Is Don Norman right about Google? Matt 24 May 2006

48 comments Latest by Harry Blanchard

Don Norman is sick and tired of hearing people praise Google’s clean, elegant look. He argues Yahoo! and MSN are complex-looking places because their systems are easier to use.

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?

It’s weird to see a company chastised for hiding complexity. Isn’t that usually a good thing? Doesn’t complexity lead to confusion and poor decision making? I’ve gotta think a lot of people love Google’s “deception” of simplicity (thus the popular notion of the site as clean and elegant).

Still, Norman does have some valid points. Google is disjointed. Some services do feel buried. There is a lack of obvious organizational structure. So why is that?

Start by looking at the culture of Google as compared to its competitors. Google vs. Yahoo: Clash of cultures describes Google as “an intellectual playground” where employees are given significant license to play. And play leads to innovation. As Kathy Sierra says, “Never underestimate the power of fun.” Yahoo, on the other hand, “has morphed into a more mature company with tough management discipline, but perhaps lacking the creative giddiness it had in its early years.” And Microsoft’s culture is, well, you know.

I’m guessing that Google’s playfulness and relatively sloppy integration go hand in hand. When you’re constantly playing, innovating, and launching, you don’t always have time to unify things perfectly. Marissa Mayer of Google says, “I like to launch [products] early and often. That has become my mantra.” That attitude means things won’t always be neat and tidy. Progress sometimes means making a mess and worrying about the clean-up later.

Google probably doesn’t want to spend too much time upfront trying to solve problems that may not even matter. So it kicks new services out the door to see if they have legs. It’s Darwinian. Some of these tools won’t make it (e.g. Michael Arrington theorizes Google Notepad may mean the death of Google Bookmarks).

Sure, Google could delay launches and come up with a way to smoothly integrate each new service. But is that a wise allocation of resources if the tool may not even survive in the long term? (When a service proves its worth, it does eventually bubble up to the top — look at Froogle, Maps, etc.)

Norman’s on to something. Things aren’t ideal at Google. It may not have a coherent unification theory. It may need to pay off some of its structural “debt” at some point. The sheets aren’t all tucked in. But perhaps that’s the price you pay for innovation.

48 comments so far (Jump to latest)

sMoRTy71 24 May 06

Simplicity for the sake of simplicity should never be the goal. An interface should be as complex as the task dictates. If I need a bunch of checkboxes or radio buttons to complete my task, they should not be left out for the sake of making it “simple.”

Matching user expectations is more important (IMO) than trying to make things simple.

I actually think Google’s home page matches most users’ expectations of search (i.e. I type something in and hit a button).

jakehow 24 May 06

I just wish there was a page on Google where I could see all services I am subscribed to and jump to them. The My Account page seems like it would be ideal!

Leo Kennis 24 May 06

Google has the perfect navigation: itself. If I want to go to “google bookmarks”…I just search for “google bookmarks” on Google…

Jamie Tibbetts 24 May 06

I think everyone uses Google’s search because everyone else uses it, not because it’s simpler or better. The simplicity of their main page has a lot to do with why they became popular, but that was a long time ago. They’re not just a search company anymore. I think they should have ditched the simple main page a long time ago. Most folks don’t even know Google has other services because they’re burried in the bowels of the site. Can you imagine any other company consistently releasing products and not even mentioning them on the main page of their site? It’s crazy to me.

iTodd 24 May 06

Also, I think Google is set up the way it is because such a large percentage of its traffic comes to do one thing - search. Sure they could attack that audience visually with every other Google service and news headline, ads, etc. — but they don’t, and I think people love that un-cluttered start to their search.

Spike 24 May 06

I second that Leo. I just Google whatever Google section I’m looking for. Like the finder on OS X :-)

Prophetess 24 May 06

eh, Don Norman just needs some press, and attacking Google is currently the best way to get such a thing.

don’t criticize what’s good, show me something better.

Dan Boland 24 May 06

Froogle is a success?

Chason 24 May 06

Its simply a matter of there being different, correct way to do things. There isn’t just ONE solution, Yahoo’s approach is as valid as Google’s, they just serve different needs.

Luis 24 May 06

Google’s simplicity caters to the average internet user, who, for the most part aren’t internet savvy. By displaying a simple (albeit boring) interface, the user can quickly find their bearings and get to do doing what they came for.

Bombarding a user with other information will only make one’s eyes dance to the point of exhaustion. If you want a “busier” look, then by all means use the other services and be done with it.

