Google+ usability shows promise, but still has a few hitches

Google+ looks unlike anything Google has ever produced, and that’s a good thing. Gone are the seemingly endless variations on blue color schemes and vain attempts at absolute minimalist design (see: Gmail, Google Calendar). In their place, Google has created a social network that’s not only attractive, but fun to use.

Yet there’s still plenty of room for improvement in Google+. As is typical for Google, the company is attempting some bold new ideas with the service. But, at least at the moment, not everything is working out well.

If Google can manage to smooth out Plus’s current usability quirks, it has a better chance of stealing away users from Facebook and cementing Plus as the next great social network.

I chatted with Patrick Neeman, director of user experience at Jobvite and creator of Usability Counts, about his thoughts on what works, and what doesn’t, with Google+’s usability.

The good: Circles and followers

Neeman praised the service’s interface, and in particular the Circles feature for grouping friends.

“There’s a few quirks, but what I like about the usability of Google+ is it doesn’t feel like a Google app,” he wrote in an email. “The Circles interface is phenomenal, and it makes me want to organize my friends. Facebook has a better algorithm for matching friends, but Google has a better look and feel, which is quite the flip.”

Many have noted that the Circles implementation, which is full of slick animations, is unusually elaborate for Google. Compared to the Spartan way you manage contacts in Gmail or add appointments in Google Calendar, Google+ Circles seem downright glitzy.

It appears that Google has realized that good usability isn’t just about making interfaces as simple as possible. By making friend grouping fun and engaging — overall making it more human — Google will likely be able to encourage more users to actually sort their friends. (VentureBeat’s Sean Ludwig recently listed Circles as something Google+ does far better than Facebook and Twitter.) Facebook’s friend lists, on the other hand, are a chore to deal with.

Neeman also thinks Plus’s use of a follower model is particularly ingenious: “The follower model is the best of Twitter. From a marketing standpoint, this is tremendous, and actually makes Google+ more of a threat to Twitter than Facebook. You still get Friends by matching people who you follow, but they follow you. But you can still build your personal brand by having people follow you.”

He says that he’s been able to drive a decent amount of traffic to one of his side projects, the UX Drinking Game, through Google+ posts alone, even though the service’s audience is still limited.

Just like Twitter, Google+’s follower model means there’s less pressure to follow everyone who follows you. That’s in stark contrast to Facebook, whose friend model assumes reciprocity. For Google+, this means that there’s less stress around dealing with your followers — instead you can just focus on sharing content and actually using the service.

Another Google+ feature Neeman is fond of, and which has earned Google considerable praise, is its emphasis on data portability. In the “Data Liberation” section of your Google+ settings, you can download all of your data from the service, as well as data from individual sections (like your contacts and Circles). Good luck trying that trick with Facebook.

Next page: The bad, mobile apps and sparks

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