Monday, June 22, 2009

Google’s Spartan Interface

This is one of a series of articles about Google’s search interface and its application to genealogy.

Google's famously spartan interface An article in BusinessWeek back in 2005 titled “Google’s Search for Simplicity” notes that while Google’s “payroll has rocketed…to over 4,200 staffers” and “sales have jumped…to more than $3 billion,” its “famously minimalist home page looks almost as it did when [Google was an] upstart search company.”

BusinessWeek attributes Google’s success to this “no-frills, fast-loading” interface.

In an interview for Good Experience Google’s product manager for its user interface, Marissa Mayer, compared Google to a Swiss army knife.

All of us on the UI team think the value of Google is in not being cluttered, in offering a great user experience. I like to say that Google should be "what you want, when you want it." As opposed to "everything you could ever want, even when you don't."

I think Google should be like a Swiss Army knife: clean, simple, the tool you want to take everywhere.…

When you see a knife with all 681 functions opened up, you're terrified. That's how other sites are - you're scared to use them. Google has that same level of complexity, but we have a simple and functional interface on it, like the Swiss Army knife closed.

In a 2006 DMNews article, Google engineering director Jen Fitzpatrick acknowledged how much testing Google does, combining “internal testing, user studies, log analysis and customer feedback.” Said Fitzpatrick,

The audience of people using Google was not of the people building Google. … If there's one thing we've learned time and time again, [it] is we're not representative of our users.

Fitzpatrick admits that Google approaches user interface in an iterative fashion. One is not likely to get it right the first time. I’m glad to know that both and FamilySearch use iterative development processes. I welcome the refinement process we are seeing on both organizations’ websites.

What do you think about the search interface on these websites?

Are they intuitive? How could they be improved? Click “Comments” below and let us know what you think.


  1. i don't use the family search interface at all because i find it very stiff, stodgy and absolutely unintuitive and frankly, racist on its face in terms of what people of color and non-european ancestry can find by just using the front-end. i have yet to find any of my black or indian ancestors on basic or advsnced search, whereas on ancestry, rootsweb, genealogy access ‡ footnote i have been able to compile three books of documentation.

  2. Thanks to sites like, cyindyslist,, and familysearch I was able to research my family and publish my book:
    Each site has something to offer when doing research. Familysearch is not as accurate, but all are only as good as the contributer. There are always errors and by using more than one source helps to verify your information. As an author on genealogy searches, I found that each has something to offer and each helps to back-up a fact.

  3. @insider
    It might be fun to add the new "alpha" interface currently out on FamilySearch Labs:

    Are you talking about the search as being stiff and stodgy (I would have to agree)? Have you tried the RecordSearch pilot and do you consider it to be stiff and stodgy as well, or unintuitive?

    I've never used regularly, but I like the quick refine on the left, but the results aren't very detailed (at least the Free results). I was able to find what look like relevant hits for several of my ancestors.

    Footnote has a nice search interface, but you really need to use the advanced search for people with common names. The default keyword search on common names isn't helpful at all. Quick Look is a nice touch. isn't pretty, but it's useful and gets the job done for the databases that it does search.

    The RecordSearch pilot search is nicely done though it could use some refinement. I like that you can view the search details and the list shrinks to the left.

    The "single text box" searches do fairly well for several of my ancestors with unique enough names. But for common names, you really need structured search with relationships and events to find what you really want.


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