Microsoft's Bing Bar takes the clutter and complexity out of browser toolbars

I despise browser toolbars. They're ugly, clutter up the browser and reduce viewable content space. But unexpectedly, I've found a better toolbar. This old crankypuss might soon be spending time at the new Bing Bar, which is a helluva good name, by the way.

There's much to like about Bing: The advertising, the name and most importantly the approach to user interface design. I love Bing TV commercials, by the way. Good advertising uses familiar motifs, scenarios and situations, stuff that most anyone can relate to. Familiarity is important. Who can't relate to information overload -- too much needless information coming too fast to process?

The Bing search page user experience (UX) is in many ways superior to Google, by the way the home page makes information easily available without loads of complexity (Sure, we could argue day and night about search term accuracy). Good design also should lead to discovery. Those photos on the Bing home page aren't just pretty. Moving the mouse across the image reveals hidden boxes and text -- reminiscient of photo comments on Flickr -- that lead to additional searches. For example, on today's pic: "These fish are swimming in the last confederate state to be admitted to the Union. Where are they?"

The UX carries forward to Bing Bar, which replaces MSN Toolbar. Bing Bar is UI and UX design done surprisingly well, for starters because of its spare appearance and generous use of white space. Bing Bar doesn't feel cramped or cluttered, characteristics that define most browser toolbars. Then there are tools for greater informational discovery, which are good for the user and for driving additional search traffic to Bing. Bing Bar is available for Internet Explorer 6, 7, 8 or Firefox 3.x

Buxton Bucks Convention

From broader UI and UX perspectives, not just Bing, I'm really liking many recent Microsoft products, which are cleaner, less cluttered, less complex and full of features available really only when needed. Windows 7 is one example, for sure. I'm convinced that one man, Bill Buxton, principal researcher for Microsoft Research, is main catalyst driving dramatic UI and UX changes throughout Microsoft. Buxton talks about good design broadly, culturally, historically, socially and software developmentally. He joined Microsoft in 2006, and it wasn't long after that the company's UI design started to dramatically improve. Some leaps were already midway, such as Office's version 2007 UI makeover.

Buxton recently spoke about UX at the Business Innovation Factory. Regarding technology, he asserted: "Without informed designed, it's more likely to be bad than good." Buxton emphasized: "It's an ethical obligation to make best efforts. To make the right decisions." Whoa, who talks ethics in design?

Buxton has a stereotypical mad scientist look, and he rambles like one. He looks to me a little like Uncle Monty from "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events." I've embedded the video from his speech so you can see.

"For every 'generation n technology,' its role is to fix the problems of n - 1, but keep the good stuff," Buxton told BIF attendees in October. "But what about that? That's also a value judgment. It's all about ethics. It's all about values."

Bing Me Values

No question, user interfaces and the experiences they bring are all about values -- the values of a country, society or corporation. Search is intrinsically about values, because the search engine makes a value judgment about what's important to the searcher. Perhaps I should say "values judgment." Often that value judgment is wrong, which is one of the points of Microsoft's Bing "Search Overload" marketing. Too often, keywords don't lead the searcher to what's important to him or her.

In the late 1990s, when Yahoo was a search leader, people hired by the company made the value judgments about search rankings. In this decade, Google's algorithm makes the value judgments, and not always around the most sensible criteria. I consistently find that in helping my daughter do background research for a history paper on the French Revolution that Google search leads to popular destinations that are meaningless for her topic.

Bing Bar -- and this week's exciting Bing Maps improvements -- are values-oriented products. They reflect changing Microsoft values about what constitutes good user-interface design and values for making search more meaningful. A common undercurrent for both -- and so long it must be topic of a future post -- is storytelling. I predict that storytelling will be a major Bing differentiator over Google search in the coming 12 months.

Funny aside: Bing Bar also is a confection. Here's one of many recipes on the Web for making Bing Bars. Or perhaps you'd like to buy a Bing Bar from Palmer Candy, which debuted the candy bar in 1923.

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