Google Likes Numbers. Apple Likes People. Guess Who Wins?

Last Updated Jul 14, 2011 2:41 PM EDT

Recent statements by former Google (GOOG) employees about the development of Google+ highlight how an engineering mindset fails to understand social media, as Matthew Ingram notes at GigaOM. The observation makes sense because the issue is people, not bits.

However, the impact of the engineering culture on Google goes far deeper. The informs everything the company does and explains much about its long-standing weakness in marketing. In this sense, Google is the anti-Apple (AAPL). All other things being equal, Apple is more likely to succeed.

It does not compute
Paul Adams -- a former Google social researcher who developed the idea that became the connection grouping concept called Circles in Google+ -- explained the culture this way:
Google is an engineering company, and as a researcher or designer, it's very difficult to have your voice heard at a strategic level. Ultimately I felt that although my research formed a cornerstone of the Google social strategy, and I had correctly predicted how other products in the market would play out, I wasn't being listened to when it came to executing that strategy. My peers listened intently, but persuading the leadership was a losing battle. Google values technology, not social science.
Ironically, Google ultimately had to pay attention when the research became publicly available and Facebook eyed it.

Adams isn't alone in his perception. Others, like former Google engineer Dhanji Prasanna, agree that the culture does not embrace non-engineers: "I had the impression that Paul Adams was not being heard (if you're not an engineer at Google, you often aren't)."

People? You mean we sell to people?
Social networking implications are a microcosm of a problem that former Google employee Douglas Edwards better frames as Google needing "irrational" people to better understand the reactions of consumers. He talked about discussing the perceived privacy issue of Gmail with Sergey Brin:
I said, we need to talk about the privacy issue around Gmail and he just stood right in front of me and he looked at me and he said, "There is no privacy issue." Because in his mind, there was no privacy issue. The facts were that Google was not reading email, Google was not targeting email. So the facts said there was no privacy issue. He didn't understand that people's perception was reality.
Google's mistake -- one that Apple avoids -- is assuming that only the rational has value. Beyond a small segment of people with the same engineering inclinations, Google doesn't understand its customers because it is culturally incapable of giving weight to the emotional and instinctive sides of life.

Designers first
For an understanding of the difference in attitude, former Apple CEO John Sculley has an illuminating story:
[A] friend of mine was at meetings at Apple and Microsoft on the same day and this was in the last year, so this was recently. He went into the Apple meeting (he's a vendor for Apple) and when he went into the meeting at Apple as soon as the designers walked in the room, everyone stopped talking because the designers are the most respected people in the organization. Everyone knows the designers speak for Steve because they have direct reporting to him. It is only at Apple where design reports directly to the CEO.
The friend then walked into a Microsoft meeting where designers weren't invited and technical people were "trying to add their ideas of what ought to be in the design."

Engineers often disregard the importance of design because they fundamentally don't understand it. There's a great example of this in a comment, left by someone aptly using the name Engineer, on the Wall Street Journal interview with Edwards:
engineer add value at a fundamental level. UI and usability and all that is just bells and whistles which adds to the cost of the product. In the beginning of a hot trend, function takes priority over form. Consider 90′s Microsoft Windows which crashed all the time. I don't care if UI is nice, first fix the blue screen! Apple is only popular now because the underlying technology has been commodified enough to bring the cost down. Same with cars. all black because R&D money went into engine first--.engineering first. Then design. colors, speakers, comfort comes after engineering.
Engineers frequently see design as something plastered onto products. They miss that real design stems from understanding people. It's using aesthetics to speak to emotional needs.

Most good design starts with research to learn what people want in the first place. Few companies have a Steve Jobs and his intuitive grasp that consumers want beautiful experiences in life but lack ways to have them. If your product offers one, you'll do well.

Why Apple wins
To stress engineering over that design is to argue that a house starts with a structural engineer and crew. Only after construction does the architect fasten the doodads and slap on paint. Unfortunately, people buy on emotion, not rational analysis.

Engineering culture succeeds when it accidentally creates what people emotionally want, or when it fills a practical need and a better designed product isn't available. Even in the pragmatic business market, intelligent and sensitive design can win out, as Apple has demonstrated. (Notice whose look-and-feel Android had to emulate to succeed?)

The minute engineers market and sell something -â€" when they have to communicate how products satisfy the emotional needs of consumers â€"- they're in deep trouble. Google has been in a rut because an engineering heritage is not what creates products that people want. Design does that, and good design is always about the people, not the numbers.

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  • Erik Sherman On Twitter»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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