Simplicity: Sparsity or Storytelling?

A tweet by @akumar prompted me to punch up this quick blogpost:

as with all controversial issues, there’s a positive in google trying bing/image – that they’re not afraid to learn from competition

What Amit is referring to is the recent addition of gorgeous photographic images as search page background.  See for example this writeup: http://blogs.abcnews.com/theworldnewser/2010/06/google-vs-bing-copycat-picture-on-prominent-page.html

He is of course correct; Google is learning from the competition.  But there is another issue at play here, one that I don’t want to overlook because I feel it is very important.  It is the issue of simplicity.  What is simplicity?  How is it defined?  How is it measured? Conversely, what is complexity?  What is clutter?

For over a decade now, Google has essentially defined simplicity as sparsity.  Sparse backgrounds, lots of negative space, sparse color schemes, sparse auxiliary information (e.g. query term suggestions on the SERP page have only started appearing in the last year or two, despite the fact that such features existed 15 years ago in search engines of old such as Infoseek and Altavista).  The reason given was that people didn’t like clutter, that people like simplicity.  And in Google’s definition, simplicity equals sparsity.

I agree.  People do like simplicity.  I don’t question the veracity of that general sentiment.  What has always bothered me, though, is the equivocation of simplicity with sparsity.  I think a much better definition of simplicity is not the amount of information or colors or negative space on a page, but the story that a design, interface, interaction, or algorithm tells.  Something with a lot of colors and links and words can still be simple…if it tells a clear story!  Conversely, something with fewer colors and links (sparser) can be more complex, if the story that it communicates is muddy and not as purposely focused.

This brings us to the Bing background image.  In my opinion, the even though the inclusion of a background image is less sparse and more “cluttered” (more colors, more shapes, more textures), it actually assists in the telling of a clearer story.  Why?  Because it more cleanly separates foreground and background, subject and frame.  It provides compositional balance to the page.  The white query input box on white background (10+ years of Google design) is sparser, but the story that it tells is less clear because foreground and background are not as cleanly separated.  A white query input box on a richly colored and textured background tells a clearer, simpler story because the background image frames and separates the foreground query input box.  Furthermore, because you can now distinguish background and foreground, you can more clearly see that the query input box lies near the pleasing “rule of thirds” line, which aids further in the overall storytelling.

In short, I applaud this move by Google, just as I applaud it from Bing.  I never liked the white-on-white, because sparsity is not the same thing as simplicity.  Simplicity arises through good storytelling, not through minimalism.  No A/B testing will tell you this, though.  It’s a definitional issue that must be defined before you start your A/B tests.  Google has learned from the competition, as @akumar says.  But I hope that the lesson Google has learned is not just that users like pretty pictures.  I hope the lesson is that, when it comes to simplicity, there is a difference between sparsity and storytelling.

See also my posts: The Tyranny of Simplicity, The Tyranny of Simplicity, Redux, and The Craft of Storytelling.  I also found this older discussion on Google’s Lively to be a fascinating read.  In my understanding, the issue of “necessary complexity” that the author of that post hammers home about is related to the issue of storytelling.  Too much sparsity (of interaction in Lively’s case) leads to an inability to tell a clear story.  Simplicity is storytelling, not sparsity.

15 comments to Simplicity: Sparsity or Storytelling?

  • I continually strive for simplicity (less is more) over complexity especially in a search UI. But, I’m not as convinced that having a background photo/image makes the experience better. The user comments on @akumar’s page are predominantly negative. Also, contrary to the MS hype machine, Bing ain’t doing as well as expected.

  • jeremy

    @Dinesh:

    My point is that “simplicity” is not the same thing as “less is more”. Sparsity = less is more.

    Think about the cockpit of an airplane. All the dials and indicators, etc. It is very non-sparse, or cluttered, correct? But is it simple? You would say no, because all you see is the hundred dials. I would say yes, because what I see is the right amount of information, delivered at the right time, in the right way (with the right “story”) so as to make the pilot’s job as simple and easy as possible. Think about it this way: if the pilot didn’t have all those dials, how simple would it be to fly the airplane? To navigate, to land at night, to land in the fog? It would be very, very difficult. Death-inducingly so, in fact.

    So what is simpler.. an airplane with all those dials, or an airplane without all those dials? My thesis is that the less-sparse airplane interface is actually the simpler one.

