An Open Letter to Google: Design Matters
January 27th, 2013 by ravi

Dear Google,

you invariably put me in mind of my four year old. His intentions are always good, but his output varies wildly. And I sometimes wonder if he is leading the design department over at your HQ.

Consider Chrome, the subject of my latest struggles. Chrome would not exist today if not for Firefox and it is by piggybacking on the Firefox ethos that you were able to gain a foothold. That was uncool. But you are also the source of most of the more than 100 million dollars that Mozilla takes in each year (and naive old us thought Mozilla was a struggling little David to the Microsoft/Apple/Google Goliath). So that’s a bit redeeming. But that’s not what this letter is about.

The history and popularity of Chrome would be of no impact to me if not for Apple’s hate crime on the splendidly usable Web Inspector in WebKit (the HTML engine that you share with Apple’s Safari browser). Apple took an intuitive interface that was well laid out (big horizontally separated sections for sources and console) and mangled it into a three panel layout with cryptic icons, and (unless I am missing something), for additional insult, they took away useful features like adding new selectors and styles to the document CSS1. And therefore, for web development, I have had to move to using Chrome, which thankfully retains the old Inspector.

But this means I now have to use Chrome frequently, and thus deal with the strange design quirks you have adopted, that add up to a figurative migraine by the end of each day. And however much I ponder, I cannot fathom the thought process behind such things as:

Tabs on Top

At first this looked pretty cool, I admit. It also made sense that the URL bar, which is specific to a page and hence a particular tab, lie within a tab, not above it. Even Apple flirted with the look in an early beta of Safari 4.

The trouble is, with the tabs on top, the application window’s title bar height is reduced to a bare minimum, making it difficult to click on the app or move it around. Tabs on top also causes the page title to be displayed within the tab (rather than in the title bar), so we can abandon any chance of knowing the entire page title, even for those sites that set this HTML tag to some meaningful value.

And why on earth are the tab close buttons on the right?

That Awful Downloads Bar

What’s the point of this monstrously huge thing that sticks around at the bottom wasting valuable browser real estate long after it’s work is done? On the Interwebs everyone says there is a flag (about:flags) to disable this beast, but in an Apple’sque move you have now done away with the flag. Thanks for that.

Status Bar

Most browsers (Safari, Firefox) offer a toggleable status bar that is used for, among other things, displaying URLs when links are hovered over. You seem to have taken a dislike for this idea. For a browser that is willing to waste a large number of screen pixels on a Downloads bar, Chrome gets miserly with URL display, popping up a tooltip of sorts at the bottom of the page upon hovering over a link. Why?

A Bookmarks Bar to rival your neighbour’s Christmas decorations

Site favicons placed next to link/bookmark name in the Bookmarks Bar = a riot of colours and shapes below the location bar that is an eyesore and distraction. And mostly useless in an age when this bar is dominated by faceless bookmarklets. Away with those favicons, Google. Do I need remind you where the very idea came from?

I could go on, but I think you might have had enough of the whining. The thing is, these design bizarrities (surely with a name like Google, you do not mind if I make up words?) are a running theme across your product line. The new Gmail is a massive improvement and I congratulate you for that, but still… the massive buttons with little differentiation? The smorgasbord of options and links in the left sidebar? The pain remains. A visual experience as mutilated as the application interface you offer under the name of IMAP. And I will not even get into what you have done to Google Analytics.

Heed our pleas dear Google. Is this all worth the pretence that every problem is an engineering problem? Isn’t it enough that you have made millionaires out of countless geeks, already? We, the geeks, have won! Through you! Now is the time for a gracious gesture: give a designer a seat at the centre table. You will not regret it.

  1. Yes, there are hacks to bring the old Web Inspector back to Safari, but none have worked satisfactorily for me.
Being right, also on the Internet
January 25th, 2013 by ravi

This week’s episode of Men in Tech Behaving Badly is the case of Heather Arthur, whose work was mocked and ridiculed on Twitter, prompting her to post a calm analysis and raise the very pertinent question of the effect such ridicule might have on entrants to the Open Source movement and their confidence in publishing code.

While many of those involved in the Twitter thread have been quick to unconditionally apologise, one person, David Cramer, found a different lesson in the episode. In a post titled “Being Wrong on the Internet”, he writes:

To people like Heather, criticism (good and bad) comes every day. It doesn’t matter what kind of person you are, and it doesn’t matter if you can handle it or not. It’s going to be there. Open source doesn’t change that. In fact, no ecosystem in society changes that. It’s there, and it’s not something everyone can deal with. [Emphasis added]

It seems to me that there is in fact one ecosystem in society, namely the real flesh and blood society itself, where bad criticism is considered inadmissible and the inability of a person to “deal with” merely holds a mirror on the ecosystem’s inability to prevent it.

Two days ago, in an unrelated bit of news, Alan Cox announced he is leaving GNU/Linux development:

I’m leaving the Linux world and Intel for a bit for family reasons. I’m aware that “family reasons” is usually management speak for “I think the boss is an asshole” but I’d like to assure everyone that while I frequently think Linus is an asshole (and therefore very good as kernel dictator)…

The doublespeak of some making a macho1 virtue out of asshole’ishness, while simultaneously, others pay lip service to the importance of encouragement and civility is incoherent.

It might be worthwhile to either establish the claim that “asshole dictator[s]” are a necessary and good thing or to accept that uncivil and antisocial behaviour is unacceptable independent of realities or authority.

  1. This is decidedly a primarily male thing. For another bit of evidence, read Pam Selle’s blog post on Why you shouldn’t invite Yehuda Katz to your user group meeting.
»  Substance: WordPress  »  Style: Ahren Ahimsa