Design Unification with Google Apps

In the past 10 years, Google’s application portfolio has grown a tremendous amount: the once budding search engine is now a hub for the world’s information. Google is where one go to find information, check email, read stocks, get directions, read the news, watch videos (on YouTube), write a blog post, organize your calendar, shop and much more. Most of Google can be accessed on a computer, TV, smartphone (and even dumb ones), or pretty much anywhere else the internet is available.

Unification is a tough goal when a firm is that wide spread. The core design philosophy has to be air tight and flexible at the same time. By air tight, the mental model of usage needs to pervade itself in all of the products. By flexible, the design needs to “make sense” with every app without getting in the way or having a high learning curve. Every design choice needs considerable thought. Do the execute buttons all have to be red and large? Do there have to be grey buttons? Should the settings icon be a gear? These are the kinds of questions Google had to ask itself when creating their new, unified look. Not just on the web either — on smartphones, tablets, and TVs as well.

With the introduction of ice cream sandwich and the design unification goal in mind, we can begin to grade Google on its progress. Does Google feel more unified? Is the tradeoff of unification vs. functionality apparent? Is it easier for new users, or more enjoyable for the expert?

The Design Maxims

Google has 10 design maxims:

  • Focus on people–their lives, their work, their dreams.
  • Every millisecond counts.
  • Simplicity is powerful.
  • Engage beginners and attract experts.
  • Dare to innovate.
  • Design for the world.
  • Plan for today‘s and tomorrow‘s business.
  • Delight the eye without distracting the mind.
  • Be worthy of people‘s trust.
  • Add a human touch.

The first maxim speaks to the “user” experience. People’s lives and work are clearly intertwined with Google today: their social interactions are juxtaposed with getting tasks done everyday. Why not make an attempt to focus on both at the same time? Google has done a good job at this by keeping everything connected and in one place, which speaks to a larger point of the increasing connectedness between one’s career and work. “Dreams” are tricky to understand, but the language is fluffy and intriguing enough to perhaps warrant inclusion. Perhaps it goes along with the “Dare to innovate” maxim, since most dreams are at the edges of innovation.

Cutting out milliseconds has been more apparent with improvements in search, but the general concept of making things easier to use and find reduces time to navigate as well. Having buttons and menus with a consistent look and feel means practice with the interface and usability. This means someone can just do work without needing to learn a new interaction. But, the other side of the spectrum — advanced or experienced users — may find difficulty adjusting. Users of Gmail prior to their massive UI overhaul may have preferred the more boxy, widget style of navigation. Maybe they liked it when read and unread messages were in the same flow, rather than with a large distinction. This is just one of the tradeoffs that occurs in a design overhaul — older users are forced to cooperate with the changes or are left behind. Similar overhauls have been done on other websites (like Digg or Fark or TechCrunch).

The same ends come from engaging beginners and attracting experts: some will appreciate a consistent UI, but others may be deterred because of their previous expertise in the former UI. Who is the better group to satisfy? It depends on the target user, which brings me to question the sixth maxim, “Design for the World.” By moving away from an older UI, you will obviously dissatisfy someone in the world. So what do they mean? There seem to be two main components:

  • Adhering to standards and having a consistent look and feel, regardless of how a person accesses the Web.
  • Satisfying accessibility requirements.

The second point is a noble goal, but often informs the first. Having simple, clean looks that can be flexible on any browser is a great start to a design. Often, this goal has the upshot of being accessibility compliant — simple designs with larger texts and cleanly defined buttons are often cited as accessible. But, there are many more people that don’t need accessibility requirements. Could these people be pointed to a different web design and get the same experience? Or, should we design a web experience that enhances their lack of disability? Google seems to push for the former — everyone gets the same experience, and if you are disabled then the web adjusts. I would argue that this does not line up with how computing is moving in the Post-PC age. Interactions with computers are more complex, taking advantage of human capabilities and pushing into new paradigms. The disabled are considered, but they are missing a piece of the experience. Is this a bad thing? Regardless of what side of the debate people fall on, it is worth noting that no design can satisfy everyone. In the end, there will be some people who will be left behind.

Giving People a Choice

If you are an expert user and you want the old experience, why not let them have it? I suspect that this may have to do with support, development, or other future goals the firm has in mind. New concepts are being born that will shape the next 10 years, and some of these concepts don’t consider the past at all. Instead, they look at a new frontier; an age of people that have lived with third-wave computers all their lives. Today’s computers are still trying to satisfy a diverse audience of technical literacy. In the future, computing knowledge is a de facto standard. By giving people a choice, it is like forcing history into people’s faces: all it does it gets in the way.

What’s unique about Google is the design culture alongside the engineering mindset. Design of the web is important, but the usability should be like clockwork. If an experience isn’t fast, powerful and unified, then it isn’t good enough. Google designs are subtle changes that make larger impacts.

In the recent case of Google Reader, Google wants to make an impact in the sharing of news. This means restructuring the sharing of articles. The voices of current users may cry out, but future Googlers are a part of the Google ecosystem — docs, mail, plus — and the integration makes sense. If a person is old-school, they can take Google somewhere else: on their favorite email reader, RSS app, or cloud sharing service. Like an engineer, people should really care about functionality. If that functionality is missing, they should conform or migrate.

Google dares their users to choose other designs, but with such tight integration and consistency it is tough to leave.

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