Understanding Google Chrome

Google’s new Chrome browser is an interesting entry into the revitalized “browser wars”. Given Google’s Apps and Gears, the browser has essentially become the “OS” that contains them, so it makes perfect sense that Google would want to extend into that area to give it more control, and provide custom functionality that could not be accomplished with other browsers that it does not control.

But what is also interesting is how Google chose to describe some of its capabilities and intentions to the world: with a comic short story.

The comic form has a number of benefits, the most obvious being that it does a better job of explaining technical features of Chrome better than a dry spec sheet would have.

For example, what if Google had said this in a Features section of a page describing Chrome: “Multi-process rendering engine eliminates browser hangs due to single-threaded javascript executions.”

I would have thought “Gee, that sounds great, but I don’t really know what it means”. Well, the comic form allows them to explain that in a non-intimidating way. It’s still not exactly lay-person speak (it is more geared toward journalists and bloggers who will be more familiar with the jargon than the general public), but much more people will now understand what’s going on under the hood and, more importantly, the resulting benefits.

A nice side benefit for Google is that because the team that worked on it are brought to life through the comic (rather than stultified by press-release lingo), it humanizes Google at a time when it is starting to get a bit of a big-bad-wolf-Microsoft reputation due to its size and clout. By focusing on the individuals it takes the mega corporation out of the picture (literally and figuratively).

The comic itself was created by well-known online comic artist Scott McCloud, after doing many interviews with Google engineers. It’s a great example of using someone outside the nitty gritty of the product development process, with a knack for story-telling, to craft the narrative of the product. Too many good products fall by wayside because not enough attention has been paid to the narrative, in other words telling the value proposition in a way that the audience can relate to.

McCloud also wrote the mini-classic book Understanding Comics, which is a must-read for anyone who makes use of storyboards or scenarios to describe how an yet-to-be-made product will be used. Back when I was teaching industrial design I would get all my students to buy it.

Unfortunately navigation of the Chrome comic itself is a bit clunky. There are just back and forward links at the bottom which look pretty old-school considering how advanced the product they are talking about it supposed to be. There’s also no sense of where you are in the “book”. Is page 8 still early at the beginning and I need to get comfortable for the long haul, or am I almost done? (It’s 38 pages long, so yes it takes a while.) It’s been treated more like a series of static pages than a slideshow, and slideshows can be done much better and dynamically than this (in fact Scott has some interesting uses of dynamic navigation on his own site).

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Google’s Innovation Surplus