Data Driven Design and the Culture at Google

Sholom Sandalow

This post was previously on the Pathfinder Software site. Pathfinder Software changed its name to Orthogonal in 2016. Read more.

A peek under the hood of Google’s design apparatus.

In an interview with Newsweek magazine, Irene Au, User Experience Director at Google discusses her responsibilities, and in the process, reveals some telling things about the way design decisions are made at the multi-billion dollar internet company.  Perhaps not surprisingly, she makes it clear that Google takes a data driven approach to interface design just as it does to everything else.  The subjective opinions of art directors or visual designers don’t play a key role in the design of their products.  As she states, “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.”  No argument here.
But is a completely empirical approach to interface design desirable, or even realistic?  Isn’t it more likely that the left brain culture at google puts greater weight on the opinions of engineers, even if they are being just as subjective? One blog commenter put it this way, regarding Au’s interview with Newsweek:

She says on the one hand that they rely on cognitive psychology research to improve the design, then in the next answer says that their pages have high information density, which cognitive research has shown to slow people down. She also says that they do what’s best for users, but that the founders believe there should be one way to do things (presumably whether that’s the way that performs the best or not). Sounds to me like what she’s really saying is that they rely on human judgement when it comes to certain people (Larry and Sergey), but when professional designers try to use their own judgement (to suggest more line spacing, etc) that judgement isn’t enough. That’s less a coherent approach to design and more a hierarchy of who’s opinion counts. And not surprisingly in a tech company, sounds like designers lose.

Douglas Bowman, Google’s first lead Visual Designer recently blogged about this very issue as he discussed why he was leaving the company.  According to him, Google always has relied on an empirical approach not just to how their products should behave internally, but how they should look and feel to the user, down to the pixel level.  However, this reliance on data for every minute detail of the user interface is no substitute for true creative design.  And the culture at google which thrives in a numbers only game is stifling the visual design talent that Google has hired, leading to a vacuum of true visual design leadership.  Although gathering and analyzing data regarding interface decisions is definitely a good thing, Google has reached the point where it has become a crutch, and without leadership from people that understand visual design principles, there is a creative vacuum that will negatively impact user’s enjoyment of the products that Google ships.  Ultimately Mr. Bowman left because when it came to promoting a new design thinking, it felt like “Google was a massive aircraft carrier, and I was just a small dinghy trying to push it a few degrees North.”
By data driven design, I am referring to the approach that says, anything at the GUI level needs to be tested with users and measured empirically using standard metrics like speed, efficiency, error rate, etc.  I don’t disagree that given a problem, the more data I as a designer have, the better my design solution will be.  However, I don’t think it’s even realistic to think that every little nook and cranny in on a web app can be tested on, and even if it were, I agree that that type of thinking can create design paralysis under the wrong conditions.
As it turns out, although Google may suggest that it’s product’s interface designs are completely performance and data driven, that isn’t possible.  The subjective, aesthetic decisions are made, it’s just a matter of who makes them.  Those with an engineering or hard science background will invariably have more say in the direction the company takes, including the way it goes about designing its products. One such person is Marissa Mayer, who controls the look and feel of the search engine and related products.  According to a New York Times article recently written about her, and her role at the company, “Almost every new feature or design, from the wording on a Google page to the color of a Google toolbar, must pass muster with her or legions of Google users will never see it.”  The article makes it clear that although they like to test as many design decisions as possible, Mrs. Mayer makes many design decisions absent any hard data.  For instance,

Google’s home page — spartan white embroidered with splashes of blue, red, yellow and green — mirrors her Wausau home and her penthouse.
“It used to be people would come over to my apartment and say, ‘Does your apartment look like Google or does Google look like your apartment?’ ” she says with a staccato laugh that has earned a following of its own in Silicon Valley. “I can’t articulate it anymore. I really love color. I’m not very knick-knacky or cluttery. My place has very clean, simple lines. There are some elements of fun and whimsy. That has always appealed to me.”

So it’s clear that Google does rely on the subjective decisions of some people when it comes to product design. I have no problem with that. But they should be honest with themselves about how they design and stop insisting to us and to themselves that everything is numbers driven. Embrace design as a distinct culture within Google. Discourage the culture that would require designers to prove every design decision. Realize that visual designers have something important to provide and then give them leadership positions so they can have the influence google needs them to.

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