Thursday, April 12, 2012

Upstream: On the Google+ "Makeover"

Screenshot of New Google Plus

The #newgoogleplus is a pain, to say it nicely.  I love Google Plus, but I'm honestly appalled.  So now I have to explain why, I guess.  However, I am somewhat hopeful this post will become out of date as soon as I post it, when Google gets negative feedback and responds.  But I've become less optimistic than I was initially.  Much of the feedback so far has been positive, both in the press, and judging by the #newgoogleplus hashtag.  However, the user reactions tagged with #newgoogleplus were not all positive; in fact, there was quite a lot of discussion of #whitespace, a reference to the new interface's perceived too-much-white-space, especially (allegedly) on big screens.  This doesn't seem surprising to me, as looking at the new Google Plus, I suspect the team is trying to take a cue from mobile design, and mobile device screens are small.  I'm not sure that the #whitespace complaints, however negative, are really the kind of negative feedback I want people to be submitting to the Google Plus team.  Though I do think it is an issue, for me, the #whitespace issue is only one problem.  I fear that more detailed or better feedback will get lost behind feedback that makes for a good meme (#whitespace begot #usesforwhitespace and many ideas followed, my favorites being Occupy White Space and this one).  That being said, what follows is my attempt at "better feedback."  Please realize that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and although I believe that some beholders have better eyes, try not to get mad at me if you feel strongly one way or another.  Also, please be aware that the Google Plus changes include more than just visual changes (and some of the #newgoogleplus feedback did address this, namely Twitter & Facebook had a baby).

There's a story behind my loathsome reaction to the new Google Plus.  It has to do with me, and thus my reaction has to do with me, but not all of my reaction is about me personally.  I figure I'll start with the me part though:

Upstream

This is my old Google Plus home; since I am unable to provide a screenshot, I give you an artist's rendition; the artist is me, so I do apologize about the lack of discernable skill:

Old Google+ Home

On the top is the Google navigation bar:  the black one on the top, not the Google Plus bar directly below it.  Anyway, it's ugly, but it shouldn't go away, or get prettier.  It draws attention to Google's many products, and should appear in every Google product so as to attract attention to Google as a whole.  Everything below that bar is beautiful.  Beautiful is a real buzzword these days, but it sounds cheesy to me, so from now on I'm going to use the phrase "really good looking." Everything below the navigation bar is really good looking.

Below the Google Plus logo and below the picture of me (that stick figure is me), are my streams.  There's a main stream, and then there are streams for each one of my circles.  It's not necessarily self-explanatory that by clicking "Stream" you are viewing the main stream, but the main stream is where you are taken to when you arrive at Google Plus, so this isn't an urgent issue.  I think users understand that there is a main stream.

My circles require some explanation:  my "Shortwave" circle is like a "Close Friends" circle, and my "Longwave" circle is like an "Acquaintances" circle.  It's basically just code:  a shortwave has a higher frequency than a longwave, so those who I want to hear from more frequently I put in the "Shortwave" circle.  It's more accurate:  Danny Sullivan, of Search Engine Land and Marketing Land, is in my "Shortwave" circle, though I do not know him personally.  My "Google" circle is for all the Google Plus pages of the various teams within Google.  My "Celebs" circle is for celebrities.  I think it has two people in it right now and they're Hank Green and John Green of the Vlogbrothers.  (I'm so cool.) The other two circles, "Following" and "News," are pretty self-explanatory.

I have it set so that "everything" from my "Shortwave" circle appears in the main stream, "most things" from "Following," "fewer things" from "Longwave," fewer from "Celebs," and "nothing" from both "Google" and "News," since both of those I check manually, very often in the case of "News" and not so often for my "Google" circle (sorry Google).  Why am I telling you this?  I am telling you this to give you a sense of how one could have a use for more than two circles, and how one could possibly want easy access to those circles.  Or rather, I'm telling Google this (are you listening?) because it is apparent from the new Google Plus that this is not apparent to them.  The following screenshot shows how stream navigation has changed in the new Google Plus, and more specifically, it shows how I experienced the change initially:

Stream Navigation in the New Google Plus

All my circles, save "Shortwave" and "Following," initially, were hidden under "More."  Both of those circles feed into my main stream, so I don't often click on them.  That left the circles that I actually need easy access to hidden under "More."  That's a bad user experience, if you ask me.  I later found out that I can customize this, so the two circles that I need easy access to are shown, while the others are hidden.  The two.  Only two.  See a problem here?  Not to mention the customization I did wasn't exactly intuitive.

