What Google should learn from Apple

Resignation of Google's visual-design leader suggests that Google's obsession with data blinds it to some human realities. Perhaps it should look at how Apple balances tech and taste.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

It was touching to see that Douglas Bowman, Google's visual design leader, chose, in announcing his resignation, to stroll down Steve Wozniak Honesty Avenue.

In a blog post, he summed up his feelings, as all the best designers should, in one simple statement: "I won't miss a design philosophy that lives or dies strictly by the sword of data."

He talked of how data was being collected (and one can only wonder what fine, laborious methods are used in the process) to judge the acceptability of a shade of blue, the width of a pixel, or the hair bang length of a brand manager.

Well, he didn't mention that last one, but I am prepared to believe it might be possible.

I know that there are some engineers out there who will delight in yet another triumph for alleged data over some subjective, sniffy, superior artist. I also know that there will be many, many artists and other sentient human beings who wish that they would just take a run and jump.

The artists wouldn't be sure, having seen Steve Wozniak's dancing exploits, that the engineers would all be able to coordinate the running and the jumping, but they would happily examine the living, breathing data.

I know we're all supposed to be heading into a rationalist phase, in which science dominates and judgment ruminates. But surely, there is (at least) one company that has proved that it is possible to marry engineering and something that might be described (by humans with no pixels to grind) as taste.

That company is Apple.

If Apple had been a purely data-driven company, would its products have ever looked as they do? And would its products ever have sold as they have?

CC David G Steadman

I wouldn't even dream of attempting to compare the technical quality, brain power, or even dress sense of engineers at Apple and Google, though I have my subjective suspicions. But can anyone dispute that someone, somewhere along the line at Apple, made a judgment--a human, instinctive judgment--about what looks good and what doesn't?

Someone said, "I think," or "I feel," rather than, "The numbers tell me." And though I know it annoys some, Apple proved that people would pay more to be part of that tasteful world.

The fact is that human beings are astoundingly, depressingly, maddeningly human. Which makes them irrational, contradictory, capricious and, sometimes, just plain nuts.

These aspects are the hardest for engineers to get their talents around because, one hopes, they are impossible for engineers to get their talents around.

Apple recognized this from the beginning. The company understood that technology had to recognize humanity's irrationality and emotionality, with all the risk and subjectivity that entailed.

Apple managed to make it work. Google could too. If only it had a little more confidence in its own sense of taste, rather than in its apparent knee-jerk need to place a numerical value on every aspect of life, never mind business.

I suspect that Google wasn't quite so data-dependent at the company's inception. Do you really think that if the company used the same research methods then as it uses now to, for example, name itself, that "Google" would have been the winner?

My subjective feeling is that the company would have been called "SearchThis." Or, perhaps, "FindOut." How many of us would be searchthising or findouting today?