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Google Ships Bad UI For Profit. Again.

Posted by Bob Warfield on January 6, 2012

Opened my gmail this morning and went about dealing with messages, got to one asking for a meeting so I took the cursor to top of screen where the Calendar menu lives and…

Wait.  There is no calendar menu there.  Instead I am greeted by a message “welcoming me to the new way to navigate in Google.”

Oh joy.  I am so excited after having enjoyed Google’s other UI changes recently.  The one where they destroyed the contrast in gmail, making it way less usable.  Or the one where they took out the ability to share in Google Reader to anywhere except Google+.

With this “new way to navigate”, instead of just clicking on “Calendar” at the top of screen, I get to rollover the Google logo, scan down and realize Calendar isn’t even on the list, hit “More” at the bottom, and then finally get to it.  Congratulations Google, you’ve now laid claim to several more seconds of my life each time I have to access my calendar without giving me back anything of value.

Is Google really this bad at UI design?  It’s tempting to just chalk it up to that, even satisfying, but unfortunately the reality is far more insidious.

Joe Brockmeier made clear the real answer in his RWWeb article, “2011: The Year the Free Ride Died.”  In it, he writes:

The combination of Google’s housecleaning spree, relentless Facebook redesigns and privacy gaffes, and popular services being bought, being ruined or just going dark, users should be getting the hint: The free ride is over and the bill is due.

Yeah, that’s right, it isn’t just Google, it’s any company that has gotten big by giving something away and now is big enough to have tremendous inertia, no effective competition, and enough network effects to make their users just sit there and take it.  The problem, as Brockmeier points out, is that you, dear user, are not really Google’s customer.  You are inventory that they sell to their real customers, the people that advertise on these “free” services.  As a result, if they have to choose between making you happy or making their real customers happy, they’re going to choose the real customers.

Google has enough inventory in terms of users and attention, that seemingly minor changes add up to big bucks.  Changes that would annoy you and I greatly, but that don’t actually cripple the services enough to make us change (if there even was a change available), are very lucrative for Google.  Take this change to gmail.  Looks to me like they pick up that line at the top that used to be a menu to use for advertising.  And they certainly reshuffled the menus to put ad-rich revenue sources ahead of things like the Calendar.  Forget usability, we’ve got money to make here people!

I was recently pondering writing a post about how Google should make strange bedfellows consider getting together.  In particular, the world has more or less become Apple and Microsoft against Google.  Yes, there are other wild cards out there like Facebook, but Apple and Microsoft are the ones most urgently at war with Google.  Trouble is, they’re at war with each other.

As I’ve often written, the markets support both cheapest and best as two different categories.  Google is the cheapest.  It doesn’t get much cheaper than an ad model where someone else pays for your “free” product.  And certainly Apple is focused on being best with the iOS devices and Macintosh.  Microsoft, I would argue, is in a position to pursue Best with Bing versus Google.  These two companies should tie up around Bing if nothing else.  Of course they’ll worry about phones.  Microsoft is years too late, but it still thinks it has a chance to enter yet another market and struggle while losing money.  Bad idea!  Take a page from Fighter Pilot OODA strategy–be willing to drop the phone stuff permanently in exchange for a strong alliance with Apple around Bing.

Either that, or quit trying to be both cheap and best.  Give up on cheap.  Google owns that.  Figure out how to do best and don’t look back.  Google is going to keep making it easier to see best as better than cheap as they continue to ship Bad UI for Profit.

The enemy of your enemy is your friend.

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