital media, smartphones and a host of other 21st century phenomena, Microsoft is in slow and steady retreat from most of the lucrative new consumer markets.
The only other company that can fill this evolving void is Apple, but Apple is not interested in commodity businesses. Google sees a great opportunity and has decided to pursue it, mostly by imitating Microsoft’s leverage strategy: if you want free mail, you (also must) get social traffic (because we need your personal network data graph). You’re welcome, enjoy your Buzz!
This leverage strategy can indeed let Google harvest more social territory, at the expense of Facebook and Twitter…but only for a time. Eventually, what Microsoft is going through now is what will happen to Google, even if Google thinks it’s immune to Microsoftdom.
Google has a tradition of experimentation. It routinely introduces products and features, tests their viability and culls under-performers. Such speed and mutative variation may be seen as a competitive edge: release early and release often.
Marissa Mayer, Google’s vice-president for search and user experience, says 60-80% of Google’s products may eventually fail. Unfortunately, the few that survive are neither all that inspiring nor market leaders. What Google lacks is not infrastructure, engineers, money, time or even great ideas. It’s the ability to delight users. What Google is missing, in other words, is strategic design.
Can they handle the truth?
What’s urgently needed at Mountain View are senior strategic designers with sufficient experience, clout and guts, empowered to stand up to geeky top management, MBA-driven product guys (Jonathan Rosenberg), left-brained quality assurers (Marissa Mayer), Microsoft-bred (Vic Gundotra) and countless other dominating engineer-managers to boldly demonstrate why pulling a trick like Buzz is short-sighted for Google’s long(er) term business interests.
Let’s not mince words: Google is not very good at design. The cacophony of its recent designs in Wave and Buzz are proof positive that Google’s single most valuable contribution to strategic design, its sparse search page, is but a distant memory now. Welcome to the Microsoft Ribbon-land.
For a public that doesn’t even know what a web browser is, what Gmail lacked was not a bolted-on Buzz that further complicates what’s already a poorly designed email reader. What’s needed is not a knee-jerk reaction to Facebook and Twitter that would make Microsoft proud, but a fundamental rethinking of the presentation of Google’s sole cash cow: search. In 2010, the design quality of its search results is a disgrace for a company as ambitious as Google.
Google needs to think deeper
It’s become fashionable among geeks to paint Apple “evil” for its steady control of the user experience. Google pretends to be the champion of the “open” web, but it surely is not, as explained in The Big Misdirection. Apple has no pretense at “openness” but, unlike Google, it thinks deeper when designing its products.
In its urgency to offer a me-too product, Buzz confuses the read/unread email paradigm with real-time messaging stream like Twitter. It adds insult to injury by co-mingling various cognitive spheres like blogs, photos, videos, status, etc into thin soup delivered through an unceasing firehose. The final blow is the embarrassingly unfocused layout: the complete absence of visual hierarchy and progressive disclosure, overabundance of visual cues/links for action, and clumsiness in using white space to strip away meaningful information density.
I’m sure Google executives don’t think these are critical, as long as Buzz is free and can be leveraged through Google’s other widely used properties. If Buzz was a startup product, it would have died shortly. But when you expose it by default to 175 million users, who needs to worry about design and delighting users!
If this takes you back to the ’90s, to a place called Redmond, you’re not alone. Buzz wasn’t an accident. Get used to it.