We’ve all had a favorite Google product or feature that just disappeared one day. (For me, Google Reader comes to mind immediately.) And when it happens, it can seem senseless and strange. Why would a company as large, profitable, and known for supporting some strange projects ever throw out a tool that people liked?
In a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) yesterday, Jon Wiley, Lead Designer on Google Search, explained why too many small features can not just bloat the UI of a product, but actually compound into major problems for a company.
One thing that’s almost always guaranteed with product design: when you add a feature, no one complains about it outright; if they don’t love it they mostly just ignore it. Whereas if you take something away, you’ll hear about it if people relied upon it . . . loudly and often. With something like Google Search, even if just a small fraction of people miss a feature and an even smaller fraction says so, that can still be tens of thousands of people. It can seem like a tidal wave of opposition to the removal: "look at all these people who want it back!"
So it would be much easier to leave in everything that’s ever launched. But then you end up with bloatware: an unwieldy array of ill-fitting modules that don’t work well with newer technologies (e.g., the shift to smartphones, or upgraded security, or touch screens, etc.) and don’t really serve most of your users well either. And nothing comes for free—every feature must be maintained, supported in multiple languages, on multiple devices, and the additional complexity must be accounted for in testing so that the entire service remains reliable. And that cost gets balanced against the impact: is this feature solving an important problem for lots of people?
There are many, many such features that you always have to make tough choices about. We’ve actually cut features that I love. This is one of the toughest but most important parts of designing products—deciding what to trim as you move forward. Sometimes you over-trim—we work to measure the impact and aim to strike the right balance. Sometimes we get it wrong, so it is important that people speak up. We really do listen, and we prioritize according to what seems to satisfy the widest needs given our capabilities.
The rest of Wiley’s AMA is worth reading, too. Our favorite piece of gossip that he revealed? Google is working on a voice search feature for bilingual people that can automatically detect which language you're searching in without having to change settings beforehand, giving everything a more natural flow.