User interaction design is possibly one of the most difficult parts of software engineering. It is also an aspect that has not been the strong point of Google. Google’s strength is in its culture of algorithms and data analysis. The way to win an argument at Google it to prove the other wrong with hard numbers — not to impress somebody by making it look pretty.
Whether that approach works well when it comes to user interaction design, remains to be seen. Google’s products are generally functional, but pretty? No.
One of the more memorable quotes in Steven Levy’s In The Plex (a very worthwhile book, by the way) comes from Marissa Mayer responding to a proposed redesign of Gmail, involving fancy shades and visual effects: “It does not look as if a computer designed it.” According to Google, the ideal user interface is one that looks like it was “designed” by a machine.
But yesterday that seemed to have changed. Not only is Google redesigning the layout of its search engine for the better, one has to admit — Google+ is also looking pretty good. Almost unGoogly…
What happened? As it turns out Andy Hertzfeld is behind the Google+ design, one of the original Macintosh designers. Hertzfeld is not the only design talent that Google put to work. A while ago Google also hired Matias Duarte who was responsible for the WebOS look and feel. He’s been hard at work on Android.
Has Google algorithmically determined that design does matter?