How Google dropped the ball but scored a home run

by | Jan 18, 2018

Earlier this winter, Google launched an awful product: Google Pixel Buds Bluetooth headphones ($165), which were beleaguered by the unfortunate problem of not transmitting sound. (Here’s a Wired magazine


that enumerates the headphone’s shortcomings.)

Despite my frustration with these headphones, they have provided me with an apt example of how to handle a product release gone wrong.

If you’re preparing to launch a new product, don’t do what Google has done. Don’t rush something to the market while overpromising to your customers. However, if you’ve already released a product too early, then copy exactly how Google responded. I’ll explain.

The sound, then the fury

A few weeks ago, I received my long awaited, backordered Google Pixel Buds to match my new Pixel 2 phone. My first week with the Buds went fine. I took them out of the box, gave them a charge, paired them via Bluetooth and went about my days. I’d tap and hold to speak with Google Assistant, and miraculously she understood most of the things I said. (After years of not being heard by voice recognition software, especially by Julie from Amtrak, it was refreshing to be heard by a device while walking through Manhattan.)

Then, the Pixel Buds stopped working. I couldn’t hear and couldn’t be heard. I had to go through the process of pairing them with my phone over and over again. They did not work reliably when I’d try to answer a phone call. All this, in addition to the Buds’ carrying case, which I had found cumbersome, led me to reattach the cord. I went back to wired.

But I didn’t want to give up entirely. Google is huge. Surely this crew could do better. One evening, I took another look at the support pages and found that the Pixel Buds’ page had been edited since I’d looked at it. As I was reading the new information, a window popped up and offered me the chance to “chat with a member of the Google Pixel Buds team.” I took the bait and opened up a chat window.

My ears–and eyes–pop

Here is where Google got it right. Remember this is the company that brought you Gmail (with an audaciously huge storage promise) and kept the beta label on it for five full years (2004–2009). Google is set up to collect and analyze information.

Initially, I had pretty low expectations. Whenever I open a chat window, I assume I’ll be talking with a bot. For the first few lines of chat, maybe I was. Right away “Nick” from Google knew my name was Dora (creepy, but efficient). But he talked me through the problem and, by the end of our session, he had given me new information to fix my earphones.

What I found most interesting, however, was how knowledgeable he was about the specific product. It seemed to me that Google may have been using the initial rollout to test the software and hardware. And instead of hiring a market research firm, through my purchase of the product,


was paying them to do their research.

The takeaway (that keeps giving)

Certainly, we can debate the ethics of my hypothesis. But let’s suppose I’m correct. If so, I’d like to think that Google intentionally created the pop-up chat window on the support pages because they want to capture input in order to easily analyze it at scale. This allows customer input to be shunted directly to the designers so that software/hardware updates and improvements are made in short cycles.

Would it be nice if Google were to send me a gift for my troubles, like a better case or upgraded hardware? That would be the icing on the cake. But if they’re able to push out a software upgrade to make the earphones transmit sound reliably, then I’ll be happy. I won’t even mind being a

de facto

member of their extended product development team. Especially if it means I can hear my calls.

Author Spotlight

Dora Chomiak


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