Quick thought on design and Gmail.

Here’s an article that I think let’s Google off way too easily on it’s design expertise. Here’s a good idea of what you’re getting here:

Perhaps eBay is in the spot pre-iPhone cellphone companies were in; it has terrible design, but it has no real competition and no reason to update.”

Gmail is competing with Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, AIM Mail, and others, not to mention people’s work email accounts—it makes sense for all those services to be frequently updating to try and woo users. Craigslist is almost the opposite. Because it has no worthy competition, and because of its “insane simplicity,” as Gorter calls it, Craiglist has gone nearly 20 years with very few changes to its minimalist interface.

Maybe there’s something to this. I would disagree that ebay has no competition. I think it’s taking aim at Amazon, for instance. And vice-versa. More importantly, though, it seems wrong to me to think of good design in terms of competitive pressure. If you’re just rolling out new interfaces to keep people feeling fresh, you aren’t doing good design. If you truly have a good design, you’ll appreciate that and have some fidelity to it.

Then there’s a commenter:

At least in GMail, there is a “cozy” and a “compact” choice that condenses elements into a small space. THAT is GOOD design…give the user a choice so that they can improve the interface to be more USABLE to them. I wish they’d allow custom themes, so I could fix the contrast issue…

No. That’s NOT good design. Giving people a bunch of options is saying “we’re not sure what the best configuration is, so you figure it out for yourself.” Good design if finding the optimal configuration that maximizes the user experience across multiple devices. Then you give that to people. You’re not a good designer if you’re outsourcing your work to the user.

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