10 August 2015

Inside Intercom: “Product lessons we can learn from Google+”

Of all the things we need to deal with in life, relationships with other people are the most complicated and messy. All the way from marriages to initial introductions. They involve the deepest of human emotions, from who we see ourselves as, how we project ourselves to others, what we desire, who we want to become, the groups we feel a part of, who and how we love, how we think about mortality. No wonder that social design is hard.

I believe that one reason behind the rise of WhatsApp is that it solves the “Circles” problem in a way that embraces the idea that life is messy. Whilst Circles, and indeed Facebook Lists and Facebook Groups, all assume that the group is the defining object, with clear boundaries, WhatsApp does not. Much of WhatsApp usage is group conversations but the subtle, critical difference is that these groups are typically not permanent or sustaining. It is not a stable set of people discussing multiple things in sequence over time. It is one-off combinations of people grouped together for something temporal, like an event, a concert, a party, a weekend away. The groups then decay gracefully. When necessary they are rebuilt from scratch. Often there is a defining event that brings a group of people together, people are added, they communicate, share content, it gets messy, but then it dies.

Paul Adams

An older article, but nevertheless relevant, now that Google Plus is openly scaled back and its more successful components were spinned off into standalone products. Maybe it’s a necessary step to regain much-needed focus, as the author of the article concludes, but it certainly looks like a retreat from the outside.

Part of the problem, I think, was how Google+ was designed in-house and top-down, by a secret team isolated from the rest of the company and outside feedback. Facebook is known for constantly testing new features on small sets of users and tweaking the NewsFeed to improve the experience based on their reactions. Google+ was never given that opportunity prior to launch (let alone afterwards, when it was forced upon Google and Android users, leaving little room for organic growth) and so it came to reflect the needs of Google engineers, not of the users it was supposed to attract.

Google Plus birthday
Vic Gundotra, Google’s former Senior Vice President of Engineering, talks about Google Plus at the Google I/O conference in San Francisco, Wednesday, June 27, 2012. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

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