Google, how did you get this so wrong?

The worst design sin of all: new for the sake of being new

As with painting, so with technology: adding one more part can end up making the whole thing worse. And one of the biggest culprits of this? None other than the famously spare Google, whose Maps app is so simple and intuitive that millions of people went to the trouble of re-downloading it when Apple kicked it off the iPhone.

It first happened to me using Google Maps while jogging. Then when I was driving. Cycling. Even a few times when I was just walking normally. The familiar ‘bzz’ of my phone wasn’t an exciting notification; it was an annoying pop-up from Google Maps, asking me to submit feedback. It appears whenever you shake the handset, in theory a slick way of not having to bury the feedback mechanism down a three-click navigational hole somewhere, but in reality — especially for an app kept open while on the move, and hence susceptible to normal movements frequently misinterpreted as ‘shakes’— a constant irritation. And it seems I’m not alone, if Google’s first autocomplete suggestion and the top few search results are anything to go by.

Actually, it’s beyond irritating: it can be actively stressful. Feeling the ‘bzz’ of a phone has become humans’ equivalent of animals seeing the zookeeper’s feeding bucket: the dopamine system is instantly triggered as we associate the signal with a subsequent reward. But with Google Maps it’s a fake signal — we never get the reward of a message or social media update — and so our dopamine loop is never closed. Cue a buildup of anxiety.

Just because we can doesn’t mean we should

Features of this kind are symptoms of a wider illness: our obsession with obvious technological innovations. We are slaves to the new. Too much of design is dictated by building in new features that designers want to include or marketers want to talk about, rather than keeping or improving old features that people actually want to use.

Take the touch screen, for instance, an innovation that has allowed us to do so much more with our phones. But just because it works well in one particular context doesn’t mean everything that can have a touch screen should do. Gym machines are guilty here, with the most recent treadmills and ellipticals being fully touch-operated. Sure, there’s an aesthetically satisfying tidiness to the interface now, but the new feature creates more problems than it solves. (1) When running at speed, it’s tricky to steady your moving finger over a small area of the screen long enough to press it. (2) Your fingers are normally sweaty, and liquid stops touch gestures from registering. All in all, when trying to slow the machine down from a sprint I end up performing a kind of manic ballet: furiously wiping my hands on my t-shirt before trying to hover my arm still and repeatedly jab a finger into the screen — all while keeping my legs furiously pounding away. Smooth.

Why would such an ‘innovation’ be included if it’s going to make things worse for runners? Sadly, because it will have been an exciting technical challenge for the engineers, given a pleasingly aesthetic end result for the designers, made a ‘thing’ for marketers and salespeople to talk about when hounding gym chains to upgrade, and provided gym chain managers with ammunition to justify their equipment budgets to the people above them. Everyone’s taken care of except the person who actually matters: the user.

And I get it. It’s human nature. I’m guilty of doing the same thing in my job: I find a funny quote or make a neat chart and I want to include it in the final deck. Even if it’s not central to the deck’s argument, I want to make it worthwhile having found it or made it. I don’t want it to be wasted. And maybe I think it makes me look a bit smarter or a bit funnier. I’m forgetting, however, that it’s not actually relevant to the person the presentation is for. I include it because I can, not because I should.

A few weeks later in another gym, I went for a run on a treadmill that didn’t have a touch screen — but it didn’t have the regular push buttons either. Instead, speed and incline were controlled using two chunky plastic wheels, textured for grip and with a big old ridge for your finger to pull up or down against.

Not only was it obvious how to use and worked perfectly even while sprinting or with sweaty fingers, but it possessed that intangible sturdiness that screams quality, like the weighted ‘thud’ of a BMW’s door. The best kind of quality is innate rather than flashy, within rather than additional.

It’s a similar situation in the kitchen. All we hear about is Internet-connected stoves or ‘smart ovens’ with millions of different temperature zones. That’s the stuff that engineers want to work on and kitchen salespeople want to boast about. But the average stove is still a mess to use: the hobs are arranged in a square, while the controls are normally in a line. Trying to work out which control lights which hob takes way more mental effort than it should, as your brain converts linear instructions to a 2D area. It’s almost purposefully difficult to use.

Don Norman, in his wonderful book The Design of Everyday Things, suggested a simple improvement to these ubiquitous controls, one that would make a daily task much easier for a lot of people:

Like all the best ideas, it’s so simple it seems obvious. It makes you think ‘why the hell wasn’t that invented already?!’ Norman even offered another layout that took up no more space than the original, to hush potential pragmatist critics.

That was in 1988. And yet we still have linear stove controls — the only difference is that they now sit atop flashier, high-tech wifi ovens.

My worry is that, although both the ‘wheel’ button on the running machine and the square controls on the stove are fantastic improvements, they wont be celebrated. I fear they might not even be noticed.

And that’s the problem. Really good, subtly improved design goes unnoticed, because it just… works. Shiny new features get all the attention — and monopolise the word ‘innovation’ — even if they actually make something harder to use.

In with the old

But making old features better counts as innovation, too. What’s more, it’s usually more useful to people than making new features.

So next time you’re deciding whether to bring an innovation to market, ask one simple question: are you innovating because you can, or innovating because you should?

Because inventing new things just for the sake of them being new — just because you can — is simply plain dumb. And that’s the last thing I ever expected Google to be.