Another Google summer

Need I say more? I love Google .  They're not perfect, but they're one of the best companies out there.  And, I'd note, thou...

I heart Google
Need I say more?
I love Google.  They're not perfect, but they're one of the best companies out there.  And, I'd note, though they pay careful attention to what people say about them and their products, it seems that their primary source of direction and innovation is their own expertise.  This may fly in the face of some basic tenets of design, but it's working for Google.  Indeed, this summer looks to be another fascinating googletime.

Updated Look

Google has been refreshing the themes of most of their products, going for a less cluttered, cleaner, lighter look.  You may have already noticed it in Search and Calendar.  You may not have noticed it in Gmail.  Not sure why that is, but you can in fact change to the new/clean look in Gmail by selecting the Preview theme in your Gmail settings.  (There's also a Preview Dense theme that has a bit less empty space.)  These themes don't change the functionality much, but they do get rid of some of the clutter, which improves usability.   And if it's still too much for you, and you use Chrome, you can cut it back even more by using the Minimalist Theme for {Reader, Mail, Calendar}.  There have been lots of Chrome extensions that tweak the look of Google apps; the common thread to the popular ones is simplicity.  Even though few people complained about Google's cluttered look, it was obvious that that's what people liked.

Lesson: users usually have no idea what they really want.  So why should developers trust users more than their own analyses?

Tasks Gets a Facelift

Google tasks has been around for quite a while, and I adore it's lightweight approach to task management.  But the one thing that I just couldn't tolerate was the lack of repeating tasks (e.g. tasks that automatically repeat every, say, week - like "take out the garbage").  Another extremely popular complain was the lack of API for Tasks.

Well, earlier this year, Google finally announced that they were ready to expand Tasks, beginning with a real API, released in May.  And repeating tasks are on Google's list of improvements.  I've already noticed updates to many iPhone apps that sync to Google Tasks.  I expect there to be a flurry of activity in the app world later this year once Google wraps up its mods to Tasks.

The real beauty of Tasks is how it is more and more integrated with other Google apps.  This is a multiplier effect on the usability of each app, and should - assuming Google continues its careful and thoughtful development - lead to a uniquely powerful online facility.

Lesson: simplicity is always good.

The Next Big Thing?

If the new look and the improvements to Tasks wasn't enough, Google is rolling out a rather massive new project.  Google Plus, or just Google+ (or, for me, G+), is a new social networking platform.  Looking suspiciously like Facebook, the current king of social networking, it is substantially different in operation. While the G+ front page suggests you need to ask - and wait - for an invitation to join, those already on G+ seem to be able to get others in on the fun by simply sending them a message via G+.

G+ introduces 3 interesting concepts: circles (collections of people you know); hangouts (group video chat); and sparks (internet searches that you can easily communicate to your circles to "spark" conversation in hangouts).  These are very clever, very cleanly thought-through functions.  But the real beauty is not in the concept, but in the execution.  Google has come up with a smooth-as-silk visually-oriented way of networking socially, eminently usable, undocumented system (largely because it's so easy to use, you just don't need documentation) that is very much in keeping with the spit and polish of other Google products.

The permissions model in G+ is simple - as opposed to the Machiavellian way permissions are managed at Facebook.  This makes it sooo much easier to understand who will see which part of your G+ presence.

Also, there aren't the bevy of ridiculous apps that keep trying to enter you in contests, and want to communicate directly to all your friends.  I'm sure this is because G+ is still a newborn.  Given that an API for Plus is bound to come out sooner than later, it's only a matter of a (short) time before developers start building silly apps for G+ too.  But, given Google's history, I think they will lack, at least for the most part, the greedy crassness of the Facebook apps.

If your interested in migrating to G+ from Facebook, it's relatively easy - see this lifehacker article.  I think I will be doing that soon myself.  Hopefully, there will soon be a way to sync G+ and Facebook.  Let's face it, not everyone will switch to G+; this will be a quandary for me - do I keep my Facebook account just to keep in touch with those not on G+?  Wouldn't it make more sense for me to be able to sync between the two?

However, it works out, I think Google is really onto something.  It'll be a tough row to hoe - competing against Facebook is going to be hard because Facebook as permeated the market so thoroughly.  But I think Google's really onto something here - because of the ridiculously tight integration between G+ and its other apps.  I think that integration could very well be the secret of Google's next success.

And in case you're looking for me on G+, just search by my full name: Filippo Salustri.

