Joel – good! Microsoft Live Search – bad!

Microsoft Live Search is now… uhm… live. Naturally, I’ve tried it out – and lost interest promptly after the first query.

Microsoft is clearly trying very hard to replicate Google success. The problem is, part of the Google appeal is clean and usable UI. Unfortunately, Microsoft Search folks still don’t get it. Branding and replication of [rather garish] desktop UI elements pretty much ruin the experience.

To substantiate and quantify my qualms, here is a list of things that made me think this round of improvements is still years behind Google in terms of both UI and usability:

  • The results are shown in a scrollable subwindow inside the main window – so that we could always see the footer. That’s right, one thing we should see at all times is the copyright statement. I think, Microsoft people should go further and add the disclaimer as the first result for any search.
  • The scrollbar for the results window is very cute. There is only one problem with it – it no longer driven by my mouse scrollwheel. So, all the user experience with scrolling things using the scrollwheel is out of the window. Welcome back to the glorious days of Windows 3.0. (Granted, I’m using Firefox in Linux, but I am yet to see another site where I couldn’t scroll things with my scrollwheel!)
  • The toolbar Live Search sports is more distracting: of course, some people will find the panel with shadow transition effects cute, but in my opinion it loses to the clean and unadorned links Google sports.
  • Another “cute” feature – a scroller in the upper right corner, that apparently controls how much detail is displayed for each result. It took me some time to figure out what that thing does, especially since controlling it also controlled the number of search results. There is no tooltip, no lable – most users will not have a clue what this thing does.
  • Finally, this is highly subjective, but I don’t appreciate the Gray on White color scheme for the Search results details. I find it not as readable as Black on White used by Google: I do feel a significant eyestrain when reading the results.

I find it extremely ironic that this event concided with another excellent Joel’s article on software usability. The bottom line of the article: Something is usable if it behaves as expected. Microsoft Live Search is a living proof to that statement. It does not behave as expected, which makes it at least not as usable as other offerings. Which means, it will continue to lag in terms of user share.

I understand that Microsoft will eventually fix these bugs and will become at least as usable as Google. Still, this is pretty sad: the company that defines the UI on 98% of the desktops in the world is incapable of replicating the usability of a white webpage with a bunch of search results on it! This might explain why people have to curse through changed UI paradigms every time a new version of Windows or Office is released.

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