Product planning systems: What happened to Google Glass?

Revolutionizing the way we connect to each other through technology is a gargantuan task.[1] But that's the goal of Google X's projects, including its 2013 flop, Google Glass. How did Google, a company known to be quantitative and data-driven, invest so much into a product that failed? They probably didn't have an adequate product planning system in place.

In a 2014 interview in Fast Company, Rich DeVal, head of the Google X Rapid Evaluation Team, or “Rapid Eval,” said this of the revolutionizing motivation behind Glass: “Imagine how hard it would be to explain to your pre-smartphone self how much this is going to change your life… It’s a matter of looking back from the future, where ­everyone walks around with smart glasses and no one leaves their house without them. And then it becomes obvious: ‘Well, of course I want to be connected to information, but in a way that’s minimally invasive, and minimally imposes on my attention.'”

The concept of integrating technology more seamlessly and conveniently into our everyday lives is appealing. Yet, we don’t see Google Glass often now.

The reasons why began with the way Google, and in particular the Rapid Eval team, went about solving this perceived problem. Google X seems, from interviews, to be open to failure. Rapid Eval is described as pursuing a method that “emphasizes rejecting ideas much more than affirming them… Rich DeVaul: ‘Why put off failing until tomorrow or next week if you can fail now?’” (ibid). The difference with Glass was:  they didn’t fail early, which might have enabled them to address consumer concerns or revamp the advertising or product launch, instead they failed late, resulting in “jokes… violence and… consumer backlash” (Forbes), including but not limited to: talk show ridicule as recently as this year from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the advent of the word Glasshole, and a woman being attacked in San Francisco for using Glass. Not to mention the failure from a monetary standpoint; in 2014, Google lost $1.9 billion on “other bets” (a category that includes the projects of the Rapid Eval team, all of which may have lacked a product planning system), though it's impossible to know how much of that was due to Glass.

But what specifically went wrong, and what could they have done to prevent this failure? Lucky for us, we have the recipe they used. Their product process, described in that Fast Company write-up, was (1) Problem Identified, (2) Idea Developed, (3) Solution Tested, (4) Prototype Built, (5) Product Introduced. Absent from this list: market testing. From what little we know about Google’s market testing, they do some, but they focus on their existing customers. That leaves much of the market unaccounted for and limits the potential for successful huge-scale innovation. The customers they surveyed, and the people on the production team, probably really liked Glass. Google’s mistake was thinking this meant everyone would like it. And skipping a product planning system that would account for this fact. 

Not to mention, “It is only after looking at the technological and practical challenges that the team considers the social risks. If we can build it, will it- can it- actually be used?” (Fast Company). Perhaps this order of operations, and overall lack of priority on social impact, warrants some attention. Beyond safety and privacy concerns, one of the product’s main critiques was that Google chose rich, geeky white guys to be its brand ambassadors, making the technology seem both uncool and unattainable. Even the advertisements did nothing to acknowledge the product’s ability to improve the lives of consumers day-to-day.

There are many factors that impact whether a product succeeds or fails, and we see them much more clearly in hindsight. Whether Glass was the useful, revolutionary product it claimed to be never became an issue, because it never had a proper launch. This could be considered the final, major pitfall Google made with Glass, possibly because the hype began when it was still very much a prototype. If Glass had been made available for purchase by anyone, all at one time, it might have had a chance to become normalized and discovered issues could have been fixed. The more we’d see it around in our daily lives, the less it would register as a symbol of expensive, creepy, dorkiness, as it still does today. [2].

[1] A write-up by Fast Company published in 2014 explained that in order to be pursued, each project must: “address a problem that affects millions–or better yet, billions–of people… utilize a radical solution that has at least a component that resembles science fiction… [and] tap technologies that are now (or very nearly) obtainable… No idea should be incremental.”

[2] There is a version of Glass currently being used in manufacturing and healthcare in fields, marketing a “hands free device, for hands-on workers” (  ; ). In these fields there are specific benefits, problems to be solved, by having hands-free access to the internet, and all parties can consent to having Glass in the workplace, which addresses the privacy issue.

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