Why Google’s Redesign Makes Us Nervous

Why Google’s Redesign Makes Us Nervous

Google’s recent Google+-inspired changes to the interfaces for Google Reader and Gmail have led, as redesigns invariably do, to lots of online hand-wringing. Part of that is down to our resistance to change, but it’s also because those changes remind of us an uncomfortable truth: we are not actually in control of these services.

Picture by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

We’re all used to what happens when any major web site (Google, Facebook, Twitter) updates its interface. There’s an instant outcry, as people complain that the new option is hideously ugly, doesn’t work correctly, ignores what made the service useful in the first place, or all three of the above. Hacks describing how to revert to the “old” version quickly begin circulating, though it’s rare for any of those to work in the long-term. Then the counter-arguments begin, as supporters suggest that the whiners haven’t given the new option a chance, haven’t recognised what is trying to do, have no grounds for complaining about a service they are not paying for, or all three of the above.

Because it’s so easy for us to voice our complaints through social-networking services — often the very services whose design we are complaining about — it frequently seems like their impact is amplified. That noisiness in some ways reflects the hollow nature of many of these whinges: high-profile campaigns to get people to abandon Facebook or Twitter or Google+ have yet to ever result in the number of users declining. But that noisiness, and our willingness to divide ourselves into “this sucks!” and “everyone complains about change” camps, often means we don’t take the opportunity to really think about why it is that we’re so unhappy when these changes take place.

It’s fairly clear that a good proportion of the human race will complain about change under any and all circumstances; there is no other explanation for the continuing popularity of talkback radio. But in the case of web-based services, we’re not just dealing with products that we passively consume (or feed with an occasional irate phone call).

These are sites we have invested considerable time in, whether that’s uploading photos or building our list of feeds or collecting together contacts. When the way they operate works, it’s hard not to take it as a personal affront. And the experience is disquieting, because it reminds us that for all the time and effort we have put into building our experience, we don’t actually control how that experience is realised. If Google (or Facebook or Twitter) decides to change the way it operates, we’re powerless. We haven’t paid for the service with money, so we can’t complain to consumer affairs; but we have paid with time, and if we decide we dislike the service, all that time will have been wasted. We’ve lost control, and it makes us angry/annoyed/twitchy.

The same phenomenon is evident when Google makes even minor changes to its general search interface, such as its recent removal of the option to force the inclusion of search terms using a plus sign. It’s not that you can’t get fairly similar results by learning new tricks, but it’s another reminder that when you search, Google is showing you what it wants to show you, not necessarily what you want to see. Those two categories overlap often enough to make it a useful service, but it’s not your service. You are not in control, and being reminded of that is an uncomfortable feeling.

Recognising this phenomenon may not change our behaviour. There’s plenty I don’t like about Google Reader’s new design, but none of the obvious alternatives even come close to meeting my own personal needs. But recognising why the change annoys me stops me being so distressed about the process. It’s also good news for my Twitter followers, since I’m less likely to moan about stuff. But note I said “less likely”, not “never going to”. We’re all only human, after all.


  • I did not know about the removal of boolean parameters from Google. Will have to check to see if Bing has done the same thing: sometimes I want to search for something very specific. I know what I want. Show me where it is, damnit!

  • It’s something to think about as cloud services are being pushed for businesses. On the one hand, you don’t have to invest heavily in upgrading. On the other, an upgrade may happen without you having any say in the matter, incurring significant retraining costs or lost productivity.

  • I dont have a problem with change per se, but change for the sake of it, and change for the worse not the better, I find irritating. The changes to Reader were (are) shit, frankly.

  • I’m pretty disappointed in the change in Google Docs, myself. The size of the head takes up about a quarter of my browser area, which is far too much. Looks OK on a 1080p screen but my notebook is a different story.

  • I always wonder, does anyone use the official Google channels (e.g. Forms, email etc.) to voice their concerns? Or do they expect a dedicated Google employee to spend their whole day browsing the ‘net for complaints?

    If a problem is widespread enough to cause a negative impact on Google (i.e. if people start leaving in droves) then they’ll fix it, but if it’s smaller stuff, use the forum to ask about it, as you’re likely to get a response from a Google employee saying why they made the change and if there’s any chance of getting it fixed.

    Otherwise you’ll have to do what our ancestors did and learn to adapt.

    • Has anyone ever found a way to officially voice their displeasure to Google? Google seems to have the equivalent of a suggestion box attached to an incinerator when it comes to feedback. Of course you can always go in pointless circles with their web (un)help. Or you can go to the forums and growl with everyone, and be ignored by Google. Google just sticks its fingers in its ears and hums when it comes to listening to feedback of any kind.

      I put my money where my mouth is and walked away from Google. Bloglines is an acceptable replacement for Greader in my world. Blekko has really nice features for its search engine (user defined slashtags). Gmail is just another webmail service so who cares there. That leaves YouTube – and you don’t need an account to view videos. As far as I’m concerned Google has shot themselves in the head repeatedly in the last few months and they get more braindead with every shot. I’m weaned from Google now they can destroy themselves to their hearts content.

  • I often wonder why Google thinks that they are too smart to listen to the community. Sometimes they are right, but acting as a dictatorship is a great way to lose friends fast.

    Right now the Google Docs re-design makes me nervous. Maybe its OK if you have a HUGE monitor. I backup all my gmail with Thunderbird, and all my Google Docs with Syncdocs, so I have a backup in case Google turns evil…

  • I got my friends to start using Google Reader so we could share things with each other. Now – it’s 3 extra steps, plus a log in into Google + (which I don’t feel like using), just to gain the same experience.

    I also use a laptop, as opposed to a desktop computer, so not being able to hide the sidebar (seriously, what is up with that?!?!), and the GIANT header up top makes for a very cramped and annoying read. While I haven’t quit using reader completely, my usage has gone WAY down – I’ve gotten a lot of errands done this week haha.

  • Gmail and Google Reader are the easiest to fix, just use Thunderbird to access your email via IMAP and any number of a million rss readers to access the rss feed of your aggregated list of feeds.

  • I use gruml (app) for my reader which gets everything from my google reader anyway. i don’t have to worry about them changing it because it’s software on my computer- i can update it when i’m ready.

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