When Google Glass launched as a beta product in 2012, it got the kind of press money can’t buy. It was named one of the best inventions of the year by Time. The media built a strong buzz around the high-tech headset, complete with Glass-sporting celebrity sightings.
So why is Google Glass currently serving as Exhibit A on how spectacularly a high-profile product launch can bomb? There are a number of factors at play that have been endlessly hashed out in the media. But the fundamental reason is that Google failed to do quality market research. The team that built Glass neglected to understand its target customer and define why people need it.
Google envisioned Glass not just as a powerful headset, but as a way for people to access the Internet’s treasure trove of information without staying glued to a phone or laptop. The team that worked on Glass likely saw it as the project of a lifetime, one that would release people from the bonds of their screens.
But when the product actually launched, the market outright rejected it. After announcing the Glass prototype in 2012 to great fanfare and releasing it to the public in 2014, Google pulled the headset in January 2015. The backlash was loud, clear, and sometimes gleefully harsh: “Surprise: Socially awkward white males turned out not to be the ideal brand ambassadors,” Slate's senior technology writer wrote last November. Restaurants banned the device; people wearing it — dubbed “Glassholes” — faced verbal and even physical harassment.
What broke down? How did Google, a company worth billions of dollars, fail to predict the market’s response to one of its most anticipated products? Though it’s hard to blame people for caring too much, in a sense, the Glass team’s passion impeded its ability to make Glass a popular consumer product. The team got wrapped up in an idealistic vision for the device, and it never did the market research necessary to figure out two things: what kind of customer it created Glass for, and which of that customer’s needs Glass fulfilled.
First of all, Google’s go-to-market strategy didn’t align with the idea of a device anyone could use anywhere. If Google wanted Glass to become ubiquitous, the product’s first release certainly didn’t reflect that: The Glass Explorer program handed the product to tech insiders first, and it charged each of them $1,500 for the privilege of using it. Google might’ve thought that move said, “Look, how cool and sophisticated Glass is!” What consumers outside Silicon Valley heard is, “Oh, this isn’t for people like me.”
By May 2014, people all over the U.S. could buy Glass. But the damage was already done: Google had unwittingly positioned Glass as a tool for wealthy geeks, not ordinary consumers.
If you want your product to have wide-ranging appeal, why test it on such a specific segment of people? And why price it for the elite? That’s sort of like developing a pair of running shoes, doing market research exclusively on Olympic sprinters, making the shoes prohibitively expensive, and then wondering why ordinary consumers aren’t interested.
On top of that, Google never quite figured out which specific customer needs Glass addressed. One of the first Google Glass commercials focused mostly on situations where it would be cool to have Glass. It featured people riding a roller coaster, doing gymnastics and weaving through traffic on a bike, along with a slew of other adrenaline-inducing activities. But those shots never clarified which needs Glass is supposed to satisfy.
Instead of going for the fever-dream aesthetic, the commercial could’ve focused on one scene in a way that demonstrated Glass’s concrete value to consumers. For example, early in the commercial, a ballerina walks down a staircase; a woman behind her, who’s recording the whole thing via Glass, says, “This is it! We’re on in two minutes!” But the moment is so short that viewers never get to see why the woman needs Glass in the first place.
Let’s imagine Google had found that people needed a way to record important events in their lives without stepping away from them. In that case, Google could’ve made the entire commercial about the two ballerinas. It could have revealed that they were going through their first big audition, and that they decided to record the whole thing to remind themselves of how far they’d come.
Although Google had an inspiring vision for Glass, the team behind the product didn’t check it against reality. Google neglected to pin down which customers needed the product, and why those customers would see Glass as anything more than a novelty headset. And because of that, Google Glass is a cautionary tale rather than a disruptive innovation.