Tim 24 May 06

Why do we always seem to talk in one extreme or another.. I personally like the simplicity of Google’s page, however I would like to see links to their other services on the home page. That dosn’t mean that Google should run out and make their page look like the new Yahoo page.. in fact.. I would hate that.. but they have tons of real estate on their page that could hold a simple collection of their other services with a small, one sentence description.

Eddie 24 May 06 had some thoughts on this recently- I’ll echo my post there-

Google’s homepage doesn’t need to be simple anymore for the reasons that Jamie Tibbetts mentioned above.. but also because of the growing trend and support in browsers for skipping the homepage entirely.

I can’t remember the last time I actually loaded the homepage to do a search. I use my address bar/google search bar. The times I do load it, it’s to go in search of other services, and even then, I usually just use my address bar to search for the service.

I think we’ve all got it google. You’re a search engine. If you want to be more, you should facilitate finding those other services. I don’t want to search your site to find the service- that’s only useful when I know what to search for.

Devin 24 May 06

I don’t remember where but one of the two Google-Guys said that their “strategy” is to keep the competition guessing. When every single product is all mixed together it’s hard for outsiders to determine which is more important, which they plan to focus on, which will be developed more, etc. I think this is part deception on Google’s part.

ML 24 May 06

I can�t remember the last time I actually loaded the homepage to do a search…I think we�ve all got it google. You�re a search engine.

Eddie, you’ve got it but I don’t know if that means everyone really does. Most *normal* people are still pretty clueless on this stuff. I remember reading (can’t remember where) that tons of people actually enter URLs at search engines like Google. It can be dangerous to assume knowledge. Another reason to do whatever it takes to cut confusion/complexity.

Ameya 24 May 06

Yahoo/MSN homepages are Portals. The intent is to show a range of features. For a casual surfer, this is probably more interesting. Yahoo homepage also gives the latest news and all sorts of stuff which may not be useful for searches, but seems more like a “homepage”.

Google homepage is a SEARCH page. I agree with Eddie that the google homepage need not be simple any longer. I doubt people spend more than a second on the google homepage.

Given the fact that the simple search box is being commoditized and a lot of people use the search boxes within the browser, the simplicity of google’s homepage seems redundant.

Cameron Barrett 24 May 06

What’s missing from all of the big search engines is transparency. When I do a search I want the results to be shown, but I also want access to the data showing *why* the search results are the way they are. Adding this metadata would be beneficial but comes with a downside — it would quickly be abused by the SEO crowd, rendering it useless.

Anonymous Coward 24 May 06

1% care about transparency. Most people don’t give a shit, nor should they. If the results are good then they’re good. That’s enough. People don’t want to analyze results, they want to trust a company to give accurate-enough results. Google is still the best at this.

Tom 24 May 06


2nd to last paragraph, 5th word.

Missing the “h” to make it “launches’ instead of “launces”. =)

Plus, from what I read recently, there’s been too much play going on at google. People spending more than 20% on their 20% projects. We’ll see how that effects their innovation.

Don 24 May 06

He’s fabricating usage methodology (or deliberately makes things harder for himself) to bolster his point. Here’s the crux of it:

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

That may be how Don Norman chooses to google, but the neophytes and those of us who know better just key in the address or city,state into the main box. Punch “1600 Pennsylvania ave, washington dc” into that supposedly inadequate first page and the very top result says “Map of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, Washington, DC” which will open Google Maps. Or you can use the immediate links to get the Yahoo or Mapquest maps if you prefer. So his claim of “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.” is flat-out bunk.

Or if you’re talking about things other than maps, the intimidating ‘more’ option he maligns is completely unnecessary. Punch in “Canon SD700” and, true, you don’t get the Froogle results… but it’s an option right at the top. Punch in “George Bush” and you don’t necessarily get news items back… but News is an item at the top and Google is smart enough to offer you a link at the top to news items.

This is a demand for complexity for complexity’s sake, not usability.

I'm With Stupid 24 May 06

Is he “right”? Well, not so much, at least in a factual sense. Don says, “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.”

I conducted an experiment. I went to and typed in my address and clicked “Google Search”. A link to the Google Map for it was the first search result. Ok, clicking twice is too danged hard for me, so I tested “I’m Feeling Lucky”…and was instantly provided with the Google Map of my address. Of course, just entering an address and hitting the ‘Maps’ link (which is right above the search box) launches me to, drumroll please…..Google Maps and the results for my search.

Man, that is complex.

There are other factual errors and omissions, but one of my favorites is “Yahoo! even has an excellent personalization page, so you can choose what you wish to see on that first page.” Holy moly, I’d better stop using my customized Google homepage!

