Bottom Gear

I recently went looking for the new “density” setting on Google Reader. The instructions read:

We recently enhanced support for different screen sizes by bringing more information onto the page if we detect you are using a small screen. If you prefer this tighter density, even on large screens, you can switch to the “Cozy” or “Compact” setting by clicking on the settings gear on the right hand side of the screen.

It took me several minutes to find the setting. I clicked on the gear, selected “Reader settings,” and hunted fruitlessly through the tabs. None of them had anything about density. I wondered whether this was a feature begin rolled out to users in stages, one I hadn’t been cleared for yet. Then I realized the problem. There are two settings gears on the right hand side of the screen:

two settings gears

If you click on the top gear, you get this:

Reader settings / Reader help

If you click on the bottom gear, you get this:

Display Density / Reader settings / Reader help

There is no reason for the bottom gear to exist. It adds no functionality that could not easily be rolled into the top gear. It takes up space on the screen; it creates visual clutter. And it sows confusion, because it doesn’t function identically to the top gear.

There is no reason for “Density Display” to be where it is in the interface. It belongs in the tabbed settings menu, with every other Reader setting. There’s even an “Experiments” tab, in case the excuse for not including in the menu is that it isn’t read for prime time. If it deserves to be directly accessible from a drop-down, why isn’t it on the top gear, too?

Steve Jobs would have called this a piece of shit, yelled at whoever was responsible, and refused to let it out of the door. For a company that truly cares about user experience, the first two are optional: the third is not. Google has no shortage of brilliance, but it remains acutely shorthanded on people who sweat the details. Like so many far-sighted people, it has trouble seeing what’s right in front of its face.

The gears are merged when you have the new top navigation bar. See e.g. for how to force it

I suppose I am the guy that Steve Jobs would have yelled at. Having two gears on the Reader UI is a usability problem, and we messed up with the wording on the home page too.

To answer some of your questions:

The reason the second gear is there is because Google is in a transitional period with its navigation bar:

Like several other Google products (e.g. Docs, Calendar, Mail), Reader shows two gears to users with the black navigation bar, and the density settings are on the lower gear. What the available options and restrictions were, and why we chose to go with two gears for the transitional period, I don’t know. However, I do know some of the people involved and the decision would not have been haphazard.

The good news is that, when you get the new navigation bar, you’ll be back to one gear, and the Reader UI will make more sense.

I apologize for the wording on the Reader home page that had you wasting your time looking in the wrong place. We’ll see what we can do to fix that.

Thanks for putting the effort into writing up a thoughtful blog post.

Thanks, Alan: I’m glad this is on your radar. I appreciate your willingness to engage on it, as I appreciate Google’s willingness to engage on many other issues.