Google+ hands on: Laboured stuff

What every start-up works on is the user’s experience in the first few minutes — seconds even — that they are using their application. What do you see? How easy is it to join? Can you get your profile set up in less than a minute? Can you get your picture on your profile in seconds, edited, and move on?

Try it on Twitter or Facebook or any of a multitude of sites and you’ll see what a slick, well-oiled operation is. Developers and designers will stand over pages with stopwatches trying to get the sign-up process to happen as quickly as possible.

Google+ shows that Google is not a start-up. My invite arrived in email: an eager click later and I was being told that I couldn’t join Google Plus — despite the invite — because I was using a profile in a corporate Google account. But isn’t Google meant to be for corporate sharing too? Oh, never mind.

I switched to another browser, and logged in to my personal Google Mail account. I put in the URL from the invite.

“Oops! You don’t have a profile!” it chided. We’re already at the point where, if Google were a start-up, 50% of would-be joiners would have given up and gone back to Twitter, or Facebook, or reading a news site.

I created a profile — though it burped at my CV, insisting that I had used “invalid years”. (Perhaps it’s because I’d had a job in the 1990s. Look, even Google was started in the 1990s.) Upload a photo? Sure. I’ll try. No, it didn’t like my photo. Never mind, you don’t need to have a photo in your profile.

That done, I pasted the invite link into the browser. Hurrah! It worked. Wait, what’s this? I’m being asked to upload a profile photo “so people can recognise it’s you”. Fair enough. I grabbed a photo, cropped it smaller, and uploaded it.

Or tried to. Much twirling icons later, it decided the photo was too big (or that “something is wrong with your internet connection, or it is not a valid image file”. Thanks for insulting my internet and my photo, Google.). I shrank it. It accepted it. Then it wanted me to crop it — again. I did. It pondered this for a while. I gave up.

At this point, if Google were a start-up, it would have lost precisely 99.999% of every would-be joiner. Getting photos uploaded is the most fundamental thing you have to be able to do, and every start-up knows it. (Twitter’s upload works like butter.)

So because I’m doing this for you, dear reader, I abandoned the photo side. Now we have the introduction. Bear in mind that I now felt unfavourably disposed towards Google+. This is not a good place for any internet service to be in.

You’re now presented with three choices: “Circles”, “Hangouts” and “Sparks” — respectively, the not-necessarily-overlapping groups of people who you know; a shared webcam chat-room; and a feed of data from interests you may have.

The “Circles” idea initially looks promising. You see a list of your contacts from email, who you can add to “circles” (which are nicely animated: you pull the name into a circle, and it rotates neatly to fill up). You can add more circles as you like, and put the same person into more than one circle. That’s really neat, I thought; this is a clever way to categorise people, and stop what I do or say from bumping into each other.

But the horror comes when you scroll down and — if you have any number of contacts — discover that there are huge numbers of people. Helppp! Do these all have to go into a Circle? Quite quickly the Circles dashboard starts looking like the cabin of a 747 — all those buttons and dials, and one gets the uncomfortable feeling that you’re never quite going to be finished with doing it. In which case, might it be simpler not to start at all?

Again, that’s not a feeling that one should be feeling when standing on the threshold of a new service. The competition in this space — which really boils down to Twitter and Facebook — is ferocious, and ferociously evolved.

Twitter is the pinnacle of brevity: your profile can’t be more than 140 characters. Write that up, and it will suggest some people or organisations you might like to follow. For Facebook, you have to take a bit more time, but that’s your life you’re putting in there — and then it will offer to import your address book and link you with people. And even if you don’t, it will search for your email address in friends’ address books, and suggest you link up.

Circles, though, makes no pretence at knowing how you want to categorise people. It doesn’t even (and this is where Google has missed a trick) figure out who you correspond most with and offer those as the people you might want to put into Circles first.

So, let’s try a Hangout — my laptop has a camera, after all, and there is at least one other Guardian developer on the site (with whom I’m now having one of those conversations where you don’t actually converse). “Start a Hangout!” says the button. OK, I shall. Webcams ahoy! Unfortunately, my webcam was broken — though you can have a voice Hangout.

Sparks wants to be a feed of “interests” — but for me it was a signal failure. What we want in today’s high-speed world is a rapidly moving listing of the very latest news — the sort of thing you might find it you had a stream of information coming out of Google News, or (to mention it again) Twitter.

Instead … it’s a rather laboured-looking product that has over-tidy white space around very dull headlines which seem to be pulled in from all over the web. Why would I click on anything there? It’s actually too tidy — nothing looks urgent, and the lack of movement (whereas Twitter feels like a constantly evolving beast) means it has a static — in web terms, dead — feel.

Many of these criticisms apply of course because this is an entirely new service, and so there’s nobody there, and so it doesn’t seem to have any utility. No doubt when Facebook was only available at Harvard, or Twitter was still on its first thousand users, everything else looked better too.

But there are deeper issues too. Google hasn’t indicated that there are going to be an APIs — programming hooks that outside developers can connect to — which will let people develop “Google+” applications. By contrast, the reason why Facebook and Twitter are such successes, in terms of reach, is that they either use APIs or have built themselves so that they can go far beyond the desktop web.

Google+, with its complicated interface, strikes me as something which looks wonderful on a 21in screen, but once you shift on to a smartphone (which is where more and more people are going to experience the web) then it’s going to struggle to be useful. The real testing Google should have done — and it’s not clear whether they did — is on a smartphone. That’s the future. Right now I’m not convinced that Google+ is going to be part of it.

The Scores
User experience: 2/10
The beginning process — having to fill in long profiles, bad photo experience — is appalling.

Circles: 5/10
This could be a lot smarter if it were to offer people based on how often you email back and forth with them. People who only email you are obviously not “friends”. Google should be smart enough with algorithms to figure this out. The dashboard used to control can easily become too complex.

Hangout: 6/10
There’s a lot more potential in this. Used corporately, it could be something that would displace Skype in companies, especially those which have already adopted Google Apps.

Sparks: 3/10
Almost useless at present: there’s no sense that it’s about news, or anything.

Overall: 4/10
Not as bad as Buzz — which ignored privacy altogether — and Circles is a clever idea. But “being social” isn’t just about involving lots of people in things. It’s also about getting out of the way. The irony is that Google’s biggest product, its search page, is a classic of simple design. But everything else it does becomes too complicated. Google+ might work better if it tried to do less, and then built it up.

Time will tell, but if I were offered the choice of this or Facebook, I’d take Facebook. But I’d take Twitter’s simplicity and speed over both. –

Charles Arthur
Charles Arthur works from Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino. Journalist, speaker, moderator. The Guardian’s Technology editor 2009-14. Coming May ‘18: Cyber Wars, on hacking. Prev: Digital Wars: Apple v Google v Microsoft Charles Arthur has over 74656 followers on Twitter.

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