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Why it’s time for Google to fix Google Now

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Google (S GOOG) wants Google Now to be everywhere: on your phone, your watch and your desktop. But if Google wants to make the service truly ubiquitous, it has to get a lot better.

Case in point: The other day, I was sitting at home and catching up on emails. I checked Google Now, and it told me that it would take me 40 minutes to get to work. That would have been useful if it hadn’t been 3:30pm already. And if the place it called “work” hadn’t been my daughters day care. (I told Google Now about my actual place of work many moons ago, so it should know.) Also, that 40-minute estimate it gave me for going to the wrong place, at the wrong time? It was based on taking the bus. I’ve never, ever taken the bus to that address.

The problem with Google Now in a nutshell: It assumes that people only use one means of transportation.
The problem with Google Now in a nutshell: It assumes that people only use one means of transportation at a time, and presents information based on settings, not observations.

In other words: Google Now got pretty much everything wrong, and it does so on a daily basis. Part of the problem is that Google Now assumes its users stick to one mode of transportation. That may work for people who drive to the office every morning, and straight back home every night, but it’s just not what my life looks like. On some days, I drive to drop off my kids in the morning, then park my car and take public transit to work. During the day, I may have a meeting close to our office, so I walk. On other days I stay home and just run a few errands with my car.

Others are struggling with it too

It’s admittedly a bit more challenging to detect patterns in my commute, but I’m hardly the only one who mixes and matches these days — and Google Now seems to routinely fail folks like me. I started to complain about these shortcomings a while back on our weekly Chrome Show podcast, and have since heard from of bunch of people who have the very same issue. Here’s what one of them had to say on Google+: 

“Yeah it’s pretty bad for me, too. It suggests public transport for places that are just around the corner, just because it’s my default setting. ”

And here’s another experience that speaks volumes:

“I find Google Now useless full stop, it tells me about places I don’t care about, tells me I’m going to be late for work on my day off even though it’s in my calendar. Everyone in the U.S says how good it is but in the U.K, not so much”

To be fair, Google Now does more than just assist users with their commute, and some of those additional features actually work fairly well for me. It tells me when products I have ordered online are on their way, lets me know the weather in a city that I’m about to visit and occasionally even suggests articles that I want to read.

Google Now works well for some things, like keeping track of your trips Image: Google.
Google Now works well for some things, like keeping track of your trips Image: Google.

But the real promise of Google Now is that it doesn’t just react to things that I do online, but also anticipates my needs based on the things I do in the real world. And as Google building whole new platforms like its wearables initiative around Google Now, that real world-link becomes ever more important.

Why doesn’t Google Now know what Google Maps knows

The puzzling thing about Now is that it often fails spectacularly when it should know better, which makes you wonder whether Google just hasn’t done a good job integrating the service with its other offerings.

One example: The other day, I drove down to Mountain View for a meeting. Ahead of the trip, I looked up the traffic on Google Maps on my desktop, and then actually used the Google Maps app on my phone for navigation. So what did Google Now do when I checked it after my meeting was done? Suggest how to get back home via public transit, of course.

Currently, Google Now still depends too much on default settings. Instead, it should learn from real-life behavior. I, for one, wouldn’t actually mind to help train it if it occasionally asked me things like: How, exactly, did you get to work today? It’s something that activity tracking apps like Moves already do really well.

Instead, Google Now aims to get out of the way. That’s nice in theory. But in practice, it leads to Now being pretty useless — which isn’t exactly what I’d want the primary interface of my smart watch to be.

15 Responses to “Why it’s time for Google to fix Google Now”

  1. rcadden

    I agree wholeheartedly. While I use Google Now for various things, it’s always about 2 clicks dumber than I’d hoped it would be, and there doesn’t seem to be a solution for me to ‘educate’ it about myself.

    For instance, from my desk to my car at work is about a 10 minute walk. The *only* time I go through this certain part of the building is to get to or from my car. Thus, when I book an appointment outside of work, I would expect Google Now to know that it takes me 10 minutes from my desk to my car and alert me to leave early enough to calculate this. Either A) by allowing me to put this in (always alert me 10 minutes extra when I’m leaving from work) or B) by detecting when I’m in a certain part of our building and adjusting accordingly.

    You really hit the nail on the head with this: The problem with Google Now in a nutshell: It … presents information based on settings, not observations.

    It lacks the real ‘observation and learning’ aspect that such a system needs. Ironically, Motorola’s ‘Smart Actions’ app used to do this – if it noticed that at 5pm every day I turned on Pandora, after a few days, it would pop up and ask “Do you want me to turn on Pandora at 5pm every day?”. Unfortunately, Smart Actions was killed in place of MotoAssist on the MotoX, which is only partially as intelligent, from my experience.

  2. Kar Nels

    Sometimes Google Now is freakishly good. I go to same restaurant frequently on Friday nights, maybe 3 times a month sometimes. But after going on vacation and out of town for some other things, I new it was time to go back to old haunt. Without searching or calling the, as I entered my house to take care of dog and then leave for restaurant, it gave me directions/time to the restaurant after having not done that for weeks. Some algorithm must have figured when I go from work to home on a Friday night after a few weeks away, I’m likely going to that restaurant.

  3. Philip Peake

    The reason I turned it off is that it makes some basic assumptions that you don’t seem to be able to correct. I work from home, but it insists that I enter information about my commute. I don’t have one. On other days, my commute is to the airport, then it will be from a random hotel to a client location for a few days.

