Google's Data Fetish Drives Away Its Top Designer

As we reported last week, Doug Bowman, Google's top designer, has confirmed that he's leaving (we hear to Twitter). Bowman's reasons for quitting are fascinating — and they show why Google's losing its cool.

Bowman joined Google three years ago — too late, he now says. The company's engineers-first culture was firmly in place, meaning every decision had to be proven through exhaustive testing, rather than a reliance on a clear vision of Google's design. And in a backhanded slam at Google VP Marissa Mayer, the head of "user experience," he notes that top management in charge of design had not background in the field:

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. And that data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions.


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 miniscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.

Exciting design problems, like those at Twitter? A source tells us that's where he's going, but Bowman hasn't confirmed that yet. (He promises to disclose his new employer in a followup blog post.)

Bowman adds that he "can't fault Google for this reliance on data," but "won't miss a design philosophy that lives or dies strictly by the sword of data." It's a microcosm of what's going wrong at Google: The rigorous culture of making every decision quantitative, every process algorithmic, results in a coldly efficient experience, with no room for the human quirkiness that makes sites like Flickr so appealing. It's hard to argue with Google's financial results. But who wants to work inside the bowels of a perfectly tuned machine? If Google runs by the numbers, it hardly needs humans. And that's why people like Bowman are leaving.

(Photo by gorriti)