Google, the poster child of online simplicity, made a rare acknowledgment today that sometimes in product design “more is more”.
"We made a big mistake. You can't come out and launch a product like Google Video and say 'CSI' and 'Survivor' are there if they're not on the home page." - Marissa Mayer (Google VP of Products), Google admits online stumble
Three months ago, Mayer held fast to a rather different position:
“Google has the functionality of a really complicated Swiss Army knife, but the home page is our way of approaching it closed. It's simple, it's elegant, you can slip it in your pocket, but it's got the great doodad when you need it. A lot of our competitors are like a Swiss Army knife open -and that can be intimidating and occasionally harmful." - Marissa Mayer, The Beauty of Simplicity
The truth is simplicity can’t be determined by how few items are on a Web page. Simplicity, like most elements of design, needs to be evaluated in context. Comparisons like the one made by John Maeda (at MIT) between Google and Yahoo’s front page fail to take into account basic context. Google.com is a search engine. Yahoo.com is, and always was, a directory of the Web. Yahoo should be densely packed with information- that’s what makes a directory useful.
Edward Tufte, guru of information design, had a very different metric for ease of use. He actually did count the number of links on a home page: the more links, the better the design. His evaluation criteria, however, was based on information density –how much screen real estate is devoted to useful information (links) vs. “chart junk”. This is a position echoed by Don Norman:
“Why are Yahoo! and MSN such complex-looking places? Because their systems are easier to use. Not because they are complex, but because they simplify the life of their users by letting them see their choices on the home page: news, alternative searches, other items of interest.” –Don Norman, The truth about Google's so-called ‘simplicity’
When it comes to simplicity its worthwhile to remember the words of Milton Glaser: “less isn't more; just enough is more.”