I looked at Yahoo! and MSN’s default home pages and except for all the extra ‘crap’ (Horoscopes, “American Idol”, “5 Crazy Love Facts”, etc) the search options presented looked pretty similar.

I think Google is doing OK for itself and seems to update things as necessary. This seems to be in direct contrast to Mr. Norman, who is still running “ Copyright 2004 � Donald A. Norman. All rights reserved.” at the bottom of every page on his site.

I guess you could say his stuff is, like, so two years ago.

Frolic 24 May 06

I like Google’s simply search interface. Working with other Google application has made me wonder if the company puts any thought into the user experience.

Gmail is a mess. There are little things that drive me crazy. If I delete/archive an open message, why am I returned to the Inbox instead of the next message. There are other issues that are unbelievable. Does anyone use Gmail notifier or a personalized Google homepage to check Gmail? Do you notice that when you open a message, delete/archive is not an available option. In order to delete, you have to go to the Inbox first.

It makes me wonder if anyone at Google even uses their own products?

Anonymous Coward 24 May 06

Google will never do anything great besides search and ads. It’s just like Microsoft: office and windows are “great” but nothing else is.

Dan Boland 24 May 06

If I delete/archive an open message, why am I returned to the Inbox instead of the next message.

Funny, I would be annoyed if it didn’t return me to the inbox. To each his own, I guess.

tom 24 May 06

I disagree that Google is not unified. Their main search features (Web Search, Images, Groups, News, Maps, etc.) are right there across the top and one can even do a web search for “cats” and then decide they want images instead and the “Images” link links to an images search for cats.

The rest of the behind-the-scenes stuff is beta quality, experiemental, labs stuff and is either not of high enough quality or usefullness to be front-page branded. Perhaps there will be a day when all of these products become prime-time - then Google will integrate them into its main page along with everything else it is known for right now.

Tyler 24 May 06

I probably use the Google search box in the top of Safari or Firefox 95% of the time when searching. I guess I like being deceived.

pwb 24 May 06

I disagree with Don. In fact, I think a key reason Yahoo lost its search leadership is because its home page became too crowded with clutter. Pulling up or just to do a search is miserable. It’s simple to list all the available services on a page other than the home.

Also, as others have pointed out, Google’s “smart” search brings up a number of its other services specific to the search request.

However, I do agree that Google’s design is too spare and “undesigned” in spots. For example, while Yahoo’s and Google’s search results look nearly identical, the Yahoo design is slightly more pleasant and efficient.

Dave 24 May 06

The beauty of Google’s design isn’t that it’s simple, it’s that it’s fast. No tables, no layout, just a logo, a text box and buttons. Even on a modem it shows up in seconds.

And since the search is what most people want to use, having it be utterly uncluttered saves lots of seconds for lots of people. Those seconds add up.

What I really wish is that the guys with the best search algorithm weren’t also the ones with the best design. I’d love to see how Google vs. Altavista would have played out if they’d kept their algorithms but switched interfaces (or vice versa). My hunch is that the better interface beats out the better search algorithms, but we’ll never know.

Jay Reding 24 May 06

I think that Google’s very spartan homepage is a very deliberate decision on their part - in the end, *everything* centers around search. They do a lot of innovation, but in the end what Google is trying to do is replace the homepage *and* the location bar. You don’t type in a web address, you Google something.

For instance, has anyone seen the latest round of Pontiac ads? They don’t spell out their URI, they tell people to “Google” Pontiac - even showing the Google search box in the ad. That struck me as very interesting.

If what you’re going to do is replace the location bar of one’s browser, absolute simplicity is a very good thing - and I think that’s why Google assiduously avoids the whole “portal” look unless the user decides to create a personalized homepage.

Jens Meiert 24 May 06

Google’s approach is target-oriented and very efficient. They do several things as they’re supposed to be done. (At least, most people think that, which is fair enough, right?) One could argue that this legitimates deficits in other areas, like in architecture, accessibility, or webstandards, but I guess most of us, and even Google, think that this can be improved (by incorporation into processes, for example) as well.

Ryan Platte 24 May 06

A lot of the stuff they’re doing very much looks like they’ve thought it through and are building the technologies they want separately so they’re ready to mash together when they want to integrate some big impressive feature into their search.

Look at the carefully thought-out APIs and metadata choices in Google Base, Google Co-op, Gmail, Google Reader (which is a thin veneer over a comprehensive RSS-reading API), the widgets on the personalized home page that recently showed up in Google Desktop…

At some point, likely quite soon, all these services will appear in with regular search results. I can’t wait to get Gmail messages and Google Talk transcripts with my search results. And Notebook entries. And matching blog entries I’ve read. Search history worked like this right from the start, too.

