Sunday, July 1, 2012


On Gizmodo, Sam Biddle asks the provocative question: "Does Google Have Any Social Skills At All?" Biddle questions whether, despite all the money that Google has poured into social media lately, the company really understands social at all.
We've had privacy concerns before, but could it be more? Could it be that Google just doesn't get real people?
Of course there's an unsavory normative quality to that question: Biddle presumes that his vision of "real people" is more valid than Google's. But at depth the article exposes a real quandary that Google must address as it attempts to make its products more sccial: not everyone shares the company's values.

It's a problem for any tech company. When you design, if you want to design well, you must design for yourself first. Begin by trying to make something that you want to use, and then maybe you'll design something that lots of other people want, too. Steve Jobs famously scoffed at the need for focus groups; when Apple designed the iPhone, he said, they were merely building the phone that they themselves wanted to use.

That may well have been true, but it would be a mistake to think that the iPhone was a design that began and ended with the sensibilities of engineers. Anyone who's spent time around developers knows that they love power and functionality. An engineer-designed product tends to have 20 buttons on the front, dials on the side, and an easy-access hatch on the back that allows you to swap out the motherboard and install custom cooling systems. It may be ugly as hell, but it does a lot of cool things (at least when it's working properly, which is sometimes) and it's fun to tinker with.

That is not the iPhone. The iPhone is a device that may have begun on an engineer's screen, but along the way it was filtered through the values and desires of Jobs and Jonathan Ive and what resulted was an embodiment of that image Jobs liked: a product at the intersection of technology and the humanities. It's the combination of those two qualities that makes the iPhone and iPad so distinct, and so controversial within the technology community. Many engineers hate exactly those things that consumers love about both devices. So what are the odds that engineers, left to their own devices, can develop anything with such broad appeal?

This is Google's quandary: it's a company of engineers run by other engineers. There are no significant clashes of culture internal to the building, so those clashes occur on the outside, when product (or product vision) encounters the marketplace filled with people like Biddle who do not share Google's values. Maybe Google's ahead of the game and everyone else just needs to catch up, or maybe they're blinded by an excess of engineers.