Revealing details

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Thanks to Mor Namaan, I came across an interesting blog post by Justin O’Beirne that analyzed the graphic design of several different maps — Google, Bing, and Yahoo — to show why Google maps tend appear easier to read and to use. The gist of the analysis is that legibility is improved through a number of graphical techniques that in combination produce a significant visual effect.

And of course knowing Google, this stuff was tested and tested and tested to get the right margins around text, the right gray scale for the labels, the right label density, etc.

So why did Justin have to reverse-engineer this work to understand it?

Why isn’t this sort of stuff published — either in academic papers or on the official Google Blog — so that others can learn from it? This stuff isn’t a trade secret. A careful analysis by someone trained in graphic design (like Justin) uncovered the differences in a relatively short time. If any of it is patented (which I doubt) then it’s disclosed and protected already. So why not offer this, and thousands of other small details that Google has perfected in its interfaces, to the community?

While one can be amused and amazed by a magician, the effect is typically transient. The lessons imparted by a good teacher, however, not only last a lifetime, but can be passed onto others as well.

4 Comments

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Gene Golovchinsky and Alan_Wolf, Andi Winterboer. Andi Winterboer said: RT @HCIR_GeneG: Posted "Revealing details" http://bit.ly/ibMT5A #google #design #maps […]

  2. As an ex-Googler, I now feel more comfortable expressing personal opinions on some of Google’s seeming idiosyncrasies.

    Putting aside the issues of adversarial relationships like with spammers, publishing has at least two effects.

    The first is to guide competitors. Google sometimes does that — witness how Google tried to educate browser developers when it released Chrome, make it quite likely they’d copy Chrome’s best ideas. But there are times that Google, like any company, is happy to enjoy a temporary advantage and not spoon-feed suggestions to competitors.

    The second is to make commitments to users and developers. Making a change is a lot harder if you’ve made what many people will see as a written commitment to a particular approach. Everything Google writes is scrutinized heavily, and analyzed over time for consistency. Sometimes it’s easier to innovate without the albatross of setting rigid expectations.

    I don’t know whether either of these apply to the case you describe. But they show that there are good reasons why Google or any other company wouldn’t go out of its way to publish articles about all of its design decision and best practices.

  3. It seems to me that what is proprietary about this issue is not the outcome (fonts, widths, colors), but the process (how you measure what is better).

    With results lists, I can see how one could use billions of clicks to measure quality of results. But what signals are you measuring to know whether or not that 1px county road is better than the 2px county road?

    Perhaps that is published somewhere, and I just haven’t read it. Or perhaps I lack the imagination to know what you would measure, to be able to tell which one is better. But I think that’s perhaps where the proprietary information resides.. not in the outcome, but in the process.

  4. I bet that the time spent zooming and panning and the level of zoom attained may correlate with task satisfaction. But of course the devil is in the details.

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