Google’s top designer Doug Bowman quit the company to join Twitter. Mostly, Doug didn’t like how much Google depends on data to make design decisions. He’s written a blog post to explain more fully. Here are the crucial bits:
When I joined Google as its first visual designer, the company was already seven years old. Seven years is a long time to run a company without a classically trained designer. Google had plenty of designers on staff then, but most of them had backgrounds in CS or HCI. And none of them were in high-up, respected leadership positions. Without a person at (or near) the helm who thoroughly understands the principles and elements of Design, a company eventually runs out of reasons for design decisions. With every new design decision, critics cry foul. Without conviction, doubt creeps in. Instincts fail. “Is this the right move?” When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems. Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data. Data in your favour? Ok, launch it. Data shows negative effects? Back to the drawing board. And that data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions.
Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.
I can’t fault Google for this reliance on data. And I can’t exactly point to financial failure or a shrinking number of users to prove it has done anything wrong. Billions of shareholder dollars are at stake. The company has millions of users around the world to please. That’s no easy task. Google has momentum, and its leadership found a path that works very well. When I joined, I thought there was potential to help the company change course in its design direction. But I learned that Google had set its course long before I arrived. Google was a massive aircraft carrier, and I was just a small dinghy trying to push it a few degrees North.
I’m thankful for the opportunity I had to work at Google. I learned more than I thought I would. I’ll miss the free food. I’ll miss the occasional massage. I’ll miss the authors, politicians, and celebrities that come to speak or perform. I’ll miss early chances to play with cool toys before they’re released to the public. Most of all, I’ll miss working with the incredibly smart and talented people I got to know there. But I won’t miss a design philosophy that lives or dies strictly by the sword of data.