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How Google Could Have Simplified Its UI Without Screwing Power Users

You probably didn't even notice Google's latest interface tweak: The elimination of the "+" operator. Unless, that is, you've relied on it for years. But you can tweak UI's without screwing power users.

Since Larry Page assumed the CEO reins of Google, the search giant has been redesigning left and right: Its suite of productivity apps has gotten a facelift, and Google Plus boasted Apple-esque interaction design. But UI design isn’t just about visuals—and one very subtle tweak that Google recently made has a certain subset of longtime users fuming. In case you didn’t hear: Google is phasing out the "+" search operator. Why should you care?

Odds are, you probably don’t. The "+" operator was part of a set of advanced search commands that let longtime power-Googlers surgically narrow their search queries: Any search term with a "+" in front of it was guaranteed to be returned verbatim in the results, overriding Google’s increasingly aggressive attempts to help out (as with those blue "Did you mean…?" links below the search box). Again: why should you care? Those "helper" functions are a lifesaver 99% of the time. But sometimes you don’t want to be helped, because you know exactly what you’re searching for.

For example, I was recently researching the Shellter Project (the subject of a future post on Co.Design). I typed those exact words into Google, but the search engine ignored my commands and returned results for "shelter project" instead. Putting a "+" in front of "shellter" would have disengaged Google’s attempt to nanny me and saved me a couple clicks. In fact, this is how web elites have used Google for years—and now that they can’t, they’re pissed.

Google declined to comment to Co.Design as to why they deleted this functionality (or rather, replaced it—you can enclose search terms in double quotes to get the same result, which is a slightly clunkier but arguably more intuitive way to do it). The most likely reason is that they’re reserving the "+" sign for new search functionality related to—duh—Google Plus. Who cares if a bunch of journalists, hackers, and researchers get their panties in a bunch? If you’re trying to out-Facebook Facebook, you gotta break a few eggs, right?

I asked Bret Victor, an ex-Apple interface designer who knows a thing or two about "power users," to give his two cents on the matter. He said Google’s move makes complete sense given the evolution of web searching from something more akin to programming to its current state, where "invisible interfaces" are fast becoming the norm. "It’s more like talking to a person than issuing a command to a computer," Victor says. "When I’m writing to you, I don’t put a '+' in front of the words I want to you to interpret literally. Why should I do so when writing to Google?"

But why should Google have to throw the power-user babies out with the interface-simplification bathwater? Even if "+"-users are a tiny percentage of Google searchers, they’re heavy, vocal users who viscerally appreciate the difference between one keystroke and several. Appeasing them could have been as simple as replacing "+" with another single-symbol operator (like the tilde, or "~"). The nerds would still conserve their precious keystrokes, and the plus-symbol would be wide open for whatever user-friendly functionality Google wants to bolt on to promote their nascent social network. Computers are what we make them, after all: Why can’t "deep" interface design be the norm, in which the surface layer of interactions are as simple and error-tolerant as possible (e.g., Google’s instant search suggestions that auto-fill into the text box), but more sophisticated controls are built in under the surface for users to exploit as they need less hand holding?

Victor agrees that "a lot of designers would say they strive for that." But he’s skeptical that it’s the best way to offer both first-timers and power users the best possible user experience. "For me, the ideal UI offers many uses for many people, but accomplishes that without hidden 'deep’ features," he tells Co.Design. "A piece of paper, for example, can be used for all sorts of things—pictures, poetry, airplanes, spitballs, stabilizing a wobbly table—but it doesn’t offer those as 'hidden features.' It’s just flexible."

His suggestion was to make the text itself interactive and multifunctional—so that casual users could zip along, but l33ts could invoke extra filters on demand. Here’s a sketch he made for Co.Design:

"This is off the top of my head, so it could be a lot better, but you get the idea," Victor says. "The point is that Google currently treats the query field as plain text, like a command line, so it inherits that sort of 'hidden command culture.' If you take a more flexible view of text—if you think about how text itself can offer rich interaction—then you no longer need the hidden commands, and the 'power features’ are available for everyone." Sounds like an interesting idea—are you reading, Mr. Page?

[Top image by Isaac Wedin. Get it?! It’s a "+" sign and a screw!]