Google Doesn't Understand People

And neither does Microsoft, for that matter. They have some of the best tech people in the world, and they are wizards with data and the infrastructure it requires. But when it comes to humans they are amateurs. And their products prove it.


Anybody who has worked with me has probably heard me say the headline of this article out loud:

“Google doesn’t understand people.”

If a Google product is data-oriented, it will succeed. If it is people-oriented, it will fail.

Google is successful primarily because of their search, and the ad products that go with it. Analytics is widely-used, and they have numerous APIs supporting an ecosystem of AI, data-handling, and data storage, and so on. All successful, all data-oriented. Mostly with technical or statistical people as a target audience.

Now, if you were to say that “technical people” are people too, you would be correct. Of course. I love developers, and I rely on them daily for answers and insights that I just couldn’t see on my own. But not about people. About data.

And Google is full of them. Good ones! In fact, everything I have ever heard about Google says that technical expertise is a primary criterion for being hired there, regardless of role.

I don’t know about about you, but if I wanted brilliant social insights, programmers probably wouldn’t be my go-to group (if I may generalize). That, and Google’s interviewing practices provide a pretty simple explanation for how Google could make a car drive itself and launch Google Wave at the same time.

They don’t understand people.

Some might say that Gmail is well designed. Maybe you’re right. But not by Google. Google’s Gmail looked like this. Not to mention the fact that email is a 40-year-old solution in the first place.

Michael Schrage posted an article for HBR, which accurately points out that Google’s Android devices own the market, yet deliver a minority of results compared to Apple. That’s because Steve Jobs understood people, and hired people who understand people, and created a company with utmost respect for the subjective desires of people, rational or not. Technically inferior devices, perhaps, but superior affect.

Google also created Google Plus, the world’s largest empty social network. I think it echoes when you post a status there. Their power as a brand has driven hundreds of millions of people to be inactive members and every time Google adds a feature, they create new possibilities… whether anybody wants it or not.

They don’t understand people.

And sadly, they are not alone. In a world where Facebook staff are the evil dictators of social experience and Apple is dominating the western world with a visual, simple ecosystem, Microsoft is on Google’s team, filling the world with as many buttons and options as possible. Still.

Their tagline for Windows 8 is “Everything at once.” Seriously? If there is any slogan more opposite to the way a human mind works, I have not heard it. But it’s perfect for Microsoft.

Skype had begun to overtake Live Messenger — app of a million features — so they bought Skype to replace it. We can skip over the small issue of migrating a few hundred million users in a different demographic to a new app.

Microsoft also has a social network, which you probably weren’t aware of, that also uses the “Everything at Once” approach to information architecture (insight: that’s what UX people do when they don’t understand their audience) and has a URL you can’t pronounce (but it’s short!).

In conclusion, I have a simple suggestion to Google and Microsoft, and any companies that want to copy them: hire good UX people, who have values you don’t understand, that seem too fluffy and irrelevant to be important. Hire smart people with degrees in non-technical things. Ignore the guy who loves Android because it gives him control over [small feature here]. Hire the person that cares passionately about your button-color choices, and disagrees with the content model that matches your data model. Then put them in a chair beside your most talented developers and wait for the sparks. That’s what magic looks like.