Tim O Reilly makes an interesting point picking up on Farhad Manjoo's fascinating piece about Google's new cross-company commitment to design under Larry Page, and what that has meant in terms of how it has had to shift gears from utility to beauty.
The Manjoo piece is interesting in that it relates how beauty and design have moved to become front and centre at Google in a way that might be more akin to how most people think of the approach of a company like Apple. When Google designers are asked what beauty means for their company, they talk of simplicity, and beyond that of invisibility:
"Google's core services – search, mapping, translation – are all awesome feats of engineering. But those powers will be most useful if their cold technical underpinnings are hidden from users, and if, instead, they appear in a way that seems more like magic than technology."
The idea of such an intangible thing as 'beauty' becoming a business imperative at such a data driven company leads to some inevitable challenges, but is not exceptional. Jon Wiley, lead designer for Google search, makes the point that humans have had thousands of years of experience of interacting with physical objects in tactile ways, but with the growth of touch screen interfaces we are increasingly interacting with software in the same hands-on way: "Our expectations of the real world began transferring to the virtual world." This necessitates answering questions like how you feel when using the product.
O'Reilly makes the point that there are parallels between what Larry Page is attempting to do with his pursuit of beauty in Google products, and the assertion from White House Deputy CTO Jennifer Pahlka that one of the best ways to restore faith in government (present issues aside) is to create interfaces to government services that are simple, beautiful, and easy to use: "(She) thinks of a good government website as nothing less than a way to improve democracy. If the site is 'simple, beautiful and easy to use, you feel differently about government'". This is, perhaps, just what GDS is doing.