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Google UX Talk Thoughts, Once Removed

So, I didn’t see Marissa Meyer speak at BayCHI about Google’s approach to user interface design, but Rashmi and Luke did, and I found some of what they related to be quite interesting.

The thing that most grabbed me was this comment from Rashmi’s notes:

“Marissa also addressed whether User Experience is a sustainable competitive advantage. Although analysts such as Gartner believe that User Experience is not a sustainable competitive advantage (because it can be copied easily) Google has observed that their competitors have not been able to catch up. Marissa thinks that since Google started from such a different point (a very bare interface), other companies have had a difficult time reaching that point (since they started from such a busy interface, and have so much paring down to do).”

Luke echoed this statement in his notes, with a slightly different emphasis:

” Marissa began by questioning whether a particular user experience could be a sustainable advantage as it can essentially be copied. In practice, however, Google has found that competing sites have a hard time maintaining the level of feature restraint that Google adheres to. Mayer pointed out that it is quite difficult to remove something once you have added it. This is especially true in large organizations with pronounced vertical structures and vertically based incentive systems.

My first thought was, “Gartner said that? Are they that stupid?” It’s one of those things that’s plainly stupid in that there is a wealth of evidence that user experience helps sustain competitive advantage, with Google being on obvious example (and, things like the iPod and Tivo bearing this out as well). Obviously, it’s not the only element toward an advantage — if it were, the Mac OS would be far more popular than Windows. But, it’s worth nothing that, even at only 3% market share, even with all this talk about network effects and self-fulfilling monopolies, the Mac OS still exists, and, frankly, is thriving. It’s continued existence is due solely to its user experience — while it might not have been a competitive advantage against Windows, it’s what has let the Mac OS stick around when so many other OSes simply vanished over the last 20 years.

Luke’s comment said much the same thing, though it added, “This is especially true in large organizations with pronounced vertical structures and vertically based incentive systems,” and it made me wonder if this is something Marissa said, or if this is Luke’s interpretation. That statement is basically the thesis of my essay, “Organization in the way: how decentralization hobbles the user experience,” and is the primary reason WHY user experience provides a competitive advantage — because an emergent property of typical organizational structures is to needlessly complicate a user experience. This is the genius of Apple, Tivo, Google, and other contemporary design icons — that they *exhibit restraint*.

Restraint is phenomenally difficult to practice.

  1. I even think you could make the case that Windows dominance is a result not only of lower hardware cost and enterprise dominance, but also of a kind of user experience superiority: More hardware works with Windows. Apple, having relied on their own ability to invent simply couldn’t keep pace with the Wintel hardware base as it developed during the 90s – which in turn dropped Apples market share into the low single digits.

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