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What needs fixing with Google Reader redesign

Google need not reverse its new Google+ mechanism for sharing Reader items, but the redesigned site needs other repairs.

You know something went wrong with your Web site's redesign when two people who used to work on it publish detailed, scathing assessments.

Google Reader, revamped this week, falls into that category. Google gave the RSS site the new red-and-black look that's sprouting at Gmail and elsewhere and, deeper down, changed the mechanics of how people can share posts they're interested in.

Former Google Reader product manager Brian Shih took Google to task for a monochromatic user interface (UI) that squanders too much screen space on a header bar and for making it harder to share posts: "Taking the UI paradigm for Google+ and mashing it onto Reader without any apparent regard for the underlying function is awful and it shows."

And former Google Reader lead designer Kevin Fox offered to come back to Google for three months to undo what he sees as the redesign's damage. He said he believed "Google Reader was held to a mandate of refreshing Google products under a common style guide" but without the staff to fine-tune the interface for Reader.

The redesigned Google Reader (right) uses less color and more white space.
The redesigned Google Reader (right) uses less color and more white space. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Also piling on are numerous people on the Google Reader forum: "How do I revert this absolutely horrible style?" "Slow with dumb scroll bar." "Bring back COLOR!" "Please change Google Reader back!"

I have sympathy for these concerns. I appreciate that the new Gmail and Google Apps interfaces that use this same template can be set up with denser text for those who prefer more text and less white space (me), so the fact that you can't on Google Reader is unpleasant.

And I can't stand the monochromatic look. The Reader site looks much more polished, but color has a lot of information value in communicating what's active or important. It's also useful for demarcating different entries in an RSS feed so I can scan titles faster, for example.

Almost the only relief from this dreary black and gray tedium is a giant red "subscribe" button. Maybe Google's heat-map statistics show that a lot of people click on this, which in the old interface was more descriptively labeled "add a subscription." But I haven't, not once, in years of usage, and I suspect hardcore Reader fans would be better served with something with more utility. Right now, a full top third of my laptop screen is lost to overhead rather than the actual content.

Breaking the old-style Reader sharing is a more serious question. It's completely fair to drive people to Google+ for this mechanism, not only as a way to drive Google+ usage and utility but also to avoid duplicating development and server resources. But I agree with Fox's idea that it would have been better to "rebuild Google Reader's social sharing using the Google Plus API as a foundation."

As it stands, Reader gets nothing special out of Google+; it's just another source of URLs that can be posted, albeit with some automation that your average Web site often lacks. So the social aspect of feed-reading probably will suffer.

But I think it's worth it to step back for a moment.

First, I'm unconvinced that RSS (and Atom, its rival technology for subscribing to a Web site's updates) will be a big deal for mainstream users.

I like my RSS feeds. My usage of Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ has definitely cut into my RSS time, but it hasn't replaced feeds. The RSS subscription extension for Chrome was one of the first extensions I installed. But I'm an information junkie, off at the far end of the data-voraciousness spectrum. I suspect social RSS reading was even nichier than RSS use in general, and when it comes to building products for mainstream users, Google was right to focus its energies on Google+.

Second, site redesigns always bring out a huge contingent of people vociferously rejecting what's different. Sometimes they have very good reasons, but sometimes it's because they just don't like change. And as much as I hate re-learning how to use the same Web site, it's safe to say that change is a competitive necessity for today's world of strong competition for online services.

Stasis is most definitely not bliss, and Google has to move. Resurrecting the old-style Reader sharing doesn't seem like it's in the cards, but there's plenty of work to be done addressing complaints that are negotiable.