Co.Design

How Google Wins Over Users By Giving Them Less

User research may indicate that consumers want more choices. Google doesn’t listen—and has rated highest among any other brand out there.

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity by Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn.

"Focusing is about saying no. You’ve got to say no, no, no. The result of that focus is going to be some really great products where the total is much greater than the sum of the parts." Steve Jobs

When Google introduced its now famous search engine, it wasn’t the first to offer search capability to consumers. But Google’s version quickly left competitors behind, gaining mainstream acceptance. And as many observers have noted in the years since, the simplicity of Google’s home page had much to do with its appeal and success. In fact, when we recently surveyed more than six thousand respondents worldwide for the Siegel+Gale 2011 Global Brand Simplicity Index, one brand stood above all the rest: Google. People rate it the highest of any brand out there in terms of delivering a clean, simple, rewarding experience.

But why was Google the only one to make its search page so simple and uncluttered? Shouldn’t other search firms have done likewise with their offerings? If, in this case, less is clearly more, then why not just offer less? It would seem to be not only the smartest but also the easiest option for a company producing a search page.

But in fact it can be much harder to simplify—which may explain why Google was the only one to offer such a clean page. So how did Google resist the temptation to add on and complicate? We talked to the Mountain View, California–based company about this, and learned a couple of surprising things.

Google didn’t just stumble into its home page design; it didn’t arrive at simplicity by default. The company actually developed a rigorous system that imposed tight restrictions upon what could and could not be added to the page. Its leaders had to stand firm against Google’s own creative and well-meaning engineers. And in some cases they even had to defy the wishes of customers.

This ongoing task of holding the line against complexity—which often involves being willing to "just say no" to additional features, design flourishes, and other potential complications—often fell to Marissa Mayer, until recently the company’s director of consumer web products. When we spoke to Mayer about how she managed this, she surprised us by using a word you tend to hear from theatrical casting directors, not tech managers. Mayer explained that any potential new feature hoping to get on the Google home page must go through an "audition." First the feature is tried out on Google’s advanced search page to see how it performs there. But even if the new idea demonstrates its viability in the advanced search, it still goes through a tough scoring system developed by Google.

Here’s how the scoring system works:

  1. They assign a point for each change in type style, type size, or color.
  2. They add the points; the maximum allowed for a promotion is three points.

The goal for the home page is the fewest possible number of points. As Mayer says, "More points equals less simplicity."

This stripped-down approach could easily lead to a home page that would be pristine but devoid of humanity. Google’s page is anything but that. Millions of people log on to the Google home page just to see the ever-changing dressing of its logo.

Google understood that while many elements on the home page could be considered extraneous, it was important to have something—even just one small, playful touch—that would convey the brand personality. In many ways, Google is a utility like toothpaste, but as Mayer says, "Imagine if your toothpaste tube had unpredictable, whimsical designs on it." That would change your perception of the toothpaste maker. The company is so focused on simplicity that it refuses to be led astray—even by its own customers. For example, when Google surveys users to see if they wanted more search results per page, they invariably say yes—who wouldn’t want more results to choose from? But, Mayer says, "We don’t give it to them." Google knows that offering more results will take longer to load, which will slow down and ultimately diminish the user’s experience—even if most people don’t realize this. "Customers often don’t understand the consequences of their choices, but it is our job to do so," Mayer says. "We figured out that ten results per page is the right number. We don’t change that." In other words, Google has the guts to give customers less, even when they ask for more.

Simplification is often about narrowing the scope of what you offer as you try to serve those needs. Successful simplifiers distill whatever they’re offering down to its essence. It’s one of the most challenging aspects of simplification, because distillation requires focus and discipline in the face of the constant temptation to add on, expand, and complicate.

Anyone trying to create a simple anything—a product, a piece of communication, a service, an experience, a law or regulation—must be ruthless when it comes to editing, purifying, or, to use a harsher word,killing. Hollywood filmmakers often use the term "killing your babies" when referring to a scriptwriter’s painful task of deleting something he loves—a colorful scene, a quirky character, an oh-so-clever line—that just doesn’t advance the story. If filmmakers didn’t kill their babies regularly, they’d be producing four-hour films with diluted messages that would make viewers want their four hours and fifteen bucks back. Similarly, when simplifying products, services, communications, or even entire business models, there’s no substitute for being a ruthless killer.

The challenge is knowing what to kill and what to keep—what’s essential and what isn’t. Companies can and should rely on consumers to help them figure that out through research, though it’s important to note that the customer isn’t always right about this, as Google has shown. People have a tendency to want "more" even if it’s not necessarily good for them. And marketers have a tendency to offer them "more" in order to make the easy sale.

To some extent, the quest for simplicity in the consumer marketplace comes down to short-term impulses versus long-term interests. John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design and a longtime student of simplicity, points out that most people are wired to want more. "More is safety," he says. When a consumer is making purchasing choices, the product with more features may seem appealing—but that appeal doesn’t necessarily endure after the purchase has been made. "At the point of desire you want more," Maeda has observed, "but at the point of daily use, you want less."

So what happens when that feature-laden product is brought home? Too often, people have no idea what to do with it. A recent study found that half the gadgets returned are actually in good working order, but customers can’t figure out how to operate them. The study found that on average, Americans are willing to spend about twenty minutes trying to figure out how to work a new toy, at which point they tend to give up and bring it back to the store. The cost of returned products in the United States is $100 billion a year.

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Written by Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn.

Buy Simple for $16 here.

This is an excerpt from SIMPLE by Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn. Copyright © 2013 by Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn. Reprinted by permission of Twelve Books, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

[Image: Shutterstock]

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5 Comments

  • Ikthog

    The interesting thing is that one of Google best-known products is built around exactly the opposite philosophy -- giving users complete control, with whatever attendant consequences may follow, rather than giving them exactly what the creators believe is essential, and nothing more. I will refrain from suggesting that opening the article with a quote from Steve Jobs is in any way ironic.

  • Ikthog

    Sorry, "Google's" -- apparently the edit button is one of those extra features I don't really need.

  • Roger S. H. Schulman

    Meh. It's convenient to leverage in words like "simple" and "clean" to support your argument, but what overwhelmingly caused Google's success was the ACCURACY OF ITS SEARCH. It delivered what the customer wanted. That's the substance. Sure, a nice clean interface that's not distracting is helpful and certainly contributed, but it's hardly the main reason. And the concepts that making something simple is difficult, and that new ideas should be tested (call it "auditioned" if you like) before rolling them out? Hardly new stuff. 

  • cassette_walkman

    If Google ask their customers, through survey, if they want more choice but then don't give it to them because it'll detrimentally slow down the search  - then it's not the customer that's wrong, it's that Google misled them in the survey. I'm not saying either were wrong - the Google survey may have had other intentions - but to connect the two things is wrong.

  • Quadelirus

    This reminds me of something Mark Twain (I believe) put in a letter once. To paraphrase: I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.