Google’s redesign: a second look

I want to follow up on my post about Google’s redesign from a couple weeks ago, as this redesign has, unsurprisingly, continued to evolve (or at least, reveal itself through ongoing usage).

It’s clear that Google is phasing in a massive overhaul, not just of how their products look, but how they work, and more specifically how they work together. This is a full-scale rethinking of the Google brand, and I’m not sure I like it.

The natural inclination for most users when something is unexpectedly changed is initially resistance. (Just look at how TechCrunch announced their redesign yesterday. They knew what the reaction would be.) And I frequently fall into that too, only to finally come around after a while when I finally “get it” or just get used to it.

But there are unprecedented challenges for Google with this redesign, owing mainly to two things: 1) users’ absolute dependence on Google tools for certain online tasks (search and mail being the most obvious) and 2) the vast scope of products and services Google is attempting to graft together.

The first is hard to avoid: the more users depend on something, the more upset they’ll be when you change it. (Like this.) The second is not. The second is neither necessary nor obvious. It didn’t have to happen at all, and it doesn’t have to happen the way it is. And as time goes on, I realize that’s what I dislike most about both the initial shoddy execution and the plan and goals underlying it.

As I consider it more, I realize that my disappointment and frustration stem from the fact that this massive integration effort affects my dependence on Google products in a way more profound than I would have expected. I have a Google Apps account for my domain, and in the conversion Google has forced upon that domain, I am running into numerous issues as I’ve had to merge my personal Google account with my domain account (which I didn’t even realize were separate, since they both use the same email address). Certain data didn’t survive the transition (like my Reader subscriptions); third-party applications that tie into these services are no longer working because of the “2-step verification process” which itself isn’t working, for reasons unknown; certain tools are unavailable to my domain, without explanation (I can’t create a Google Profile, which also means I can’t use Google+); and worst of all, whenever I run up against one of these issues, all Google can do is direct me to outdated and irrelevant documentation. No answers, only more questions.

I’m left with the impression that all of this was not fully thought through. But then again, I don’t think all of it could be thought through. I think it’s damn near impossible to integrate all of these disparate products and services into a cohesive whole, when most have been developed by relatively autonomous internal teams or acquired from outside, and were never designed nor envisioned as one day becoming integrated. And while I applaud Google for its (apparently sudden) focus on this grand new vision for its products, I’m not sure it’s something I really want anyway. Google is already a bit frightening and monolithic, with its vast stores of personal data collected about each of its millions of users. Despite its “Don’t be evil” motto, (former) CEO Eric Schmidt has said things like this (as quoted on Daring Fireball):

“We don’t need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”

That quote is taken out of context, but the context doesn’t really help it much. With thinking like that trickling down from the top, do you really want Google to seamlessly integrate all of its products? Their disarray was the only thing providing a modicum of security-through-obscurity for Google’s users. Google may just be collecting all of this personal data to help it more effectively deliver ads to your eyeballs, which is how they make their money, and is bad enough. But that data is there. Who knows how it will be used by Google or whoever else might get their hands on it in the future?

Then again, maybe I shouldn’t be too paranoid. Google’s incomplete efforts at integration are probably a good thing after all.

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.

My favorite Super Bowl commercial

Super Bowl commercials tend to scream at you, both literally and metaphorically. So a quiet, subtle commercial like the one Google aired is easy to miss. (The Focus on the Family commercial, for all the fervor preceding it, was also easy to miss.)

Luckily I didn’t miss the Google commercial. It was simple, and simply brilliant. Maybe it’s because I have a life-changing event in my own past that is at least partially traceable to a Google search, but I think the message here is powerful and moving: in the Internet age, profound events in your life can stem from things you find online. And what better way to find things online than Google?

My favorite moments are “What are truffles?” followed by “Who is Truffaut?” and when the user changes “Long distance relationship advice” to “Jobs in Paris.” It’s silly, I know, but I start to tear up at that one.

Best Google Doodle yet

If you’re a regular user of Google, you probably know that Google likes to occasionally honor historical events by changing its logo for a day, in a way that symbolizes the event it’s honoring.

These are usually interesting (if for no other reason than simply what events the Google team deems worthy of their recognition), and sometimes quite artistic. But today’s Google Doodle is probably my favorite yet.

You see, today is the 25th anniversary of Tetris, one of the most iconic video games of all time.

And here’s the doodle:

Google Doodle: Tetris

Vintage Google

I learned this morning from Daring Fireball that Google has temporarily restored their earliest available index from 2001, allowing you to see what was available back then for your searches.

Kind of cool. But a little depressing for me personally, to see that back then my site was the first result you’d get when searching for John Coltrane. Now it’s 7th, but I suppose I should be glad it’s still on the front page, given my lack of attention to SEO. (Of course, I think SEO is at least 75% snake oil anyway.)