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.
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.