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Like every other geek in the world, I was intrigued by the prospect of a social network based on Google’s platform. Once I was in, I found it a bit underwhelming. What’s a platform without content, right? Skip ahead a few weeks and the opposite is true. It feels cluttered, messy, confusing, overwhelming. And I lay the blame firmly at the feet of Google’s recruitment practices.
The proposition is simple: Google+ is a social network built on the foundation of what you do and who you know. I’ll leave off the qualifier of the word ‘online’ because, well, d’uh. The problem with the execution is how heavily it relies on Google Contacts for the who you know bit. This ‘product’ is so messy and error-prone that I still consider it to be an alpha.
For starters, there’s no easy way to handle duplicate contacts within Google Contacts. But Google+’s recommendations for who you could connect with are driven by the information in your Google Contacts. As a result, Google+ suggests that I should add people who are already in my circles. In fact, not only are they in my circles, they appear multiple times over! So apart from any other considerations I might have, I’m already mistrustful of what I see and reluctant to lose time to a product that doesn’t try hard enough to understand me.
Then we get to the actual presentation of content. As I said before, it’s cluttered. It’s messy. It isn’t always clear who’s saying what. My friend is going to Burning Man? Cool! Oh, wait, no, it’s a post my friend has shared from some other guy who I don’t know and don’t really have the time or inclination to get to know. And therein lies the rub.
Recently a friend who uses both Facebook and Google+ asked, on Facebook, why so many of his friends have been so slow to dive into Google+. He had to ask on Facebook because the answer on Google+ would have been the lonesome sigh of the solitary tumbleweed rolling across dusty plains.
The torrential response on Facebook — my own included — can be summed up thus: Facebook is where all my friends are.
For many people, especially the early adopters, Facebook is the living, breathing representation of thousands of hours of emotional investment. When Google+ presents much the same offering, why on earth would anyone decide to write off that investment, leave their friends behind and start again on another social network? At best, your friends would follow you and share in the pain of acclimatisation to a new world that though different, is not much better than what they previously knew.
Google+ is hard work. It’s confusing and frustrating. It’s unsettling and unclear. Somehow, a product that’s meant to connect people leaves this user with a sense that the world is suddenly more fragmented and harder to keep track of.
How do you design for alienation while still giving the impression of sociability?
One experience stands out as a very simple metaphor for how Googlers view the world of users. I was with a group of friends celebrating a friend’s birthday. It’s the kind of social occasion where you don’t know everyone there but you get to talking and pretty soon the distinct boundaries of your friendship circles start to blur. With any luck you leave knowing more people than you did when you arrived.
In this case, not so much. A group of Googlers came in, talking avidly about something. One of them sat next to me. I waited for a reasonable break in their conversation, smiled and introduced myself. My neighbour smiled vaguely, gave me her name and quickly ascertained that I was not a fellow Googler. Then she turned her back on me and resumed the Google conversation. They ordered, ate and carried on with the party without once adapting their discussion to account for the social context.
And that, to me, sums up the Google approach to product design. It’s preening, insular and massively self-congratulatory of its own cleverness. Without doubt, there was a lot of cleverness at that table — but not much in the way of empathy. Googlers design for Googlers, often with breath-taking naiveté.
Now, I know the behaviour of a handful of people observed in a single evening does not a quantifiable survey make. But it’s undeniable that a company’s products represent the personality of its people. And if Google continues to hire the best engineers, regardless of whether they know how to talk to other human beings, it will continue to turn out products that don’t quite solve everyday problems. You need only take a single look at startups like Rapportive to realise how far off the mark Google’s understanding of context really is.
I’ll continue keeping half an eye on Google+, but it will take a fair bit more than the current offering to convince me that it is a necessary addition to my life.