Google Chrome — on reflection

Warning This article was written over six months ago, and may contain outdated information.

So, it’s a couple of days since the launch of the first beta of Google’s new browser, Chrome, and the hyperbole has died down a little. After using it for a few days, I want to look in a little more detail at some of its features — more specifically, its interface and usability. Luckily, Google have provided user experience documentation (for Chromium, the open source project) to make this easier.

The stall is set out on the front page of the documentation, with two key statements:

We think of Chromium as a tabbed window manager or shell for the web rather than a browser application. We avoid putting things into our UI in the same way you would hope that Apple and Microsoft would avoid putting things into the standard window frames of applications on their operating systems.

Chromium should feel lightweight (cognitively and physically) and fast.

Tabs

Moving the tabs above the address bar, and using a lighter shade of blue to match the bar, does well to give the impression that each tab is a separate entity; this is actually one of my favourite features of the user interface. However it’s not without its problems, as the post 10 reasons Firefox won’t be worried about Chrome points out; when multiple tabs are opened, there’s no way to see what they relate to. I can’t see this happening too often, but it’s an issue nonetheless.

Downloads

My second favourite feature of the UI is the downloads bar; unlike the default of Firefox, for example, it’s unobtrusive and well integrated, opening in a shelf along the bottom of the browser instead of a new window over the current tab. A large arrow appears briefly to show you where the downloads bar appears, and a faux-dropdown presents you with actions when you click on it.

Status Bubble

The least effective area of the UI, for me. After taking the decision to remove the status bar, the Chrome team had to come up with a way to display link destinations; their Status Bubble is a good solution in principle, but in practice is too small and too discreet, and the light grey text on a pale blue background is hard to read on a bright screen.

Over-all look and feel

I think they’ve done a good job with the visual design. The stated aim was to make the browser area unobtrusive, and while that’s not been 100% successful, it has been partially achieved; Firefox’s grey chrome looks imposing next to Chrome’s pale equivalent. I like the way the options have been hidden away, removing the menu bar which has been around since the early days of Netscape.

It must be remembered that this is still a pre-release version of the browser, and I’ve no doubt that more changes will be implemented in future versions; even so, it’s obvious that a lot of time and care has been spent on getting the interface right. While a lot of these features are available in current browsers already, the UI team have done a good job in taking the best and combining them with some solid design principles.

Interesting factoids: The original design used the golden ratio, and was inspired by The Designers Republic’s work on WipEout.

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