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.
Google’s new design/experience: taking Chris Wiggins to heart
June 29th, 2011 by ravi

Google has progressed since the days of 41 shades of blue. At least in the user interface of their products. I had no insight into whether this reflects a change in the underlying process. But now there is some news on that front. Yesterday Chris Wiggins (Creative Director at Google) made a post to the “Official Google Blog” to explain the “new and improved Google experience … founded on three key design principles”: Focus, Elasticity, Effortlessness. I think the man, and the company, are serious, and I sincerely applaud them for it and wish them well.
Read the rest of this entry »

The Future of Google
September 8th, 2010 by ravi

Google has transitioned from a “growth company to a cash cow” — that’s the conclusion of Michael Copeland and Seth Weintraub, writing for Fortune:

Long-term projections for growth in the search business are more in the 15% to 17% range. Yet analysts estimate that 91% of Google’s revenue still comes from the AdWords and AdSense business model that Google built around Page and Brin’s breakthrough PageRank algorithm. Even more telling, an estimated 99% of its profit does too. This year’s projected earnings growth of 18% is a third of what Google averaged over the past five years. A lot of companies would kill for that growth, but for technology companies, and Google in particular, those numbers don’t impress. Google is rounding a corner that all the fruit smoothies at its Silicon Valley campus make it hard to pull back from. This year Google has joined the ranks of just about every great technology company before it, including IBM, eBay, Cisco, Microsoft, and Oracle. Google, against its will, and defying its massive cash hoard, is transitioning from a growth company to — and there is no kind way to put it — a cash cow.

And, they note, Marissa Mayer isn’t all too worried about Google’s inability to establish itself in the social networking space:

Marissa Mayer, head of search at Google, says the company doesn’t provide financial guidance, but contends that Google doesn’t need a huge second act, a collection of smaller businesses will suffice.

Mayer of course is one of the lead players in the infamous “41 shades of blue” episode that caused designer Doug Bowman to flee Google. I tend to mention that incident a lot because I think it points to one reason (among surely many) why Google fails frequently at engaging it’s user in a long-term relationship (see: Google Buzz).

Google is genuinely oblivious to the effect their user interfaces, spartan and devoid of styling, might have on non-technical users. Not only might an engineering-focused and engineering-driven company fall back to a comforting process where “data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision” (to quote Bowman), but alpha engineers with their hyper-dominant left brains (if you will forgive the pop science indulgence) might see the measure of aesthetics as nothing more than maximal utility. Speaking of utility, more from Fortune:

Critics question whether Google can make the leap. “They are just not that good at it,” says Tom Coates, until recently the head of product at Yahoo’s defunct Brickhouse lab. “Google is very good at building these utility-type products — search, e-mail, and messaging. They are sort of like the power company of the Internet. But what they lack is a sense of how people share and collaborate.”

In the end, Mayer’s nonchalance that search (with advertising) will remain the core and dominant part of Google’s empire might prove pragmatic and even wise. It’s not a business that’s going away and honing it and expanding on it might be a lot smarter than attempting to teach a middle-aged dog new tricks.

To repeat Coates’s thoughts, Google’s engineering strength makes it a perfect utility company. Though the prospect might be as unsexy as Google’s UIs, it might be time to embrace that strength and build on it. Amazon beat them to utility computing and storage with AWS and EC2, but Android demonstrates that Google is willing to consider a future in which their [invisible] engineering prowess underwrites the visible products of others. It’s a good sign.

Change, even if slicker, does not equal progress
June 3rd, 2010 by ravi

Not to worry, this is not a post about politics, but about design (I am an expert in neither field). You have probably grown tired by now of reading this popular quote attributed to Steve Jobs, but it’s worth repeating:

Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.

You only need look at the design convulsions of Ford and GM over the last 10 years (in particular the various retro models) to see that most design is either adding more and more lipstick on the pig or worse, adding fluff to a product (or presentation: think colour gradients in text boxes in PowerPoint slides) that makes it less usable.

Take this example from my workplace. Up until a few months ago, we had a water cooler that looked like this:

Picture 1

A fairly straightforward affair, with hot and cold water indicated clearly by colour, and no ambiguity on where the water comes out. This unit was replaced with the slicker one below (let’s call this picture 2):

Picture 2

Any guesses on where the water comes out? That’s a valuable bit of knowledge when you want to use the hot water! Perhaps the water is dispensed from a point below the red and blue markers? Or atop the circular holes on the base filter? If you guessed either of these not only would you be wrong, but you would be wrong in a dangerous way (let’s call this picture 3):

Picture 3

As you can see from the above picture, if you were to position your cup below the red icon or the circular hole on the base filter, the hot water would in fact pour out a bit to the left of your cup (blue arrow(s) added by me), most likely on to your hand. Note that only the coloured icons and the base filter are visible from the top (Picture 2), your view when you are filling water at the cooler.

It is not clear to me if there is some usability testing that is performed at GE before these products are released. But what seems likely is that the function (“how it works”) is a somewhat distinct process, at GE, from the form (“how it looks”).

