Index cards inspire Google designs
May 17, 2013 1:50 AM   Subscribe

A couple of discussions of recent Google design trends, one in The New Yorker (via Bruce Sterling), and one from Fast Company (via waxy).
posted by cgc373 (33 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Unfortunately, Google's increased use of "proper design" has correlated with its increasing tendency to act like any other corporation, putting profits way above providing great things for free. In the early days, Google was so amazing at providing really good services that its almost anti-design aesthetic seemed like part of the package - and it's something we might feel nostalgia for as it slips away to be replaced by the blandities of modern corporate design, representing a company that sold the huge amount of goodwill it managed to earn in its first arrival, to be just another money making machine.
posted by iotic at 2:27 AM on May 17, 2013 [5 favorites]

Google's increased use of "proper design" has also correlated with "being crappier". More "suggestions" about what it thinks I want instead of letting me be in control, etc.
posted by DU at 3:20 AM on May 17, 2013 [5 favorites]

It's kind of a tell when companies start putting more emphasis on the design of their products than how useful they are. Selling the brand instead of the product.
posted by ceribus peribus at 4:02 AM on May 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

I don't think Google has crossed that point yet by simply moving up to having any design to speak of.
posted by fleacircus at 4:17 AM on May 17, 2013 [5 favorites]

And one from M. Wunsch, which, unlike these, doesn't read like a paid ad by Google.
posted by azarbayejani at 4:30 AM on May 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

It's kind of a tell when companies start putting more emphasis on the design of their products than how useful they are

The process of making a product more useful is called design.
posted by emilyw at 4:33 AM on May 17, 2013 [15 favorites]

And another from Alex Dong about Google+.

And another from Linus Torvalds (on Google+).
posted by azarbayejani at 4:33 AM on May 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I actually like the concept of cards (I think the actual program is Google Now) on my phone, but it makes it run so sluggishly that I've had to turn it off. It ideally gives me a snapshot of lots of pieces of useful information in about 30 seconds.
posted by lownote at 5:03 AM on May 17, 2013

Yeah, Google Now is great on my Nexus, but I bet it kills older phones dead.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 5:16 AM on May 17, 2013

I also just got an update that turned Google Talk into Google Hangouts, which is fine, because honestly Hangouts is a great Skype replacement, but I feel like it's sort of tainted by its association with Google+. If Hangouts had been standalone and linked to Gmail, I think I wouldn't feel so bad about it.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 5:17 AM on May 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

We were having a giggle at work about this.

"Hey, guys! Did you hear about Google's new design breakthrough? Rectangles! White ones!"

"So every Google product looks like Pinterest now?"
posted by buriednexttoyou at 5:19 AM on May 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

"Hey, guys! Did you hear about Google's new design breakthrough? Rectangles! White ones!"

Matias Duarte did the design work on WebOS cards. He now works at Google in the Android design team. Android now works increasingly on a card interface, and that's grown to G+. It wasn't born out of Pinterest.
posted by jaduncan at 5:48 AM on May 17, 2013 [5 favorites]

I have tried the new design on Google Plus (well, I had to have some reason to go there) and it's... nice. But it's confusing. What's something that I'm interested in (such a post from a friend) and what's Google bugging me (here are some more people we want you to follow)? What order should I read the cards? Left to right, or vertically? Neither way seems right, so temporal information is lost.

It'll be interesting to see if they use Cards in a future Gmail update. It might get rid of some of the wasted space, but you won't be able to tell in which order the emails arrived. Currently, I think looks better than Gmail.

I find all these redesigns interesting. I don't have enough emotional investment in any of the services to get upset with changes so I can consider them more on an aesthetic point of view.
posted by milkb0at at 5:56 AM on May 17, 2013

Yes, there are ever-more annoying we know what you want to do, let us preemptively choose it for you issues creeping into Google products.

Example that irks me most at present: the un-turn-offable autocorrect after a Google search. "Showing results for X. Search instead for Y" is hard-coded.

Or how about how Chrome auto-populates the search bar with suggested searches and requires an extra keypress to delete the gunk you don't want in the search?

I miss the Google that respected my choices. That had a minimalist, geek-friendly approach, with its bad design and all. Now it is average-user-friendly, and veering away from what I loved so much about it.

The slick new design and we know what's best mentality reminds me uncomfortably of a certain other botanically-named tech company that I avoided for that precise latter reason.
posted by leahzero at 5:57 AM on May 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I suspect that those of us who use Pinboard and Notational Velocity will not like these new designs.
posted by milkb0at at 6:00 AM on May 17, 2013

One problem with the new Google Hangouts app is that Hangouts no longer supports the Jabber/XMPP standard like Talk did, according to this overview from the Verge.

I'm not really savvy enough to know what this will mean for third-party Google Talk clients long-term, but my understanding is that they can't communicate with the new Hangouts app.
posted by whitecedar at 6:08 AM on May 17, 2013

They can do so, but only in text chat. I also *very* much dislike the apparent move away from XMPP.
posted by jaduncan at 6:10 AM on May 17, 2013

i just had to walk through using gmail, gmail!, with someone who just emerged from the dark cave called lycos mail.

how do i find my contacts?

well, you see that "gmail" with the carrot.

what? where, which one.

