Listen To Me And Not Google

A few months ago, I was consulting an organization; helping them to make their interfaces more inclusive. I tend to be engaged because I have experience in accessible interaction design, and the implementation of technical accessibility provisions. But the advice I offer is much more comprehensive, taking in the use of language, general usability, performance, and ethics.

One of the first things that struck me in early reviews with the designers was their approach to the visual design of their input fields. Instead of enclosing the input text in a box—as user agents do by default—they had opted to present the field as a single line upon which people are expected to write.

My advice was as follows (abridged): “These do not look like input fields, and are therefore unlikely to be identified and used as such. In fact, they look like horizontal rules. I advise you to adopt a more conventional input design, wherein the field takes the form of an empty box into which input is supplied.” Make a mental note of this advice, because it foreshadows the conclusion of this short article.

Material Design is a visual language that synthesizes the classic principles of good design with the innovation of technology and science. — Google

The designers were respectful of me, and amenable to my suggestions, but there was one sticking point: Google’s Material Design had established this approach to input design. While not stated explicitly, the implication was that this legitimated the pattern. It was not without precedent.

I’ve always been uneasy about Material Design. I understand why Google would want to have their own design system, and I can even appreciate why organizations like Google would want to shout about that system, and how they developed it, as a PR exercise. But Material Design is for you to use. It asks you to design your products as Google would; to make your design work look and feel like Google’s. Why would you want to do that? Then again this is me talking, and I’m the sort of person who refuses to wear a T-shirt with Nike™ emblazoned on it, because I think being a mobile billboard is rather a reductive mode of human existence.

In any case, the Google citation made my case more difficult. And although the organization did adopt my advice in the end, in the absence of specific research data to back up my claims, it was what I said versus what Google say, which is a precarious position to be in. Not on a completely unrelated note, you should look up the appeal to authority argument, or argumentum ad verecundiam.

Here’s the thing: Google are not successful because they know how to design inputs. Astonishing, I know, but Google are not the artisan purveyors of fine forms for which you may have mistaken them. They make their money by other means. Which brings us to the denouement…

A little while ago, my attention was drawn to an article written in Google Design’s own gentrified ghetto of Medium, entitled The Evolution Of Material Design’s Text Fields.

Imagine my complete lack of surprise to find Google’s research indicated, “Enclosed text fields with a rectangular (box) shape performed better than those with a line affordance”. Aghast, I was.

This stung my eyes to read, but the best was yet to come: “The line affordance under the old text fields was not clear to some users. The line was confused with a divider.” I screamed. This spoke directly to the concern I had expressed months prior. It took Google hundreds of research participants to confirm what I already knew thanks to nothing more than common sense.

There are, broadly speaking, two ways to approach research-based design. Only vast, trundling corporations like Google can survive the latter.

  1. Challenge conventions that appear to need improvement only, and test your assumptions regarding those changes with focused user research.
  2. Act completely randomly, then commission a large, expensive research study at a later date, after the damage of your irresponsible but influential design practices has already taken effect.

At first, I took exception to the use of the term evolution in the Medium article’s title. Design is artificial selection if anything, since it’s guided by a designer’s hand. Except, perhaps design really isn’t always auteured at Google. When everyone is committed to your products already, you can just “throw stuff out there“ and see what survives. If so, that’s Google’s prerogative, but that doesn’t mean you should take their lead. You don’t have their kind of inertia to power through the mistakes you make.

What is the point of this post? Is it just me saying, “I TOLD YOU SO” at the top of my voice? I do find it galling when a hugely successful company swoops in to intellectualize its own folly as some sort of insight, while smaller voices of reason continue to languish in relative obscurity. But it’s more than that. We have to stop confusing the excesses of capitalism with the hallmarks of quality. Sometimes Google aren’t better, they’re just more pervasive.

There is an old episode of South Park wherein the Cartman character finds himself the proud owner of a coveted ‘trapper keeper’; a kind of personal organizer system used for school, in this case branded after the Dawson’s Creek television series. The trapper keeper mysteriously evolves over time, developing new and increasingly advanced features until it barely resembles a simple organizer system at all. Eventually, it is able to assimilate Cartman in a Cronenbergian fusion of silicone and flesh, wires and neurons. It escapes me why I bring this up.