The Google+ revamp: Was design the problem anyway?

In the relatively short time since its launch last year, Google+ has built up a staggering following, which now stands at 170 million. This is an incredibly impressive growth rate and one which wholly reflects Google’s intentions for its flagship social media platform; to rival the giant in the field – Facebook. Despite its increasing popularity however, Google+ has been largely criticised since its launch, with user experience experts claiming that the network is clunky, poorly designed and difficult to navigate.

Perhaps it was such criticism that led Google to unveil an updated design of Google+ last week. The aim of the new design was to create “a simpler, more beautiful Google”, in keeping with the design of Google’s other services, creating a seamless Google experience. The main change brought about by the new design is increased potential for customisation. So what exactly did they change?

Design

Well the new Google+ follows another social media redesign fairly closely; that is of course Facebook’s timeline, which was introduced late last year. Although timeline has also received its share of criticism, some elements are immensely popular. Namely, the cover photo and larger photos on profiles. The $1 billion sale of Instagram to Facebook last week shows just how highly photos are valued these days by Facebook and its users (more on that later). It is a smart move therefore that Google have echoed the cover photo and pictures in their new design. Increased white spaces and greater focus on images make Google+ both modern and personal. Another feature is hidden icons, which show up when the cursor hovers over them, de-cluttering the layout.

Customisation

Another new addition is the navigation ribbon on the left hand side of the page. Icons such as “Home”, “Profile”, “Photos”, Hangouts” and “Games” can be rearranged by dragging and dropping according to the user’s preferences. The new design aims to increase its appeal in this way, by facilitating greater variation on the site. Further customization is also available in apps, which users can tailor to suit their needs.

Interaction

A small part of the increased white space on Google+ is allocated to an “explore” section. Not unlike Twitter, Google now shows users current trends. This section also includes a list of people “You may know” and things “You might like”, increasing scope for links and connections throughout the site.

Feedback on Google’s new layout sprung up all over the web in a matter of days. Many people feel that it makes good use of real estate and even say that it’s better looking than Facebook. However there are as ever those who disagree. Some think that good as Google’s efforts may be, it’s simply too late in the day for it to catch up with Facebook. The new design also most definitely misses a trick. Mobile is no longer the future, but is sharing a very substantial part of the present as far as internet time – and social media in particular – are concerned. The fact that Google haven’t even updated the mobile version of the service therefore is nothing less than short-sighted.

The increased white space on Google+ has also come under fire.  What Google intended to be refreshing and in keeping with the design of their other features has been widely criticized as a waste of space and a poorly thought out design. Social media critics have even gone as far as to mock the white space, with “#whitespace” trending on Twitter and a meme suggesting uses for this space becoming increasingly popular.

Such criticism of a seemingly well thought out re-design begs the question; was Google+’s problem really design in the first place?

Well opinions on Google+ have been split since the very beginning, but never to the extent that people don’t try it. We can tell just by looking at its insane growth rate that the problem for Google+ was never one of attracting new members. Some say that it’s less to do with Google+ itself and more to do with the social media market. Do we really need a new social network? Well the recent market value of Instagram alone shows that some new networks are starting up just fine! Content isn’t a problem either – thanks to the clear link to a pretty successful search engine, the Google “+1” button is popping up all over the place and is getting used, more in fact than any other social network promotion device.

So that leaves design. Just analysing the visual appearance of course misses out a vital aspect of design, one that Google engineers are very conscious of; their attention to coding is impeccable. We all know that Google have huge control of the internet and they know exactly how to code a site. Google+ is no exception and its speed is impressive. This, however is not the sort of design that appeals to the masses, who are unlikely to notice that they can post a fraction of a second faster on Google+ than they could on Facebook. In this day and age, it is appearance (online, at least!) that is vital. With smart phones, tablets, Instagram and so on, we take photos of anything and everything, making even the mundane look beautiful. So perhaps Google has just gone too far with the simplified design of its flagship.

It seems that there are simply too many factors at play to attribute problems for Google+ to design alone. Criticism is rife every time Facebook adapts its design, but that doesn’t deter users. Perhaps we are just expecting too much too fast from the huge name that is Google. After all, it really is only a matter of months since the launch, which isn’t at all long for a network aiming for such a broad appeal. Facebook was not built in a day, after all. Keep at it, Google, you’ve a way to go yet!

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