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A common complaint is that Google is engineer-driven rather than design driven. Some very impressive counter-evidence in the article -- lots of nice design hacks.

You're assuming they didn't arrive at these settings for borders, weight, classes of label via A/B testing of various alternatives. Google has enough resources available that for something like this it could easily substitute brute-force testing for "best-practice" design (and there's a number of arguments why that might be the better choice, including the fact that design practice seems to evolve over time.)

They would still have to think of these ideas in order to test them. Talking about 'brute-force design' implies that there is no thought involved.

>They would still have to think of these ideas in order to test them.

Text has background, envelope, whitespace (leading, kerning, etc.), font, outline, fill (and probably other general properties too). It's not A/B testing but I could see engineers iterating over variations - should the envelope follow the curves of the text or be a box or blob, etc.. All spacing, be it kerning or border-width can be iterated over, colours too - indeed thinking of this makes me want to write an Inkscape plugin to help in font choice.

You can level your objection again but I don't think one would call thinking what shape an outline could be "design" per se. Indeed if you're just presenting alternatives to a user and looking for the one with the best feedback I think you arguably have done away with a design stage.

Although A/B testing is very likely, how would you measure success/failure? "Person took x sec to see 'New York'" ? How do you measure that?

Well, if you're in a lab, you do a test where you say "I'm going to show you a map. Click on New York as soon as you can." etc. If you want to be more sophisticated, you add in eye tracking and see how much "scanning" people do before finding the target. I'm sure Google has both techniques available in-house.

And I'm sure if you were a little more clever you could find ways to do a similar test on normal google maps users without them knowing it.

I was thinking more along the lines of exception to the rule. I honestly have some trouble finding another product by Google which has this attention to detail (design-wise), maybe Chrome...

Chrome on OSX is fantastic, my only beef being that some options are in unintuitive places. For example, 'Extensions' is under 'Window'. Why? There's a perfectly good crescent wrench just sitting by its lonesome self over there there in the corner. I've found Chrome to be the only browser that broke away from the traditional browser format, and pulled it off beautifully. By contrast, FF 3.6 on OSX is hideous.

You can get to Extensions via the crescent wrench, too. It's Wrench->Tools->Extensions.

Not at all obvious, but it's there.

Well now I feel like an idiot. I'm going to bullshit and say it wasn't always like that, because it took me forever to find when I first got my mbp.

Try Boutiques.com. It's a pretty slick Google property. Feedburner's interface is also really nice, but it was there when Goog bought them.

That's not what that phrase means.... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exception_that_proves_the_rule

I find that link pretty interesting but I still don't understand why you say that. I'm saying Google caring about design on Google Maps is the exception that proves the rule (the rule being that they don't care much about design).

Can you help me understand why it's wrong?

There isn't a rule that "Google don't care about design" if there is an exception. Exceptions to rules disprove rules. However, an explicit exception to an unwritten rule suggests the existence of that rule - for example, a sign saying "Parking allowed between 9am and 5pm" would imply that there is a rule that parking is not allowed at any other time.


The micro-scale graphical design is good. It's a pity, however, that big geographical and data quality blunders are present on Google Maps.

Examples : world projection (Mercator, useless), lack of metadata (dates of the images ?), choice of labels at medium scale (especially with the 'Relief' maps).

Such discrepancy between good graphical precision, esthetics and geographical imprecision, lack of quality information are misleading a large part of the public.

Uh ... I'm really not a cartographer, but don't you think that you're exaggerating a bit when calling Google Maps "useless" just because if their choice of map projection?

I know I've used it, to find, research and understand the layout of, Actual Locations on Earth, more than once. I never even stopped to think about the projection.

It would be interesting to hear what you feel would be different in the end-user experience if the projection was changed.

Google Maps is not useless, far from it. The projection method chosen (Mercator) is useless for the small scales, and misleading. Except if you are a (XVII° century) marine navigator.

De-zoom and look at the apparent continent sizes, it's just horrible. Half of emerged lands in antarctica ? Groenland the size of Africa ? Think about children exposed to those maps before a good atlas is showed to them.

I co-wrote a paper about this topic, but it's in french : http://mappemonde.mgm.fr/num20/internet/int08401.html

A technical choice (summary : it's easier to have perpendicular parallels and meridians) has prevailed upon a geographical choice. It's not very complicated to link the projection to the scale of the view, all serious geographical internet portals are doing so (IGN, Ordnance Survey, etc.)

An example of the contamination of bad world maps projection :


I'd say that this design is quite engineer-driven. It seems, their design is 'just' applied knowledge about perception.

"Applied knowledge about perception"

This is so general that it practically means nothing

What I meant was a scientific approach to design rather than just designing what looks good. But than again every good interface designer should take that approach.

The question what role aethstetics should play in design is very interesting.

A lossy audio compression algorithm relies on quirks of human hearing. Those who designed it used their precise understanding of how human hearing works. How would you go about designing a lossy audio compression algorithm without being allowed to learn anything about human hearing?

I believe it would be very much impossible. Humans have no intuitive understanding of the details of human hearing and there are an huge amount of possible ways of reducing the size of an audio file (like throwing away every second bit). There is no possible way you can A/B test all the possible ways and humans have no intuitive understanding of the details of hearing. You can’t intuitively decrease the search space. Aethstetics don’t help you, an understanding of how humans actually work is necessary.

Not everything is like lossy audio compression but I believe there are parallels. Aethstetics do sometimes help you decrease the search space and A/B tests get you the rest of the way but my suspicion is that a true understanding of how humans actually work would always be preferable.

I'd argue that all design is "applied knowledge about perception"

The quotes around 'just' might indicate sarcasm here, in which case the comment is a criticism of a forced dichotomy between engineer- and design-driven.

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