Does Google Succeed Despite Bad Design?

Why the popular opinion that Google succeeds despite bad design is wrong.

Now that Google‘s role is changing from scrappy underdog to serious contender in challenging Microsoft’s hegemony, the views of critics and observers are changing too, from an optimistic bright white to a downtrodden dull gray. Two world-class design pundits, Don Norman and Derek Powazek, have recently been very critical of the search giant’s design, suggesting that Google doesn’t know what they’re doing. Are they right? Does Google succeed despite bad design? I don’t think so.

Four years ago Google was at the height of its acclaim. They could do no wrong. Much was made of their new, simplified approach to search, evidence for which was echoed in their minimalistic homepage that featured little more than an input box and a submit button. And they held to that simplicity with amazing discipline, even to the point that their users noticed. Marissa Mayer explains in a 2002 interview with Mark Hurst:

“There’s this one user, a Google zealot – we don’t know who he is – who occasionally sends an e-mail to our “comments” address. Every time he writes, the e-mail contains only a two-digit number. It took us awhile to figure out what he was doing. Turns out he’s counting the number of words on the home page. When the number goes up, like up to 52, it gets him irritated, and he e-mails us the new word count. As crazy as it sounds, his e-mails are helpful, because it has put an interesting discipline on the UI team, so as not to introduce too many links. It’s like a scale that tells you that you’ve gained two pounds.” (Emphasis added)

Fast forward to 2006, four years later, and even though Google sports nearly the exact same interface they did then, opinions about it have changed dramatically.

Don Norman: “Anybody can make a simple-looking interface”

One of the first voices of dissent was Donald Norman, who in his own words has grown “sick and tired of hearing people praise its clean, elegant look.” He’s angry that Google gets credit for being so simple when all they’re doing is providing a single feature from their homepage: “Anybody can make a simple-looking interface if the system only does one thing.”

Norman doesn’t stop there. Surprisingly, he then turns the general opinion of search technologies on its head, saying that Google is complex while MSN and Yahoo are “easier to use”.

He comes to this conclusion by suggesting that it’s the extra features that count, the non-search features. He says that MSN and Yahoo make these other features easier to find than Google does, and though they might be more complex-looking they are actually much less “deceptive” than Google. He asks: “Why isn’t Google a unified application? Why are there so many odd, apparently free-standing services?”.

Norman has clearly gone off the deep end with this one. If, as he says, “anybody can make a simple-looking interface”, then why don’t they!? I wish every site was as deceptively simple as Google is! At times like these it is good to remember the great Leonardo Da Vinci, who said: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

What Norman doesn’t pay homage to is the fact that 90+% of people who use Google use it for the single purpose that their interface is designed for: Search. They have no need for the other services Google provides and to them they would be a distraction, not a necessary component of some Google holism. So his hypothetical use case of wanting to find “Downloads” only represents a tiny fraction of the population…probably him and a few hundred thousand other people. How many people search? Billions.

Consider where Search is going: away from the home page. An increasing number of folks search on engines from the search box in the top right corner of their browser, without ever reaching the Google homepage. And with Microsoft planning on doing the same with IE7/MSN, it is clear that the homepage is becoming less and less important over time. Do people who use search from other starting points care whether they can find other stuff from the homepage? No, the thought never crosses their mind because they’re too busy searching for something of personal value.

Derek Powazek: the “anti-design search engine”

The latest salvo in the anti-Google campaign comes from designer Derek Powazek, who writes that the simplistic Google homepage, a seemingly smart marketing move, “was probably just design ineptitude. You don’t have to look much past Google’s Fisher Price logo to know it: These people have no use for design.”

Powazek calls Google the “anti-design search engine”. Not only that, but he refuses to believe that they know what they’re doing from a design standpoint.

Now before I go any further, I will point out that Powazek makes the same mistake that so many of us have made from time to time. He begins talking about design in visual terms, and ends up talking about it in general terms. He starts his piece by saying “when it comes to visual design, they’ve done pretty much everything wrong.”. But later, he generalizes to all design, saying “their homepage was utterly bereft of any hint of design.”

So is this just a case of Powazek’s aesthetic sensibilities being bruised, or is it a case of truly bad Design? I think it has to be the former, because to say that Google Search is poorly designed is to throw out the one metric by which we can all agree: usage.

You see, Google is far and away the most-used search engine ever. To suggest that it is poorly designed is to ignore the fact that everybody uses it. I’m not about to try to define design here but I’m leaning heavily toward the idea that the most-used designs are the most successful. What other criteria would be a better metric of success?

Nobody but designers seem to care what Google looks like. And until that happens, I think that Google should stick with what they’re doing. In fact, the comments left on Powazek’s article suggest that people have an amazingly strong emotional attachment to the service…and very few of them even mention the visual merits of the site at all. In other words, don’t fix what isn’t broken.

Don’t focus on the homepage, focus on the results page

The problem is that both Norman and Powazek are focusing on the wrong page. They’re focusing on the Google homepage when they should be focusing on the results page. That’s where the magic of Google is, that’s where their money is made, that’s why you and I use it every day. All other screens, the homepage, the Downloads section, Advanced Search, act only as barriers to the answers to our questions.

The success of Google doesn’t come from their sparse homepage, their goofy logo, or by “deception”. It comes from the ability to consistently give relevant results to our queries…end of story.

For Google to change its design strategy to satisfy the whim of a few designers would be suicide. It would ignore their amazing success to date, erode the emotional attachment of the people who use it, and start them down the slippery slope of compromising a simple, easy-to-use search engine.

Published: May 19th, 2006