What it’s like to be Google’s customer rather than their product

We all know and mostly love Google’s products. I mean, can you even remember the e-mail client you used before Gmail? (I’m the increasingly rare ex-AOLer). However, every now and again something goes terribly wrong. That is when you realize there is no human you can call for help. This is because Google is not offering these products for free out of the goodness of their heart. They offer it in order to collect data on users so as to better target ads served to them. You are not the customer. You are the product.

A failure with a free Google product that you use for your day to day work can lead to considerable distraction and anxiety. I recently had a moment of fear when I was manning a shared Gmail inbox and had been automatically logged out. (Aaaaaahhh!) The password hadn’t been saved, and I had no way of requesting details or a re-set since I had not set up the account myself. What support was there to find a path forward? This page. That’s it. Buenos suerte.

And I’ve heard way worse horror stories of Google product snafus.  There was a bug in Andorid phones where text messages would get sent to the wrong person. Some bosses got texts intended for girlfriends – only some of whom laughed it off. The bug was reported by Android to Google, but within Google the bug was downgraded from “low priority” to “don’t fix”. Talk about being exposed. In another instance, a friend driving in Florida to Disney World experienced a Google Maps outage on the road, with only road signs to guide him for 2 hours. Google will strand you, because you are expendable as a non-customer.

By contrast, when I started using AdWords, they called me 3 times and accepted 2 calls with next to no wait time. Here is the impressive level of support given to new accounts. Adwords offers:

  • A free, human-led tutorial via the phone or Hangouts, where they show you around the AdWords interface
  • A free “Google Build” ad campaign, built by an AdWords support team member – offering a better-than-novice starting place for key terms to employ to meet your goals
  • Feedback on the ad campaigns you draft outside of their build
  • A free phone follow-up review of the Google Build to tweak and improve your campaign

This night and day contrast of experiences may not deplete the value of the “free” products Google provides – we also benefit from the network effects of so many other people using the same products. Yet it does remind me of the stark reality of who I am to Google in each role – a valued customer on one side, a target for sales on the other.


Minimum viable niceness – when high design and average quality make a happy consumer

In the consumer world, design and appearances matter. People want to feel good using the items they buy, for wearing or for everyday use. And with ever-improving just-in-time supply chains and the rapid dispersion of ideas via the internet, it’s hard to keep the best designs a secret. Which has given consumers the M.O. to comparison shop, to find a nice version of the thing they want that will work well and cost less than the ultra premium. We are looking for minimum viable niceness.

There are a few brands that have come up with a mass market model, that have cracked the “fast-follow” code such that they can rapidly roll out a cheaper rendition for a fraction of the price. No, this isn’t the Canal Street equivalent of a “Louis Vuitton” handbag anymore; these items will last well beyond one use. Here’s my view on some of the “nice with a good price” go-tos.


When kitting out my new home, I found lamps and bed frames that looked straight out of a Chelsea furniture store, but at a fraction of the price. I was pleased that products matched the website pictures to the tee.


Their buyers seriously know what they are doing. I’ve seen brands like BCBG that are rapidly losing their brick and mortar footprint have much more stylish pieces at Macy’s with 40% markdowns on top. I also found my futuristic leather couch for a fraction of what the high end decor stores would charge.

Beauty in general

A lot of skin care product quality depends on ingredients more than brands. I advise getting a facial or two and picking the brains of your estheticians. They often have a few recommendations that are inexpensive. And for make-up, I learned from a beauty business person that all eye shadows are basically the same.

Ann Taylor

This one is sort of a hidden gem. I have found some great dresses and accessories there that are nearly runway. It’s hit or miss – but the hits are well worth the browsing.

Stitch Fix

I am continually impressed with their stylists’ ability to find on-trend items, personalized to me, at reasonable prices. I’d give Stitch Fix a try if you don’t have a nose for fashion wins but, rather, “know it when you see it”.

You may be wondering how we got to this point of having so many moderately priced, stylish consumer product king pins. The advent of “masstige” brands like Target in the 1990s brought the the public the idea that they could own decent stuff that represented personal styles at a very reasonable price. This was easier to pull off in the fashion industry to start, where the styles of the season are established a year or so ahead of time, allowing fast fashion houses like Zara and H&M to crank up their supply chains as soon as Italian models hit the runway. The next frontier for affordability after fashion was home decor and furnishings. We saw brands like Ikea and Wayfair give West Elm and RH a run for their money. And beauty brands like L’Oreal convey modest luxury while also being available at CVS. So now, in our great nation, personal style can be done at prices that work with the people and for the people.

Turn it up – temperature control and the human experience

Temperature is like logistics: when everything is right, you don’t notice it. It affects our performance, and our daily experience. And yet it has only been since the 1980s that air conditioners have become a standard fixture in homes as well as office buildings. The 99% Invisible episode on the advent of air conditioners provides a clear example of what separates us from the monkeys – despite what Stephen Dubner might say – namely, that we can modify our environment to our preferred specifications to an insane degree now (pun intended).

Not only can we make our stationary spaces as comfortable as possible, but more an more we can control our personal environment as we travel, with the advent of performance fabrics. I’m not just talking GOR-TEX and the Colombia Omni Heat boot. I’m talking about Stanford’s reversible fabric innovation that can warm and cool. The inventor, Yi Cui, was slightly horrified at the green house implications of our American life style and posed the question: rather than changing a whole building, can we localize temperature control to a single person. He invented an answer. Not yet wearable, but when it gets there, we may be able to experience comfort everywhere we go, without so many negative externalizes. Right now, I’m wearing a hoodie because I’m freezing in my open office. But tomorrow, I will choose my Performance Hoodie (TM) to maximize value for my employer. It’s a win-win – my work will be better than if I micro dosed on LSD*, and office overhead costs will drop with lower energy bills. It will be the real deal.

*This reference is not an endorsement of taking illegal drugs. I mean, even Steve Jobs said you should, but I can’t endorse it.

A word from our readers: the addendum edition

This week we’ve aggregated the musings and factoids of our readers from past posts.

America’s success is Japan’s ikigai

After reading our Index Card Summary of “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”, one reader likened the American Success (TM) model to the slightly more sophisticated Japanese idea of ikigai, which adds societal need into the equation of success.

So now before you quite your job to start your Yelp for people app, ask yourself the critical question – does the world need it?

Working people! Make some ambient noise!

On the topic of focus, we covered a music platform populated by music writing software that knows how to get you on the right wavelength: brain.fm. A reader shared that once you’ve picked the right music, it’s handy to choose the right volume – which happens to be 60 decibels for ambient noise. This is why coffee shops are an ideal work environment for creative people – like satirical bloggers!

We’re all Spider-Man deep down

In our re-branding of the solar system from ancient gods to modern ones, we heard a compelling argument that Earth should really be renamed Spider-Man, because Spider-Man is the Every-man that we all want to be and would be if we could…because deep down, we all want to be from Queens.

Cheers to our readers for the thoughtful feedback!