What does Google Chrome mean for the future of user experience design?
By October 7th, 2008on
As with all things “Google” there is a shallow answer and the deep answer. On the shallow dimension the beta release of Chrome means little. Chrome is a deeply flawed user experience design which presents many user experience (UX) problems solved in Netscape V.1. It takes some doing for Chrome to make IE and FireFox appear intuitive by comparison. One is struck by the curious user experience complexity of Chrome. Certain critical features like bookmark management simply disappeared or were buried so deep in the interface structure as to require Google search to find them. Are these user experience design problems the result of simple oversight or straight-out wrong-headed application of UX design methodology? A scan of recent information published on the UX design of Chrome provides interesting insight into this question.
You’re in…you’re out…you’re in.
In an article by Steven Levy, from the October 2008 issue of WIRED magazine title: “Inside Chrome: The Secret Project to Crush IE and Remake the Web” the developers of Chrome described how they approached the UX design problem for their new “world-beating” browser. In part they described the UX design methodology as follows.
“When deciding what buttons and features to include, the team began with the mental exercise of eliminating everything, then figuring out what to restore.”
Whoa!…that IS an interesting UX design methodology. The problem is that the Google UX process ignored almost entirely the past 25 years of cognitive science and related skill acquisition theory. The Google Chrome UX design methodology created, to a significant extent, the perplexing complexity of Chrome by ignoring several billion “person-hours” of prior experience that users accrued with established browser interaction models. Arbitrarily deciding what to leave out or include in terms of features and functions is…how shall we say…1950′s UX design.
Yes, millions who use Google for search will download and install Chrome. Like Google Docs there will be a breath-taking spike followed by a slow walk into “long-tail” land. Harsh words, but when Google’s overwhelming media message is “creating the best possible experience for the user” Google should be subject to a realistic view of how accurately they are technically on message. So, on the shallow measure of actual user experience design, Google Chrome gets a “D-”. Like other things Google, that is not the full story. Lurking under the dysfunctional interface of Google Chrome are deeper implications that may impact user experience design and applications development on a significant scale!
What is Chrome really all about?
Google has said that the primary objective for Chrome was to create a browser to improve the experience of users the world over. Well, we know this did not happen. However, when one examines Chrome at a slightly deeper level a different objective emerges. Chrome’s goal is not to provide users with a new browsing experience but more accurately to create a powerful and stable container for Google Docs and other cloud-based Google apps. In our 2007 User Experience Design Review we gave Google Docs a positive, yet reserved rating. In that detailed review of GooDoos we made the point that no matter what Google did with the design of their cloud-based applications it was, in part, the state of the end user’s machine that ultimately determined the success of these new types of applications.
The last 12 inch problem
For those involved in formal usability research it is well known that the state of the actual user’s machine is a major gating-function for the success of cloud-based applications. Objective audits of user’s machines frequently reveal them to be a rat’s nest of spam-ware, slow processors, outdated browsers, and unreliable connections. Furthermore, most users objectively do not know how to manage their system software upgrades or security settings. In cloud-based applications we call this the “the last 12 inch problem”. The future of Google Docs and other cloud-based applications hang, in part, on this vexing problem. Since Google is not likely to end up in the hardware business anytime soon (joke!) what aspect of the user’s machine can Google currently control for the purpose of improving the stability of Google Docs? You guessed it…the browser.
Under the covers
As those who use Google Docs know only too well, formatting, saving, and importing (to mention only a few functional problems) are unpredictable in IE and Firefox to the point of exasperation if not outright rejection. One can see these user experience problems in the utilization statistics of Google Docs which Google previously posted but took down last year as the numbers went into free fall.
On the other hand when one polishes away the surface of Chrome, deeper and more strategic implications emerge for user experience design. Technically, Chrome is an early, dedicated rendering engine for true cloud-based applications. Clearly those cloud-based applications are intended to be later versions of Google Docs. Even in this first iteration of Chrome some of the formatting and functional nightmares that beset Goodoos in IE and FF mostly disappear. In fact formatting becomes almost “application-like” for GooDoos when running inside Chrome. The problem of loosing your GooDoos spread sheet when your Goodoos word processor freezes was a major issue before Chrome. The new multi-procces management system in Chrome is clearly a great advance. If the Goodoos word processor freezes the Goodoos spread sheet is still alive in another tab. A new Java rendering engine (not developed by Google) dramatically improves response time for some aspects of the overall user experience. This improvement in response time may be the most important innovation in Chrome since most cloud-based applications are painfully slow when viewed on real user machines. Core improvements in engineering performance ultimately mean a better overall user experience for Google cloud-based applications. This assumes that Google begins to take UX DESIGN seriously. However, the larger question is will other companies benefit from the technology and engineering innovations underlying Chrome…maybe, but some say, maybe not.
Doing evil…Yes or No?
Make no mistake; Microsoft, with its recent introduction of AZURE, a closed cloud-based operating system, understands the objective of Chrome. Even though Chrome is now based on open-source code there is no guarantee that Google will develop Chrome upgrades with others in mind. In fact if history is any indication of future behavior, Google will slowly slide Chrome under the covers as it has done with search. Does this mean Google is doing evil…not really? Google must do this for business reasons which cannot be denied.
Upgrade cycle has a big downside
In complex user experience design problems like Chrome, there is a simple principal that says: “those who control the upgrade cycle, control the user experience”. This is the primary reason iPod/iTunes crushed all comers and Apple has maintained the best user experience around. This theory leads to one of the great conundrums when optimizing the user experience for all forms of screen-based applications. The 2 sides of the argument go something like this:
Open source = let everyone join in, but have minimal control of the user experience,
Closed source = let no one join in without approval, but totally control the user experience.
What is the probability that Google is going to ultimately give up or even share control of the user experience for their cloud-based applications…realistically zero. There is much to be concerned about if Google realizes that truly robust UX design is a legitimate science as complex as the most difficult engineering problem.
MS Office on steroids
If Google applies its vast cash resources to create a world-class interface for Chrome one can visualize later iterations of Chrome/GoogleDocs as Microsoft Office on steroids. Picture this solution: A group of functions nearly as deep as MS Office, documents automatically stored remotely, almost unlimited collaboration functions with associates the world over on a platform that is fast, stable and very easy to learn…and all for essentially FREE.
Will this happen? It is too early to predict and certainly one cannot discount Microsoft or other well funded development teams. If Google combines a robust UX design with its cloud-based engineering expertise the future may not be a pretty picture for competitors who are forced to develop cloud-based applications that must compete with and actually run inside the Google “Chrome” black box. In the end the success of cloud-based applications is a UX problem not an engineering problem…Google are you out there?
Charles L. Mauro CHFP
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