Google+ projectGoogle+ 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

The bad: News feed and people search

Anyone who has used Google+ for a significant length of time will tell you that the service’s news feed can get a bit unwieldy. Neeman agrees: “Every time someone replies or comments on a post, that post goes to the top of the feed. This is just annoying, and contributes to the (Robert) Scoble effect (he’s at top of my feed all the time). I don’t really want to block Scoble and Chris Brogan, but I almost have no choice. “

He suggests a filtering model for tech celebrities and other high-profile users that will only show their posts when viewed inside of Circles. At the moment, you can mute individual posts that get too noisy in your news feed, but this is only available post-by-post.

Since the news feed is one of the most prominent features in Google+, it’s imperative that Google ensures this feed doesn’t make the service too intimidating to use.

Neeman notes that Plus’s algorithm for finding people is sort of useless at the moment since not everyone has access to the service. “Facebook has an advantage because they have years of data about the friends and looking at patterns,” he wrote. “That’s why they have been hiring Google engineers: to analyze all that data.” Eventually, he predicts that Google’s algorithm will improve once Plus opens up to the broader public.

The fact that Google+ is still fairly closed off makes it difficult to truly compare the service to competitors. Neeman suggests that Google should just “swing for the fences” by making Plus fully open.

Mobile apps and Sparks

In addition to the above, there are two aspects of Plus’s usability worth focusing on: mobile apps and Sparks. On the mobile side, Google delivers plenty of usability. The company didn’t waste any time in delivering a native Android and mobile web version of Google+, and these mobile versions let Google+ users do just about everything on their phones that they could on their computers. And only a few weeks after the service launched, Apple approved Google’s native iOS Google+ app.

The mobile offerings are slick and offer some nifty features of their own, such as the automatic photo uploading in the Android app. The iOS Google+ app, in particular, can hold its own against other well-designed iPhone apps. The attention to detail on the mobile side shows that Google is thinking about all aspects of usability on the Google+ ecosystem. Other Google services, like Gmail and Google Calendar, still have to rely on web apps on the iPhone, instead of more functional native apps.

Then there’s Sparks, which for the most part is an innocuous bundle of links that sits on the left side of your Google+ interface. It’s populated with interests you plug in when you sign up for Google+, and you can also add more at your leisure. The feature is meant to serve as an easy way to follow news and generate conversation with friends on Google+, which sounds worthwhile until you realize they’re just a poor excuse for RSS feeds.

Usability-wise, it’s unclear what users are supposed to do with Sparks, as well where the links its generating are coming from. For me, it’s the weakest aspect of Google+, and I’ve yet to find someone who can champion the feature. Google needs to be more clear about what users need Sparks for — otherwise it’s just a distraction from other, more useful, Google+ features.

Overall, and despite its quirks, Google+ seems to be a significant step forward for Google in terms of design and usability. We’re already seeing similar design changes in Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google search. I’m hoping Google keeps its eye on design for other upcoming products, and that some of Google+’s playful design will rub off on the future of Android.

After landing 20 million visitors in less than three weeks, it’s clear that something is driving consumers to Google+. It’s too early yet to tell how much an increased focus on design and usability has helped the service — but at this point, it seems clear that it certainly didn’t hurt.

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