Things you can learn from Google on how to redesign your industry for the web

Have you ever heard Google’s [VP of Product Design] Marissa Mayer talk about product design? Great stuff. From a recent interview with Michael Arrington at this year’s Le Web. Pay attention to this question (about 12min in) about google news and redesigning journalism.

If we invented news today as a delivery channel for journalism, through the web from scratch, what would that look like? and we like to ask questions like that, what would [ a product google wave, google news] look like if you invented it from scratch for the web. I think it would look very different.

Of course this the right question to be asking. Asking this question is how google manages to disruptively up-end industry after industry on the web with products that are actually pretty simple but work just-right for the web. But so often we don’t.

In the real world it’s not what I hear often enough from companies or industries looking to make the jump to the web, or to social media, to mobile or [insert disruptive new channel of moment here].

What I hear most often is, how can we take all our existing business model and dump ourselves unceremoniously on this channel. Or, lets think of how we keep on doing what were doing but sprinkle some of that magic web/mobile/social pixie dust on things and call it a day.

Which is fine, I suppose, if you want a quick win you can sell your boss today, and if you don’t mind if google/amzon/apple/netflix/some startup/file sharing/the-web-in-general might completely blows up your whole industry sometime tomorrow afternoon.

But if you don’t want to get steamrolled, what Marissa is asking you to think about, and really think hard about is this:

Ask not how your business fits on the web, ask instead, if your business were really made for the web, what business would you be in?

And a moment later gem:

I basically think whenever a media changes over to a new delivery vehicle, it puts pressure on the atomic unit of consumption. It happened with iTunes with the album moving to the song. It happened with YouTube with long-form standards of video to short-form. Now it’s happening with news. People can come in and read one story from the source and then move on. That’s the atomic unit.

When music went to a web there was much consternation that people would buy singles instead of albums. When newspapers go to the web editors are shocked that surfers want to read articles, not sections, not whole bundles of sections.

But this is a great insight. When the medium changes so does the atomic unit of consumption. There are certain economies of scope and scale when bundling a whole bunch of more/less unrelated newspaper sections into one printed package, delivered with one swing of the arm of the paper boy. And from a demand perspective, there’s effective cross correlation of demand, someone in the household will buy the weekend paper for the sports, someone else for the style section. In the totally personalized digital world, that kind of paper-world content-bundling doesn’t make any sense.

When it comes to a new medium you can either let these behaviour changes surprise you, or think of how to take advantage.

For example, atomicity can work both ways. I could see a shift of atomic unit (book) to a bundle (this book and others by this same author) being a win for e-book publishing. When you don’t have to print it, and when shelf space isn’t limited why not generate all sorts of bundle offers. Chances are if I want to read an author, I might want to read all of that author’s books. In the digital space, a publisher that does this really well is Valve the video game publisher. Their orange box being a famous and spectacularly successful example of bundling a hot current title for, just a little bit more, a whole pile of new and old content from the archives. When it’s all digital, it can be just as easy carry home an armload as a single item from the store.