Google+ Designer: The 4 Problems In Social Networking That We Fixed

Andy Hertzfeld, one of the interface designers on Google+, explains how they zigged where other networks zagged.

Google+! Everyone's doing it! No seriously: it went from zero users to zillions in a matter of days. Not bad for a me-too social network entering a space already inhabited by two 900-pound gorillas.

Granted, just because of its sheer size and ubiquity, Google would have had no trouble populating its new social network even if it totally sucked. But it doesn't. Why? Surprisingly well-wrought experience design, for one thing. I spoke to Andy Hertzfeld, a designer and software engineer at Google who helped spearhead G+'s user interface, to zero in on four things that are wrong with social networks that the Googlers made sure to get right.

1. They're a pain in the ass to set up

Between Foursquare, Quora, Color, Stellar, and the rest, the only sane answer to "hey, we're launching a new social network!" is to groan loudly. As much as we all love self-obsessing on the Internet, setting up yet another profile and set of preferences and photos and friends is a huge hassle — even if you want to do it. Google knows this, which is why it made setting up Circles (G+'s analog to "friending" or "following") feel like fun, not like unpacking boxes in an empty house.

"We wanted to make a delightful experience that feels addicting."

"We wanted to make a delightful experience that rewards people — we wanted to make it feel addicting," says Hertzfeld, who took the lead on designing the Circles interface. Just like a video game, adding people to your Circles is a highly visual and physical process: you drag photos of people you know onto large, friendly-looking blue rings, which offer up springy, slot-machine-like animations when you let the mouse button go. (A tiny "+1" even pops out of the Circle and hovers in midair above it like a 1-UP in Super Mario Bros.) "You drop someone in, you want to do it again," Hertzfeld says. "Categorization can easily become tedious, and fun animations help add a twinkle in the eye, some whimsy to the process."

2. Video isn't casual (yet)

Videochatting may be everywhere now, but it still freaks a lot of people out because it's unnervingly intimate and the social norms for initiating contact still haven't been worked out. (Chatroulette, anyone?) Google+'s videochat feature, Hangouts, tries to make an end run around our skittishness by removing the phone-call-like experience and replacing it with a much more passive model where users can simply announce that they're "hanging out" and let others come to them. "The starting point for [designing] Hangouts is basic human nature: People love contact but they're shy about initiating it, especially with video," Hertzfeld explains.

But that interface idea needed a tweak: Even when joining passive "hangouts," users didn't like to suddenly appear onscreen with no warning — especially to themselves. "You'd be shocked at how you look when your webcam turns on when joining the Hangout, and you'd want to run for cover," he says. "We have a 'green room' now that's just for you, so you can get comfy, part your hair, whatever you want to do before before you're thrown into the full experience."

3. Sharing media takes too long
The videochat feature replaces a phone-call-like experience with a much more passive model.

Every social network has a different procedure for getting your pictures and videos into a status update, but even a relatively streamlined one like Facebook still has an annoying bottleneck: waiting for the damn stuff to upload. The whole point of pictures — and the whole appeal of sharing them — is immediacy. So Google+ offers an option in its mobile app called "Instant Upload" which simply uploads the pics and videos from your smartphone the instant you capture them. (It also auto-connects to your Picasa albums, if you have any.) By the time you've decided that a moment is worth sharing, the stuff will already be there — accessible instantly via a small but clear camera-shaped icon in the "Share what's new" textbox.

"Larry [Page, Google's co-founder and CEO] was a big proponent of streamlining that experience," Hertzfeld says. And don't worry about the Googleborg brainlessly mass-posting everything to your profile: the Instant Upload option isn't enabled by default, and even when it is, the insta-uploaded stuff isn't public. It's kept in a holding tank that only you can see, just so you can pull it out and share when (and if) you want to.

4. Privacy is paramount

Remember Buzz, Google's first social-media experiment that ended up in a Bay of Pigs-esque privacy fiasco? Yeah, so does Google. Which is why G+ can sometimes seem like an almost anti-social network, with privacy controls and displays festooned everywhere you look. Not only can you selectively undershare to whatever granular level of privacy you like via Circles, G+ also lets you see behind the veil (sort of) for everyone who shares stuff with you: each post in your Stream (G+'s version of a Facebook Newsfeed) has a little text tag in a grey typeface saying "Public" or "Limited." That clues you in to the sharer's intention. Click on it, and G+ will show you exactly who else is seeing the message. That way, if you comment on the post, you can be sure even those words are only for the right eyes.

Remember Buzz, and how it ended in privacy fiasco? Yeah, so does Google.

