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Taking apart the google reader UI - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

Taking apart the google reader UI [Dec. 9th, 2007|12:09 pm]
Arvind Narayanan
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Google reader is a product that everyone loves to praise, and I'm no different. Recently, however, I've been looking at it with an eye on usability and design, and I'm rather taken aback by how much it sucks. Take a look at this screenshot (numbers refer to items in the list below):

1. Too much wasted whitespace. Screen real-estate is precious and is not to be squandered away like the huge emptiness on the right. In fact, vertical space is even more important to conserve because half of it is already wasted by your operating system taskbars, titlebars and browser toolbars. The vertical span of the reading area is literally less than half of my screen!

2. Sidebar is too crowded. Some of that wasted space could be put to real good use to embiggen the sidebar. I have about a hundred subscriptions, and I can only see like a tenth of them at a time. The category concept is not helping here, because multiply tagged entries show up more than once, crowding it even more.

Here's a clue, google: sort the subscription list by activity. Yes, it's as simple as that. Most of my feeds update rarely, and the top 20 account for the vast majority of my posts. Sorting would ensure that if the scrollbar is all the way at the top, I'd almost always see the feed I'm looking for.

3. Non-obvious features. Did you know there's an "expanded view"/"list view" option? I didn't either, until now. I doubt anyone ever changes the default. I don't think the list view is very useful, and should go.

And did you notice the next item/previous item thingy at the bottom? No? Please, google, put it on top or remove it! It's like the back/forward buttons, no one expects it at the bottom of the page.

4. Inconsistencies. "Add subscriptions" is on top and "manage subscriptions" is at the bottom. What's up with that? Were the two features implemented by two different engineers who didn't like each other very much and so didn't want their respective widgets to get too close? I'm starting to wonder if there was any sort of central design at all or just a bunch of smart hackers each doing their own thing.

5. A refresh button? Seriously? It's 2007. AJAX is supposed to do this sort of thing automatically. And google is better at doing it than anybody else. Did laziness win over doing the right thing?

6. Ugly! The layout looks like one of those monstrosities slapped together with FrontPage 4.0 or whatever in 1997. Look at the alignment on the left. The left margin of the text in the top part of the sidebar doesn't align with the text in the bottom part. Heck, it's much worse, look at that refresh button again misaligned with everything. And the border just inside another border is made of suck as well.

I'm sure I can find more things to pan, but I don't have the time and I've made my point. In spite of all the crappiness, this is far and out the best product out there. They've got the whole river-of-news thing with Ajax down pat, and the "sort by auto" feature is pure joy. I guess the lesson is that the market is at present so immature that you can win even if you do half the things right. It's a good time to be writing a newsreader!

x-posted to usability