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.
2 Responses  
  • Ryan Rampersad writes:

    Tabs really do get too small to click on in Chrome, but I don’t mind not having a title bar. When I’m a page, I don’t care what the tile of that page is. When I’m another page, I might care but I have forty tabs open so it’s my fault — normal users have much less. So it’s fine.

    I like the download bar better than the Safari download’s flyover. Sure, when it’s done downloading, it could go away. When I see my parents download something, they don’t always notice the download bar, either asking if they’re sure they want to download whatever PDF that could harm their computer, or what to do when the file’s done downloading.

    I like the simple link-hover status overlay. It’s smart enough to even flip to the other side of the screen.

    Press is an Android app that came out recently that tried to prominently display favicons in their application. It looks very strange. Personally, I like favicons more than just text, but, I store bookmarks I use frequently in folders so I never see the bookmarks. My parents don’t understand where bookmarks “go” so they always look in Other Bookmarks.

    But yeah, there are inconsistencies all over Google products.

    • ravi writes:

      Hello Ryan, I suppose there is a subjective element to design. But even with four to five tabs open, I can already not tell the title of any of them. And clicking on the Chrome window (say to raise it to the top) without clicking on a tab is a work of fine art.

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