Posts Tagged ‘google’

July 23 2009

What the Chrome OS could be

by Hang

Google’s ChromeOS is heavy on vaporware and light on details at the moment which leaves fertile room for random speculation. Most of the guesses I’ve been reading are really kind of boring so I’m going to sketch out what I think a truly exciting ChromeOS cold be.

I’m extrapolating my guess from three pieces of data:

1) The Chrome moniker is deliberate
2) It’s targeting netbooks for a reason
3) Google has in it’s DNA, the instinct to play David to Microsoft’s Goliath (cf. Google Docs)

Netbooks are great in theory but as soon as you buy one, you run into all of the classical frustrations of owning more than one PC, namely: trying to keep all of your various files, bookmarks & settings synchronized. Sure, you can get your files synchronized and there’s probably a firefox plugin to synchronize bookmarks and probably another one to keep your open tabs in sync and… blargh, who could keep up with all that? My hypothetical ChromeOS solves this by simply saying all your netbook is is a portable browser window. You won’t be able to run photoshop, notepad or even a command prompt. Instead, the only thing running will be Chrome.

But, at a stroke, synchronization is no longer something you have to think about. ChromeOS won’t be an OS in the traditional sense. It’ll just *be* the Chrome browser window you have running on your desktop. Open a new tab on your desktop Chrome, a new tab will appear on your netbook Chrome, half compose an email, go sit in a park and you’ll magically have that half email for you to resume work on, get halfway through a game of Bejewelled and go finish the rest while you’re on the throne. For the first time, you’ll be able to stop in the middle of something, move to a completely different machine and be confident that you can resume exactly where you left off.

What would be so brilliant about this move is that it enters into a space that Microsoft can’t replicate. ChromeOS works, not by doing more than Windows, but by doing less. ChromeOS correctly recognizes the tradeoffs inherent in netbooks. Would you like to run photoshop on a netbook? Maybe once in a while. But what you would really like much more is never having that pit of the stomach feeling when you realize that presentation file is on your home desktop and you’re in Iowa with the work laptop.

Will the real ChromeOS be anything like what I’ve sketched out? Well, here’s hoping…

Google’s lead visual designer quit due to a clash of cultures

by Hang

Douglas Bowman, Google’s lead visual designer announced yesterday that he was leaving Google to join Twitter. At the root of it, Bowman’s decision to leave stems from a clash of cultures between the world of Interaction and Visual Design. The best way to understand this this clash of cultures is to listen to the ghost stories each field tells the young’uns.

In Interaction Design, around the campfires at night, it’s common to hear a variant of this chilling tale:

I heard, there was this company once, where they, like, got these totally great designers to build this user interface for them and they were all excited about it being the best thing since sliced toast until they tried to watch some people use it in the real world and it, like, totally sucked. The things everyone thought were easy to use were completely confusing. Luckily, they went through several iterations of redesign and testing the thing until it became something users loved.

Interaction designers are actively trained to filter out expert opinion as a justification for design decisions. The expert, no matter how qualified and trained they are, is ultimately, not the user and is ultimately, totally ineffectual and predicting what the user is like. The only way that design decisions can be justified is through feedback from actual users. Uttering the words “I prefer…” as justification for a design decision is the quickest way to move you from the potentially-an-ally category to dangerous-fool-who-must-be-neutralized category in the eyes of an interaction designer.

Over in the Visual Designer camp, a different ghost story is being passed round the campfire:

I heard, there was this company once who hired this, like, genius visual designer who built them this totally bold and brilliant design. But then, in an attempt to please everyone, the design was buried under so many focus groups and QA evaluations that  integrity of the design was destroyed and what was ultimately put up, like, totally sucked and ended up pleasing no one. Luckily, a more design friendly management was put into place and the original design was restored which ended up creating the emotional bond with the users that saved the company.

Visual designers are trained to keep their artistic integrity in the face of pressure and to be the keepers of the secret knowledge against the tide of the aesthetically ignorant. Uttering the words “consensus seeking” as justification for a design decision is the quickest way for you to become a dangerous-fool-who-must-be-neutralized in the eyes of a visual designer.

You can see both of these dynamics play out in the Google saga. Douglas Bowman’s characterization of the design process at Google:

Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such miniscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.

The debate on border pixels dragged on because Bowman became a dangerous-fool-who-must-be-neutralized in the eyes of the interaction design team.

Similarly, on Marissa Mayer’s attempt to reach out towards the visual designers:

A designer, Jamie Divine, had picked out a blue that everyone on his team liked. But a product manager tested a different color with users and found they were more likely to click on the toolbar if it was painted a greener shade.

As trivial as color choices might seem, clicks are a key part of Google’s revenue stream, and anything that enhances clicks means more money. Mr. Divine’s team resisted the greener hue, so Ms. Mayer split the difference by choosing a shade halfway between those of the two camps.

Is so, tin-earred it’s cringe inducing. Like rich yuppies trying to connect with the less affluent by speaking the language of the “street”, Marissa reads the culture of visual design so wrong and her attempt and consensus and compromise ends up doing more harm than good.

The sad thing is, both of these viewpoints are perfectly justified and are the result of a counter-intuitive lesson learned. Both of these ghost stories are repeated precisely so the newbies in the field don’t end up making the same mistakes the pros once made. Unfortunately this means for both sides, the views of the other side look like ignorance.

Look, I was like you once, and then I learned better. So I’m just going to sit hear and wait for the other shoe to drop for you Mmmkay? Do you want to hear a ghost story while we’re waiting?

So what you end up getting is a staring contest where each side is waiting for the other to finally blink. Unfortunately, in this case, Douglas Bowman blinked first and both Douglas and Google were both impoverished for this.

PS: In anticipation of the criticism that I have no business talking about visual design when the design of my own site sucks so much, I know, it’s being fixed, be patient.

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