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After nearly two months of Google+ exploration, the time has finally come: the Early Majority is nipping at the Adopter heels, and G+ is on the brink of going viral in a big way. While being amongst the first was cool in its own right, I’m excited to see what happens when G+ really penetrates the masses over the coming year. I’ve spent enough time exploring and testing the system to understand its pros and cons, and I have some ideas as to where Google is headed with its social networking baby.
At first glance, the G+ UI looks much like Facebook. The homepage (“Stream”) left rail is full of links that give the user access to their contacts, groups (“Circles”), and other feeds (“Sparks”), and their chat list (if activated). It looks like Google wanted to work with the paradigm that Facebook has now ingrained in its users (a wise decision), but they do stray from FB stylings in other, well thought-out ways. One of their best breaks from the FB paradigm is in how they deal with managing groups of contacts and friends – also known as Circles.
I believe the Circle concept is the strongest and most central part of what makes the G+ user experience so successful. When you first start up G+, you’re prompted to create Circle groups. To create a Circle you simply select a contact and then drop that contact into one of your Circles. The UI allows you to see your Circles and contact lists. If you’re a Gmail user, most of your contacts will already be listed as recommended contacts. You can add anyone in your contact list, too – if they’re not on G+ yet, they will be sent an invite to join once you add them to the desired Circle. Have a contact you only know by posting on their blog? Drop them into the default Circle titled “Following”. Have a friend contact? Add them to the default Circle titled, you guessed it, “Friends”.
Creating Circles of contacts is insanely easy and kind of fun. As you add more contacts to a Circle, a cool little animation rolls the contact around the Circle like an old rotary phone dial. It’s a nice touch that adds to the UX and overall playful feel of G+. The full power of the Circles concept and posting becomes evident in the G+ home newsfeed known as the Stream.
The G+ Stream is like Twitter and Facebook’s news feeds rolled into one. Let’s say that you’re like me – you use Twitter to post links and info for your professional contacts and friends, and use Facebook to post links and info to your friends and family. In G+, it’s really easy to post to whatever social Circle you wish and only allow those people to see what you’ve posted in their Stream. So, if I’m posting a link to an article about web governance and I don’t want to bore my family (let’s be honest), I paste the link, add a blurb about the article, select my custom “UX Folks” Circle, hit Submit, and all the people in just my UX Folks group will see the feed in their Stream.
How is the G+ Stream like Twitter? Well, you can also post to the general public, allowing everyone to see. And, anyone can follow you and your posts on G+, too. What makes it different from Twitter is that you can post links and make comments without the restriction of 140 characters.
Think of a few things you’re interested in – movies, super cars, food, etc. Whatever your hobby or interest is, Google has a Spark news feed for you. When you add a Spark to your interests, that topic is added to a list of your Sparks on the left navigation bar. Clicking on one of my Sparks – Android – brings up a list of news and blog articles related to the Android OS.
The Sparks feature feels a little unfinished. It has value and is something that Facebook doesn’t really have, but I can see Google adding a lot more information than just a news feed of articles. I anticipate them tying Sparks with Google Maps and their search engine to localize information that pertains to your interests. It’s a good first step, but it’s not complete. Yet.
If you use Gmail’s chat, you’ll be instantly familiar with the chat in G+. Personally, I use Google Chat exclusively. It has features that allow users to IM phones, call phones, video chat and group chat. I usually have Gmail open in one window so I can see my incoming email and chat with friends. Because Google hasn’t quite linked up all their products with G+ (yet), there is a bit of a clogginess to the IM windows. If you have the G+ Chat enabled and Gmail’s chat open, you’ll get double-posts and at least one chime to let you know you have an IM, and sometimes posts don’t display in one chat window or another.
I’m sure that Google is aware of this poor UX and will fix it once they merge Gmail with G+, but it’s enough of a pain in the butt that I had to mention it. I recommend not enabling the Chat in G+ feature if you use Gmail and G+ at the same time.
I’m going to have to honest and plead ignorance on this feature – I have yet to use it once. I wasn’t able to find any G+ Hangout usage statistics, but I think that I’m probably in a large percentage on this one. And I think this is a decent example of how Google is looking forward. This isn’t something I see having much casual use for Google+ users. Yet. The big brains at Google don’t have to use too much processing power to know where things are going with video chatting.
So, I’ve been saying “yet” quite a bit in this article. The word “yet” has the future implied in its definition – it hints at things to come. See, Google is like China – it is large enough that it can plan and wait. They’re not worried that Facebook is still the go-to social network. Google knows that once their other products are hooked into G+, people will come around to it. With Gmail, Google Docs with cloud file storage, Google Talk and Gchat, Google Chromebooks, and their Android OS for phones, tablets and computers, Google has been building the foundations for an amazing social network. One could argue that even without Google+, they already have that social network through their other products. Google+ will become the glue that bonds all those other products together into one nice, neat package. Facebook, Twitter or any other social network can’t compare to that in the long-term. (Yet?)
I can’t wait to see where Google takes G+, and I realize a large part of its direction depends upon where Early Adopters like myself will push it. If you have any questions about G+ or ideas of where you think it’s headed, drop me a line below and I’ll get back to you.