Google Plus, and design as problem solving

July 2, 2011

As you may know, Google has opened up limited access to its new social network, Google Plus. There’s a rumor reported on Business Insider that the bonuses for employees have been tied to the success of the company’s social products, and this is obviously deeply integrated with the attention it places on the + network.

My opinion is that the motivation for creating the network, then, is that the company wants to be social, rather than because it has seen a need that needs to be met. Because of this, I think the network has a flawed design at its very core, and I’m skeptical that it will succeed. I’d be fine if I were proven wrong, as I’m not a huge fan of Facebook’s design, but I’ll be surprised if that happens.

Design is a misunderstood topic these days, from any number of different angles. There are those who think design is nothing more than “look and feel”; reducing it to something akin to icing on a cupcake, so it can be done at the last minute after everything else is already done. There are also those who think it’s nothing more than typography, color, imagery, and making things pretty, which often allows it to be isolated from its content and the people who use it.

Certainly there’s something to both of these things; design is about how something looks and feels, and it is about visual principles, but it’s so much more than that and we do everyone who uses things that are designed a disservice when we don’t realize this.

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that any design is destined to fail, at least if it’s trying to disrupt something, if it does not first have a definable problem that it is trying to solve. This thought isn’t entirely original; it stands on the shoulders of brilliant folks who have changed the design world for the better by reminding us that we need to know about the people who use or will use our designs1, and that’s one way we know whether there is a problem we can solve. But I think it needs to be plainly said: we need to define problems when we design things.

Let me unpack this a little further. Apple is often used as the best example of a great design company. It is this not because it designs things before everyone else does (it usually doesn’t) but because it (usually) enters a market after it has had time to see what is there, and what frustrations users have with what is there. The iPod, iPhone, and iPad are all examples of this. There were crappy MP3 players, crappy phones (including smartphones) and crappy tablets before Apple entered these markets, but it is now almost universally agreed to have the best user experiences in all these categories, because it found problems it could solve, and then solved them.

Google has done this in the past, as well. Google Search itself is a great example of this. We had bad search engines before Google started, and they were easily tricked by nefarious website owners. This is still possible today, of course, but much less so than it was. Google Maps and Gmail as well. Facebook followed this principle, at least at first, in that it realized that MySpace had a terrible user experience, and it simplified and improved upon the concept and then expanded its own capabilities with its own design principles.

This is why I think Google Plus is destined to fail in its lofty goals. I believe they have neglected to find a problem that users have with Facebook or Twitter (and in this case, it has to be a problem that tons of users have, or it won’t cause a big enough disruption) that they could solve by watching people use them, and focused their attention on solving it. I think instead they have tried to learn from the huge failures of Google Buzz and Google Wave, and to take advantage of the amount of stuff people do on Google’s sites (contact lists, doing searches, reading email, etc.). Certainly they should have done those things, but that’s not where they should have started.

Again, it may be that they have done these things, and if they have it may be that Google Plus will succeed. But I wouldn’t expect it. If it doesn’t, it will be because it didn’t do design as problem solving.

  1. Jared Spool has been saying for years that the best designers spend at least two hours every six weeks watching people use their design or a competitor’s design. []