Google loses its user-centric focus

Google loses its user-centric focus

16th March 2010

We’ve all been able to read why Google is as big as they are right now in “What would Google do?” by Jeff Jarvis. The secret lies in making the user the most important element in developing a product or service. That’s what Google did with their search engine and that’s what they’ve tried to do with several other products and services they launched over the past years. However, lately Google seems to lose their user-centric focus and at the same time they seem to be losing a lot of credit.

Gmail: an example of user-centric development

The main disadvantages of existing webmail services have been the lack of storage and problems with organizing emails. So Google launched a webmail service with a storage limit much higher than existing webmail services, and on top of that they used their search intelligence to help people find their emails faster and easier. It brought Google a big share in the webmail market just by releasing a product without the limitations of other providers. On the way Google used Gmail Labs to get users to develop new features for Gmail and implemented the best ones into their webmail service. Except for privacy issues I don’t know any Gmail users that dropped Gmail for another webmail provider. So the way Google develops Gmail seems to be the right way according to the users.

So, where did it go wrong?

Google Buzz, it’s been buzzing now for a while. But not in a positive way. Google launched Buzz without any consideration for user’s privacy or user’s needs. There have been a lot of web sites covering and analyzing the mess. The most important mistake Google made with the launch of Buzz however was not considering the end user at all. All they wanted to do was take part in the social media buzz. That seems to be the reason why they pushed it on their users and ignored any possible privacy issues. They must have thought developing the service could be done along the way. But Google should know by now that privacy is a hot topic on the internet, you can’t mess with that. Google clearly ignored the user in this case, just to be able to participate in the social web for their own prestige.

Anything else?

How about Google Wave? Google Wave definitely had the Wow!-factor. Remember how you watched the preview of Google Wave at Google I/O? You probably were either stunned, flabbergasted or at least excited. We all couldn’t wait to finally be able to use Wave, because Wave would change the way we communicate online. When it was finally released you opened Wave and… uh… what actually? You had no idea what to do with it, how to do it and with whom to do it. You might have started wondering whether you were the only one missing out on all the possibilities of Wave. But soon it became clear: nobody knew what to do with it. Google Wave tried to fulfill a need that didn’t exist. We’re all pretty happy with the way we communicate right now. At least, we’re not ready for a fundamental change. Once again Google  launched a prestigious product instead of a product we really needed.

Okay, but Google Android is a user-centric developed product, right?

Well, partly. The basis of Google Android is a mobile operating system which is, on the contrary of Apple mobile OS, focused on open development by users. Google doesn’t want to control what can and can’t be done on their OS. So, in this light Android is developed with a user-centric focus. But what happens to the user who buy a Android phone? I myself, bought a Samsung Galaxy in September of last year. Since then Google launched three newer versions of the operating system (1.6, 2.0 and 2.1). But Google never considered how the users would get those new versions. They left it up to the manufacturers of the phones. And frankly, they don’t really care. So as an early adaptor I’m now stuck with an old version with limited possibilities. The users of the HTC Hero are stuck with the same problem. Google’s still developing their operating system (with the help of the users) but along the road they forget the users who tried their products first.

A few more examples

You’d think those are all the examples for now. But I could name a few more. What about:

  • Sidewiki: did we really need that?
  • another URL shortener without any obvious advantages.
  • Real time search: really prestigious but is it really necessary?

So, what should Google do?

What I’m trying to say: maybe Google should reconsider the way they are developing their products right now. Stop focusing on the Wow!-factor or prestigious products, but go back to the basics of developing products users really need. Instead of artificially creating needs, try to find existing needs and fulfill those. Maybe they should read “What would Google do?” once more?


Written By
Jeroen van Eck is a consultant search engine marketing at the online marketing company E-Focus in the Netherlands.
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