When I headed out to TechCrunch Disrupt this week, I was geared-up to see and touch the hottest startups in the land – and I’ve seen some great ones, but I’ve also had my share of Seth & Amy “Really?” moments. I’ve heard people pitching product-based check-ins where users gallivant around a grocery store scanning barcodes on frozen chicken with their iPhones to get points – sounds realistic. I’ve also been told a pink dragon is going to change the way CPG brands allocate media dollars – and it’s all because he’s a hilarious, irreverent fella. What I didn’t expect from Day 2 of Disrupt was that conversations around Google would be the most interesting thing I heard.
First off, it’s been 5-6 years since I’ve been in a room with Eric Schmidt speaking and I now remember it’s an amazing event. Even in the old Novell days at tech industry show classics like Net Interop, Eric had a way of articulating a future vision like few CEOs. His talk today was no exception, and he outlined three key trends that will shape the next phase of technology as we know it: 1) the rise of the smartphone; 2) an era of pervasive connectivity; and 3) cloud computing. With these three building blocks, he outlined Google’s desire to “build an augmented version of humanity.” Big words, but he’s really just talking about optimizing tasks for the combination of humans and computers – with each focusing on what they do most efficiently. For example, he contends it’s a bug that cars were invented before computers because computers are much more suited to operate cars than people. And these three key building blocks create a scenario where you have a supercomputer (the cloud) connected to a smartphone via pervasive connectivity. He cites the example of being able to translate languages on-the-fly during a real-time telephone conversation. These are the types of things Google engineers are cranking away on, and there’s not a better guy in the world to be leading them than Eric.
That being said, the sharpest question of the day was posed by TechCrunch’s MG Siegler of Brad Horowitz, Google’s VP of Products: Are designers to blame for Google’s lack of success on the product side – specifically social applications? Brad was quick to say no, but I believe the answer is slightly more complex. Perhaps the existing designers aren’t culpable, but few would argue Google’s at the top of the product game. (Hell, some I know would debate if Google even has any designers.) Witness the debacle of Buzz from a software perspective, and the death of Nexus One from a hardware perspective. Google simply may not have the right people in the mix.
So here’s my hypothesis: immediately divert all engineering job reqs to UI/UX, design, and front-end coding – and let it ride for about 100 people. In essence, stand up a product design and build function that can effectively wrangle all the innovation coming out of Google. And don’t worry, there are plenty of PhDs in areas like Human Factors if they want to remain somewhat academic inside this group. But also step out and grab a bunch of agency creatives with deep project-level experience and a work-around-the-clock mentality. They won’t fit in very well with the culture, but start out with them in a quiet corner (or separate facility) until they have 3-4 big wins under their belt. After that, their value will be undeniable.
This is exactly what my small team did at UPS in 1999-2000, and it’s paid huge dividends over the last 10 years. Massive volume applications like Tracking and Shipping were pared down to manageable beasts by sheer determination and relentless usability testing. For the first time ever, interactive professionals had strong influence over the product roadmap, and were in direct charge of the UI. Eventually, we even assumed development responsibilities over the front-end code with a team of 50-60 people. This exact approach could bolt directly into the Google business, and I’m not sure it’d be more of a shock than we created at Big Brown. It simply takes visionaries in the IT and interactive spaces. Not easy, but so worth the pain…
So under Eric Schmidt’s visionary leadership, why not make every possible move to dominate the world? If half of what he’s thinking could be brought to market, Google would be our generation’s most important technology company. They have undeniable engineering horsepower and amazing leadership, but lack the ability to formulate and launch a product that captures the hearts and minds of consumers. If they cross that chasm, our world will be a different place. I, for one, hope they do.