Don Norman: Google doesn’t get people, it sells them

Don Norman at dConstruct“What is Google? What do they sell?” asks Don Norman, the author of The Design of Everyday Things and a demigod of the design world.

It’s a question that gets asked a lot, especially as the company’s power and products continue to expand. In a talk on Friday at the dConstruct conference in Brighton, England, he pointed out that –despite the complexity of the organization — the answer usually looks pretty simple.

“They have lots of people; lots of servers, they have Android, they have Google Docs, they just bought Motorola. Most people would say ‘we’re the users, and the product is advertising,'” he said. “But in fact, the advertisers are the users and you are the product.”

Then he went further. “They say their goal is to gather all the knowledge in the world in one place, but really their goal is to gather all of the people in the world and sell them.”

These aren’t exactly new allegations. “You are the product” has become a popular rallying cry over the last couple of years, with plenty of ammunition fired at Google, (s goog) Facebook and others for their apparent invasions of privacy, their ability to track what we do online, and their ambitions to profit from it.

Nor is Norman’s dislike of the company a sudden conversion. Now 75, he has a distinctive track record of piling on Google — including a famous essay in which he attacked the idea of Google’s simplicity, claiming that “Anybody can make a simple-looking interface if the system only does one thing.” In addition, as a former vice president at Apple, (s aapl) which has come increasingly into competition with Google over the years, you can imagine that he’s not exactly a disinterested party.

Still, his comments were forceful, and they have taken on a new meaning given the context of recent events.

For example, Norman argued that the company’s inhumanity — its inability to understand what is emotionally true about products like Apple’s — is a serious problem. More particularly, he suggested that Google’s approach to emotion, and to people, is the real reason for the debacle over real names on Google+.

“Real names, they say, turn out to be the names on your driver’s license and your passport and your credit cards so that they can track you. Are you happy to be a product?”

I saw more than a few developers in the audience bristle at this apparently uncomfortable idea, or taking umbrage with Norman’s attack. But Eric Schmidt himself admitted that the real names approach is about becoming a broker of online identities.

Ultimately, his charge was one that Google has seen many times before: that it is a machine which needs humans but doesn’t like them very much. Whether it’s in its social networks, its interfaces, or other elements of its design, Google is merely applying a thin veneer that often apes Apple’s approach without understanding it.

“Google doesn’t understand people,” he said. “Have you ever spoken to a Google support person on the phone? They don’t have them. Sure, they’ll direct you to their blogs — where you’ll be lucky if you can find the answer you’re looking for — or they’ll let you give feedback. But do they ever give you feedback on your feedback?”