Google & the Non-Human Touch

From Steven Levy’s In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes our Lives, which I’ve been enjoying:

Google had gotten a lot of flak for its impersonal interface style—some thought its programs and search pages so plain as to be ugly. “It’s like they almost want it to be insipid,” says Andy Hertzfeld, a former Macintosh wizard now at Google. Many decisions were made by testing rather than aesthetics—sometimes a minor tweak in spacing or the shade of a color could result in millions of dollars lost or gained in AdWord clicks. Also, Larry Page, wary of anything that would degrade performance, would routinely bounce any interface element with clever frills such as animation. “Artsy” designers seldom lasted long in the company, and one defector left behind a blistering blog post on Google’s visual shortcomings. The fact was, Google didn’t want to be beautiful. Marissa Mayer, the fierce protector of Google’s look, once quelled an incipient revolt by designers by finally defining what rankled her about a stunning design submitted to her. “It looks like a human was involved in choosing what went where,” Marissa told them. “It looks too editorialized. Google products are machine-driven. They’re created by machines. And that is what makes us powerful. That’s what makes our products great.” In other words, the message Google wanted to convey was that its products had no human bias. “It was like this lightbulb went off,” says Margaret Stewart, a key curator of the Google interface. “Marissa said Google products are machine-driven. It was the locked-up principle that had never been expressed, and that was of enormous assistance to us.”