It’s well known that a major component to a successful user experience is absolute consistency. Apple does this better than almost anyone, and as their desktop and mobile OS quickly merge it will become even more consistent than it already is today. For the most part Microsoft is a close second, and I say this even after factoring in the fact that the new Metro UI has a certain disjointed feel to it of something new bolted onto something old. In fact, their consistency has opened them up to criticism: Windows 7 wasn’t so different from Win95, after all.
Google, on the other hand, fails this test constantly. The only consistency I feel across their brand is that it is rarely consistent. Open up Gmail, Reader, Youtube, and the Calendar in different tabs and switch between them. You’ll see a number of these similar but different controls jumping around the layout and changing shape, size, and style creating a disharmony across their brand. Why the inconsistency?
Worse, yet, is when different products behave differently when I perform the same action. When I’m on the main Google search page and start typing, my keyboard’s focus is locked to the search bar and each character I type or erase updates the results list in real time. This means that the use of the backspace key for browser navigation, which has been the default on a variety of browsers for years, is overridden and in fact cannot be used. In Gmail, an entirely new set of keyboard shortcuts exist and your keyboard focus is not locked to the search bar. Indeed, when you type in the search bar here, you get a recommendation list of contacts and items across the web (though it doesn’t seem your actual mail messages are searched). While I appreciate that the result of the action is contextual and correlated to the likely primary intent of the user depending on the product, the lack of consistency in how the result of the action is presented does nothing but add confusion to my experience, and I’m not alone in feeling this way.
There’s clearly a lot going on across Google’s portfolio of products, products I use every day and for the most part rely on and love to use. From a pure usefulness standpoint, their work is amazing and will continue to be a cornerstone of billions of people’s daily workflow. It’s also why improving their UX design is extremely important – each of those few seconds users waste making decisions related to the differences between their products sum to an enormous amount of collective time wasted.