Google: anatomy of a (half-assed) web redesign

There are many things Google is good at. Internet search and targeted advertising clearly being the top two. I use and appreciate several of Google’s products, especially Gmail, Google Reader and Chrome. But I only use Gmail as a reliable email provider with great spam filtering; I hate the web interface, and check my mail using the native mail clients on my Mac and iPhone. I use Google Reader solely to manage my subscriptions, whereas I actually read my RSS feeds, on all of my devices, with Reeder. And the only times I fire up Chrome are when I need to use Flash, per John Gruber. In general, I like Google’s products for the power of their underlying technologies, just as I hate them for their miserable user interfaces.

I think there are very few people who would consider design to be one of Google’s strong suits, from their traditionally un-designed home page, to their hideous logo (which, nonetheless, went through several apparently well-, or at least extensively-, considered revisions), to the notorious case where, engineers to the core, they logically weighed the relative merits of 41 shades of blue.

If you actually use any of Google’s websites directly, you’ve surely noticed in the last 24 hours that there has been a redesign. The most distinctive feature is the jarring black bar now at the top of all (well, most) pages. Personally I’d prefer something a little more subtle, but it’s tolerable, and presumably achieves its goal of getting your attention by being the only solid black area on your computer screen.

What really bothers me about this redesign is the lack of internal consistency as you dig deeper. To wit, let’s have a look at the landing pages of Google’s three biggest search tools (as determined by their placement in the black bar): Web, Images and Search:

The main things I notice about the main Google (Web) search page compared to the previous version are that the logo is slightly smaller (and appears to have been refined in terms of the extent of 1997-era Photoshop effects applied to it, although I think that change happened a few months ago), and that the “Google Search” and “I’m Feeling Lucky” buttons have been redesigned. They have very slightly rounded corners, an extremely subtle off-white gradient, and are set in dark gray Arial bold 11-point (or so) type.

On Google Images, the logo appears to be basically the same (although perhaps a bit more dithered), but it is much higher on the page. The search box itself is darker and has a drop shadow. The “Search Images” button is larger, has sharp corners and a more intense gradient, and is set in black Arial, larger and normal weight. If I’m not mistaken, this is how the buttons on most Google sites looked prior to yesterday’s redesign, so this appears mainly to be a case of Google Images not keeping up with the changes happening elsewhere.

The page is also cluttered up with instructions and a rather arbitrary set of four sample images. I never bothered to read that text or figure out why the images were there until just now as I was writing this article. Being able to perform a visual search by dragging a sample image into the search box is a really cool idea, but anecdotally I would suggest Google has a daunting challenge in educating users about it, if making it the only thing on the page besides the search box itself still doesn’t get the user’s (i.e. my) attention. Maybe their insistence on using undifferentiated plain text (while it might make Jakob Nielsen proud) for everything is part of the problem.

Google Videos is really the odd man out. A smaller logo, set too far down on the page, and a bright blue search button with no text, just a magnifying glass icon, that would look more at home on a Windows XP start screen than on a Google page. (Astute observers will also note from these screenshots that Google Videos, unlike Google Images and Google Web, displays a glowing focus state on the search box, which is due to the lack of :focus { outline: none; } on the CSS for that element.)

I realize this blue button is more of the direction Google’s heading and I do like it visually, even if I don’t think the search button needs to be so prominent on a page that contains very little else. But the thing that bothers me is the overall inconsistency between these tools.

Consistency is a big buzzword for me. To me it is absolutely the most important thing to consider in good UX and UI design. It doesn’t matter how novel your design elements are; if you present them consistently users will quickly learn how to use them and will gain confidence with your tools. They will also gain expectations that you then have to manage. These do impose limitations on you in the future, sure, but they also relieve you of the burden of having to reinvent every page.

Consistency demands a good style guide, something that is easy to overlook. And just as important as having the style guide is having the commitment to using it. That’s something even a company as big as Google clearly struggles with.

2 thoughts on “Google: anatomy of a (half-assed) web redesign

  1. On the Google Search Blog, they state that this is the first of many steps, that it’s an evolution, and that there will be additional improvements over the course of the next few months.

    If that wasn’t clear enough for you, it means that:
    - yes, they understand design principles like consistency,
    - yes, they have big plans, and
    - no, it doesn’t happen all at once.

  2. I understand your inclination to criticize my criticism, given the deliberately provocative tone of my title for this post. I also, of course, understand that a company like Google can’t do things all at once.

    But a few key points remain:

    1. Given the striking nature of the change with the black bar (combined with the attention they’re getting over Google+) and the impetus it gives users to click across the links within it, it wouldn’t have taken a lot of effort to at least make the landing pages of the major areas look consistent. I could have done it in less time than it took me to write this blog post. It’s become old hat for cranks like me to complain about something on their blog and claim they could have done it themselves in a weekend, but in this case it really is (or should be) that basic. I can’t believe they didn’t at least make the Web, Images and Videos landing pages look the same, unless they’re not really sure what direction they want to go in and are testing different options (see: 41 shades of blue).

    2. The overall design aesthetic at Google, while admirably minimalist, is almost always clumsy at best. And no, I don’t think they really do understand design principles; at least, I don’t think the people at Google who do are given the final word often enough. Launching a prominent redesign that is incomplete does nothing to improve that reputation. (One could argue against my own design skills here, of course, but I’m just a small-time schmo, not one of the largest technology companies in the world.)

    3. I will never take Google seriously from a design perspective as long as they have that logo.

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