Google, Culture, Computationalism

This sort of story captures what i see as one of–perhaps the–most paradigmatic manifestations of computationalism.

I have noticed how much more streamlined, clean, and professional Google’s designs have been recently. It never occurred to me to think about how their design team works, although i spent lots of time working at this interface.

It turns out that Google only hired its first senior designer (Douglas Bowman) about 4 years ago. among the other projects he worked on was the android, which is really, so far, not a design success for the company. I use the past tense because it turns out that somewhat behind the scenes, perhaps in particular over the android project, last December he quit over frustration with Google’s inability to see beyond its algorithmic mindset–that is, what i have called computationalism.

Bowman writes that

Without a person at (or near) the helm who thoroughly understands the principles and elements of Design, a company eventually runs out of reasons for design decisions. With every new design decision, critics cry foul. Without conviction, doubt creeps in. Instincts fail. “Is this the right move?” When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems. Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data. Data in your favor? OK, launch it. Data shows negative effects? Back to the drawing board.

The company with which to compare this kind of problem is Apple, which has from the beginning prided itself on combining design principles with engineering principles, making it now one of the longest-lived and most successful computer companies in the world. So is Google–don’t get me wrong. but one can see a tension in their products between “engineering” and “everything else” that disturbs me, especially given its bizarre commitment to “organize the world’s knowledge”–meaning, “let’s have engineers who dismiss the importance of all non-engineering methodologies organize the world’s knowledge.” which in my opinion has been a problem for Microsoft, too, at its worst moments, and has often been a strength at its best (even if it is essentially copying apple’s work a lot of the time).

Engineers who think like this about “art,” when applied to their own corporate products in which design expertise has proven itself to be invaluable on many different levels:

Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.

I don’t know the inside workings of Google to know whether they’ve hired another lead designer or just kept the expert crew bowman hired; many of their products continue to have a high level of design, but others (like the android) are worrying.

And Bowman? He went to work for another company whose design (and its integration into the “business model”) have been standing out, for me, for quite a while–and whose basic need for design is only obvious from what i would call a non-engineering perspective:

Yes, it’s true. After reading a bit of speculation over the past few weeks, I’ll confirm here that I am, indeed, joining Twitter. I don’t remember ever being as eager or excited to start a new job as I’ve been with this one. (Thus, why I only took one week off between jobs.)

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