Hello Google

Doug Bowman is without a doubt an extraordinary designer. Doug and I were “peers” in Google’s User Experience organization before his departure last week. I say “peers” in quotes because, while technically we were peers in that we reported to the same director, my capabilities and talent pale in comparison. It was certainly an honor to be within the same team as Doug and to benefit from the fruits of his work. We will miss him and his contributions dearly.

Doug’s recent article about his departure from Google contains many truths. Of course Google is a company run by engineers. Yes many design decisions are driven by data. But Doug’s description of how design is viewed at Google is an oversimplification.

While there are many teams within Google that view design process as a problem in logic requiring data to solve, there are others that do not. While there are many Googlers who view designers as people who tinker with link color and border widths, many do not. Doug’s experience was unfortunately clouded by the teams and executives he was asked to work with.

My experience has been different.

I oversee the work of a team of designers focused on Google’s advertiser and publisher products – known within Google as simply “Ads”. As Doug mentioned, the talent and intelligence of designers at Google is incredible and the Ads team is no exception. To highlight a few: Google Analytics’ Doug van der Molen is a brilliant design leader with remarkable vision and entrepreneurial spirit. Feedburner’s Matt Shobe – who now applies his talents to new publisher products – breathes life into his products by injecting them with personality. And Ad Planner’s Ken Moore has talents that only a select few can truly appreciate.

Within Ads, we don’t work on projects which aim to determine the highest monetizing shade of blue. Nor do we focus on tweaking border widths. Rather, we work on complex, large-scale redesigns such as the soon-to-be-announced new AdWords interface. Or major feature upgrades to Google Analytics. Or new product designs for … well, I can’t talk about that just yet.

To design successfully in this environment, we simply must partner closely with product management and engineering. And we do. PMs and engineers understand that designing usable interfaces to support complex workflows for our advertisers and publishers requires something more than opinion and data. It requires skills that only designers can bring to bare. Skills that go beyond color theory and making things look “pretty”. Yes we use data to assist in decision-making, but data takes a back seat when teams develop the kinds of design innovations you experience in Google Analytics, the new AdWords UI, and other products delivered by the Ads team.

It’s not all perfect of course. There are certainly times when designers are somewhat marginalized, or when engineers or PMs pull rank when a decision has to be made. But these times are rare.

Perhaps what differentiates this team of designers is that we don’t expect the rest of the company to bow down to our design wisdom. We earn respect by demonstrating the value of good design through our work day in and day out. By working with our partners, not in spite of them.

Some may give up when faced with an organization less aligned with their discipline than they would like. Some say goodbye. We say otherwise.

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8 Responses to “Hello Google”

  1. This is an excellent perspective for any discipline at any organization. There are many very talented people out there with individual styles and talents that have grown their careers at organizations working with a common culture. As one moves further along in their career, its almost more important that the job seeker screen the culture of the position than the company screen the seeker. That being said, if a cultural fit cannot be met, then moving on is the best thing for both parties.
    -Bill VanderMolen (no relation to Doug van der Molen, although I admire his Dutch purist spelling of the name)

  2. Theron says:

    What separates the good from great is uncompromising vision. We don’t get ideas, they come to us. They are a gift of sorts from the realm of ideas and when we compromise the vision we have to make others feel comfortable or to try and fit into some larger piece, we fail the very essence of the idea we were given.

    It take all types… good and great. Just don’t mistake one for the other.

  3. Graham Jenkin says:

    Bill, thanks for your comment. The challenge of finding a cultural fit from both employer and employee perspectives is difficult to be sure. If faced with the culture to which Doug Bowman was subjected, and approaching that culture from the perspective of someone with Doug’s experience and abilities, I would almost certainly struggle to find cultural harmony. Doug has and will go on to achieve many great things, but as you suggest, if a fit cannot be met, moving on is best. I’m excited to see what Doug produces at his next gig, and hope that it’s a much better fit.

  4. David Hamill says:

    Thanks for this post. It’s very interesting. In many organisations I’ve seen, the usability people have played second fiddle to the designers. So the designers get to pick and choose which bits of research they want to listen to.

    It’s potentially unhealthy position to be in especially when designers have created something they’re very proud of, but is simply lost on users.

    It sems to me the shoe is on the other foot within Google. This too has its hazards. I doubt there’s a perfect solution.

  5. Graham Jenkin says:

    Thanks for your comment David. There should always be a healthy tension between designers and usability professionals. And as you say, there’s no perfect solution, but that’s what makes the work interesting, right?

    When you say that the “shoe is on the other foot” within Google, you’re assuming that people with a background in usability analysis are enforcing and performing data analysis, which isn’t always the case. You still have situations where individuals pick and choose which bits of research are worth responding to. But isn’t that what you have to do if you want to ship product?

  6. As any good information scientist knows, what you measure, and how to choose to interpret your measurement, is often much more important than the measurement itself.

    What it sounds like to me is that this designer probably wasn’t as directly put off by the fact that there was measurement going on. Rather, he noticed that the very nature of the evaluations themselves, the interpretations of the quantitative measurements, were already powering full steam ahead in a certain direction.

    And you can’t change the outcomes if you can’t affect the way a company culture interprets the raw, measured data. I suspect this fellow is not a Diva. I suspect instead that he found too many entrenched minds already made up to measure in certain ways, and to interpret in certain ways. And if you’re up against that, you’ll never be able to create something fundamentally different or better.

  7. Graham Jenkin says:

    Very good point Arti. It may well be that Doug “found too many entrenched minds already made up to measure in certain ways, and to interpret in certain ways”. Knowing his desire to break new ground, this kind of environment must have been unbearable.

    But I would reassert that Google is a diverse company. In many ways, it’s like a large incubator with many small companies vying for attention and support. The use of data to make decisions is a core attribute of Google culture across all of these “small companies” but the way that attribute is applied varies significantly.

  8. Paul Annett says:

    Hey Graham, thanks for the blog post – having read Doug’s post about leaving Google, it’s good to get a different perspective. Before I moved to Clearleft (8 people) I was in a company with over a thousand – nowhere near the size of Google, but I can appreciate how easy it is for two different people to have completely differing experiences within the same organisation.

    On a side issue, if you ever get to work on AdSense, please make the account centre easier to use and understand! There’s a lot about it which is confusing, from how much I can expect to be paid this month to how to make sense of ad reports. Maybe I need to RTFM.

    Lastly, congrats on the new addition! (seen via your Twitter) You’ll probably be too exhausted for months to read these comments. Our second is on the way in a few weeks too – fun times ahead!

    cheers,
    Paul

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