Before consumers even had the opportunity to purchase the digital eyewear, Google announced in January it would pull Google Glass off the market. The company isn’t completely shattering Glass, but rather it’s putting an end to the “Explorer” program, which allowed curious developers to try out the product for $1,500. Google insists this is hardly the company’s last foray into wearable technology, but the original Glass has fielded overwhelming criticism since it was launched to the elite crowd in 2012.
The primary cause of concern? Privacy. The camera feature caused discomfort among unwitting passersby who couldn’t tell whether they were being quietly photographed or filmed. “Glass is easy to ignore” for the person wearing it, but “Google’s challenge in making the device a successful consumer product will be convincing the people around you to ignore it as well,” wrote Simson Garfinkel in the MIT Technology Review. Other Explorers complained that Glass was no more useful than existing devices—only much more conspicuous. New tech gadgets are often praised for their sleekness and style, but Glass just looks like a pair of geeky spectacles, wrote Jake Swearingen in the Atlantic.
Glass’s (at least temporary) demise is a cautionary tale for technologists. In another light, it’s a ringing endorsement of design thinking.
Problem solving is at the core of design thinking, which IDEO CEO Tim Brown defined as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” A key element—“the needs of people”—may have evaded Google.
“It’s simple,” wrote Mickey McManus, chairman and principal at MAYA Design. “We can make strides or we can make crap. Discerning between the two will require a new workforce of design thinkers: creative, flexible, and able to imagine and solve a problem that doesn’t yet exist.”
OK, Glass? What problem did you solve?
Design thinking is a socially conscious approach that demands tech savviness but also calls on the humanity of the designer. In the case of Google Glass, a simple, intuitive assessment of the cultural moment may have revealed the culprits of Glass’s eventual downfall. Students of all ages who are engaged in design thinking could have told us: It’s kind of creepy. It’s dorky. We have to wear a computer on our faces?
Google could learn a lesson from REALM Charter School in Berkeley, California, where students put the principles of good design thinking into practice. Emily Pilloton, teacher and Studio H founder, wrote that design should be “an active response to a context . . . a social act that builds citizenship in the next generation.” Students in her program have built a school library, a farmers’ market, and an outdoor classroom. But before diving into the projects, they conduct ethnographic research to identify their community’s (or, in the case of the library and classroom, their own) needs.
Some designers have argued Google Glass is actually an exemplar of design thinking. The project was a grand experiment that incorporated creative risks and unconventional thinking—and a failure that is possibly more revealing than success would have been. Design thinking is simply manifested differently at a massive company like Google than it is in a classroom or studio, said Daniel Rose, an officer at a design-oriented consulting firm, in a LinkedIn discussion.
“For most organizations, doing some prototypes and a small beta test would be a good example of Design Thinking, but for a company with the heft of Google, they can absolutely afford to ‘launch’ something and see how it does without putting themselves at risk,” Rose wrote. “The amount of info that they learned from developing and launching it was incredible.”
He has a point. Problem solvers and out-of-the-box thinkers have to be willing to engage in some trial and error. And creative ideas often result from less successful ones. But tech for tech’s sake—products created without humanity in mind—won’t have an audience.