But with status updates and profiles being sliced and diced six ways from Sunday privacy-wise, it's probably easy to forget exactly who can see what when. So if you can't remember what Circle you put Joe Dudeguy into and what he can or can't see on your G+ profile page, simple: Just enter his name in a little text box called "View profile as..." and poof, you'll see exactly what Joe sees. No guessing. "We want to appeal to the mainstream user who has a low tolerance for complexity," Hertzfeld says, "and at the same time we have to respect privacy as strongly as possible. So every feature has privacy implications that we thought out. We would have done that anyway, but the Buzz experience elevated it."

Google+ probably won't be seriously threatening Facebook anytime soon, and Twitter is still different enough to maintain its dominance in certain specific use cases. But for a company that totally hosed its first foray into social networking not that long ago, Google has turned its fortunes around incredibly fast. "If you build it, they will come" doesn't work anymore for social networks. But if you build it right — then, just maybe you've got a real shot.

[Explore Google+]

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  • Ira

    Privacy?  Give me a break.  If I set a post as "Public" or any other setting, either intentionally or accidentally, Google does not allow you, the author of your own post and curator of all your posts, to edit that sharing setting.

    I realized that I have a few posts set as "Public" and now I cannot change the display settings of them.  Fail.

    "...little text tag in a grey typeface saying "Public" or "Limited." That
    clues you in to the sharer's intention. Click on it, and G+ will show
    you exactly who else is seeing the message."

    Clues are useless to me if I cannot manage what I am posting.

  • Aruna Sharan

    Embarrasing typo in the very first sentence below! "An" author, of course!

  • Aruna Sharan

    I deleted my Google+ account after only a few days. Reason? I'm a author using 3 different pennames and 3 different gmail accounts. Even though I registered for Google+ under only one of those pen names, it kept changing ALL my gmail accounts to that penname. I only discovered this when I checked one of my gmail "sent" folders -- and found out  it had been sent under the wrong name! And though I changed it to the right name, with a few hours it had changed right back to the wrong name. It seemes to want to have all my gmail accounts under the same profile name. No thanks!

  • J Man

    My feeling is the G+ interface is rather lame. Hello, design and typography! And didn't Google learn anything about antitrust from Microsoft's missteps?

  • Chris Ferdinandi

    Other than the last one about Privacy, I'm not sure I agree with any of these conclusions.

    Google's done a great job making their privacy setup transparent and easy to control. It's nothing you couldn't do with Facebook, but it's a hell of a lot easier on Google+.

    That said, setting up your profile is still a pain in the ass, adding friends to Circles isn't nearly as fun as you've made it sound, and video chat is video chat is video chat. And how is sharing media difficult on Facebook or Twitter? Couple that with the fact that - that's right - none of my friends are actually there, and Google+ seems kind of pointless at the moment.

    If someone's spent 5 to 7 years (as I have) posting and tagging photos of their friends on Facebook, what's the incentive to move to a network that does more or less the same stuff but looks prettier? That's a lot of work for no real net benefit.

  • Stein-Bjarne Johansen

    It is not that you cannot do the same in Facebook or Twitter, but G+ make it easy. All you have to do is a simple drag-and-drop. Try find the same in Facebook? Just disabling a game or cancelling a group is like going through a warm place... Changing profile photo is easy enough on Facebook given you have a new one, now go and change to one of your old ones. I tried the other day; took me a good half hour just to find out where.

    Group maintenance is mayhem in both at best and yes; I write things that are not ment for all people, and I write things that are simply not interested for some (say I discuss a functionality with fellow system developers, my mom or other frends would see that as noise).

    Now; the transparent security: G+ have a policy to delete whatever you want in your profile. Facebook have a policy to give a shit, and even state that they own whatever you post there. I.e. your pictures are not yours anymore when you put them out on FB :p

    And lets not forget that you can follow other people - see their public notes. That is not a feature Facebook have, but Twitter.

    Thanks Google, for making it easy, transparent and functionable where my interests are in focus. Half of my friends are over there already, and when open, rest will come for sure :D

  • Andrew Norris

    But surely very few of your friends will be using it as a photo album to go through all of their past photos? They will be looking at the new ones 99.99% of the time. In which case you could just post them on g+.  I agree with the point that not many of your friends will be there yet. But I've found most of mine are, if not more! I must have some trend loving friends quick to try new things? Not sure, but no kidding, they are mostly all there already and the ones that matter to me are responding to what I say. I also love the extra POWER I have over privacy, with features fb does not have, and like that a company takes it seriously for once. 

  • brian

    Not trying to be a smart ass, but wouldn't it make sense to have the google +1 button here?