TORONTO – Jon Wiley, the lead designer behind Google’s home page, is used to taking heat any time he fiddles with the search giant’s iconic stark-white design — no matter how small the change may be.
Early on in his tenure, in the fall of 2009, he came up with a simple tweak that he thought would have a major impact on user behaviour. He decided to make the search box wider. No big deal.
“It seemed like an obvious thing to me, this is the place where our users are having dialogue with Google. You don’t want to be interfacing through this very tiny window. So I made it bigger,” recalled Wiley in an interview.
The change wasn’t immediately apparent to all users but once the tech blogs noticed, the negative feedback — which Wiley has come to expect, even for the most trivial of tweaks — started hitting the web.
For web designers, particularly those working for large, popular sites that have legions of repeat visitors, it’s a major headache: it seems there’s no pleasing an audience of web surfers who are perfectly content with the status quo.
“I think any design change I’ve ever made there’s always someone, whether in Google or outside of Google, for which that change is controversial,” Wiley said.
“Every single time I make a change to Google’s search there’s probably a group of people larger than my hometown (Austin, Tex., population 790,000) who are grumpy about it. But conversely, there’s a huge number, a much larger number of people, who are pleased by the change. (Although) maybe not initially.”
Perhaps no web entity has faced more design-related criticism than Facebook, which sees unrivalled user revolts just about every time it even hints at changes.
A few months back, when Facebook began rolling out its new Timeline design for users’ profiles, the reaction was predictably combative. Nearly 44,000 members supported the Timeline Sucks cause, 37,000 got behind I Hate Timeline and almost 31,000 others joined Undo Timeline. Still, those are tame numbers compared to the backlash in 2006, when Facebook launched a controversial new feature: the now-familiar news feed of posts and updates from a user’s friends. Back then, Facebook had less than 10 million users — it’s at around 850 million now — and a group called “Students Against Facebook News Feed” attracted more than 750,000 protesters.
Arun Vijayvergiya, one of the software engineers credited with creating the first version of Timeline, said he and his colleagues learned from that user mutiny and are now pretty accustomed to facing a wave of sometimes fierce opposition every time something on the social network changes.
“That’s kind of life at Facebook,” said Vijayvergiya, who noted that even his friends and family will occasionally grill him about a change they’d rather not have to accept.
“Honestly, when you work for Facebook you don’t have to seek (feedback) out, people will come up to you with feedback. Of course, all of my friends were commenting on what they wanted, what they liked about it, what they thought should be different and we try to incorporate or look at things somebody else is saying.”
The Timeline team within Facebook — including founder Mark Zuckerberg himself — expected backlash and in a way were inviting it, given that they wanted to be bold with the new user profile, Vijayvergiya said.
“This is the profile, so it’s his baby. He was thoroughly involved in every aspect of design and was vetting a lot of ideas that we had,” Vijayvergiya said of Zuckerberg’s involvement over the six or seven months of Timeline’s development.
“News feed had its own rebellion and repercussions and now people love the product and it’s kind of the backbone of Facebook…. What we hope is once that dies down, you come to know the new product better and you come to see the thinking behind it. You experience what it’s supposed to do for you and eventually, we hope, come to love it as much as we do.”
While the likes of Facebook and Google will say that they listen to all user feedback, they also admit those comments aren’t the biggest influencer of design changes. They respond to the cold, hard numbers.
“At the end of the day, we basically do a lot more data (collection) and testing on … how we think our product is performing and what the metrics are that we should be looking at, and we focus more on that than how reporters look at something or how it’s reviewed,” Vijayvergiya said.
It’s the same at Google, where every tiny user trend is calculated and turned into a statistic. Google then parses the numbers to calculate users’ “change aversion” and whether a new design is likely to get adopted over time or never catch on.
“There’s a natural human inclination to resist change, it’s well documented. We find our comfort zones and get comfortable,” Wiley said.
With “a significant visual change (maybe all the stats) go kind of wild, go crazy and then over time you can watch that march right back to what it was before. And if we’ve done our jobs right, it’s better, the outcome is in fact better.
“But sometimes there’s a little bit of pain in the change.”
Wiley said the greatest backlash he has faced was with the recent redesign of Gmail — both publicly and within Google. While many users were quite vocal about their displeasure with the change, Wiley believes the reaction would’ve been far worse had the site not gone through many rounds of iterations internally first, based on Googler complaints.
“It was actually controversial because of the adherence to the sort of visual design principles that people associate with Google’s home page — that clean white space, plenty of breathing room. We took some of that and we applied that to Gmail. Within Google we just turned it on, we flipped the switch, and one day Gmail went from being what it was before to more like what it is today — and that caused quite a stir within Google,” he said.
The design went through “a whole ton” of changes before being released to the world, Wiley added.
“Ultimately, when we did actually ship it to the rest of the world, that controversy was (reduced) quite a bit because we were listening to ourselves.”
Less controversial but still divisive was the decision to add the stark black navigation bar to the top of all Google’s pages, including the home page. Users may have noticed some slight changes to its functionality over time, as Google decided the feature would be tested and tweaked in public.
“Because of the sheer number of users that we have, we can actually get statistically significant behavioural data on very nuanced, very particular parts of the design,” Wiley said.
The navigation bar is “actually a feature that started out as a very simple, ‘Oh, this will be easy, we’ll just do it this way.’ But it went through tons of variations, tons of prototypes, most have never seen the light of day. A few of them we’ve published via experiment and we’re still working on it.”
Ramtin Lotfabadi, an expert in online architecture and development at OCAD University in Toronto, said web users can probably expect to see more large web outfits choosing to audition new designs in public and adapt them based on user behaviour.
“I think traditionally during the last 10 or 15 years, design has been somewhat arbitrary, somewhat experimental, even by large companies, but more and more we’re seeing this trend that if you want to make any change, whether it’s small or large, you do need to back it up with a lot of evidence and data,” Lotfabadi said.
“To see that large companies and corporations are actually using these methods that are deeply scientific in order to come up with better and stronger, more refined design is not a surprise. What is a surprise is that it’s happened so quickly, only five years ago it was much more experimental.”