What do the following items add up to: 1) the loss of a chief visual designer, 2) the prototype launch of an all knowing answer-engine, and 3) the talk of an antitrust investigation? Answer: a difficult week, for Google
Google is in the news so much that they usually escape notice. But now it’s different somehow. It’s as though journalists are actively to trying to prepare us a world after Google.
Miguel Heft, of the New York Times, suggests there is some trouble in the magic kingdom (a chief visual designer moves on – to Twitter). But he seems more concerned to know if engineers are blinded by data? He also asks, if companies are in danger, when they fail to recognize what designers have to contribute.
“…Google is unapologetic about its approach.“We let the math and the data govern how things look and feel,” Marissa Mayer, the company’s vice president of search products and user experience, said….”
“CAN a company blunt its innovation edge if it listens to its customers too closely? Can its products become dull if they are tailored to match exactly what users say they want?” Read the whole article>>
Henry Ford might have answered his question this way: ‘if I asked the people what they wanted, they would have asked for faster horses’.
A century later, does our always-on, increasingly networked, and ever-measured, world, make Heft’s question any more difficult to answer? Not really. And it doesn’t excuse Miguel from blurring the boundaries between design and innovation. Doing so isn’t much help to either cause.
Heft would like us to make a choice: innovation, or customer delight? Which side are you on? A sort of one-two punch sets the article in motion, and succeeds in making it hard to see what ideas are lurking off to the side.
For argument’s sake, let’s just say that when Google is trying to decide which – one of 56 – shades of blue to use that is a design decision. And when it is trying to assess if wolfram alpha is a Google-killer or not, well that is an innovation decision. Your first clue is that no one around you knows just what a wolfram alpha is yet.
If the flight of a brilliant designer was big news, then news of wolfram alpha seemed bigger. Steven Wolfram lifted the lid on his fantastic computing machine, an answer engine, to a small group of well-placed users over the weekend. While he denies any aims to be making a Google-killer who wouldn’t be flattered by the comparison. Have answers become the new search? Here is what Nova Spivek had to say:
“It’s not a “Google killer, it does something different. It’s an “answer engine” rather than a search engine”.
But how different? And what difference would that make in the everyday lives of people who google? One hands-on reviewer, TEDchris, posted this thought experiment on his blog:
“…The much-hyped new computational engine Wolfram Alpha soft-launched last night. It’s been dubbed by some a Google-killer… so, just for fun, I ponied up a few questions to compare the two, trying to focus on the types of specific queries that Wolfram Alpha is designed to excel at.” Read more: – http://tedchris.posterous.com/wolfram-alpha-vs-google-1#ixzz0Fq9VivRO&A
As well as this conclusion.
I’m sure it will find a powerful niche. But even in its target area of specific answers to data-based questions, a lot of people will be Googling for a while yet.
As fascinated as users are with its strengths, they are quick to grant the incumbent an easy win. But back to Heft’s Question. Can a company do the wrong thing by listening [quite literally] to its customers? Certainly. Especially when the customer tries harder than it should to help you out. TEDchris’ experiment is an object lesson in how not to learn from people who use what you have to sell.
Looking closely at the experiment above, we see that TEDchris gins up seven questions for the wolfram alpha that is intended to help show it off. He follows this with a bake-off; entering those very questions into Google as a control measure. Meaning, that if the differences between the ‘answer’ paradigm, and the ‘search paradigm are breathtaking, then wolfram alpha scores the ribbon. If not, then Google remains champ. The design of his experiment indicate that, TEDchris knows just a little too much about the technology. Would-be innovators must learn to see past this common illusion.
This is where Debra Dunne and John Seely-Brown have an argument. Or, as Henry Ford might say, if it is innovation you’re after, it isn’t about making faster horses. In other words, the promise of a new paradigm is not aptly measured by the standards of the incumbent.
Seeing around corners requires a deep understanding of what people do and believe. Neither the incumbent nor the new entrant will earn a significant new following from random acts of design – classically trained or not. And while inventive technology is vital to innovation. It just happens to have a history of misleading its creators. Recall for a minute the breathless talk of the Segway Transporter. Exciting yes. Adopted by millions? Not so much.
Debra Dunne and John Seely-Brown encourage would be innovators to focus on observing pain points. Something, they argue that Google’s micro tuning ways with data might never show. Good. But, what about knowing peoples simple pleasures? Or better yet, the activities they are otherwise get engaged in (when they are inclined to search)?
If an answer engine is the answer to the question of what’s next, then TEDchris would have been better off performing a different experiment. I would encourage him and others to get up from the laptop, and live a little.
Had he captured seven genuine situations (from personal experience) over the course of a day or two, he would have notices different types of uncertainty he were featured in his experiment. And he would have known the consequences of each. Because we no longer pay much attention to tasks like, commuting, tying our shoelaces, and using a search engine, much of our everyday life is hiding in plain sight.
Had he found a simple way to face up to these experiences, then his questions for wolfram alpha would be different. More importantly his insights about an answer engine, would have included ideas about where people might need and want to access to better answers.