Top left under the google, click on that.

how do i change my signature?

click on that icon, the gear, now click on settings, scroll all the way to the bottom.


doing anything in gmail is a combination of searching for magic icons to click, hunting through menus, checking for icons that appear and disappear in different contexts. gmail has become a usability nightmare thanks to careful A/B testing under the expert guidance of design professionals...

One problem with the new Google Hangouts app is that Hangouts no longer supports the Jabber/XMPP standard like Talk did, according to this overview blow-job from the Verge.

i think when they phase-out jabber/gtalk is the day I'm done.
posted by at 6:14 AM on May 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

> I miss the Google that... had a minimalist, geek-friendly approach, with its bad design and all. Now it is average-user-friendly, and veering away from what I loved so much about it. The slick new design and we know what's best mentality...

By the mid-00s, I'd grown to hate gmail before its first major redesign precisely because it was so power-user friendly, thanks to the rapidly accumulating pile-on of features, functions, and notifications. Aside from the stack of messages, I had no fucking clue what else was going on on the screen because, frankly, I use the gmail web interface only once or twice a year and hell if I'm going to waste any additional time trying to steer around that hot mess.

The first major gmail interface redesign was a little better, in that regard. I felt like I was guessing less. I haven't tried the very latest -- hey, the one-year interval hasn't lapsed yet. If gmail ends up with an interface inherited from all the other Google properties I use sporadically but, in aggregate, keep me using Google regularly for purposes beyond search, that's totally a win; lower learning curve for me. Suck it, haters.

The real trick Google faces will be in providing concessions to the power users without alienating non-power users. Frankly, all the wails of anguish are from people who really wish Google would provide a shell interface with autocomplete terminal commands. I have no sympathy for that. I want something I can dig into as far as I can go. I also want something I can use without a guidebook, drop for months at a time, and then pick up again like nothing happened. It's hard to provide both -- sometimes really hard, without providing entirely segregated UIs.

But claiming that Google is doing this purely out of branding or for profit is a headscratcher. Dude, they're a company that has to make money. Google understands more than most companies the necessity of retaining users, and they're not going to risk driving them off just to flog a Google-like experience or attempt to build a Google brand army; they're going to watch the numbers and change again if the cards motif fails hard.
posted by ardgedee at 6:15 AM on May 17, 2013

i think when they phase-out jabber/gtalk is the day I'm done.

Yup. Once Google stood for the open web and net.
posted by jaduncan at 6:16 AM on May 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

the problem with google is their stock value. google's revenue is plateauing and there is now a raft of google managers looking for either hidden revenue or plausible growth stories to keep the wolves at bay.

if their stock declined by half they might be able to manage a successful, useful company.
posted by at 6:26 AM on May 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was wondering how this compared (if at all) in function with Apple's HyperCard stacks.
posted by carter at 6:28 AM on May 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

What they say (Larry Page): "We want interoperability!"

What they do: Release non-XMPP Hangouts, which (on the desktop) only works properly in Chrome
posted by milkb0at at 6:29 AM on May 17, 2013

The particularly irritating bit is that they actually wrote the Jingle extension to XMPP, and note in the Verge article that it was actually a choice not to fully support standards.
posted by jaduncan at 6:30 AM on May 17, 2013

Last night, I got an invite to the new Maps beta, and it's gorgeous.

There are probably one or two kinks that need to be worked out, but it's easily one of the best UIs that I've used.

I'm not a huge fan of all of Google's design memes (whitespace is being overused -- by Google, and almost everyone else), but the new Maps and Google Now are both awesome UIs. Better than anything that's come out of Cupertino in a long time.

Rant: Oh, and Torvalds is right about Chrome's webfont rendering being appalling on non-Apple and non-Android platforms. That needs to be fixed. Chrome's development is quickly becoming as dysfunctional as Android's. The backlog of serious bugs in the bug tracker is becoming huge, and Google makes the process of submitting patches unnecessarily complicated/esoteric. Chrome and Android should be textbook examples of how not to manage an open-source project. Google gets a lot of credit for being better than Apple, but that frankly isn't good enough. They should bite the bullet, acknowledge their growing NiH syndrome, and ditch Google code for Github. Even Microsoft acknowledge that Github is a great place to organize their open-source projects.
posted by schmod at 6:46 AM on May 17, 2013

The process of making a product more useful is called design.

It used to be. Now "design" means "has no buttons".
posted by DU at 7:28 AM on May 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

I quite like the Cards interface on Google Now. It's a good way to present tiny snippets of information all in the same place, without implying that they have anything to do with each other, and making it obvious that fiddling with one won't interfere with the others.

When I was in the US recently, Google Now was fantastic: it told me when my Amazon packages had been dispatched, tried to spot patterns in my travels and presented me with maps/transport info to the places it thought I was going next (with a few weird guesses but enough success to be useful), was waiting with the correct public transit information whenever I looked at it at a bus or metro stop, presented a cinema's listings and recommended a film (which, again, was a pretty good guess at what I would've chosen) when I happened to look at it outside a cinema, recommended local tourist attractions and popular photo spots, etc. Plus cards that are really minimal front-ends for a currency converter and google translate, which are handy to have at the ready.

