Yesterday came the news that Google was going finally shut down the long-suffering Google Glass Explorer program. They are saying that they are going to spin-off Google (X) into its own division which will report to ex-Apple designer and Nest founder Tony Fadell.
I hopefully I can offer a bit of a different perspective on Glass than a lot of a journalist who played with it for one afternoon and then rendered their verdict. I have the rare distinction of being selected as one of the first Explorers, worked with the Google (X) team in Mountain View and was one of the less than 100 designers who actually saw an app they designed to launch on the device. Glass has been under siege since shortly after they started the Explorer program so why did it all go so badly?
You need to launch something quickly and with the right people
It made sense that Google launched Glass to a select group who could help them refine the product and develop apps for the platform as we see a lot of tech companies use this approach. But in this variation of the approach, there were multiple problems.
The first was that for those of use who were interested in Glass for professional reasons we didn’t have an easy way to launch apps on the platforms. This means that it was hard to get internal buy-in for development resources and there was no clear reason why you would want to invest in the platform.
The second problem came when Google invited such a large cross-section of people into the program. I think that most people would have been understanding if it was a technology that was just given to tech professionals. But when it was opened up to everyone and then the pilot dragged on, and on and on with no end in sight something else happened – Glassholes were born. It was the public’s perception that it wasn’t just for people who were trying o develop on the platform coupled with the lack of a consumer launch that transformed the image of Glass from something for tech pioneers into something that was a symbol of assholes with too much money. Google needed to take some advice from one of their new leaders as I’ve heard Tony Fadell talk in person about that with every product you actually need to launch it on a regular basis.
If Glass would have actually launched at some point in the process then this would have been a very different story. Glass wouldn’t have become the ridiculous status symbol it transformed into because anyone would have been able to buy it at a reasonable price. It also would have let the public see what anyone who used the technology quickly found out within about a minute of actually wearing Google Glass – it was a device that was vastly underpowered compared to what the world thought it could do. It’s that last point about what the world thought about Glass that might have been its biggest undoing but let’s talk more about that in the next section.
New technology requires thinking about more than just technology.
Only in the past few months with the launch of the Material design language have you been able to put the words “Google’ and ‘design’ in the same sentence without doing so for ironic or humorous effect. This change signaled more than just the fact that Google recognized the need for better aesthetics in their operating systems but that they have started to value the role that psychology and sociology plays in technology and user experiences. This is a huge shift in their corporate thinking and one that came too late for Glass which was a product where they thought about the physical design but never gave a thought to how people would actually perceive the product when they saw it in the real world. Like I said before, the truth about Glass was that it was a really underpowered device with serious battery problems that couldn’t do a fraction of things that people thought it could. So why did people assume the worst of it and why did they fixate on it so much? The answer is literally on the tip of your nose.
The thinking behind Glass was great in that it was a completely new form factor that would let you interact with digital experiences and information in a completely new, heads up way. The problem came in because Google never took into account how other people would feel when you put a device like that, especially one with a prominent camera, in the middle of your face. It was something that was good for the person wearing Glass because of the experience they could have but the world just wasn’t ready for the psychological and sociological impact on them. Since it was so prominent but it was an experience that excluded everyone but the wearer it made people uncomfortable. They would always want to know what you were looking at, where you filming them or what were you actually doing. They had grown accustomed to being able to see someone else’s smartphone screen and being able to share in the experience even if you didn’t want them to. When you took that away and made the device so prominent in the middle of your face it was just too much. The backlash was natural bi-product.
The problem came when no one at Google took the time to look beyond the product design to see that this was going to be a problem. They didn’t value or understand the need for understanding psychology and sociology in launching new technology. While everyone points at Apple’s design and attention to detail I would argue that it’s their understanding of psychology and sociology that really set them apart. It leads them to make decisions like understanding that people just don’t want a Watch they can wear – they want something that also makes a statement about who they are. By understanding that they made the Apple Watch about of multiple metals with multiple bands so the technology can become a statement about the person wearing it. It sounds like a simple insight but it comes from understanding the psychology of their consumers and gives them the ability to tap into the real underlying emotion behind a purchase like that. It is the type of insight that Google missed on Glass and paid the price for it in a very public way.
Where does Glass go from here?
So where does Glass go from here? I think that if it is even going to actually see the light of day then it needs to become something else in a few ways. It needs a new brand name because Glass is just so damaged and immediately calls up negative perceptions by so many people that it needs to evolve to a new name. I think they also really need to re-think having the camera on the front of the device because while we are all obsessed with photographing everything on our smartphones it just becomes too controversial to have one in the middle of your face without the ability for everyone else to see what you are doing. But ultimately Google needs to learn that launching a product is about than just coding it, tweaking it and seeing what happens. It takes to design and paying attention to a lot more details than just the visual design. I think this a mistake in perception that plagues so many companies as they think the design is simply picking colors and typefaces. It has a mistake Google has made for a long time but we have all forgiven them because it was in places where we would have to work around it like the design of Android or we would just go and buy a product that did understand the depth of design – like from Apple.
It is my sincere hope that Google has learned its lesson and that the hiring and promotion of Tony Fadell is proof of that. The world needs more good design and I want to see more companies give Apple a run for their money because as a designer that just means that I get the chance to create more amazing new experiences on more devices.