    Google Now seems to insist that I only travel from home to work, every day. There is no way I could find to tell it not to make this assumption.

  4. I was Deepak.

    Google has a lot so called ” Advanced techonologies” in hand. By using them, you feel they are not refine enough to be atteactive. Google does too much, none of them are thump up. Google = ordinary.

  5. cbstryker

    You sound like a spoiled brat that complains he didn’t get what he wants for Christmas. By your very own admission it offers you timely notices about when to leave for appointments etc, but you complain it can’t guess your random choice of transportation? Right there in the picture you posted (assuming it’s your own picture) it says you chose the bus as transportation 4 months ago. I think we found the problem! If you told me that you take the bus to work, guess what? I will never presume that you drive a car or ride the bike to work.

    You complain that Google Now should be smarter and know more about yourself but you also complain that it should know more about you without having to configure anything. If you took 30 second to go into the settings and manually set the location for you work and your daughters school, etc, then it would start to know which one you go to first and offer driving times based on that.

    I have multiple locations set to various places. It even learned that I have a specific appointment on Thursday evenings and only gives me driving notices to that location no earlier than Thursday afternoon.

    Don’t write an article whining about something that ISN’T broken and claim that it is.

  6. Greg Wallace

    For me the most annoying part are the constant false positives GN gives when it thinks ive said “ok google.”. Lyrics in niel young songs trip it, conference calls on speaker phone, etc

  7. A Ch0w, sneeze

    How hard is it to switch google maps from public transport to driving?

    It’s interesting that you don’t appreciate that it was smart enough to set the correct destination for you, you expect it to know exactly how you want to get there.

    For me though, Google now works quite well (UK), but is starting to creep me out. I do an innocent google search and articles start popping up in my Google Now? Dangerous in my view. I only want to know if I need to wear a waterproof jacket, and the scores of my favourite football teams, and news about them. If I search for something outside of Google now, I don’t want it showing up in my Google Now. Makes me understand why Chrome insists on signing me in to google when I check email (so they can keep tabs on you). This has made me start using two browsers. One for Gmail, and one for everything else, just so the creepy company wont’ have any login cookies to track my web activity with.

    • A Ch0w, sneeze

      Oh, and I’ve started the process of Migrating my email from Gmail.

      Google Now’s delivery notifications are just nuisances, because the delivery company will usually give me notifications too.

  8. Whole heartedly agree with you Janko and Sams comment

    But I will say that for me Google now has been fantastic, example:-

    Had to get to a job over in Ireland. looked up the Airport car park address on my PC.
    Got in the car and G Now offered directions.
    Arrive at airport and its offering the flight departure details etc.
    Got off the plane and its offering the car hire booking details.
    Got in the car and without me telling it anything its offering up directions to the Hotel. It knew that every time I go to this airport I drive to that hotel.

    I wish it did more….

  9. Agreed. I travel predominantly using public transport and almost all my searches on Google Maps are for public transport, yet Google Now doesn’t seem to get that. It always offers car directions. (Google Maps is stupid in its own right because it doesn’t seem to get that either)

    Also, over two separate time periods, Google Now managed to confuse my university as well as a friend’s home for my workplace.

    I believe Google Now can benefit from other improvements, too. For example, it would be helpful to have the option to add an event to my calendar when Google Now knows exactly what the event is and when it’s taking place – like a soccer game: Arsenal v. Man City, 5.30 pm.

  10. I drive everywhere and have a consistent schedule, so Google Now works pretty well for me in that regard.

    Things I want Google Now and by extension Android Wear to do. I have a Moto X so I am already living in a world somewhat like what the Moto 360 will be like, since the phone is always listening:
    1. “Play the next episode of Breaking Bad on Netflix on the Chromecast.” This seems like it could easily be solved with some APIs and cooperation. Latest episode of “TV SHOW” on Hulu would also be great. This would make my life better overnight and make the Chromecast even more valuable.
    2. “End navigation.” Often I just need to find how to get back to the interstate, having to fumble with the phone so it stops interrupting Pandora is annoying. Saying “OK Google Now, take me home” without touching anything continues to be a magical experience.
    3. “Play next track.” Why do I have to keep clicking the power button and tapping the screen when I’m driving? It’s important to remember with the Moto X you can activate Google Now without touching anything.
    4. “What’s the forecast today?” Except, instead of telling me the high and the icon, it would summarize and be specific about notable weather events throughout the day, just like the evening news. More important in the Midwest, I think.
    5. “Message John I’ll be there soon.” I stopped using SMS with most of my friends last summer, and Google continues to punish me by making it impossible to Hangouts message them through Google Now. Before, I used to dictate to my phone all the time.
    6. Letting Google Now know that I don’t watch shows when they air, I watch them on Hulu Plus or a streaming service the next day. It notifies me a night before I care.

    If I’m wrong about any of these, please let me know.

  11. realjjj

    Maybe you should ask if we need a guide dog all the time. Hell, wanting a watch for this is quite hilarious.
    Google Now should be a lot more than this and a watch should be a hell of a lot more than Google Now, the watch you want is pointless to 90% of the population and it would be a very dumb watch, just a monitor on your wrist.
    Yes Google Now should be a lot more than what it is but you look at just a small part of it,claiming that it’s imperative for Google to invest more resources into it.
    Anyway, don’t forget that it is search without search and Google tends to care about search so they will keep working on it.