Lipstick on a Pig

Google was the pioneer of simplicity in UI. The company that made billions had a rather strange website – a big text box to accept your search string. It later went on to doodles, which became an instant hit. Simplicity was key, which was fine so long as someone was zealously guarding that cornerstone of design philosophy

Google’s approach to product development has been a mixture of organic and inorganic development. Google unleashed its engineering expertise in the form of Labs onto assets, extending their capabilities. In that process it succumbed to the “UI is too important to be left to engineers” syndrome. The Gmail user interface looked very different from Google docs (which had inconsistent UIs amongst its own components as some of them came via acquisitions) and Google Reader had a different look, feel and navigation. So it was natural that Google stepped into an area not exactly its strength – designing UIs to make them consistent. It dealt itself either a weak hand or set for itself a low bar by defining the coverage of consistency to imply just the look

Google users were slowly pushed these UI updates with the login page to a Google service being the first. Then other services took over. Notice the first inconsistency in this consistency drive – the login page has a big blue button while other services have red. Users ignored such glitches up until Google brought out the new-look “Reader” – a service that allows RSS aggregation and sharing

My Twitter timeline was a first warning that things did not go as planned for Google. After a quick check, I can understand why. The first rule of UI refresh is not to apply lipstick on a pig. The user interaction on Google Reader was always dated – one reason why services like Flipboard and Zite pretty much took up the reading experience leave Google with just the menial task of fetching. And Google passed up an opportunity to redo the design to not just make the service consistent with its brothers but also more modern and egg the reader to stay on by making reading easier. Instead, other than changes in fonts (oversized ones in the main column – Jesus Chirst!) the only other thing I see is a shroud of white all around. Improving user experience to induce more reading (or more +1’ing if Google was after that) was surely not a design objective

(click to see larger, clearer image)

And Google, for reasons they know best, chose to retain a list of keyboard shortcuts on the right panel, leaving the rest of the real estate – copious one – totally blank (adding to the already dominating whiteness of the page)

Ability to aggregate content from publishers that expose them via a common protocol was a tough problem to solve several years ago. No longer so, unfortunately. As Google bets big on its social gambit it has to understand somewhere that it is effortless usability much rather than astute engineering that greases the wheels of social interaction

2 thoughts on “Lipstick on a Pig

  1. I believe Google+ can be blamed here a bit. There’s a need to make Google+ very ‘catchy’ and appealing to the Facebook crowd. And yet they want to maintain the Google simplicity design. There’s a compromise being made somewhere between these two which is jarring. They should’ve just kept everything separate.

    • Yes, Abhijit – the intent was clearly driven by Google+. But strangely other than sticking the +1 button to a story and showing a +1 into your G+ stream, there is nothing in the UI to induce sharing.

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