Google does a lot of things very well. But have they mastered Web site design? I’m not sure. That’s not meant to be derogatory; I am truly unsure.
Helen Walters’ article in business week does a great job of exposing Google’s inner workings. Here’s how she described Google’s design process:
“On both the query page and the results page(s), design flourishes have been legendarily kept to a minimum, layout decisions based on what will provide the user with the fastest, most efficient service. Nonetheless, engineers and analysts pore over streams of data to assess the impact of experiments with colors, shading, and the position of every element on the page.”
The story also has some great quotes from Irene Au, Google’s director of user experience:
And as a company, Google cares about being fast, so we want our user experience to be fast. That’s not just in terms of front-end latency-how long it takes the page to download-it’s also about making people use their computers more efficiently.
A lot of our design decisions are really driven by cognitive psychology research that shows that, say, people online read black text against a white background much faster than white against black, or that sans serif fonts are more easily read than serif fonts online.
A lot of designers want to increase the line height or padding in order to make the interface “breathe.” We deliberately don’t do that. We want to squeeze in as much information as possible above the fold.
This sounds like great design. Who could find fault with such an analytical approach? How about Douglas Bowman, Google’s lead visual designer. Bowman recently left Google and talked about his experience in a blog post. Here’s an excerpt of his rationale for leaving:
Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such miniscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.
Listening to Bowman’s account of Google’s design process, it sure does feel like something’s missing from Goggle’s design approach. But I can’t articulate a specific problem. It just seems like this type of data-driven design adds to a problem that I’ve highlighted in the past: the death of brands.
The bottom line: Does good design need a soul? I don’t know.