Google Squeezes The Soul Out Of Design

Google does a lot of things very well. But have they mastered Web site design? I’m not sure. That’s not meant to be derogatory; I am truly unsure.

Helen Walters’ article in business week does a great job of exposing Google’s inner workings. Here’s how she described Google’s design process:

“On both the query page and the results page(s), design flourishes have been legendarily kept to a minimum, layout decisions based on what will provide the user with the fastest, most efficient service. Nonetheless, engineers and analysts pore over streams of data to assess the impact of experiments with colors, shading, and the position of every element on the page.”

The story also has some great quotes from Irene Au, Google’s director of user experience:

And as a company, Google cares about being fast, so we want our user experience to be fast. That’s not just in terms of front-end latency-how long it takes the page to download-it’s also about making people use their computers more efficiently.

A lot of our design decisions are really driven by cognitive psychology research that shows that, say, people online read black text against a white background much faster than white against black, or that sans serif fonts are more easily read than serif fonts online.

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.

This sounds like great design. Who could find fault with such an analytical approach? How about Douglas Bowman, Google’s lead visual designer. Bowman recently left Google and talked about his experience in a blog post. Here’s an excerpt of his rationale for leaving:

Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such miniscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.

Listening to Bowman’s account of Google’s design process, it sure does feel like something’s missing from Goggle’s design approach. But I can’t articulate a specific problem. It just seems like this type of data-driven design adds to a problem that I’ve highlighted in the past: the death of brands.

The bottom line: Does good design need a soul? I don’t know.

Written by 

I am a customer experience transformist, helping large organizations improve business results by changing how they deal with customers. As part of this focus, I examine strategy, culture, interaction design, customer service, branding and leadership practices. I am also a fanatical student of business, so this blog provides an outlet for sharing insights from my ongoing educational journey.

Simply put, I am passionate about spotting emerging best practices and helping companies master them. And, as many people know, I love to speak about these topics in almost any forum.

My “title” is Managing Partner of the Temkin Group, a customer experience research and consulting firm that helps organizations become more customer-centric. Our goal is simple: accelerate the path to delighting customers.

I am also the co-founder and Emeritus Chair of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA.org), a non-profit organization dedicated to the success of CX professionals.

17 thoughts on “Google Squeezes The Soul Out Of Design”

  1. Good post Bruce – I’m not sure I agree with your conclusion though. Google is pretty clear about what their brand is about – speed. Therefore, every thing they do on their pages should be about speed. While a designer certainly may disagree (and even I think its ridiculous to worry about a 3 or 4 pixel border), it does back up their brand promise quite well.

    Even if the page would look better with “breathing room”, if MAY take away from their speed angle. I suppose if a designer could “prove” that the breathing room makes it easier to read, therefore the user can get the information they want faster, then they’d do it.

    You use a great quote, “All compromise is based on give and take, but there can be no give and take on fundamentals.” in your other blog post. I would argue that Google is not compromising on their design. Making changes to make the page look better, now that would be compromising.

    Your last question is a logical one – but another one may be what constitutes good design? If speed is the desired outcome, Google very well may have great design.

  2. Despite the attention they get for design, Google is still an “engineering” culture, not a design culture…hence the emphasis on testing, data, uptime, and speed. A distinction should be drawn between their core product (search results pages and ads) and the UI design of their tools. Their SERPs are fast and crammed, but their tools (GA, GWO, AdWords, etc.) are have much more white space and great UI design.

    I argue that yes, design needs to have a soul, but that soul needs to be poured into designs that can be tested against business KPIs. Any designer who is unwilling to have his or her creativity taken to the “court of last resort” will not last at data-driven companies like Amazon, Google, or anywhere else a culture of optimization has taken hold.

  3. Hi Bruce-
    You also strike on a more fundamental issue: form or function? In the automotive world, do you listen to the industrial designer who says to make the radio and HVAC controls converge/similar because of the desire for symmatry) or the human factors practitioner who says radio controls and HVAC need to be distinguished from each other to enhance their usability and reduce the likelihood of a decision errror (or worse…imagine taking time off the road for too long because you got confused, made a mistake, and want to rectify)? Sometimes their design decisions converge, other times they do not (art versus science). There’s no easy solution, but as Steve Winokur points out, Google is about speed. At least on their search engine. Their speed and simplicity is what makes it successful. People use Google to get to where they’re going. If you don’t deliver this service, you (they) lose. Other products–gmail, etc.– may have more UI design wiggle room, of course. Just some more food for thought.

  4. I don’t know that I agree that Google is takes the soul out of design. Good design is design that serves it’s purpose. And a design that feels effortless to use is almost never effortless to create. Sure, it’s always possible to overanalyze trivial details, but it’s not always immediately apparent which details are meaningless. I respect that Google has the discipline to validate that every feature and every design element serves their objective. If it doesn’t, then really we’re talking about decoration, not design. And that is absolutely contrary to their mission.

