Almost all day on Monday, workers across America were forced to do their jobs. With Google services–including the very important Google Hangouts (which includes the little chat boxes in Gmail you use to talk with friends) down–we were left to think about the services we are being paid to provide. It was horrible. Hangouts finally came back online in the afternoon, but the mess got us thinking: why is this service so primitive and poorly designed?
Our main gripes with the service, and some possible solutions, are as follows:
Google Hangouts can be used from all kinds of different apps, like Adium or Pidgin or Apple Messages (formerly iMessage). But most people use it from within the Gmail web browser as little chat squares. These chat squares are egregiously intrusive.
In every other chat client, multiple chats are condensed into a single window, with a list of open chats on the side somewhere. Google doesn’t do this, for some reason; instead, each chat gets its own separate window, which means that by the time you have two or three chats open, your entire screen is taken over by these windows.
A related problem: you can minimize the windows, but they merely drop to the bottom of your screen. When you get a chat, they glow and blink and try to get your attention. When they’re not minimized, they make it essentially impossible to actually read email, since your screen is blocked by the chats.
The easy solution to this: condense everything into one tab. Google has already organized the inbox into a few different tabs–primary, social, and promotions are the default–and it would be so easy to just add another one, chats, as a fourth tab. In that window, Google could condense and streamline and make it easy to use chats. Google would have a whole tab open to play with: you could have that single window with multiple chats. You could have logs and videos and larger boxes in which to type. And when you want to check your email, you could just click on one of your inbox tabs. (As for notifications, Google’s tabs already tell you when you get new email, so it’d be no trouble for this new, theoretical chat tab to tell you when you’ve got new chats.)
Gmail has leapt past Hangouts in terms of embedding; in Gmail, it’s easy to embed photos or videos or files, and of course easy to send all that stuff as attachments. In Hangouts, that stuff is either impossible or broken. YouTube videos do technically embed, usually, but not always, and nobody would really want to watch them in the chat window due to the tiny size. (In my dream separate-tab world, the window would be big enough to embed lovely large videos.) If you drop a link to an image into a chat window, the other person will receive… a link to an image. Why doesn’t it automatically embed? No idea. Other chat apps, like HipChat and Campfire, can do this without a problem. Same thing with tweets: Hangouts should automatically embed a tweet when you send a link to a tweet.
Sending files over an instant-messaging platform has been difficult and wonky ever since the days of AOL Instant Messenger, but there’s no reason for that to continue now. Google Hangouts even has the ability to easily send files, but you have to have downloaded the separate Google Talk app, which most people haven’t done. Boo! Too complicated! Just let us send files.
This problem, too, could be solved by consolidating all of the Hangouts stuff into one tab of Gmail. In its own tab, it could have dedicated menu buttons and controls, rather than smooshing all that stuff into Gmail’s main sidebar. (Have you ever tried to find your chat transcripts? Why are they buried next to your spam folder?)
Google has something pretty remarkable going with its Hangouts chat; despite the design, which at best is simplistic, it’s managed to worm its way to the top of the instant messaging heap. And Google, to its credit, has made some good strides in consolidating all its chat options into the “Hangouts” brand. But an awful lot of people use the instant messaging from within Gmail, where the service is at its worst: clunky, poorly designed, ugly, and limited in function. The Hangouts app on iOS recently got a nice full makeover; let’s hope Hangouts within Gmail follows soon.