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February 11, 2010

Google and usability

I made a somewhat negative (and admittedly completely OTT) comment about Google and usability on Twitter earlier on today, stemming in part from the realisation that I find it increasingly hard to get excited by, or even remotely interested in, Google's latest shiny new offering, whether it's Wave or Buzz or whatever comes next:

i suspect it is because with everything google does other than search, their usability sucks big time

I got some positive and negative responses to my statement but the conversation got sidetracked by the issue of Google's handling of multiple accounts which, while part of the problem, isn't really what I was getting at.  That, coupled with the fact that Twitter isn't exactly the best place to have a discussion, meant I didn't really get my point across.

(As an aside, the majority of my usage of Google uses my Google Apps account to access my personal email.  Unfortunately, Google Apps accounts tend not to get access to newer features like Wave and Buzz, at least not when they first come out, which pretty much forces people to maintain at least one other Google account if they want to experiment with those things.  I find that frustrating and not a little annoying - something I've labelled "Google identity disorder" - the state of having multiple google accounts and never being logged into the right one at the right time" - and it is undoubtedly part of the reason that I find it hard to get excited by the newer stuff.)

Like pretty much everyone, I use Google search every single day, probably every single hour of my waking life. Google search is the benchmark of functionality and usability in Internet search - it's what every other search engine compares themselves to and it has been pretty much since it was first released. That's a pretty amazing track record!

What's been the basis of that track record?  It is simplicity, at least as far as the user is concerned, that has kept it in pole position.  Google search does one thing, really, really well.

But it is a track record that I don't think Google have come anywhere close to with their other offerings, with the possible exception of Google Maps, at least of the things I've tried.  Gmail is pretty good I guess, but even after using it continuously for several years I still find things that catch me out (perhaps that's just me?) and I'm still not totally convinced that it falls into the class of being a really good email client for Joe Normal - my mum or dad for example.  (Hmmm... actually my mum and dad are definitely not Joe Normal, but you get the idea!)

I find Google Docs relatively uncompelling and Google Wave just strikes me as a noisy, cluttered mess, with no thought having been given to usability at all.

All in all, it seems to me that Google need to re-learn how to keep things simple, not just in terms of the user experience but also in terms of the proposition being put on the table.

That was all I meant.

Addendum 1 (there may be others): This should never have been a blog post.  It should never even have been a tweet!  People will inevitably keep saying things like, "yes, but Google X is pretty good".  And I'll have to say, "yes, you're right".  I just end up looking like an idiot I guess :-).  At the end of the day... Google have done some good stuff and they've done some bad stuff.  Big deal - hardly the stuff of an useful blog post.  Apologies for my wayward stream of consciousness!  I do think there is something wrapped up in my discomfort that I'd like to return to later but I'll either do that as a second addendum here later today, or as new blog post in due course.

Addendum 2: On balance, I don't think this blog post warrants a second addendum :-)

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Comments

Google Reader an exception - good?

Gmail works pretty well in our house.

I can't imagine going back to Firefox now that I am using Chrome. I just put it on the Mac at home as well; much better than Safari.

To add to your list: iGoogle doesn't seem to have been compelling.

Some of my colleagues find sites.google.com useful.

I've blown hot and cold about Google Reader in the past, trying both it and other things intermittently - but, yes, what little blog reading I do, I currently do using it. I'd class it alongside Gmail as a decent tool but not something I'd call 'best of breed' in the way search is.

Chrome is different, it seems to me, because it isn't a web app which is why I didn't mention it. But, yes, I agree - I don't use anything else now (except for some in-house tasks that force me to use IE :-( ).

Chrome is a great example of how to keep both the proposition and the execution simple. As with search, that's why it is so good.

Google Reader is best of breed? What is better?

I don't know if anything else is better... all I'm saying is *it* could be better, particularly in a context where Google more or less forces Google Apps users into a multiple-account situation. So, for example, the Chrome Google Reader toolbar add-on gets 'confused' by which Google account my browser thinks it is currently logged-on as.

I think that is an overall usability issue. It's not necessarily a usability issue with Reader itself... but it is a usability with my overall Google experience.

Dunno if that makes sense, or if I am doing something peculiar (and/or wrong) to spoil my own experience?

I admit that some of this may be self-inflicted because of the way I use my multiple accounts - two apps accounts (one work and one private) plus one ordinary account for things like Wave.

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