Don Norman: Designing For People

Nielsen Norman Group

The truth about Google's so-called "simplicity"

The truth about Google? It isn't simple.

Look, I like Google. It's a great search engine. But I am sick and tired of hearing people praise its clean, elegant look. Hell, all search engines have that clean elegant part to them: type your search terms into the box and hit "Enter."

"Oh," people rush to object, "the Google search page is so spare, clean, elegant, not crowded with other stuff."

True, but that's because you can only do one thing from their home page: search. Anybody can make a simple-looking interface if the system only does one thing. If you want to do one of the many other things Google is able to do, oops, first you have to figure out how to find it, then you have to figure out which of the many offerings to use, then you have to figure out how to use it. And because all those other things are not on the home page but, instead, are hidden away in various mysterious places, extra clicks and operations are required for even simple tasks — if you can remember how to get to them.

Why are Yahoo! and MSN such complex-looking places? Because their systems are easier to use. Not because they are complex, but because they simplify the life of their users by letting them see their choices on the home page: news, alternative searches, other items of interest. Yahoo! even has an excellent personalization page, so you can choose what you wish to see on that first page.

Take another careful look at Google's front page. Want a map? You have to click once to be offered the choice, then a second additional time to get to the map page. Want to use Google Scholar to check references? Um, well, is that "Advanced Search" or "more." What about their newly announced blog search? Why is Google maps separate from Google Earth? (Oh, those were purchased from different companies. Yes, but why should I, the user, care about the history of Google's acquisitions?)

All of these things require you to click on "more" which gets you to the options page where there are 32 alternatives, plus links to "About Google," "Help Center" (if Google is really so simple, why does one need help?), "Downloads" and then a special section on "web search features," which has another 24 links of web features, a book search toolbar, and then another 23 sections of text — not links, text descriptions and an entire meta-language you can learn to improve the searches.

Is Google simple? No. Google is deceptive. It hides all the complexity by simply showing one search box on the main page. The main difference, is that if you want to do anything else, the other search engines let you do it from their home pages, whereas Google makes you search through other, much more complex pages. Why aren't many of these just linked together? Why isn't Google a unified application? Why are there so many odd, apparently free-standing services?

A long time ago, 1968 to be precise, a wise person named Conway wrote: "Organizations which design systems ... are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations." So true: I can see this in products from many a company. Except with Google, there appears to be no organizational structure of the product. Hmm.

Conway, M. E. (1968). How do committees invent? Datamation, 14 (April), 28-31.

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