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Google Freaks… Usability Speaks


Of late, Google’s quarterly reports are not looking so great. To be clear, I am a loyal user of Google Adwords and have been one since the beginning. Also, in the interest of further transparency, I have spent the past 35 years in man-machine systems design, having worked on reducing the complexity of devices and software from Wall Street to Main Street. As technology has become more integrated (squeezed) into our daily lives, certain patterns have become apparent to those tasked with wringing some small measure of usability out of otherwise increasingly opaque user experiences (UX).

When engaged with such problems in the real world, I have reached the conclusion that companies fall into two categories when it comes to their attitudes toward actually understanding their users and creating systems which are in fact useable. The first type I label the INCLUDERS; they condition (design) their technology with an understanding that not everyone has a computer science degree and endless time to randomly walk their system’s user interface.

The second type are those I call the EXCLUDERS. These are companies that completely disregard any consideration for the well understood cognitive processes of their customers and proceed willy-nilly with the design of products/software that are inexplicably based on the opinions and concepts of a team of CS wonks with a room full of whiteboards and scooters.

This second group (EXCLUDERS) are actually great fun to work with because they do things that are so far off-the-grid in terms of matching system design to basic human cognitive processes that it is positively mind-bending. Things like entirely removing the “back” button from a browser and watching literally hundreds of millions of users search high and low for that critical little morsel of functionality, or simply piling massive features sets on top of other feature sets that are already so difficult to understand that the user experience UX resembles a Russian nesting doll, which under software control, eventually delivers to the user a final little smiling face that says: yes, you have a reward…never mind that you spent your summer vacation figuring it out.

Some of these EXCLUDERS engineer and launch their products with such wrong-headed intensity and so much funding that to observe this from the vantage point of a human factors specialist is like sitting at the bend of a high speed train route and waiting for the train wreck…nothing to be done, just wait and watch. After over 3 decades working with some of the world’s best high-tech companies, I now know that such systems can and do take a long time to run off the rails. This is especially true if the company is a tech darling of the highest order.

However, when these oncoming train wrecks are at the core of a very successful company’s business model, they can and do wreak all manner of havoc. The point of this story? Google Adwords, the very heart of the Google profit structure, is a train wreck of usability. How do I know? There are two reference points. First, I have attempted over the past 3 years to use our firm’s Adwords account to actually manage how ads are displayed and how our firm is billed. What other business do you know of where millions of companies simply give over their credit cards and say, “bill us what you like, I have no idea what is going on but everyone else is doing it, so proceed.” This is like Google having an ATM stuck on withdraw, the cash just piled up on the curb. This is a well known example of converting complexity to cash. Wall Street does it every day, as does Google with Adwords.

Up until very recently, this worked well for Google. The more complexity that the Adwords developers piled onto the basic interaction framework of the system, the more users let it go… up to a point. Users like myself (no stranger to the complexity problem) accepted Adwords’ massively confusing interface without much complaint. Almost every update ignored the most fundamental aspects of man-machine science: No learning transfer from prior updates, unconventional interaction schemes, twisted mental models linked to even more twisted new feature sets, arcane and obtuse terminology, constant moving of basic features, sales and marketing popups that could not be dismissed without selection of unwanted content, multiple navigation schemes within one task sequence, no selective access to functions based on expertise level, no embedded help system, visualization patterns and performance tracking displays that have become so complex as to be positively opaque, combining functions into setup displays that do not match the user’s mental model of the process, a recommendation engine that appears to have no real impact on actual conversions (it does, however, increase your ad spend). If this was not enough, these problems were repeated with most major updates. A train wreck? For sure.

Does this impact Google’s bottom line? Yes, and suddenly in a big way. Recently, we cut our firm’s Adwords budget and began tracking impact… almost no change… cut it back further… still no change. I tried repeatedly to glean what was happening by using Adwords’ reporting system… not a chance… started receiving emails and calls from the Google Adwords sales team offering to help optimize our account (translation: boost my spending). Cut it back further… got more calls from Google’s sales team. My bet… I am not alone. Usability matters and now it matters a lot to Google’s bottom line. Ignoring the usability of a system that drives 80% of one’s revenue is a train wreck by any measure.

Charles L Mauro CHFP
Twitter: @PulseUX

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