Google Plus is beautiful now, clumsy still

Persistent usability problems stand in the way of real success for Google’s social network.

At this year’s I/O, Google announced a stunning remake of Google Plus that includes a host of upgrades to the product’s photo sharing. Despite any bold claims of user numbers, I anecdotally know that Google Plus hasn’t yet caught on. (I can tell because every time I log in, my hundred-plus followees have approximately zero updates.) But maybe photo upgrades, a functional overhaul of Hangouts and a gorgeous new look can together turn Google Plus’ fortune.

Maybe some day. But not yet.

Google Plus is, sadly, still exceedingly clumsy to use. And the clumsiness is the sort to turn away most users looking for a functional alternative to Facebook.

Google made a big point of Plus’ new automatic photo enhancing. As a part-time photography enthusiast, it kinda grossed me out; I spend hours tweaking colors to my liking, I’m not interested in a computer’s opinion of how my shots should look. But the attractive upgrades to photo presentation encouraged me to upload some photo albums of mine. Disappointingly, Google Plus enhanced every photo automatically, without so much as presenting me an opt-out. (There is a toggle buried in a pre-makeover setting menu to disable auto-enhance, but it’s not available at the point of upload.)

Preventing automatic photo “enhance” is as simple as digging to the bottom of your Google account settings.

After uploading and un-enhancing a few dozen photos, I wondered who could see them. Nobody can see them.

Plus’ genius method of dividing friends, family and coworkers into circles usefully advances the connections of social networks. And Google makes it very easy to organize which of your followees fits into which buckets. However, Google Plus isn’t as good with photos. Instinctively, I want to manage who sees my photos at the level of album or individual photo. But visibility is managed only at the time of sharing, not uploading. I could upload hundreds of photos and never know that only I can see them, simply because I didn’t follow my upload with a separate share action that then implied the visibility of those pictures.

There’re some mystery photo albums among the ones I’ve purposely created. “Profile Photos” I get, though I don’t know why Plus has created two albums with this name. One of the two has my cover photo. “Photos from Posts” also makes sense, but then what is “Scrapbook Photos”? And why does it have other cover photos I’ve uploaded, along with miscellaneous images I’ve uploaded to my timeline? Is that not what “Photos from Posts” is for?

My guess is that, in the two years of Google Plus product updates, Google changed the structure of automatic image albums somewhere along the way and left early adopters with a mess of nonsense organization. It’s not very clear, which contributes to Google Plus’ usability problem.

The new Plus desktop design intro’d a hide-away menu on the left side of the screen. This, too, is clumsy to use. In the upper-left corner is a breadcrumb-style heading for the current page. It looks clickable, like it should bring me to the top level of whatever I’m viewing. Top level profile, top level photo organization, top level community, etc.

But it doesn’t. That breadcrumb-style heading isn’t clickable. Or if it is, there’s no way to know because the hide-away menu expands on top of it as soon as my mouse cursor nears the faux button. The menu is not related to the context of the breadcrumb heading; it’s just a universal menu for Google Plus that jumps between my profile, my photos, my circles — all “my” things, regardless of whether or not I was browsing someone else’s profile, or exploring a community.

“Communities” (upper-left) looks like a clickable breadcrumb. It’s not. Try to click it and this unrelated menu appears (right).

At best, the hide-away nav is confusing. At worst, it takes me somewhere I didn’t want to go because the “Home” button at the top of the menu slid out in front of the breadcrumb-style “Photos” heading I intuitively tried to click.

I’ve accidentally clicked to the home feed a dozen times in the last week. And the home feed is also, sadly, a usability disaster.

The new Google Plus defaults to a multi-column view for feed content, which is a mess to consume unless all of the content is photographs. (Disclaimer: I’m biased against parallel columns of text on screens.) The optional single-column view doesn’t yet carry to community views, and anyway it doesn’t make very good use of screen space. Much worse, however, is Plus’ tendency to shuffle the order of content on the home feed. It seems every time I visit Plus, I see the same posts but in a randomly different order.

My best guess is that it “bumps” posts based on recent activity, like an old-school message board bumps threads when a new reply is made. But Plus seems to bump posts for trivial activity, like a +1 or an updated photo caption. And the bumped post doesn’t highlight the change that bumped it in the first place — it looks like the original post, just now mysteriously at the top of my feed even though it was originally posted weeks ago.

I went through an older photo album and updated the captions to indicate the camera and lens used to shoot each shot. When I returned to my home feed, it was flooded with those photos, each appearing as individual posts. Did the 800+ people that have me in their Google Plus circles see the same thing? Did I just ruin their Google Plus feeds?

Probably not. Because chances are, those 800+ people never log into their Plus feeds. And with usability problems like these, they’re not likely to stick around when they do.

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