A New Top Bar

While things like G+ are basically an H-bomb of innovation dropped into the social networking landscape, some other things Google's doing are much more subtle.  Google's new "top bar" is that kind of change.

The top bar is that stripe across the top of all the Google apps - search, docs, calendar, mail, plus, and so on - that give you generic access to your Google-y things.  It used to be white with blue highlights.  In keeping with the general redesign of Google interfaces, the top bar is now black with red highlights.  And it's got a special spot, on the right side, for G+ notifications and a button that let's you share stuff directly to G+ from any other Google-y page.

Now, it is evident that the black top bar is not a hit in some quarters.  Most people complain that it's "ugly." I, however, find it quite beautiful and appropriate.  It very clearly sets off the magic Google dashboard from anything else on the page.  It forms an immediate distinctiveness in your brain, which will I guarantee significantly help users know where to move their mice.  I don't care if people think it's ugly; I'm with Google on this: the black bar is better.  Eventually, people will understand that.

The Design Angle

I want to come back, in closing, to the notion of how Google designs its products.  (Not that I have any special "insider" information on their development process - but we can intuit some things just based on their products and their visible behaviours.)  Google is notorious for ignoring the pleas of its users on matters of functionality and aesthetic, yet they are usually very responsive with respect to bugs and problems.

This is a very important distinction.  Many companies think that any complaint by a user must be dealt with immediately - and usually it results in knee-jerk reactions that only cause more trouble down the road.  Google correctly recognizes that there are two kinds of complaints.

The first type is basically of the form: your app is supposed to do this, but it doesn't.  Bugs.  Bad UX design. Bad logic flow.  These are real problems with actual products.  These need to be dealt with immediately - and, usually, Google does just that.

The second type of problem is basically of the form: your app doesn't do this, but I want it to.  Lots of people think that Google should feel an obligation to address these kinds of problems too.  But it has no such obligation - not in the knee-jerk way that people would expect them to.  Google's approach to this kind of problem is to quietly gather all the information it can, analyze it carefully, and then ask "What do our users really want?"

That is, users cannot tell designers exactly what they'd want, because they would need to know exactly what it is.  And if they knew that, then it would already exist.  What users do know very, very well is what's wrong with the way things are.  A good designer will listen carefully to what users say, to understand what it is that the users are saying is wrong.  Then the designer creates something that makes things better.  That designed thing might not be what the users want, but it probably is what they need.

Google Tasks is a great example.  Immediately after it was introduced, users started begging for Google to add repeatability (i.e. having a task that automatically repeats every, say, week).  Pretty obvious feature, right?  Well, google remained silent for years.  Then, suddenly, Google announced that it has a list of things that Tasks needs - clearly demonstrating that they had been listening to the users - and that over the course of this summer, all manner of new things Tasks-like would be coming out, and kicked it off with the release of the Tasks API, which will allow 3rd parties to write code that can access and manipulate Google Tasks from anywhere.  As a productivity geek myself, I welcome this with intense glee.  Why didn't they do it sooner?  Because they weren't sure that's what users really needed.  And, obviously, they needed to make sure that any changes to Tasks wouldn't mess up its integration with other Google apps.  By now, I'm sure they've done the major design work for all the updates to Tasks - all that's left is to implement them.  A challenge, when your product is used 24/7 all around the world.

Some might accuse Google of arrogance for not keeping the public informed of its plans.  That's just crap.  They're a company who let people use their products for free.  The arrogant ones are the self-absorbed users who think Google owes them anything.

But there are other reasons for holding things back.  One reason is, since no one's perfect, mistakes could derail a scheduled release.  Better to just spring the product on people than risk missing a self-imposed deadline.  Also, it's not good to let people get their expectations up about a new product.  The more a developer lets users build their expectations, the easier it is for those users to be disappointed when the product is finally made available.

This notion of Google not focussing too much on their users is serendipitous because it fits nicely with my recent post about Don Norman and his disapproval of human-centred design.  This is a perfect case in point: Google treats their user community as equals among the many, many forces that influence the success or failure of a product.  I would wager that Google embodies what Norman calls activity-centred design.

Google is, perhaps, another one of those fabulous companies (Apple being another) whose designers are informed by their users without kowtowing to them.  They do not just have knee-jerk reactions to user comments like, say, Microsoft (aka small and limp), does.  They use user response as data, they gather it, analyze it, draw conclusions from it that are within the context of their own design expertise.

And that is as it should be.

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The Trouble with Normal...: Another Google summer
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