When discussing Google’s Gmail application a couple of weeks back, a service that I personally felt was a revelation in terms of web application usability (not to mention storage size), the Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg had virtually nothing positive to say. Gmail, he contended, was born not of brilliant, innovative design but rather an arrogant disdain for users. Here’s a bit from the piece:
I’m sure Gmail will get better and better, and will eventually adopt the new programming techniques that allow desktop-like ease of use. But I’m not sure Google’s arrogance will ever make room for user preferences on things like folders or ads, or how emails are grouped.
Yahoo’s new email program would blow Gmail away if it were widely released today. That’s partly due to its features, but also to its respect for user choice.
This Google-is-arrogant meme is the lens through which a lot of people seem to be viewing another of Google’s latest creations, the Google Reader, but personally, I’m not buying it.
I’ll set aside the question of whether Google as an organization is arrogant, because it’s pretty much a useless exercise. Certainly large organizations can exhibit institutional behavioral patterns, but saying that “Google is arrogant” is about as useful as saying “Microsoft is evil” – both assertions do a considerable disservice to the individual employees of those organizations who are anything but.
The real question here to me is simple: is abandoning traditional approaches a sign of arrogance or the willingness to innovate, to experiment? Google’s opinion on that matter is pretty clear. Dan Farber quoted Google co-founder Sergey Brin just the other day as saying:
I don’t really think that the thing is to take a previous generation of technology and port them directly, and say ‘Can we do the minicomputer on the Web on AJAX,’ makes sense.
Mossberg, on the other hand, seems to feel that innovation should confine itself to the boundaries clearly established by competing applications. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s nonsense.
Why, for example, is Google where it is today? Search and the accompanying ad revenues, obviously. Were they the first to do search? Or ads? Hardly. So how did they get to be the new 800 lb gorilla? By doing things differently – radically so. Their homepage was so simple that they had to put in the trademark notice at the bottom so that people wouldn’t wait for the page to finish loading. This was in stark contrast to search competitors that crammed so much into the home page that users got pushed out. How about Google Maps? Did they release an incremental map application? Nope; they thought about what an application could be rather than was, and pretty much reset the expectations for mapping applications overnight. Ditto for Gmail.
The point here is simple: Google got where it is today not by strictly adhering to traditional design principles, but by aggressively reconsidering them. That, in my book, is called innovation, not arrogance. In Mossberg’s eyes, I guess, such an approach is a betrayal of users that have grown accustomed to one way of doing things. The line here is a fine one, to judge by the reactions to Google’s products, but I for one would prefer innovation to stagnation.
Is radical innovation always going to result in superior products? Absolutely not. Like evolution, this approach will have its dead ends. In its current form, for example, it is unlikely that I will ever use Google’s new Reader application. When they sat down to rethink the traditional Reader approach, I tend to think they thought a bit too hard. I’ll have to wait and see how the masses react, but most of the folks I track have come to the conclusion that Google’s trying to force on them an approach that they’re not comfortable with. That’s undoubtedly the case with many of the users of Gmail as well.
But does that mean that Google should abandon that innovative approach, and stick to the boundaries marked out by competitors? Hardly. It just means that with this app, and with this user, they missed the mark. That’s all.
If anything, I wish more people were willing to push the envelope from a design perspective. While I would sooner light myself on fire than buy one, I saluted Plymouth for bringing the Prowler to market a couple of years ago, because if nothing else it was different. It wasn’t the same traditional car that every company designed and delivered; it was creative and new. And while I’ll never drive a Prowler and probably won’t use the Google Reader, I’ll sure as hell encourage the approach that brought them about. Because for every dead end, we may get something radically new, and to me that’s a price worth paying.