The latest crop of Google gadgets, gizmos and services are really pretty damn cool. I've just been playing around with my customized home page, and there are a whole bunch of things I can load there. Things that I might otherwise choose to view via widgets — like the weather, for instance — or things I might turn to a desktop application for — like RSS feeds or email — can be consolidated into one page, or a series of tabs on that page — that page being my Google home page — right inside of a very familiar and ever-handy interface — that of the browser.
Ultimately, one might suppose, the browser via my Google home page, would become my one-stop shopping spot for everything information-centric. I just open my browser, go to my Google home page, and everything I need to know on a daily basis is right there. My mail, my calendar, the sites I regularly check, are all represented and visible at-a-glance on one page. I can chuck iCal. I can chuck Mail. I can chuck NetNewsWire, and WeatherDock, and all these little apps I have that tell me all the tiny little things I need to know on a daily or hourly basis. Yes, with all this power one might suppose that Google would become my home page. But one would be wrong.
You see, despite the fact that I can — today, right now — leverage all this information right from my Google home page, I simply never do. In fact, I don't know anyone who does. And I have some theories as to why. First and foremost, I think the main reason I don't currently do this is because of design. Google's design is notoriusly butt-ugly in general. And in the case of their home page, it's also just not very usable. In fact, I'd say it's a really good example of poor design hindering usability. Here you have all this information, all in one spot. It's a veritable cacophony of information. And this cacophony begs for good usability design. Google has given us the ability to move modules around, and add tabs for additional organization and module storage, but... That's about it. There's no way to customize colors, or font sizes, or borders, or anything that would make that abomination of a page usable. Is it potentially useful? Yes. Is it usable? Not for me or anyone I know.
Personally, when I look at my Google home page I get a headache, and I immediately begin craving individual, specialized applications, particularly well-designed ones that organize information in ways that make parsing that information pleasant rather than a chore. I'm no design expert, and I'd be hard-pressed to come up with serious suggestions as to how to better design an application towards usability. But I know bad design when I see it — or when I try to use it — because, ultimately, I don't use it. I can always tell a badly designed app, because I just don't want to use it, no matter how useful it may be.
Back when Google was "just a search engine" the minimal attention to design was fine. But now, in these days of "Web 2.0" apps, design becomes essential to how we collect, organize and process those vast amounts of information that Google has so brilliantly given us such seamless access to. The presentation of data is as crucial to understanding that data as collecting it. Google needs to really start thinking about this if they want people to start using their apps to the extent that I think they do. For the Google home page to become truly usable, design will need to play an essential role.