Was Google Plus Doomed to Fail? One Designer Thinks So.

Theron Mohamed
October 17, 2018

Google’s decision to shut down Google Plus after seven years has revived questions about why the social media platform never took off. A disgruntled former Googler’s Twitter thread suggests mismanagement, disorganisation and a culture of self-promotion and infighting may have sentenced Google Plus to failure from the start.

Soon after the Wall Street Journal reported that Google had kept quiet about a bug in Google Plus that put 500,000 users' data at risk, the search and advertising titan announced it would phase out the consumer version of its unpopular social network over the next 10 months. Morgan Knutson, a user-experience (UX) designer who helped to create Google Plus, celebrated by blasting the product as a “god forsaken piece of shit” and “massive waste of resources”, and recounting the myriad challenges he faced during its development.

Google Plus was a top priority for Google, Knutson recalls, likely at the expense of other products. He remembers Vic Gundotra, Senior Vice-President of Plus, emphasising that Google had to best Facebook and take control of the world’s social data to remain the king of information. Gundotra’s clout with Google’s top brass meant the Google Plus team was housed one floor away from founder Larry Page’s office, and other Google teams that integrated Google Plus features were rewarded with a bonus multiplier of 1.5 to 3 – boosting their annual bonuses from around 15% of salary to 45% in some cases. Knutson colourfully describes the incentives as “a fuck ton of money to ruin the product you were building with bloated garbage that no one wanted”, adding that “People drank the kool-aid…mostly because it was green and made of paper.”

The social network suffered from a lack of cohesion, originality, care and experience among its designers, in Knutson’s view. He was seated with more than 50 designers with no professional experience who rushed their tasks, copied Facebook and didn’t coordinate or collaborate, he claims, resulting in disjointed, low-quality work that fit poorly within Google’s ecosystem. He also blames poor leadership, labelling one manager as “an awfully bad designer with a love for bureaucracy” whose main concern was office politics.

Perhaps most damningly, Knutson describes a culture of claiming credit, pushing personal projects and sidelining others’ work. When he pitched a redesigned layout of Google Plus that allowed real-time chat across devices and integrated apps such as Gmail and Google Calendar into the sidebar, an executive dismissed it as the company was about to announce an inferior version - an extension to its Chrome browser. When Knutson tried to redesign the Google Plus logo, the original designer resisted his efforts but couldn’t name anyone who didn’t like the new icon or offer specific feedback. Knutson believes the designer “wanted [his team’s] work to be used, or to be able to take credit for it”. When he complained to his manager about the incident and other bad behaviour, his manager suggested Knutson didn’t belong on the team and said he would promote the troublesome colleague to team leader.

A single ex-employee’s one-sided account of an unpleasant work experience that took place seven years ago must be taken with several grains of salt. Google Plus boasted more than 540 million monthly users at its height – although that was largely due to its integration with services such as Gmail and YouTube, and it experienced low engagement – which hardly classifies as a failure. But if Knutson’s version of events is true, a workplace culture brimming with entitlement, disorder, self-interest and office politics may have crippled its chances from the start.