Fast Company Incorrectly Condemns Google's Design Process

When I glanced over “Google Equates “Design” With Endless Testing. They’re Wrong” by Co.Design editor Cliff Kuang, my immediate reaction was, does the editorial team at Fast Company’s Co.Design know what they are talking about? I had to re-read it just to be sure, and both times I concluded that they were overly harsh.
Co.Design condemns Google’s recent efforts of improving with their introduction of Google Instant “…the (unholy) product of Google’s infamous design process”. I quote:

If you have any type of design background, it’s probably funny to you that Google frequently mentions “design,” but doesn’t mention any “designers” involved — the Google design process seems to simply be creating a bunch of fairly obvious alternatives, and testing the hell out of them.
Before Google Instant, probably the most infamous example of Google’s design-by-testing approach was the “41 Blues” — Google’s engineers apparently couldn’t decide on two shades of blue for showing search results, so they tested 41 of them to see which attracted the most clicks. (They eventually settled on a blue that is basically the average of all the blues used in hyperlinks across the web. Duh.)

It depends which side of the Design Thinking camp you come from, but design is a process, and it does not really matter if there were designers involved or not. Of course, by getting designers involved, you will likely stand a better chance of getting quality results.

But back to Google Instant. What’s baffling about the whole thing is that Google’s “solution” to providing instant results still seems so primitive and ugly. In the name of shaving a second off of a user’s search, is it really worth it to make them go through the pain of scanning five to seven different results pages as they type?

One man’s meat is another man’s poison. Personally, I don’t have a problem with the new design. I and the 53.2% of the 5,135 people interviewed on Mashable like this new addition. Oh, 30% disliked it and 16.7% were undecided.

The chief mandate of design thinking is empathy — and I’m pretty sure Google’s engineers didn’t have too much empathy for all those over the age of 28 who don’t find it all that useful to have their eyes assaulted by information they weren’t looking for in the first place.
Which brings me to my last point. Testing can only tell you so much — and it often only reveals that people only like things that are similar to what they’ve had before. But brilliant design solutions convert people over time, because they’re both subtle and ground breaking.

Lets take a time out from the Google bashing now shall we? I do agree with much of what is being said here, however this analysis has been considered out of context, or the perhaps the author of the article is not fully aware of the context?
Google’s process is a type of design activity that is often found as part of any incremental innovation process. Such testing activities give designers or developers insights to optimizing a product so that the improvements keep people coming back. Incremental innovation as a design strategy is something many brands and organizations indulge in. Especially one, such as Google, that owns a majority market share. Think about it, if your product has a virtual monopoly, you are not going to fix what is not broken. What you then do is improve it as much as possible, and hence Google’s extensive testing for incremental improvements.
Right, empathy does not come from testing; you get validation from testing. Empathy comes from field studies and observations, and also something key for new products or radical innovation. I don’t really think Google is looking to reinvent the wheel here?

Testing can, at best, prevent massive mistakes. But it can also give you a blinkered perception of reality — and that’s just as dangerous.
Market research can’t tell you whether the “problem” you’re trying to solve is even the right one to be addressing. It can’t tell you that the entire project you’re working on was a bad idea to begin with.

The one thing I do agree with the Co.Design article is that Google’s obsessive testing policies will have an impact to the creativity within their organization, as well as hindering their growth. Google is currently walking a slippery slope, where if things do not change, a credible competitor could overthrow them in time to come.

1 Comment
  • Sebastian

    September 15, 2010 at 12:13 pm Reply

    Not at all concerned about Google’s growth. I rather see them shrink and become more humble, or another good search engine popping up.
    Everybody seems to think that Google is some sort of a charity where sneakered engineers work for food and just hang around on the basketball court. In fact, their main objective is expansion and profit.
    Remember their tag line ‘don’t be evil’? If that is your motto, you can still be greedy, an outright jerk or a power hungry maniac.

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