Case Study: Google Glass Failure – a tech launch cautionary tale

By now we all know that Google Glass failed as the next great consumer product.  It didn’t transform our world like the iPod did.  What is a little less clear is why this product failed. Google Glass was not the first product, or even the first high-tech product, to fail, and it certainly will not be the last. One reason the failure of this particular product has sparked so much interest is that it represents Google’s first real failure in the high-tech market. Chrome is easily the most popular browser in the world.  More people have Android phones today than iPhones. So what happened to Google Glass?

Let’s start with why Google would have developed the Google Glass.  Google Glass was part of a Google initiative to deliver moonshot products that turns sci-fi imaginations into reality.  Beyond anticipating the future, it’s obvious why Google backed the Glass in such a big way.  Google is in the information business.  Anything that extends the internet makes more information available or accessible is beneficial to Google’s overall business model.  From a brand perspective, Google has developed a brand for intuitive product.  You feel smarter just by using Google.  You are smarter by using Google.  (Remember when you used to have to know a fact to actually mention it in a dinner conversation?  Now, all you have to do is to look it up on your phone.)  Google Glass was developed under the same premise.  It extended the reach of the internet, while supposedly helping the wearer feel and be smarter.

As in any success or failure, trying to nail down the exact reasons why one product takes off and another flounders are never absolutely clear. Ultimately, though the success or failure of a product in the market place boils down to one indisputable fact — the successful product delivers on its brand promise and connects with the consumers, while the failed product doesn’t.

Let’s first look at Google Glass, the product:

  • Functionality  If the product simply could not perform reliably, or had a tendency to break down, we could easily attribute poor quality as the primary factor in the failure of Google Glass. The only problem is that by most accounts Google Glass appeared to function as expected and was a seemingly reliable product. Product reviews of Google Glass ranked the product quite well receiving 3.5 stars from techradar and 8.2 stars from engadget.  So we can’t conclude that product functionality was the deciding factor in the failure.
  • Price Yes – Google Glass was expensive, but we live in a society where the target market for Google Glass has no problem dropping $2000 on a MacBook Pro to feel trendy. Price point alone could not have been a huge factor in the demise of Google Glass.

So, with a reasonably good product, why did Google Glass fail?  It was not the logic and functions where Google Glass failed.  Google Glass failed because it failed to deliver on its emotional benefits.  Google Glass should have provided its wearer status.  Much like buying top shelf liquor or driving a fast car can provide the buyer some appearance of status, wearing Google Glass should have elevated the wearer.  It was expensive.  It was high-tech.  But, the wearers experienced anything but that premium experience.

  • Design  Google Glass lacked all the nuances of a high-end product as far as design was concerned.  For example, Apple products have high-end price points, but they also have the cool factor—much of which comes from their beautiful minimal design.  Compare any sleek Apple product with the bulky and clumsy look of Google Glass, and it becomes readily apparent that Google Glass was, basically, ugly.
  • Privacy Security concerns also played a role in Google Glass’s failure.  There is the very real possibility of a bugged or hacked Google Glass recording everything within earshot or eyeshot. As consumers pay more attention to personal security and privacy, products that seem to violate that privacy and security will find it increasingly difficult to connect with consumers.  Beyond personal privacy concerns, Google Glass also impeded another basic human need – to be social.  It is very difficult to socialize or work (and to show off the Glass) when everyone around you is constantly worried that your fancy new toy maybe recording their every move and every word.

Result:  Instead of showing off the high social standing of the wearer, Google Glass wearers were mocked.  Google Glass wearers were often talked about using the derogatory term Glasshole.  This issue came front and center when Sarah Slocum was assaulted in a San Francisco bar because she was wearing Google Glass.  The children’s tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” comes to mind.  The wearers were initially excited to be fast adopter of the latest technology.  But before long, they too see the jokes, and eventually grew weary of them.  “I’m a card carrying nerd, but this was one card too many” Shevetank Shah, Washington D.C. consultant, told Reuters.  While Google Glass delivered every functional benefits it promised, it completely failed in delivering the emotional benefits of status.

This example shows how important it is to not only deliver on the functional, but also the emotional benefits.  In this case, Google Glass failed to elevate its wearers.  But it’s also apparent in the case that functional and emotional benefits are often two sides of the same coin.  To get it right, it isn’t about creating the right branding and the right advertising campaign.  It starts with product development.  Google Glass’s failure to deliver on its emotional benefits ultimately lied in product flaws.  The bulky design and the potent security risks significantly contributed to the product’s downfall.

But all is not lost.  Functional and emotional benefits are not delivered in a vacuum.  Context matters.  Who is the target market matters.  While the Glass failed to live up to its promise with mainstream consumers, Google has pivoted and testing Glass at Work.  Some professionals, such as surgeons, can potentially greatly benefit from a mobile recording device.  But as far as the mainstream consumer is concerned, Google Glass is better used as a prop in the next sci-fi film.

Let’s recap our lessons from Google Glass’s failure:

  • Know the functional and emotional benefits your product should deliver
  • Design a product experience that will deliver on your brand promise

How can you learn from Google’s mistakes?


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Photo Credit: Ted Eytan

Last Updated: June 13, 2015

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