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Is The Desktop UI Metaphor Dead?

Don Norman:

"Oh," people rush to object, "the Google search page is so spare, clean, elegant, not crowded with other stuff." True, but that's because you can only do one thing from their home page: search.

This should be no surprise, given it's a search interface. Norman has more:

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. Yahoo! even has an excellent personalization page, so you can choose what you wish to see on that first page.
It's surprising to hear this argument from man who championed the Information Appliance - "where the computer disappears into the tool and becomes invisible". As with building architecture perhaps most people's needs are too unsophisticated to warrant the attentions of usability experts and information architects.

Popular thinking is that the big portals are complicated noisy monoliths, and not simple, easy to use applications.

The issue with web portals is that you only tend to care about doing one thing at a time - everything else at that point is a distraction. Portals by their nature tend to assure it's all noise, all the time. Web portals are an extension of the desktop idiom to the web. They are trying to cram many items, activities and chunks of information into an an area smaller than a tabloid newspaper's frontpage. Portals then are like a cluttered desktop where the entire surface is overtaken woth papers, diaries, reports, posts-its and gadgets being charged.

Historically portals have not existed to benefit end users - they're a relic of AOL and Compuserve walled gardens, going back to the day when well paid people had meetings about "stickiness". Maybe portals and homepages are less neccessary when you can try to guess what you're after with a search. Nonetheless Google's does have a portal, which is here: http://www.google.com/ig.

What is overlooked is that Google's search engine rose to dominance when search engines had all but turned into portals with varying levels of irritation. With that 'simplistic' interface they have cornered search, the most important Internet activity after email (and with GMail they have made signficant strides in "searchifying" the classic email interface). The users clearly voted with their mice. But that detail would not suit Norman's argument, which is essentially the Google search UI draws users despite being a bad design. You can feel the "does design matter?" debate looming. If experts think Google has bad design, then the answer is surely either "no" or a qualified "do you mean design as in pretty?".

Is Norman out of touch? No, but it's telling that he focuses on the search page, but not the results page. There's arguably no need to bother with a dedicated page for maps when you can start the search with the word "map" or search for address locations and have the map option appear alongside the results.

Perhaps the hunt and peck approach of searching (along with gaming) is becoming the dominant computing metaphor, replacing nearly 3 decades of user interfaces based on the metaphor of an office desktop (ironically the metaphor itself being pushed into irrelevancy by desktop computing). If so, usability experts will need to reconsider what they deem to be best and appropriate.

May 24, 2006 08:00 PM


Dan Hatfield
(May 24, 2006 07:09 PM #)

Been thinking about this alot as I face yet another portal design project....
Perhaps I'm oversimplifying but does this boil down to people who prefer a keyboard vs people who prefer a mouse?
I'm in the keyboard camp - and I'd rather type "special words" into Google (like 'weather' or 'map') so that it has a clue what I'm up to.
Others would rather not type at all and just click around to their hearts content....

That has to be an oversimplication right?
If not, then are people voting in favor of keyboards over mice?
I would expect that from geeks (like me)...but the general populace? that might surprise a few "design experts"...

Nothing like jumping to conclusions. :)

Giovanni Corriga
(May 24, 2006 09:01 PM #)

Also, let's not forget that browsers like Firefox or Safari have an integrated google search box. I haven't been to Google's search page in more than a year.

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» Is the Command Prompt the New Desktop? from Coding Horror
People keep rediscovering the article Don Norman posted a few months ago criticizing what he thinks of as Google's faux simplicity: "Oh," people rush to object, "the Google search page is so spare, clean, elegant, not crowded with other... [Read More]

Tracked on May 31, 2006 10:08 PM