    Now, whether or not users like the images is a question of whether they like sparsity vs. storytelling. And there is always an issue of whether or not users “get it” on the very first day. Think about Facebook. Every time Facebook makes a little change, you get these groups appearing that say “If 1 million people join this group, we can get Facebook to change it back!” And invariably, Facebook doesn’t change it back, and yet users don’t stop using Facebook. Or like a kid eating asparagus for the first time. If there were a “kid’s first time asparagus eaters” blog, all the comments would be negative. But as the kids mature a little, you’d see that a lot of those same people actually really like asparagus.

    So that doesn’t necessarily prove that the image/Bing change is good. Nor should one expect 20 points of market share to swing just because of an image. But I’ll bet if we did eye-tracking studies of how easy it was for the user to lock on to the search input box, we’d see the interface with the image beating the sparse/all-white interface. Painters and photographers have known this for centuries.. a break in a pattern helps attract the eye.

    It tells a story.

  • The example of an airplane cockpit makes sense because all the screens, dials, buttons, levers and so on are needed in order to operate the plane. A background image is not essential to use a search engine.

    Recently, I read that one of the reasons for Facebook’s success is that the UI is consistent across all users as opposed to MySpace which allowed users to slap on their own backgrounds and inconsistent widgets. Facebook has created a brand and MySpace didn’t.

    There are alternatives available to lock consumers eyes on the search box without using an image as the background. Maybe, my argument is not that the UI has to tell a story but that surely MS could have come up with something more useful to the search process. It is odd that Google is following MS on this.

  • jeremy

    I’m not talking essential. I’m talking incremental improvement. If an image locks the eye faster than the non-contrast white-on-white approach, then it’s better. You of course don’t want to have a faster eye lock, and then terrible SERP results. You have to improve both. But all else equal, why would you be against making even a minor improvement to the main page?

    I don’t think either of us know for sure whether the image locks the eye faster than the white-on-white. I.e. we do not know for sure if the image is indeed a minor improvement, no change, or perhaps even a worsening. I suspect, based on centuries-old principles of design, that it is a minor improvement. But I could be wrong. We’d have to ask Google and/or Microsoft and their eye tracking folks, to make sure.

    But whether or not it is an improvement, that is secondary to my main premise, which is that simplicity != sparsity. Do you buy that premise?

  • Sticking on a background image is not minor and questionable whether it is an improvement.

    I’m not so black and white on simplicity != sparsity. For many years, products came with every conceivable button or feature and there has been a gradual and necessary move towards simpler and by extension usable design. This usually means getting rid of unnecessary features or combining functions but the end result is far less clutter. Does that mean less or greater sparsity? I’d lean towards sparsity.

  • jeremy

    Sticking on a background image is not minor and questionable whether it is an improvement.

    Compared to other conceptual changes such as query suggestions, query modification via faceting, etc. a background image is indeed minor. Especially when the background image loads asynchronously, and doesn’t prevent you from starting to type your query. Seen in that light, you *may* be right that it’s not an improvement (again, we’d have to ask the eye tracking folks to make sure), but I’m hard pressed to see/understand how it is any sort of detriment, either. At the worst, it doesn’t get in your way. So how is that not the definition of minor?

    But adding facets to your search engine? All the heavy engineering and statistical prowess that it’ll take to do the inference and and real-time categorization, not to mention the UI changes, etc. That’s major. Compared to facets, an image is minor.

    I’m not so black and white on simplicity != sparsity.

    Perhaps I stated it slightly unclearly. Let me rephrase. Something simple *can* be sparse. But just because something is sparse, doesn’t logically imply that it’s simple. And just because something is simple, doesn’t logically imply that it’s sparse.

    An example of something that is simple but not sparse: the airplane cockpit. An example of something that is sparse but not simple: Google Lively (http://www.massively.com/2009/01/02/the-death-of-lively-and-some-lessons-about-complexity/) See also this great Onion parody of the “Mac Wheel” http://www.theonion.com/video/apple-introduces-revolutionary-new-laptop-with-no,14299/

    Right? I’m not saying that something can’t be both sparse and simple. I’m just saying that one doesn’t logically imply the other, or cause the other. There is no double implication (sparsity < => simplicity). There aren’t even single implications (sparsity->simplicity or simplicity->sparsity).

