For a while I couldn’t pinpoint the exact reason why Google Reader felt awkward, but earlier today it hit me: for a product called Google Reader, it doesn’t really let me read properly.
When designing a product, the question you should be constantly asking yourself is “what is the user trying to do here, and how does my interface help?”. In the case of Google Reader, I want to consume content I subscribe to - for the most part, that would be text. Suddenly, if having a great reading experience is a priority, everything changes. Line height and horizontal motion matters, background and text colors matter, white space matters. Every feature of the software and interface should be strained through the sieve of user goals.
A goal-oriented Google Reader would look drastically different. A goal-oriented Google Reader would not use 200 pixels of useless interface between the chrome of my browser and the first piece of actual content - something that feels wrong in a world of 16:9 screens. It wouldn’t use a default line-height of 1em, or pure black text on a pure white background. It might let me configure font size and the length of my text column; perhaps even the typeface.
Google Reader is a good product, but not a great experience. It lets me read, but it doesn’t let me enjoy reading. It lies to me when it calls itself Reader, because it just wasn’t designed with that goal in mind.
Like Google Reader - in this particular post, only an example -, a large number of products would benefit from the simplest of thought experiments: ask yourself what the goals of the product really are. Then look at every bit of the interface and functionality through the lens of those goals. Remove all the extras. Fix everything that feels awkward and wrong. Repeat. Your users will thank you for it.