The Uninspiring Google Books

There have been some interesting discussions around the web following the departure of one of its key designers, citing an over-reliance on quantitative assessment of every design decision. Bruce Temkin of Forrester asks, does “Google’s design need to have more soul?” Helen Walters at Business Week interviewed Google’s Irene Au about their design challenges.

I have been using Google Books quite a lot in the course of researching my own book, mostly to check out previews to see if a particular book is worth getting out of the UC Berkeley library. (Actually I mostly access it through Sente, a rather good bibliography database program, which is able to surf Google Books and Google Scholar along with many other sites, and suck bibliographic information off them.) It illustrates some of Google’s challenges.

Here is what a typical front page looks like:

Click to enlarge

Considering that this is supposed to be the portal into the world’s printed knowledge, can you imagine a less inspiring presentation? There is no excitement, anticipation, sense of wonderment. As Google encompasses more knowledge, I sense a problem: it flattens everything to the same level. Google lacks nuance. (Its acquired properties stand out differently — YouTube, Picassa, Earth, Blogger.)

Now obviously Google is focused on simplicity and speed, and that stripped-down philosophy goes for its approach to aesthetics too. The Google front page is famously unadorned. But with Books they’ve made an attempt to give some starting points for exploration by showing a selection of publications. But they are a motley mix that bears no relation to my past browsing history or anything else that Google might glean from me. (I suppose there is someone out there who is interested in a combination of Jet, Lesbian Chic, The Nature of Statistical Learning Theory, The Nazi Doctors, and Waste Management.) So why bother putting them there? The chance of something being on that grid that is on the topic I’m looking for is one in a million.

Right now they are straddling a middle ground between Google front page and Amazon, and it’s not working. Pick a side - go rich or go minimal.