Google is planning and currently beta testing some design/ layout changes, both on the Home page and the Search Results page to include a new left-hand navigation pane. Google is known for making such changes very rarely and when it does, for researching them very painstakingly. Which raises the question: isn’t agonizing about miniscule changes in logos, column width and colours all a bit unnecessary? After all, Google has a strong brand and isn’t it the reliability of its search results that really matters?

Well, in a word, “No”. We’re talking about the User Experience (or UX) here (more specifically web usability) which is just as crucial for Google as for any other website. Indeed, arguably more so, since Google has such a massive volume of traffic. And as Google CEO Eric Schmidt has said “disloyalty is only one click away”. Bing and Yahoo! are ready to welcome anyone who has a sub-optimal experience and fancies a change of search engine. I would argue that the phenomenal success of the Google search engine owes much to how simple it is to use. (Indeed Google has had less success with more complex, less intuitive products: e.g. Google Radio and maybe Google Wave?)

Indeed Google search is not even particularly comprehensive. Michael K Bergman, an American academic and entrepreneur, published a paper on the ‘deep web’ in 2001 that is still regularly quoted. “The deep web is currently 400 to 550 times larger than the commonly defined world wide web,” he wrote. “The deep web is the fastest growing category of new information on the internet …internet searches are searching only 0.03% … of the [total web] pages available.”

Of course this isn’t the point. Google works. And the company pays a massive amount of attention to UX. Their team of UX experts, headed by Marissa Mayer, Vice President, Search Products & User Experience, goes to great lengths to keep the Google search experience in tune with users’ changing wants and needs, including what they see on their screen and how they interact with it. I believe this has played a big part in the Google search engine’s rise to dominance. Granted, most people find it gives acceptable results but most of all, it is quick and easy to use. Most searchers find what they want fast i.e. they get a good experience. Google wisely adjusts the user interface with great care and only after careful consideration.

The world-renowned UX Guru Jakob Nielsen has said “People are on the Web not to enjoy your Web design, but to get something done.” Not surprisingly, he has been strongly criticized by the design community for downplaying the importance of aesthetics, particularly in situations where the creator of the web content is seeking to persuade, influence or entertain rather than purely facilitating. Few would disagree with the argument that different factors come into play when one considers the optimum UX in browsing a particular area of an online store to find suitable gift ideas, compared with what is required at the checkout. Similarly compare an online photo gallery with an online banking site. The need, of course, is to understand the user and their requirements at the time they are using each part of the site; this is UX (web usability) research and design: a fascinating meeting of technology and human psychology.

UX has become big business and rightly so. There are now companies who specialize in ‘eye tracking’ to optimize website usability. To ensure a site is accessible and easy to use, they look at the site through the user’s eyes – literally. Under laboratory conditions, site owners can observe directly where the user looks for information, what elements are missed, and where the user is confused. ‘Point-of-gaze’ metrics combined with ‘measures of mental effort’ can highlight key usability areas that need attention. We can study how users click and where they look and in what sequence. Granted, we don’t know exactly what they’re thinking and feeling (yet) but it’s a good start in our mission to deliver the best possible UX.

Site owners are continuously competing against distractions (including ads and other websites) in their attempts to engage and hold the attention of the user. The slightest irritation or unwelcome surprise can produce frustration and cause the user to click away/ leave the site. Improved web design has raised the bar compared with the ‘brochure sites’ of 10 years ago. Today’s users expect good usability. They are not, in general, fascinated and impressed by website design or Flash animation. They are demanding and impatient. Thus sites should be designed and tested for speed of loading and ease of navigation on equipment and with connection speeds typically experienced by the site’s core user group (a factor which the design and build agency, with its high-end machines, has been known to neglect!).

Given ‘Content is King’, one can commit regicide by neglecting UX considerations. Yet even in these days of widespread broadband, the user doesn’t always experience a freely flowing interaction. There are far too many sites with good content that are unnecessarily frustrating to use. And too many major companies that (re)launch websites without adequate testing. Why would they do that?

Smart companies understand the importance of UX and devote appropriate time and resources to optimizing their user’s interaction (a) with their site and (b) looking at the bigger picture (including all touchpoints) with their brand. Apple certainly knows a thing or two about Total User Experience design, as demonstrated by the attention it pays to packaging, materials and colours as key elements of product design.

I’m not sure exactly when we’ll all get to use the new Google interface. But when we do, I’m sure it will be a good experience.