July 25, 2014

New Google Drive design forgets about desktop users

Update 8/15/14: Google has fixed this! The list view is now properly dense with about twice as many items as the thumbnail view. Thanks Google!

I was excited to see Google post their new design for Drive. Given that this is a major new design with no doubt significant thought behind it, I was surprised - and dismayed - to see that the two primary views of documents (list view and thumbnail view) show the same number of documents. The textual list view, typically designed for efficient scanning of large numbers of items based on full title and some metadata shows no more items than the image based view.

New Google Drive with list view on left, and thumbnail view of same documents on right.

This may seem like an esoteric design detail, except it isn't. It goes to the heart of design decisions where there is a single design that must serve a huge community (probably hundreds of millions of users). Depending on your view, design is driven down to the least common denominator, or perhaps it is better viewed as regression to the mean.

My guess is that the whole redesign is built to better support touch screen systems given the huge vertical space between items. This is great for all those phone and tablet users, and even the occasional Chromebook Pixel user. But what about us folks in an office with a big screen and a mouse? I know that Apple serves the causal computer using market first, but now even Google has abandoned the regular office worker!

The reason this is an issue is because the trade-off between these two approaches - at least in my view - is primarily between the density of items, and amount of interaction. That is, one view (typically the thumbnail view) should have fewer items with a sparser layout requiring more interaction to see more items. But the painful and expensive scrolling operation (in comparison to moving your eye) is sometimes worth it because of the additional information made available by the additional information per item. The other view (typically the list view) should have more items with a denser layout so you can quickly scan through many items without having to scroll as much.  Arguable, the additional owner and date information in the text view provides the relative advantage, but make no mistake - the text view is a very sparse design.

No doubt, the major vendors are wise to provide an excellent experience for mobile and touch users. But PLEASE don't abandon us desktop users. Don't make the mistake that Microsoft did with Windows 8. You can not design a single experience for all people and all form factors. You must detect what systems people are using and provide an optimized experience for that design. Or at least offer customization options.

Interface designers that build a single experience for all humans on the planet or doomed to disappoint huge segments of the market. Don't let this be you.