Google is really good at being loosely coupled, and it’s going to pay off for them more and even more as time goes on. Existing behemoths won’t be able to achieve what they’ll be pulling off without completely changing their ethos and core beliefs.

By the way, I just started using Google Notebook, and smiled at the nods to 37signals UIs.

Gary R Boodhoo 24 May 06

I respect Norman immensely, but his short sighted commentary is a classic example of a disconnect between “usability”, design & implementation. As many have pointed out above there are quite a few ways to get to other areas in Google using only the search text field rather than selecting links on the home page.

Looking for an address? why go through the trouble of going to Google Maps then entering the address info when all you had to do was directly enter that info in the text field? Why even go to the home page at all when you’re probably running the toolbar in your browser?

Norman makes the assumption that Google services are discretely packaged “things” as though they were products, when in fact, the services should be defined more broadly as “pieces”, both in terms of use and implementation.

street 24 May 06

Poor Don…

I’ll bet he would complain if the paper in notepads and sketchpads were pre-filled with someone else’s doodles and notes?

He’d probably be a little annoyed if his new Tivo automatically recorded cartoons and spanish soap operas by default.

Sooo… when I start to use the web, don’t bombard me with links to the latest American Idol gossip, stock qoutes, free ringtones, or the latest Windows Messenger beta.

I have no problem with a complaint that Google should list more or maybe all of its services on its home page and otherwise be more unified. And they should also make it more clear that you can personalize their home page since Don apparently has not discovered that. But to suggest that MSN and Yahoo are easier to use? Easier or more usable than just typing in what you want?

Simen 24 May 06

I use Google for two things: searching and mail. I don’t care for their other services, and if they’re somehow related to what I’m doing, they’ll show up in the search. Besides, I use the search bar in the browser more often than the Google homepage. If I want news I go to a news site. If I want something else, I go somewhere else. So Yahoo’s homepage and other search engines like it are bombarding me with information I don’t need.

I believe most non-technical users don’t care much for all the services that Google, Yahoo et al have besides search, so they might as well have a clean homepage. Google is smart enough to put its other services up on the relevant searches.

Most *normal* people are still pretty clueless on this stuff. I remember reading (can�t remember where) that tons of people actually enter URLs at search engines like Google.

I remember my mother showing me a “cool feature” of web browsers that someone showed her: you could type in URLs in the address bar instead or running them through Google…

Joshua Porter 24 May 06

Nice writeup, Matt. I agree that what Norman complains of most people enjoy: the sophistication of simplicity.

I have to ask…if, as Norman says, it’s so easy to create simple interfaces when your product only does one thing…why don’t we see lots of them?

I think the reason is that we as designers can’t help ourselves…if we dream it up then it finds a place in the interface. I’m amazed and inspired by Google’s discipline of keeping their interface the same over the years.

Also, though I would agree that Google’s offerings seem disjointed when thought of at a company level…why would they need to be unified? From my own experience I rarely need Google Calendar and Search to be close together…in fact I have Calendar open in its own tab and always search from other tabs (or a new tab). Even so, they’ve begun a little unification with a small nav bar in the top left corner of the apps. Still, I’m not sure about the unification theory yet.

john 24 May 06

Most of the statements here are fine for designers, and people who use the internet all day instead of actually working. But what about my mom? My sister, my dad, or my uncle?

A lot of people here confuse simple style, with simple to use. While Don’s points of just enter it into the search box are true, I would venture to say most web people dont know that. Unless you are a power user, how do you know this stuff?

Until about a year ago I didn’t know Google offered anything else. And I have been surfing since back in the days of gopher.

Google looks simple on the surface, but if you need books to fully use it (Google Hacks, Google Pocket Guide, How to do everything with Google, Google Power:…etc.) then its not that simple. Do you need a book to operate Basecamp, Campfire, or TaDa lists?

Soyapi 25 May 06

Another reason I think Google wants its searchbox to be very noticeable is because it leads to their major cash cow: targeted ads beside search results.

Had it been that they put ads on their sites, then a portal-like design would make sense (and cents) to them.

Yahoo and MSN have ads so the more content they provide on the home page, the more room they have to embed ads.

And maybe they really are *all* about search ;)

nickd 25 May 06

John: no, you don’t, but keep in mind that a to-do list is considerably simpler in functionality than a search engine. When you’re searching, you can search for “not” words, “and” words, condensed phrases, stuff on a specific domain (google’s “site:”), etc etc etc… this all brings up a lot of syntactic and interface concerns that are fundamentally *very* inaccessible to lay users.

