Google has been struggling to make sense of the social web and integrate it into some of its products, but the reaction to Google Buzz is another indication of how the company continues to focus on features rather than real human experience.

It’s a little sad, and yet at the same time kind of hilarious watching Google try to get jiggy with the whole “social media” thing. Even before the fuss over Google Buzz revealing people’s email contacts, which has caused significant privacy issues for some people — including one anonymous blogger who is being targeted by an abusive ex-husband (warning: graphic language) — Google’s approach to Buzz seemed kind of ham-handed. Not that there was anything wrong with the launch from a technical perspective, but it seemed to be missing something.

A friend described the much-hyped launch presentation as “a bunch of engineering grads” trying desperately to be likable, which pretty much sums it up. Brad Horowitz and Todd Jackson and Vic Gundotra were earnest, and definitely seemed smart when it came to the various features and the implementation of Buzz, including the various mobile enhancements, etc. But it felt a bit like listening to a stereo geek tell you all about how many watts his amplifier puts out, without saying anything at all about the music itself, or how it makes you feel, or should make you feel.

That focus on features seems to have contributed to some of the negative reaction to Buzz. While it’s true (as Jackson argued in a somewhat defensive blog post about the recent changes) that Google did tell users their email contacts would be displayed publicly, it didn’t really make that terribly obvious. And why not? I think it’s because the company was thinking about all the great features that Buzz would have, not about how actual human beings would use the product in the real world.

Umair Haque has a great post along these lines at the Harvard Business Review site, in which he describes how Buzz fails many of what he calls the “five principles of designing for meaning,” one of which is what he calls the Hippocrates Concept, based on the ancient Greek philosopher’s principle of doing no harm. Buzz pretty much failed that principle right out of the gate. Haque also mentions that, like many companies, Google often relies on people following complicated instructions, which is rarely a good idea. As he writes:

Google’s working hard to fix the issue, but its fixes still rely on people “following instructions”. In the real world, almost no users follow instructions. If it’s that complicated, you might have just already failed. Nobody wants to spend an hour figuring whether a service might just do no harm — or tweaking it to do no harm.

Haque also mentions something others have complained about, which is that Buzz doesn’t really do what Google claims it wants to do, which is to organize and make sense of the world’s information — instead, it throws even more massive quantities of the stuff at you and makes it difficult to sort through. Haque says opening up Buzz is “like being punched in the face with a giant fist of information.”

It’s not like Google isn’t trying to understand more about what the social web requires. The company has even put together a kind of social media SWAT team that includes luminaries such as open web advocate Chris Messina and the former chief technology officer of Plaxo, Joseph Smarr. But even here, Google seems more focused on the plumbing and the programming rather than how people actually use the social web. Does it have anyone working on the team who actually uses social media a lot, and understands it and lives and breathes it?

Maybe in the case of Buzz, Google let good become the enemy of great\.
Or maybe what the company really needs is a soul.


Related posts from GigaOM Pro:

Why Google Should Fear the Social Web

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user PaDumBumPsh

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  1. I think they have a soul, but their developer teams are too isolated.

  2. The press is ALL off on Buzz and you can see it in the purchase of Aardvark. Google is not playing in social media at all, they don’t care about social crap, facebook virtual gifts, or pokes or tweets – they are playing a much, much larger and more important game: getting profiled human brains into making structured systems work.

  3. nexttolastblog Friday, February 12, 2010

    Hey, I love Google (I guess I should say that because they know everything about me 10 times over). But, I am glad to see other dominant or competitive web companies out there for social networking, browsers, business software, etc. Go open Office, Mozilla, Twitter,etc.

    Seen too much of the too big to fail in the past years. If banks, tel-com giants, auto manufacturers, etc. can collapse so quickly, it can happen to any company at some juncture. So I’m not Buzzin’ yet, Google has enough on me now and the little guys need some platform left.

    PS Hey Google, sorry about that Yahoo search I did last week and making that call on my non Android phone.

  4. I think one of the problems is they used it in a corporate environment, and that is not how most people use gmail. In watching the presentation, it did seem that Buzz could be very useful in that instance (having worked with a company that implemented internal IM), but I really have no interest in tying my personal e-mail profile with my social profile.

  5. I am really hoping that Google moves as fast as possible to shore up each emerging vulnerability. I have great respect for Google as a company but it is clear that it, and Facebook, have a financial interest in increasing traffic on their social networks and in doing so may sacrifice privacy. The market, whether it be a privacy scandal sufficiently large that to threaten the image of either corporation, or decreased usage of these networks over time, is too crude to protect those most vulnerable to these privacy/traffic tradeoffs, those in totalitarian regimes that use services like Gmail, Facebook and Twitter to advance the struggle for human rights against state-organized violence. Social software, through privacy-bugs such as those currently being identified, can quickly turn from a shield to a firing-squad. A mailing-list of supporters can quickly become an itinerary for jack-boots and prison-vans. This will sound shrill and extreme to the fortunate. But for those who, for example opposed the results of the elections in Iran last year, the risk of such a privacy-lapse is too awful to contemplate. There is only the pathetic powerless hope that those at Google, Facebook and Twitter, in designing these systems and default settings, might think also about those who dare.

  6. Google seems to have forgotten what made them successful. (If anyone is interested, my full thoughts are here http://bit.ly/b3TQBn)

  7. A Simple Solution to Google Buzz’s Privacy Problem Friday, February 12, 2010

    [...] anyone can see may die down eventually. Right now, though, it feels like the controversy is still heading towards the boiling point. And I think that Buzz’s basically confusing design isn’t helping [...]

  8. I totally disagree. I’ve been monitoring Buzz for the last few days. It’s too powerful to be written of despite all its fault in privacy and maybe security. For one, now i can even access my Twitter and FB all in one platform. Do you dare to turn your head away from Buzz?!

  9. While I don’t accept your premise, the headline and picture are awesome.

    1. Thanks, Brian :-)

  10. michaelsilverton Friday, February 12, 2010

    Anti-intellectual hyperbole-craft at it’s finest, Matthew! One of the best ways to help both the counter-adaptive and status quo worshippers to feel superior as a result of innate ineptitude or even plain laziness. While it’s difficult to convey the upbeat, sardonic tone in this tongue-in-cheek compliment, it is there!

    BTW, how the hell did my Senior Yearbook picture get on Flickr!?

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