    Now, I am not against taming feature creep, getting rid of useless options. In an ideal world, it would be nice to have interfaces that are simple and sparse and tell a clear story, all at the same time. But that is never going to happen. There is not a linear relationship between reducing functionality or interface clutter, and getting simpler. Sometimes, less sparsity yields more simplicity. And if you try and force both sparsity and simplicity simultaneously, you’ll end up with something like that Mac Wheel parody (“a single button.. what could be simpler than that?”)

  • Good point about storytelling, Jeremy. In some ways, this gets to the idea of fun, that going beyond functional to make a product actually fun to use considerably increases customer satisfaction. And, one step further, if you can turn the experience of using something into gameplaying or entertainment, people will endure a lot of extra effort, even doing a lot of what otherwise might seem like work.

    I am still a fan of sparsity, but this really should take the form of blending form and function in the most effortless way possible. And, when effort is required, when the interface can no longer be simplified, it seems a good guide is to make that effort as fun as possible.

  • Greg has done a much better job of what I was attempting to get at which is that MS could have made the search process more fun or more interesting or more engaging instead of just slapping on a different background image every day. Most of us would die to get hold of the MS search data and their logs and turn it into something different to differentiate competitively and deliver greater consumer satisfaction.

    This is tangentially related … have you seen the Moodagent (http://www.moodagent.com/) App which re-categorizes your music collection into different mood buckets and then provides a fun interface to find music based on your mood. There is free version available from the App store.

  • jeremy

    Yes, Greg makes an excellent point. I don’t see, however, how it contradicts what Bing has done. A background image is a very small step in the overall picture (heh, pun), but it still heightens the “storytelling” by providing contrast in the interface. Instead of Google’s flat, bland, low-contrast white-on-white, Bing has a white-on-photo interface that more cleanly leads and draws in the eye. Yes, I agree, it is but a very minor, small, subtle interaction. And I too would like to see more interaction (see my discussions about “tools” with Greg on his blog from 2005-2007). But it is still an interaction. It’s a baby step, but it’s still a step.

    Unless you think that the picture distracts the user, or gets in the way. I think that it doesn’t, especially because the image loads asynchronously.

    Certainly it’s a much bolder step than running dozens of user tests to see which of 41 shades of blue the hypertext link color should be. See:

    http://valleywag.gawker.com/5177144/googles-data-fetish-drives-away-its-top-designer
    http://stopdesign.com/archive/2009/03/20/goodbye-google.html

    No, I haven’t seen MoodAgent. But about a decade ago, I was using MoodLogic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MoodLogic

  • Consider a common art museum format where one small painting hangs exclusively on a white wall. If Google haven’t already, maybe they should experiment with little colored neon lights gently flashing around the query box! I jest but it really comes down to horses for courses!

  • jeremy

    Consider a common art museum format where one small painting hangs exclusively on a white wall.

    Hey, Mark Rothko had a very Bing-like painting. See his query input box painting?

    Rothko 1

    Here is another one:

    Rothko 2

    It’s art, my friend. Art! :-)

    If Google haven’t already, maybe they should experiment with little colored neon lights

    Yes, I see the jest, but c’mon. There is a big difference between flashing neon lights, and “punch the monkey” banner ads.. and a picture, painting, or work of fine art. Just because it’s visually complex doesn’t mean it’s distracting. Like I said, it’s about the storytelling, not the sparsity. Flashing neon lights would not be a good story, because they actually pull our eyes back out of the search box, and onto the lights. A good painting, on the other hand, pulls your eyes in. There is a difference.

  • Just came across this CNet June 10 story: “Google kills background images on home page” at
    http://news.cnet.com/8301-30684_3-20007366-265.html?tag=mncol;title#comments.

  • jeremy

    No guts, no glory.

  • jeremy

    And it’s not completely accurate to say that Google “killed” background images. Mine is still there.

    So maybe what Google did is “kill” the automatic showing of a background image, without giving the user the choice to choose not to have an image. But the ability to have an image as your Google background is still there.

    That raises the issue of how many users now have background images. A lot probably still don’t. But how many now do, where they didn’t before? 5% of all users? 15%?

    It would be fascinating to see those numbers.

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