    I also don’t think that Google is soul-less. Personally, I love the special logos that they run on holidays and various events and anniversaries. They add a bit of fun to the day – soul perhaps? Yet they never interfere with the objective. Perfect!

  5. There’s no question in my mind that Google does indeed take the soul out of their design. They’re so good at speed and utility that they can get away with it, but if it were an even choice between Google and another search that worked just as well, that had a more delightful design, there wouldn’t be any contest.
    That said there’s always a tension between beautiful design and practical utility, and more often it’s better to achieve one really well than make something halfway between which is half as good. That Google chose to take the utilitarian approach meant they could focus on doing their thing without distraction, and clearly it worked out well. It’s a very rare company that can achieve both utility and gorgeous design.

  6. Hi everyone: I knew the title of the post would be provocative, but I wanted to stir up some discussion. So thank you Steven,Brendan, Stephen, Linda, and Gordon for joining the conversation.

    I like Steve’s question: what constitutes great design? That does seem to be the more fundamental issue. I’m fairly analytical, so I really appreciate Google’s data-driven decision-making processes (it’s what I urge most of my clients to do). But, at the same time, Gordon points out that he finds something to be missing in the Google experience.

    The problem with the pure data-driven approach is that you only find incremental changes. That’s not bad: Small changes can deliver significant improvements in some metrics. But this approach can miss out on more dramatic changes that might deliver even more significant improvements.Actually, some great designs don’t test out well in the short-run because it takes time for users to get accustomed to the changes.

    Let’s keep up the dialogue.

  7. adding some thoughts to Bruce’s observation….problem with the pure data-driven approach …. most of the time lapse is in the context …. taking cue from Stpehen…..on automobile design…. the key aspect …is the design driven by the target audience….. mass or niche…. and it’s use and therefore it’s function…. operations by an individual/ group … the design context therefore is focused on interaction experience ….. with internet as the medium this is indeed the challenge… which evolves continuously with an expanding group of users with individually diverse culture, tastes, preferences, backgrounds, HMI experience/ methods, digital divide etc…. this indeed does pose a challenge to build the differentiated experience…. the internet too going through a metamorphosis… with this user base with no past computer experience getting on board and pushing the envelope with their own need for shaping and sharing an experience that is more universal …. the next frontiers for internet is going to be exciting …. for people building experiences and engaging customers … while continuing to confirm with economic realities and keep the engagement profitable to support the next level….

    1. Parmeswar: Thanks for adding to the conversation. I think the key here is that companies will need to create “engaging” experiences. But that’s easier said than done. Since “engaging” hits at a more emotional level, it requires a deeper understanding of customers.

  8. hi bruce!
    that is absolutely true. Google`s main function is not to impress but rather to produce with speed. I have an assignment to do which asks how the design of Google (the company) affects it`s clients, and how the design can bring order to the brain. please help me out with this one Bruce.

    1. Christoff: Very interesting assignment. The structure of Google (and any company) definitely impacts it’s clients. I think it all comes down to culture, so I;d suggest looking at the post called 6 C’s Of Customer-Centric DNA. When you examine the structures of a company (org charts, processes, etc.), think of them as clues about the company’s culture — as opposed to thinking that the structural elements are the important areas.

  9. I certainly understand that if speed is your primary objective, and you achieve speed, then the design can be though of as “great.” But is that what people are purely about?

    As bandwidth increases and technology improves, at some point, speed will not be the issue it is now. And as competitors with more elegant and aesthetically pleasing interfaces come on line, where will that leave you? With speed no longer being the competitive advantage it once was, it just leaves you with boring experience.

  10. Aesthetic design and performance are linked as other authors have noted (Donald Norman- see his book at: http://www.amazon.com/Emotional-Design-Love-Everyday-Things/dp/0465051359, Stephen Anderson – see some of Anderson’s thoughts here: http://www.alistapart.com/articles/indefenseofeyecandy). It’s well known in cognitive psychology that the emotional state of the person greatly impacts his/her overall performance – for example severe stress tends to elicit a “tunneled focus”- behavioral response. There is a huge amount of literature on human error where the operator became fixated on a behavior pattern that was not successful (for example, pilots “flying into the ground”).

    A positive, enagaging, aesthetic design can enhance the overall experience as well as the performance/success of the interaction.

    1. Mike: Great comment. I’m a fan of both Norman and Anderson, so it’s great to showcase some of their work. I actually think firms need to think about emotional design, which goes beyond just aesthetics. All aspects of the interaction impact the emotional state of the user, including aesthetics, usability, content (scanability, readability, and understandability), sound, video, interactivity, and tactile response (growing in importance with advance interfaces like touch screens).

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