The Truth About Google’s so-called “simplicity”

Don Norman has a great post criticizing the oft-lauded “simplicity” of Google’s interface. It’s worth quoting in its entirety:

The Truth About Google’s so-called ‘simplicity’

The truth? It isn’t simple.

Look, I like Google. It’s a great search engine. But I am sick and tied 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,” but 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 any 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 it’s all hidden away in various mysterious places, nothing here is obvious.

Why is Yahoo! and MSN such a complex-looking places? Because their sstems 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 chose what you wish to see on that first page.

Take another careful look at Google’s front page. Want the news? You have to click one to be offered the choice, then a second additional time to get to the news. With the other major search engines, the news is already there. Want to use Google Scholar to check references? Um, well, is that “Advanced Search” or “more.” What about their newly announced blog search? Or Google maps, not to be confused with Google Earth.

All of these things require you to click on “more” which gets you to the options page, and oops, there are 29 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 &mquo; 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 the home page, 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. With Google, there appears to be no organizational structure of the product. Oops.

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

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