Google is one of today’s top companies, thanks to their continued efforts in building the best and fastest algorithms. They have put together a yet-to-be-matched team of engineers, and I enjoy using their search and Google Apps every day. Even our product, Redbooth, is tightly integrated with Google Docs and their offerings. However, Google still struggles to reach consumers in many ways:
- Google Buzz failed to build the momentum to compete against Twitter, despite being shoved down our throats through Gmail. There was no community or value for users.
- Google Wave failed by being pointlessly complicated, even for geeks like me. They built an API for extensions before getting the main product right.
- 3rd party authentication with multiple identities (Gmail / Google Apps) is a pain for users, unlike using Twitter or Facebook which have one clear identity: myself.
- Social review sites (like Yelp) focused on consumers are eating Google’s lunch in the business listing market. Compare Yelp’s social approach to Google Maps’s aggregator for the same place.
- Different products are barely connected. Google Analytics, Google Adwords and Google Webmaster Tools seem to follow completely different UI guidelines and have overlapping ways of verifying you own a site.
Obviously Google has been succeeding at more things that it’s failing at. My point here is not to point out the failures, but investigate what’s causing them.
A call from a recruiter
Some weeks ago I got an email from a recruiter at Google. Quoting:
I’m writing to introduce myself, as I recently received your name from a current Googler who spoke very highly of your skills. I was hoping to get a few moments of your time to speak with you about the opportunities we have available at Google.
I have no intention of leaving Redbooth, but having heard much about Google’s hiring process I decided to give it a try and experience it myself. I explained my experience building Redbooth and scaling the product and userbase to its current size. I pointed him to my work on our open-source repositories. I explained how yes, I’m a programmer, but my main expertise is user interaction and product design. I explained how I could contribute to Google’s current and future products with this knowledge. I’m not posting the full reply, but essentially he:
- Asked me to rate my skills in a list of 14 programming languages.
- Asked me to point my fields of expertise from a list of 30 skills.
Which kind of people does this process get you?
If you guessed mathematicians and back-end programmers, you’re probably right! And this might be what Google is mostly in need of: smart people to build very fast algorithms for very complicated cases. But is this what will help Google succeed in the markets they are trying to penetrate? Read the list of failures I listed above. Those failures are not about users complaining about an algorithm being bad or a system being slow. They are about products being poorly designed or poorly marketed. They are about hurting usability so badly that users move away from them. You could argue that Google is looking for a large percentage of back-end engineers, while a smaller group works on design and usability. If this was the case, where were these people when the failed product lines were launched? Surely they could use some more.
Users are not As and Bs
Design decisions powered by A/B testing are a great way of incrementally improving your product, but trying to use them to drive the overall product direction can lead you to decisions that fly in the face of common sense. The Goodbye Google post from one of their former designers beautifully illustrates the philosophy behind design. Design can’t be done by committee, it needs to come from the author’s unique point of view and understanding of the problem she’s solving.
Google has a right to continue looking for the type of people that turned it into the successful company it is today. But as they enter new markets beyond search, different skills are needed. If Google wants to continue innovating in the consumer space, they will need to start paying more attention to what consumers value. Design and value proposition comes first; speed and scalability are consequences.
- “Don’t interview anyone who hasn’t accomplished anything” [TC]
- 41 shades of blue on Gmail [From a former Google employee]
I’m @micho on Twitter. I tweet my way through the startup life at Redbooth.