You'd never mistake it for being psychic, but it was surprisingly good at giving me information before I asked for it, and pleasingly easy to ignore when it was wrong. And the Cards metaphor works really well for that, highlighting that each fuction or set of information can be considered, customised or dismissed without interfering with the others.

However, at home in the UK it kind of sucks. Gone are the package dispatch notifications, the film recommendations, and the good guesses at travel plans. With the exception of it recognising a flight booking to the US, which appeared on a card on the correct day, I have only ever seen three types of card: Today's weather; calendar reminders (which provide identical function to the calendar app's notifications); and travel instructions to get home, which could theoretically be useful except that for the last fortnight it has consistently appeared at around 11am, roughly two hours after I arrive in work. I am not blown away.

Most frustrating is that it *only* works by predicting what you want. If I want to spend a weekend getting to know my home city a bit better, there's no way to make the "nearby attractions" or "photo spots" cards pop up, because Google doesn't think I'm on holiday. I can't tell it that I will always want directions to X location at Y time (or, in my specific case, that I will never need directions to get home from work at 11am on a weekday), I just have to hope that if I keep a routine for long enough it'll figure it out on its own. It feels oddly like having your life's information organised by a furby: you know that it can do a whole range of awesome things, but only if you manage to second-guess its learning algorithm well enough to guide its behaviour in roughly the direction that you want.
posted by metaBugs at 8:17 AM on May 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

From Buchanan's essay: "....Google Now is the embodiment of Schmidt’s promise / threat: “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”

I wonder.
posted by mule98J at 8:37 AM on May 17, 2013

The best thing about Gmail is that they retained the option to use the old, original HTML interface. Now that Hotmail has been "upgraded" to an Outlook with hidden options and notifications I can't turn off, good old-fashioned Gmail has become a lifeline.

If Google gave the user the option to return to the original interface on all of their products, I'd have no problem with any design choices they make. But they don't want that, because the new designs (and new products like Now) are needed to build up a profile on each user in Google's cloud, and that's how they target their advertising.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:00 PM on May 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

As I was driving this morning I was listening to NPR's Science Friday. They were talking about how Kelvin was the greatest physicist of his generation but even he made mistakes that he would not accept. He got the age of the earth wrong by a factor of 50x and when people tried to explain why he was wrong he flat-out rejected them. Then followed a discussion of other scientists who did great work and later went on to do completely terrible work and who could not be convinced their later work was plain old wrong. Ira Flatow quipped, "Science advances one funeral at a time." New ideas are rejected by the old guard, but they eventually die and the new guard has held those ideas their entire lives.

The best thing about Gmail is that they retained the option to use the old, original HTML interface.

Human-computer interfaces advance one funeral at a time.
posted by GuyZero at 3:03 PM on May 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Pedantry alert: Ira Flatow's quip restates a remark that goes back to Max Planck by way of Thomas Kuhn.
posted by cgc373 at 3:33 PM on May 17, 2013

I think he mentioned Planck - I gotta try to keep these comments tight you know. But I think he knew the provenance of the quote.
posted by GuyZero at 3:35 PM on May 17, 2013

I was just thinking about Google's interface designers today. Gmail has a ribbon at the top that can take me to something called "+you", "Search", "Images" and so forth. On the top left it has the word "Mail" with a downwards triangle. If I click on it it says that I can go to Contacts and Tasks, neither of which I use. I don't know why they're not on the ribbon, but anyway. On the left side I have the Compose button plus my mailboxes, fair enough. Above the mail I have an empty box with a downwards triangle, and two more buttons - Refresh and More. On the right I have two more buttons with downwards triangles, one marked by me email address and one with a sort of sunflower on it. A few of these things change when I mark a message by clicking in an empty box, and I get another set of menus if I'm writing a message. Oddly enough, I have totally different interfaces depending on whether I'm replying to an existing message or composing an entirely new message. When I'm writing a reply, if I click on a downwards triangle with a sort of swooshy arrow on it I get the option to edit the subject of my message. If I do that then my reply jumps over to the other side of the screen and the interface changes to the one I would have had if I were writing a new message. Oh, and I can only reply to a message by scrolling to the end of it, which is a pain when responding to a fifty-page newsletter since Gmail stopped working with the page-scroll keys on my Mac a couple of years ago.

So all this was designed? Seriously? Because I had been thinking about how Google was the archetypical company run by techs with no clues about design, and I was contrasting it to Apple and to Microsoft. Apple is effectively run by designers; and Microsoft employs designers but doesn't give them any real power. So Google's interfaces are planned? I find this hard to believ. I'm not being snarky - I seriously do not think any UI designer would have come up with anything as hostile as Gmail's interface, with its mixtures of icons and text and hidden drop down menus in different parts of the screen. I make it about ten drop-down menus in four locations on the screen, plus a ribbon bar. And this was designed?

Also, the "+You"? Is the plus sign pronounced the way I think it is?
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:14 AM on May 18, 2013

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