BumpTop and UI paradigms
January 22nd, 2010 by ravi

BumpTop is a 3D desktop manager for Windows and Mac with some slick features and fairly well done OS integration. I have been using it for a few days now and it is impressive if not indispensable. The reason for this post however is to comment on something that John Gruber wrote about this app:

And the 3D stuff, with a weird perspective on “walls”, just seems silly.

I can see how he may find it silly, but in my usage I found the walls quite a useful feature, psychologically speaking. Despite the large collection of useful widgets on my Mac OS Dashboard, I rarely bring up the Dashboard to access the information or operation that these widgets provide.

Why not? Apart from the fact that the Dashboard takes forever to update, somehow, bringing up the Dashboard, visually an overlay on my desktop, seems to neither fit into my workflow nor appeal to my instinctive usage patterns.

On the other hand, in the few days I have been using BumpTop (intermittently), the ability to create sticky notes on a wall (admittedly, a particular application, and not a replacement for the Dashboard) has resonated well with my impulses… to look for a note on a wall seems, well, just the right thing to do!

It helps that BumpTop causes no increase in CPU utilisation on a quiescent system or when I working primarily within one application.

I am not sure if I will stop using Qu-S and keep using BumpTop, but it would be interesting to know what those who study UI/UX design think about the ideal way to present informational widgets and tiny apps.

No Logo
January 13th, 2010 by ravi

So I am just some schlub with a Toucan for a logo, but people with venture funding (and even profits in the case of some) should be able to do better than this screenshot I picked off of PixelPipe (a service whose purpose I shall discover very soon, I am certain):

I left Tumblr and WordPress in to give some relief to your eyes.

Detail and survival
January 12th, 2010 by ravi

From John Gruber today, a quote from MG Siegler on the superiority of the iPhone:

MG Siegler on the Nexus One MG Siegler: Perhaps the single biggest reason that I like Apple products, and their software, in particular, is the attention to detail the company puts in. In my mind, that’s exactly what still separates the iPhone from all the Android phones. It’s the little things. The things that are almost too small for you to even notice, but which make the experience subtly better.

Which is all fine, but it seems to me that history (even Apple’s own) has demonstrated that design, “attention to detail”, and so on have rarely fared well against buzz, FUD, user entrapment, collusion and other tactics (different subsets of which are the advantages enjoyed by Apple’s two primary competitors: Microsoft and Google). The difference in the “smartphone” market is, of course, that Apple for once is the most successful and advanced device, but let us see how this pans out three years from now.

[ link: Daring Fireball Linked List: MG Siegler on the Nexus One ]

Back in White?
September 10th, 2009 by ravi

Take a look at the screenshots from iTunes 9. It looks like Apple is (regrettably) returning to the white look (also note the blue hues for the checkbox). As well as (again regrettably) adopting the grungy buttons look pioneered by YouTube and adopted, with predictably shiny excesses, by Windows. Or is this just a conservative aesthetic instinct on my part? On the potential plus side, one day perhaps we will see the candy/lozenge scrollbars in Mac OS X replaced with the more subtle ones that iTunes has been sporting for a while.

iTunes 9

The Ikea Font Wars
September 3rd, 2009 by ravi

We have all let this universal healthcare and economic recession business distract us from more pressing matters. Well, no more, in my case. The time has come for me to comment on the Ikea font debacle, namely their switching from a customised Futura to Verdana. And when I say the time has come for me to comment, what I mean is that the time has come for me to quote the comments of someone who has said it better than I could:

Carolyn Fraser, a letterpress printer in Melbourne, Australia, adopts a different metaphor to explain the problem. “Verdana was designed for the limitations of the Web — it’s dumbed down and overused. It’s a bit like using Lego to build a skyscraper, when steel is clearly a superior choice.”

Yeah, what she said. What were you thinking IKEA?

Aesthetics and UIs
April 21st, 2009 by ravi

Much impressed as I am by Google products and services, I have been left cold by their not merely spartan but aesthetically displeasing user interfaces. You may disagree with me on that, and you may be right (I have no background in either design or aesthetics!), but still find the below from A List Apart (via Daring Fireball) interesting:

Attractive things work better

Okay, so maybe perceptions are important to product design. But what about “real” usability concerns such as lower task completion times or fewer difficulties? Do attractive products actually work better? This idea was tested in a study conducted in 1995 (and then again in 1997). Donald Norman describes it in detail in his book Emotional Design.

Researchers in Japan setup two ATMs, “identical in function, the number of buttons, and how they worked.” The only difference was that one machine’s buttons and screens were arranged more attractively than the other. In both Japan and Israel (where this study was repeated) researchers observed that subjects encountered fewer difficulties with the more attractive machine. The attractive machine actually worked better.

So now we’re left with this question: why did the more attractive but otherwise identical ATM perform better?

Norman offers an explanation, citing evolutionary biology and what we know about how our brains work. Basically, when we are relaxed, our brains are more ?exible and more likely to find workarounds to difficult problems. In contrast, when we are frustrated and tense, our brains get a sort of tunnel vision where we only see the problem in front of us.

[From A List Apart: Articles: In Defense of Eye Candy]

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