Google design: The kids are alright
Monday, Mar 23, 2009
Visual Designer extraordinaire Doug Bowman is leaving Google, and on his way out he wrote a passionate post on his blog detailing the core differences that lead to his departure, focusing heavily on the Google design process which, as he puts it, frequently puts data-driven design ahead of expert opinion. I respect Doug a great deal (we worked together on Google Calendar and other projects), but I think his indictment of data-driven design doesn't tell the whole story. Last night I wrote 1,500 words on the subject, but in the end the post was more about abstract design philosophy and practices, and less about Google and the matters at hand. So I started over from scratch but don't worry, I'll be sure to put those 1,500 words to use later on in a more instructional post about the dos and don'ts of data vs creative design. Instead, I've written a few letters: Dear Doug: Congrats on your move from Google to (presumably) Twitter. I'm sorry that your stint at Google was rougher than most's. While I take exception with your view that visual design didn't exist at Google until you came along in 2006, I acknowledge that you were the first person brought on exclusively as a visual designer, compared to the two dozen or so interaction designers, several with MFAs in 'classical design' and several more with ample coursework in visual design acquired as part of their interdisciplinary HCI or InfoVis masters programs. I don't think Google had to be a bad fit for you, but that you were put in to the wrong role. Back when Irene Au was building the User Experience team at Yahoo, visual designers (VisDes) were often paired with interaction designers (Gooeys) and usability researchers (UER) and together they would tackle design problems at the product level. This kind of arrangement would have probably been more effective at Google as well. Hiring visual designers only to silo them together means the visual design team lacks the benefit of sufficient inroads in to the product teams the interaction designers have been working with for years. This makes your job impossibly hard, because what product team welcomes a design that is handed to them without their involvement? I know you'll do fantastically well at (presumably) Twitter. Like you, I found the appeal of working without overhead with a very focused and nimble team too much to resist. I know you won't look back. Dear Google UX team: I miss you guys and the amazing things you're working on. I know as well as you do that every product team is different and I'm thrilled that on most teams UX involvement, respect, and leadership is really hitting its stride. Dear Google Founders and VPs: The User Experience Design team at Google has had a glass ceiling from the very beginning. You need to fix this if you want to continue attracting world-class talent. Seriously. Dear Google engineers and PMs: I don't envy you the balancing act of respecting the designer's craft while still contributing to the design and evolution of the product. When there are no clear distinctions between product strategy, feature prioritization and interaction design, negotiating progress can be a challenging process. While this advice only applies to a small subset, it's important to give: Data-driven design is a vital tool for hill-climbing iteration of a site, but you should take great care not to use it as an appeals process whenever you and your designer reach an impasse. It sidelines the designer into being no more than a brainstormer, devoid of design ownership. I realize this is not the usual case, so just treat it as a cautionary tale. Also please keep in mind that everyone has opinions on design, and that your UX professional has devoted years of their life to learning to separate their subjective opinions from their objective understanding about how the larger audience will interpret an interface. It's not as demonstrable as code that passes unit-tests, but trust in it anyhow. Dear Blogosphere: Resist the urge to take what few 'inside baseball' tidbits come from folks departing Google (or anywhere else, for that matter) and extrapolate the interior nature of the company from those small gleanings. On a numbers basis we don't comprise statistical significance and our choice to depart is clearly a confounding factor. You're trying to judge a group by their least satisfied (and most vocal) 5%. The data you need just isn't there. Dear Google users: Everyone's doing what they do for you. Design negotiation exists whenever more than one person works on a product. After working at a half-dozen web companies (including Yahoo and Google) what I've found to be unique about Google is that when there's a difference of opinion on a design, the disagreement is on which path serves you-the-user better. Compare that to companies where the disagreement is often between a sales rep (who works on commission) and a designer on the need to integrate a flash skyscraper and a banner ad onto every page of a site. Even when data-driven analysis is used to determine which design will be more profitable, at Google this is highly tempered against the impact to the user. Google could easily increase their revenue in the short term with just a few poor decisions, but they don't. This philosophy of 'put the user first and the money will follow' is so ingrained into the Google culture that many designers and engineers for whom this is their first corporate job don't even realize that this is unusual, and that is awesome. For those still interested in what makes Google design tick, I encourage you to read Google's Design Principles. It was one of the last things I worked on before leaving Google, and one of the things I'm most proud of.
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Hi, I'm Kevin Fox.
I've been blogging at since 1998.
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I've led design at Mozilla Labs, designed Gmail 1.0, Google Reader 2.0, FriendFeed, and a few special projects at Facebook.

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