4 March 2006

Donald Norman gets it wrong

Donald Norman is an expert in human computer interaction, user interface design, cybernetics—call it what you will. His book The Design of Everyday Things is a classic, and taught me how to shop for a refrigerator. (Seriously.)

However, his recent rant about Google is just plain wrong. His basic point—that it’s easy to make a simple interface to a system that only does one thing—seems sensible enough. But is it true? A clock only does one thing, and think of all the digital clocks you’ve seen that flash 12:00 endlessly because nobody can be bothered to take the time to work out how to set them. Norman’s own book has examples of doors and faucets with badly designed interfaces, and those only do one thing.

When you look at Norman’s specific criticisms of Google’s interface, they don’t stand up:

[…] because all those other things are not on the home page but, instead, are hidden away in various mysterious places, extra clicks and operations are required for even simple tasks—if you can remember how to get to them.

[…] Want a map? You have to click once to be offered the choice, then a second additional time to get to the map page.

Well, no, you don’t. Go to the front page of Google, and type map of austin texas. The first link on the search results will take you straight to Google Maps to view the map you were asking for. Similarly:

Want to use Google Scholar to check references? Um, well, is that “Advanced Search” or “more.”

Who cares? Just type scholarly reference check and the reference, and hit enter. Or if you’ve heard that there’s a thing called Google Scholar, type google scholar.

To be fair to Norman, blog search isn’t integrated into Google yet. Give it time, I’m sure they’ll make it so you can type dave winer’s blog and get a link to Google Blog Search on the results. (Actually, you do, but only in the ads.)

Is this a simple ‘intuitive’ interface? I think so, in as much as any search engine interface is intuitive. The model is “Go to the text box on the front page, and type in what you want.” Pretty simple. Yes, it relies on typing in what you want instead of just clicking, but sometimes that’s the right approach.

If it wasn’t for the fact that I’m using a Mac right now, I might be tempted to suggest that too much GUI can rot the brain and make people think that every web interface has to be a clicky-clicky one, or that that’s always the best way to use a web site. Personally I suspect that Google’s service links on the front page are more there to reassure those who would otherwise assume it was just a dumb web search engine.

© mathew 2017