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Sunday, May 21, 2006

Is Google Badly Designed?

Peter Dawson pointed me to an article by Donald Norman, author of several books on design. Donald writes (the essay isn’t timestamped, so I don’t know how old/new it is):

“Oh,” people rush to object, “the Google search page is so spare, clean, elegant, not crowded with other stuff.”

True, but that’s because you can only do one thing from their home page: search. Anybody can make a simple-looking interface if the system only does one thing. If you want to do one of the many other things Google is able to do, oops, first you have to figure out how to find it, then you have to figure out which of the many offerings to use, then you have to figure out how to use it.

I disagree with Donald on two points. First of all, I don’t think it’s simple to create simplicity – it’s harder. I’ve worked in a web agency and often, the more people crunch the same issue the longer, the more complicated the solution starts to look. A help text here, an additional button there (just to cover eventualities), another navigation entry for the stereotypical “grandpa web user” (I’m saying “stereotypical” ’cause there are grandpas who edit HTML in a text editor).

One of the reasons for this unnecessary complexity in interface design is disregard for the #1 usability rule – users don’t read – and the other is that complexity is sexy when presented in a meeting where there is no specific user target. When you look at a picture in a meeting you can take minutes to admire its beauty, but when you want to achieve a specific task as a user (say, finding the phone number of the Thai restaurant you want to reserve a table at), then you have a very different mindset. Any beauty you’ll admire is the beauty in how well the tool works in terms of letting you achieve the goal.
So the first question when you’re tackling a site is to ask if you’re actually designing a tool, or you’re working on content. I consider Google a tool, and I consider a blog post I find through Google content (a user turns to a reader here, and yes, readers do read). I consider Google Video a tool, but I consider a video I watch at Google Video content. It’s great if the video challenges me, puzzles me, surprises me, wastes my time. It sucks if the Google Video interface surprises me and wastes my time.

The second point I disagree with in Donald Norman’s article is that Google only does one thing. Apparently, Donald doesn’t understand Google oneboxes – the query-specific boxes on top of organic search results, interfacing services Google News, Google Maps and so on – or he purposely omits them. While a Google onebox is not a solution to all needs (for one thing, it doesn’t allow me to explore, because I need to know what I want in order to form a search query), there’s also the “more” link leading to a Google sitemap with an overview of additional services. Last not least the most important Google services are listed on top of the search box.

Real beauty of tools is easy identification

Now, there’s a different side to this. Sometimes, simplicity helps identification. I would call Google a “naked” search engine, and I would call Yahoo a “dressed” one, and the new Yahoo design a “well-dressed” one. Google looks innocent because it’s so simple, and many people even today, when Google is a giant company, believe that this is what the company behind the search engine is, too... simple, innocent, a bit childish. It’s the kind of thing we could do too with a web editor. Blue links, the default color, of all the colors!

Now compare this to the new Yahoo design – that’s a corporate website. It’s wearing a suit, and a tie, and it probably knows what it does but it doesn’t empower me to feel it’s completely mine. It’s not low-brow enough for that.

Yahoo is actually more beautiful on the surface. But it’s the beauty of complexity, which is a beauty we admire but don’t identify with. Scott McCloud in his classic Understanding Comics gave a superb example of this. In a certain manga, which has a greatly refined comic book grammar, the hero was drawn in simple lines, because the hero is what the reader is supposed to identify with. The environment on the other hand was drawn in complex shading and lines, with a lot of details, because this was the outside world; a world to explore, a world with surprises, a world that’s potentially holding danger. Now our protagonist found a sword, and this is the fascinating part: before our hero picked up the sword, it was rendered in the complex and detailed drawing style of the outside world. After the hero picked it up, the sword turned into a simple drawing style. The tool became one with the hero (and thus, the reader)... an extension of the body.

So what happens when a tool becomes an extension of our body? Then we do not (consciously) notice it anymore. You don’t usually say “My car bumped into another car” or “I clicked the mouse"; more often, you’ll say “I bumped into another car” or “I clicked the button” – the mouse, and the car, were integrated in your “body scheme.” Similarly, when you take a pencil to draw on paper, after a while – so says German brain surgeon and philosopher Detlef Linke in his book Einsteins Doppelgänger – you will feel the pressure not against your hand, but against the tip of the pencil. Technically speaking that’s impossible, because you don’t have nerves in the pencil – but psychologically speaking, it’s very possible. What does that mean for Google, or any other tool? You only (consciously) notice the results of what you wanted to achieve. The more closely those results resemble your imagined solution to your task, the more you will find the tool beautiful. The rest is decoration.


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