Having just two circles easily accessible actually works pretty well for me, but others may not be able to say that.  You could argue that "normal people" only want two circles within easy reach, but I don't think wanting, say, three within easy reach qualifies you as "abnormal."  A "normal" person might want "Friends," "News," and "What's Hot" within easy reach, for instance.  And about that "What's Hot" stream:  it's now called "Explore," and although you can set it to feed into your main stream in the exact same way you do a circle, it has been moved out of the stream navigation and into the "ribbon," making it less intuitive to just go to Google Plus and access great content.

I'll concede that at some point, people who use a product in crazy ways need to be ignored.  You can't please everyone.  But what Google Plus has done doesn't allow for even the slightest bit of flexibility.  What would allow for a reasonable amount of flexibility is if the streams remained on the side with room for various user "types."  Having them on the top greatly reduces room for flexibility.

It is evident why stream navigation was moved to the top.  The new "ribbon" now occupies the side, making it the centerpiece of interaction.  About that ribbon…

Who Needs a Logo?

I do not like the ribbon.  Even if it didn't ruin how I access content on Google Plus.  But maybe that's just a matter of opinion.  Sort of.  It probably could have been implemented better.  Specifically, I don't like how the ribbon and the Google Plus bar flow into one another.

Google Plus Bar and Ribbon Flow Into Each Other

Tentatively, I'm going to say that an improvement that could be made is to get rid of the Google Plus bar, stick a shortcut for search on the ribbon, and move the Google+ notification counter, account menu, and share button to the black navigation bar.  I wouldn't know where to put the logo though.  And that still doesn't solve the stream problem.

"Cards"

Posts on Google Plus are now contained in "cards."  They look like this:

"Cards".

Or, with my annotations, they look like this:

Lines

It just seems like a lot of lines. Also, the post section and comments section have different widths, because the comments are now an always open drawer.  I'm not a fan of this style, but I think it could have at least been better executed.  Add a little depth; make it look a little 3D.

Not to mention, I hate this shape:

Speech Bubble Shape

White Space

I think the white space thing is a problem, but the problem isn't necessarily white space; it's distribution of white space:  things should be more centered, basically.

Google, We Need to Talk

It is clear from the changes that the Google Plus team sees a real need for change.  They want to make Google+ more attractive to potential users and they are working towards that goal by both differentiating themselves (emphasis on hang-outs, the "Explore" feature) and following in the footsteps of others ("Trending on Google+", "Timeline-esque" profiles).  They wanted an interface that is better equipped to welcome new features, and we can't blame them for that.  But I happen to think it is possible to do all that, without throwing away the perfectly good, really good looking interface that I came to see as synonymous with Google Plus.

How do you feel about the new Google Plus?  Feel free to converse below.

April 14, 2012:  This post has been edited to add an overall screenshot of the new Google Plus. This screenshot is the top-most screenshot in this post.

UPDATE April 14, 2012:  Remember when I said "try not to get mad at me if you feel strongly one way or another"?  Well, I'm not saying anyone got mad at me, but clearly I feel strongly one way, and I talked to a friend who feels strongly another.  In the interest of a more balanced discussion— and he basically is forcing me to do this ;)—I will list some things I like about the new Google Plus changes.  I like that the "Share" button on posts and the +1 button on brand pages are more prominent, I like the "Trending on Google+" feature and other discovery features, I think I like the new profiles (even though they borrow from Facebook a bit), and I've heard that the performance of the site is better and responds faster to user interaction.  And I also love Google Plus, and I still do, though my unadulterated admiration for the network is currently suspended when it comes to certain aspects of the site.