After a mere 6 months on the market, Google released their first major redesign of Google+. If you check your profile now, you should see the latest version. And if your taste is anything like ours, you’ll agree that it feels better in just about every way.
So what did the designers at Google actually do not just to make their product so much more beautiful, but so much more beautiful than Facebook? Co.Design talked to Google+ lead designer Fred Gilbert to unpack the subtle brilliance behind their awesome redesign—a redesign that was completed in less than two months—and his notes are full of lessons that could hone the experience of almost any product.
"This is probably one of the most unflattering images of our site," Gilbert tells me, referencing the old Google+ screengrab you see here. Gilbert had just snagged the image, literally as the company was pulling the aging pages from their servers. But it was worth sharing this unadorned before shot to prove a point.
"There are blue links everywhere on the page. It’s very distracting. Also notice how all of our actions except for the +1 are all text. We’ve had users tell us, it looks like we’re doing math. It’s easy for the user and the content to disappear under all of this metadata."
So the team focused on the absolute core of the Google+ experience: the users and the things they share. That might sound like generalized corporate cheese, but their solution was tied intrinsically to these two topics. Everything on Google+ is now rendered in black and white, except for user avatars and their media. "The only things that are colored on the page are people and their content. They’re the only things that should pop out to you," says Gilbert. In this regard, Google+ becomes a tabula rasa for the things we value most.
But you can’t just create a minimal interface that’s soulless—not on a site intended to be social. While the Google+ team was removing link clutter, they replaced a lot of blue text with iconography—all of which saw an overhaul to become more inviting than it had been in the past.
"You notice, all of our shapes, all of our logos, have been softened," says Gilbert. "There’s a difference between building something like an appliance and building something for people. For people, you want to build an environment that’s friendly. To do that we made icons that were fun." You’ll see it in more than the iconography, though. Even within the feed itself, Google+ created a subtle but powerful shift in tone by adding word bubbles around each story. They basically lifted an idea from comics, but presented it with enough formality that it’s casual without feeling hokey.
"You can go too far with this," warns Gilbert, "because you want it to be a space where people can share things that are good and bad. If someone wants to come on and share that their mom or dad has cancer, it has to work for that."
The new Google+ has larger photos and videos than before, which span almost edge-to-edge across user posts. People like pretty pictures, so the idea works. But in light of that fact, why not go even bigger with images? Google’s servers could easily push 800 or 1000-pixel-wide photographs to users across the world. So why didn’t they?
"We mocked up column designs that are wider than what you’re seeing," says Gilbert. "There are problems with that. People write a lot on Google+, and when you pull text out too wide, it gets harder to read." In an oversaturated market of social media networks, Google+ only has a few core features that make it truly unique. One of those features is most certainly the option to share just about however much text you like. Facebook and Twitter both impose substantial character limitations, but on Google+, users can publish longer, richer content.
Google+ would likely be more beautiful with larger images, but preserving the integrity of a core experience (fast scanning of potentially vast amounts of information) was more important than layering another layer of icing on the cake. Or, as Gilbert explains, matter-of-factly: "To optimize for quick consumption, this is the size that works for us."
No online product will look the same in a year as it does today. That’s a good thing: The digital space iterates quickly. But how do you manage users who will be perpetually upset by change? How can you manage comfort alongside progress?
In anticipation of more changes to come, Google+ has started buying pants in a size too big. With their redesign, they moved core navigation from a squashed bar at the top of the page to its own massive ribbon on the lefthand side. "We had like five things at the top. These photos, profiles, circles, there was no way that could grow across the page. We couldn’t add newer features, all these cool things we have coming," says Gilbert.
Yet, if there’s one thing that defines the Google+ redesign, it might be all this spaciousness—empty air—namely a massive, unbalanced void of white space on the righthand side of the page. "Yes it’s on purpose. Yes we have things coming," laughs Gilbert. "And we’re moving as fast as we can to make those things happen." In the digital world, there’s no reason to fear being incomplete. Because, if you’re doing your job right, your work will never be finished, anyway.