Good design always benefits from a feedback loop between users and those doing the designing, and the tighter that loop is, the faster a service can learn from and adapt to its users. Google’s newly announced Gmail Labs is clearly an attempt to do this for the popular Webmail service. Google is adding a new tab called “”Labs” that allows users to try out all kinds of new features and then immediately let Gmail developers know what they think. So what, you might be thinking. Isn’t the Gmail service already in beta anyway? In other words, it’s already in testing mode, so what makes this any different?
I don’t think Gmail Labs is that different — it’s just more feedback, faster. Obviously, anyone who uses any Google app or service can send an email to a support address, check an online forum, use something like GetSatisfation, or check support groups or FAQs. But how many users give up before they do all of those things? That’s feedback a designer or developer could use — and eventually, they will probably get it. But the faster it comes in, the faster a service can be smoothed out and made more feature-rich. That’s part of what makes Web services so different from shrink-wrapped software.
It reminds me of Daniel Burka’s presentation from meshU a few weeks ago: In it, the PEI-born Digg designer used one of my favourite metaphors for iterative, evolutionary design — a story that comes from The Whole Earth Catalog many years ago, in which an architect laid out a university, but didn’t put in any sidewalks. Instead, he waited to see where people walked and then paved that. The lesson, in other words, is not to try and anticipate all the ways someone might want to use your service — see how they use it, and then focus on that.