But people make to-do lists all the time. I made one for my groceries this morning. Companies do so to prioritize well. Importantly, it can also lie outside of computing; my shopping list is on a post-it note.

Search engines don’t have the luxury of a real-world parallel - except for maybe a phone book or a dictionary, but even then you’re stretching. One could say a library’s directory, but the card catalog preceded that, and it was browsed in a considerably different fashion than computer-based terminals, which still use search.

Saying Google needs to pare down is, I think, a bit suspect because to a sufficiently large extent they already have. Ask yourself what needs to be organized and displayed on the interface, and I think you’ll get to answers quite similar to theirs.

It’s very hard being minimalist in the face of complicated tasks.

john 25 May 06


Ask yourself what needs to be organized and displayed on the interface, and I think you�ll get to answers quite similar to theirs.

I want news, mainly so when I am searching for adult entertainment, and my wife walks in, I can say I was reading the news with a plausible headline reference…Remember most people who use the net are still looking for adult related activities!

this all brings up a lot of syntactic and interface concerns that are fundamentally *very* inaccessible to lay users.

Exactly my point. Maybe they should have a direct “Support” link on the home page…

According to my dad, Google’s Search only gets it right about half the time. I like the old Yahoo way of doing it where they actually had real people researching the links.

Chris McEvoy 25 May 06

I think that the single search box google homepage design is an albatross around the neck of Google.

Until Google manage to produce an interface that allows them to have more than a monosyballic conversation with their users they will not be able to move on from being just a “search engine”.

Ps. I have produced a different homepage for google called “Simply Google”. Why not take a look?

Alex Firmani 25 May 06

Their methodology of testing new interface designs is horrible. I don’t understand how randomly interspersing a new design one in every 50 pageloads is productive for either side. I’m logged into Google services, why not give me a cookie if you want to test a new page design (such as the web/images/news bar on the left) and let me use it for a while?

Phil 25 May 06

There have been alot of comments here and I’ve only read about half so sorry if I’m a parrot here… anyways

Lets imagine you still visit the homepage, which is what we are talking about anyway.

You want to find health information regarding the avian flu. Do you really want to be bombarded with random news clips about immigration bills and Dixie Chicks and American Idol contestants?

Google’s page does what it’s meant to do. It helps you find what you’re looking for. Not what they think you want to know.

This is the internet, not television.

On top of that, google and yahoo and MSN’s homepages shouldn’t really be put in the same boat and compared like this. They aren’t the same. MSN and Yahoo are portals, google is just a search page.

Moving on, I do kind of agree that more of the google features should be on the homepage, especially video which I feel fits with the other services on the homepage. On the other hand we have yahoo which puts a crapload of it’s features (360� Beta, Answers, Autos, Avatars, Business, Finder, Entertainment, FIFA World Cup, Finance, Games, GeoCities, Groups, HotJobs, Mail, Maps, Messenger, Music, My Yahoo!, News, Personals, Photos, Rogers Yahoo!, Sports Toolbar … Had enough yet?), 90% of which I’ll never use anyway. So it’s deciding which hell you prefer I guess.

A Reader 26 May 06

Who’s Don Norman? Why should I care?

Ka Wai 26 May 06

When I want to find Google’s buried services, I simply google them.

Lucanos 25 Jul 06

I think that one of the attractions of Google’s hidden products may be the “I found it!” factor as well. The fact that you can find them makes them a bit more engaging than if they were rammed down your throat.

Maybe it’s also a case of the ease of finding being linked to the tech-headness of the people getting into them. I can remember hearing about Google using a mathematic equation as a recruitment tool, as being an indirect way to evaluate the nerdiness of the applicants. So some of the Google products may be deliberately hard to find so that only switched on people can find them and start testing them.

Meh… I love my Google - Google Search, Google Maps, Google Earth, GMail, Google Calender and whatever else they can throw at me. (Except Google Desktop - one word there “bloated”!).

I like the churn and burn of how Google creates and releases products too - you can see them evolving. Rather than dictating to the users what they believe we need, they give us a starting point and then let us stretch the boundaries as we go until it’s the right fit.

Harry Blanchard 25 Sep 06

I am perhaps the only one in the world who remembers this, but Norman’s cohort Jakob Nielsen praised the spareness of the Google page at a CHI talk many years ago (before Google really took off, business-wise). An expert from a previous bygone era, John Karlin, once said he wouldn’t give expert opinion the time of day (cited in Klemmer, 1989). Although I wouldn’t nearly go this far, it does give me pause to see the most visible experts in the field spew out opinions like this.