Google’s recent focus on bringing a clean, uniform appearance to their web platform was a breath of fresh air from a company that has previously ignored design. Google+ was the first volley, with the rest of the product family being gradually updated to match. This was all great news: the most widely used web products were going to get better with a renewed focus on usable, beautiful experiences.
Clearly beggars can’t be choosers. What Google has finally given us is a mess. Rather than re-imagine how users interact with Gmail or Reader, the entire suite of applications has simply been whitewashed with a muddled skin of black, grey and red.
Integrating styles across a platform of previously disjoint applications is a huge challenge. Considering the number of people that had to work together, it’s admirable that all the apps now look like they belong to the same family.
But let’s sweat the small stuff. Attention to detail distinguishes the mediocre from the good from the great.
Three different headers (Google+, Reader, and Gmail)
Did anyone at Google look at the new site designs side-by-side before they were launched? Not only are there two distinct heading styles (white versus grey), but no header or toolbar shares a height between any app.
Lists are even more inconsistent in their appearance and functionality.
Many styles, none the same (Google Docs, Reader, and Gmail)
Pick a list style. Just pick one. Do columns get headings? Do we need the section of the site we’re on? The sidebar can’t decide what width it wants to be, and items that have been viewed aren’t the same color between apps. Even small details like shadows are completely jumbled: Docs shades the items below the heading only, Reader shades the sidebar only, and Gmail puts a shade above the entire page.
I know I’m picking nits here, but for a massive, cross-application UI rollout, I would expect consistency to be a priority. I want to be impressed by how seamless moving between Google apps is; instead I’m stuck wondering what’s going to work differently with this particular app.
Let’s take a look at Reader, the object of the greatest criticism in the last few days. It’s not unfounded: I use Google Reader to read things, and the recent changes have only hurt legibility.
Home page, Article view, and Fullscreen
Google clearly sees the future of the web as black and white. The only color used on the site is red (excluding the homepage title and search button for some reason), leaving content feeling stark. Adding a feed is certainly something I do occasionally, but it doesn’t deserve the same giant red button given to a frequent action such as composing an email. Further down the page, there is little to distinguish one section of content from another, with sidebars blending into both lists of articles and primary content.
Google has since made the links blue again. Good job guys! It’s a huge improvement, but the problem shouldn’t have made it out the door in the first place.
Previous designs focused on the article by isolating it and deemphasizing everything else with shades of pale blue. Now, an article’s reading area is loosely defined only by the content around it. Even short articles aren’t fully visible on laptop screens, due in no small part to the now substantial site header. Brian Shih, a former Google Reader PM, highlights the difference in height here. According to his measurements, the content area has been reduced by ~100px — 1/8th of my laptop’s total screen height. His full article on the Reader redesign is a deeper look at all the recent design and feature changes.
Switching to fullscreen (keyboard shortcut: F) just gives you the same small block of text extended to an illegible line length, instead of adopting the vastly superior paradigm of Readability or Safari Reader.
A Little Lagniappe: Gmail for iOS
Google also released an official Gmail app for the iPhone this week. It would be difficult to find a better example of putting lipstick on a pig without actually going to a farm and doing it myself. It’s literally just the existing mobile web app, wrapped in an App Store download.
MG Siegler takes care of the criticism here. It’s almost too easy. Google ships a native app, for one of their flagship products, on the largest mobile platform, and they can’t be bothered to test it? Or even write an app that has native scrolling? It’s sloppy and embarrassing. At least it was quickly pulled to fix the bugs with notifications, the only native feature it included.
A Way Out
My trust in Google’s platform has been eroded bit by bit with each successive botched launch and ill-conceived redesign. I don’t have much left. It’s clear I’m not alone in that feeling - it’s a core theme of MG Siegler’s article above, and I’ve seen it echoed by many other voices across the internet. I appreciate that Google is trying new things, especially with design. Their constant see-what-sticks approach, however, burns far more confidence than it creates. I think it’s time for them to take a step back and reevaluate their decisions before blindly charging forward again. There are already genuine offers from former Google designers to come back and help fix problems with Reader et al. Let’s hope they take them seriously.