Why Change Google+?
Many of us are wondering what’s behind the changes now rolling out on Google+. Reactions seem mixed. For what they’re worth, here are my reflections on what is happening.
Design Unification as Cost Containment
One thing that’s clear is that the new desktop experience now maps much more closely to the mobile experience. At one level, this represents the “mobile first” philosophy now driving many web services. Mobile usage of the web is overtaking desktop usage, so firms are now leading with mobile designs.
But wait, you ask, doesn’t Facebook continue to offer a very different desktop user experience than its mobile experience? Yes, astute observer, that is correct. They do. But remember too that Facebook has a very lucrative revenue stream that more than warrants that investment. You see, maintaining two very different user interfaces may not necessarily be twice the work, and twice the cost of maintaining one.
Google+ does not have that direct revenue stream for Google. Its revenues come indirectly through assisting Google in better serving end users in ways that get monetized by the company’s primary revenue engine, which is of course, search. So, given that there are no direct revenue streams, it makes sense that Google would want to try to contain some of the costs of keeping this network going. The good news is that they are keeping it going. User interface unification is just one of the ways that they are trying to contain costs while doing that. And in a mobile-first world, the desktop needs to accommodate mobile – not the other way around.
Design Simplification for Scale
One of the things I’ve loved, I mean absolutely loved about Google+ is that it was sort of a power-user’s service. Over the years, I’ve figured out how to use this service in very powerful ways to get at information I really want and to build connections with people who share a lot of interests with me.
All that power came at a bit of a cost, however, and that cost was complexity. Let’s face it: Google+ really wasn’t that easy to master. Over the years, there have been massive problems with “on-boarding” users onto the service. This problem would show up as lots of user profiles without any usage. Profiles without posts. For many of us who have learned to embrace the service, it’s obvious how to use it. But the truth is that it was a complex service.
That complexity gave us power, and much of the lamenting (see prime example by this whiner: https://goo.gl/r23nqX) is really us power users dreading the loss of our power tools.
So, why simplify? Why would Google feel the need to simplify this user interface so much? Well, part of it goes back to the cost containment point I mention above. Simpler means less user problems and less user complaints. But that’s not the real driver here.
The real driver is reach. Google knows that it has an opportunity here. Facebook long ago locked up the social network graph, but what Google has the opportunity to still win is the interest graph – the place you go to share interests with other people (I’ve been talking about this for a while: https://goo.gl/lrxIj6). The company is now really wrapping itself around this opportunity. Shared interests are the whole organizing principle around which the new design is based.
The key to success is to make a massive push, much of it in the developing world actually, to draw people into this newly revitalized place to share interests with one another. You can do all sorts of promotion to try to bring that about, but none of that does any good if the service is too complicated to allow easy and quick adoption. That is what this new design is all about: building new adoption, so that Google actually has a shot at beating Facebook (and to a lesser extent Twitter – they have their own, and much more serious, complexity issues).
So, yes, dear power users, many of our favorite power tools are going away. I’m sad too. Truly I am. But here’s the good news: not only is Google+ not going away – the company is doubling down in an effort to grow this network, based on a new, and greatly simplified user value proposition:
Scale for Training Artificial Intelligence
And so, before closing, allow me to offer one more, much more speculative, observation.
I am becoming increasingly convinced that Google is turning itself into an artificial intelligence (company). One of the key assets it brings to this challenge is its massive user base of people searching for and interacting with information. In this sense, Google+ becomes another extremely important source of artificial intelligence training.
As we group and cluster things into our collections and communities, we are telling Google about how we humans organize the world of ideas. More than that though, we are building connections between those ideas and each of us. We are, in short, building an interest graph that the company can map to its knowledge graph. Through those connections between people and ideas, all kinds of amazing information becomes possible. It helps the company know what kinds of people care about what kinds of topics, as well as what kinds of people know about what kinds of topics. And both of those are very important things to know when you are a company that is using “Internet-scale” software to harness the power of people to train artificial intelligence.
The key is Internet scale. And that means getting lots of people using the service. That is why Google is changing Google+
Product Director at Google, Luke Wroblewski notes in the comments below that the team is “trying to support advanced user features but working to find the right place for them. The Circle Settings referenced above is a good example. Still there but not front & center for everyone.”
That’s encouraging. Sounds like it may be about providing options to add back in the more advanced features in certain cases, for those who choose to.