Google Plus… or Minus (Part1)

July 26th, 2011 by Steve Tengler Leave a reply »

–Steve Tengler is Altia’s User Experience Director. This post is part of a series where he reviews Google’s new social network, “Google Plus”. This is part one of the series.–

My wife is an avid reader — with a capital “A”. I, on the other hand, love an engaging movie. Ironically the most recent one I’ve seen is “The Social Network” (2010). In case you’ve lived in a cave the last year, the film provided some insight into the founding of Facebook and, in essence, made Mark Zuckerberg (CEO and founder) look brilliant, thieving and semi-heartless. But if you delve one level deeper than the personal attacks, you will find some lessons in that film, which would have been valuable for Google as they launched their newest competitor in the genre of social networking: “Google+.” Some of these lessons were heeded; some were not.

If you’ve read any of the techie blogs, most investigators think Google+ is the best thing since the iPad, but I’m not sure five years from now it’ll be anywhere beyond Buzz and Wave (Google’s two previous forays into the Land of Online Chatter) because of some of those missed cinematic lessons.

Make It User-Friendly Rather Than Sexy

I’d be remiss if I didn’t start my usability blog with the reference in the movie about making it easy for all to use.

Google started down that path by essentially replicating the user interface of Facebook (see below). Same look, same feel, same usability, right? Not entirely. They added some other features to the overall service – Circles, Stream, Sparks, and Hangouts – that have differences in usability such that each deserves a specialized glance with a usability microscope.

Google+ dialogue looks a lot like FaceBook’s format

Google+ dialogue looks a lot like FaceBook’s format

This is the feature I’ve seen the reviewers get the most excited about when discussing Google+. With Circles, you can categorize your contacts into various, self-defined buckets, and then receive and send information to and from those buckets. The raving about this feature has been mostly positive because of the usability issue this addresses within Facebook: the inability to easily filter and, therein, provide both selective-privacy and selective-gathering. For instance, if your Uncle Bob sends you 1001 requests for some idiotic Facebook game or “checks-in” via Foursquare at every Point of Not-So-Interest, you are faced with few options to filter Uncle Bob including defriending him, a decision wrought with familial repercussions.

So is Circles a cool feature? Certainly. Does Circles have some usability issues? Definitely.

For example, take a look at the squares below.  Can you tell me which of the contacts in these squares I’ve dragged into which circle and which ones have been ignored? (Yes, contacts can be in more than one circle or no circles at all.)  No, you cannot.

Furthermore, I accidentally pulled a contact into the wrong circle — and the fact that the contacts essentially disappear into the circle makes that potentially critical error something difficult to uncover. Consider a person who has hundreds of contacts. It would be impossible to remember if they had binned everyone, especially since a contact list includes people from various walks of life and shall grow asynchronously over time.

Managing your circles can be a tad clumsy

Managing your circles can be a tad clumsy

In the movie, Zuckerberg et al started with just Harvard students, learned some lessons about user wants (*including “relationship status”, which humorously seems to be a profile item Google+ has missed). He then applied what he learned before expanding to other places, i.e. Beta testing. If that were done here, maybe this page would’ve included abilities to color-code the circles, arrange them by some order (e.g. alphabetical, frequency of use, number of people), and identify the squares already binned into various circles, per my rendering below.

What about a color coding option?

What about a color coding option?

Another area of usability with respect to Circles is the recruitment of folks to join your Circles, so as to seed the information flow. The three Google+ “atta-boys” I’ve seen for this are:

  • The leveraging of Gmail accounts to reuse known information (i.e. existing email addresses, images associated with those email accounts from Android phones … ironically plucked many times from Facebook).
  • The ability to hit the virtual “RESET” button for long-time Facebook users that wish to conveniently redefine their online, social circles (i.e. you could forget to include Uncle Bob “by accident”).
  • The alleviation of fear about whether or not a Friend Request will be accepted (since you need not ask permission to bucket your contacts within Google+).

All of these kudos are 100% heartfelt – well done, Google!

That said, when I’m looking to find someone with whom I’ve lost contact, Facebook gets the edge on usability since they provide hints (e.g. number of overlapping contacts) and suggest possible friends based upon statistical likelihoods. For instance, Jeffrey Wade is a guy with whom I graduated high school prior to invention of email (yikes!). I’ve never lived in Hong Kong, but I’d have a good indication from Facebook’s results that he’s the top selection since I can check the 15 mutual friends and recognize they are all former classmates. Google+’s usability leaves me in utter ignorance and, therefore, I wouldn’t invite that Jeffrey Wade to join Google+ and wouldn’t expand my Circle(s).

FaceBook results on the left, G+ results on the right

FaceBook results on the left, G+ results on the right


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