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Google Changing The Way It Thinks About Design?

Kevin Fox is one of the foremost user experience designers working today. He’s been a key figure at companies like Facebook, FriendFeed, Mozilla, and Yahoo. More to the point, Fox was a senior user experience design lead at Google, where he was responsible for some of its biggest properties, like Gmail, Calendar, and Google Reader.

Which is why his analysis of Google’s seemingly new approach to user experience design, posted by Fox on his Google+ page, caught our eye. Although Fox originally intended this post for a smaller audience, we thought it deserved a wider one, and received his permission to repost it in its entirety. You can view the original here. You can also read Fox’ long-running and always excellent blog at fury.com and follow him on Twitter. But for now, read his thoughts on how the Google user experience has changed, and not for the better:

I was writing a blog post about three recent changes to Google’s UX that made me feel that Google has changed how they think about design, specifically toward simplifying the UX for current users at the expense of the new user learning curve, when I decided maybe I was being arrogant, seeing as how I didn’t do the user research Google did, so instead I’m going to talk about them [on Google+] in hopes that in this Google-rich population I might learn rather than preach.

First up is the ‘new tab’ chicklet in the Chrome tab bar. Somewhere around Chrome 16 the ‘+’ disappeared from it, leaving a little ghost of a button that, to my mind, wouldn’t be recognised for what it was by a user who hadn’t already formed their mental model on earlier versions of Chrome.

IE 8 and 9 do it this way, with a small ghosted (but full-connected) tab, while Firefox explicitly retains the ‘+’. Do users who are coming from a less-than-modern browser understand that the chicklet is a baby tab waiting to be given form?

Second is the Gmail conversation view. Gmail isn’t my baby anymore, and I don’t pipe up about design decisions that are different than how I would have designed it, because Gmail’s design team’s goal isn’t to do what I would do. However, the new conversation view is unfortunate. One of the main goals of the ‘card stack’ design was to give a visual metaphor of a ‘new-stuff-first’ list, even when it’s actually in chronological order. The ‘stacking’ of read cards tested extremely well and people understood not only where one reply stopped and the next began, but how to expand cards to re-read earlier parts of the conversation.

The new design flattens conversations completely, turning them into just a list of boxes, some of which are grey (which means closed) and some of which are white. The reply box at the end is no longer tightly coupled to the actual email you’re replying to, which is a problem if the most recent reply was to a subset of the original recipients.

For the experienced user this doesn’t represent much of a problem. Their mental model of conversations and collapsion was formed in the more explicit UI, and they understand the underlying meaning even when the cues are removed. My guess is that the user who never sees anything but the new UI gets a very different picture. All the problems we had when testing a flat ‘expand contract’ UI should crop back up if the new UI is tested on folks who have never used Gmail before.

I understand the design goal of a cleaner, sparser UI where any gradient or visual complexity should be cut but I can’t help but feel that, as with the Chrome ‘new tab’ chicklet, a little bit of baby got thrown out with the bathwater.

Lastly, the new Gmail and Google+ ‘clicking on the logo does nothing’ behaviour seems just absurd. Nothing this significant could have actually gotten pushed out without a huge internal conversation about it, with one side saying it’s stupid and the other side thinking about how they just didn’t understand the bigger picture and would get used to it.

Speaking as a practitioner who’s been on both sides of that field and been right and wrong on both, this design decision is definitely one of those ones where the best of design intentions is flat out wrong. As long as there is a property logo on your page, clicking on that logo should take you to the top level of that property, and if you’re already on the top level and it’s a dynamic site, clicking on it again should perform the same action as clicking a refresh button on the same page.

This isn’t a Google convention that will be acclimated to if changed. It’s an Internet convention that predates Google’s existence by a good many years. It’s like if Audi started shipping all 2012 vehicles with gearshifts on the driver’s left, no matter which side of the road folks drive on in your country, because it creates a more consistant experience across Audi cars or supports a future Audi strategy.

Chrome’s new-tab button losing the plus? Doesn’t feel right to me, but data could easily prove me wrong.

Gmail’s new flat conversation view? I’m pretty sure it’s not as friendly for new users struggling with threaded conversations for the first time, but maybe I’m an old fogey.

Clicks on logos no longer taking you to the top page of that site and/or refreshing content? That’s just batshit crazy.

And don’t even get me started on the eldritch logic that dictates that clicking on the ‘News’ link from a search result page doesn’t carry over the search term, while clicking on ‘Images’, ‘Maps’, or ‘YouTube’ does.


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