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March 11, 2010

Buzz Fail: Whose Default Is It?

Catherine New
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Google’s rush to push its social media challenger Buzz out the door was an epic public relations fail for the company. With Buzz’s original default settings, e-mail contact lists, Picasa photo uploads and marked Google reader items suddenly became public domain overnight — and users were not happy. In the month since Buzz launched, Google has faced user outrage and has had to update its default settings on the online tool.

Could Google have avoided this? Easily, says Professor Eric Johnson. He says that too often defaults, in this case the privacy settings, are designed and implemented without being considered at the highest level of strategy. What works in engineering lab may not jibe with the marketing strategy.

How Do You Create An Appropriate Default?

Ask your customers.

“If Google had asked their users, they likely would have said ‘Only do that if you ask me first,’” Johnson says. “Google didn’t realize that the defaults they set would be objectionable.”

Johnson suggests that the beta-testing process for a new product should include a survey that asks customers what they prefer. Survey results can help a company design the appropriate default. In the case of Buzz, that might have been what he calls a “forced choice,” which requires customers to make active choices or be denied access to the product. Alternatively, if a firm knows relevant information about a customer’s behavior, interests or profiles, it can create a “smart default,” which generates individualized options that are optimal for both the firm and the customer, says Johnson. The key thing is to design a system that is a win for both parties, not just the firm.

“Create defaults that are appropriate for the customer,” he says.

Read more about Johnson’s research and how to design defaults in “Nudge Your Customers Toward Better Choices” (Harvard Business Review, December 2008).