Google+, A Programmer’s First Experience (Loaded with Screenshots)

This morning I woke up to a Google+  invite in my inbox and even as I write this article I am trying it out for the first time. I’ll take you through my thoughts of the service as I experienced each of the features and try to focus on photos and technical details so you can draw your own conclusions.






The Invite


The internet is abuzz with Google+ (not to be confused with Google Buzz… that was awful). First up, the invite email itself. It was a bit covert, not inviting me to do anything except “hang out.”



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(I have blurred names and emails to protect the innocent).




The landing page, in typical Google fashion, was nicely designed and attractive. However this sort of “sketchy” design that was used seems a bit of a deviation from the clean hard lines we usually see, which to me indicates a nod to the fact that Google knows the demographic and purpose here are different than with other products. Naturally, it pre-filled my information from my gmail profile. Also, as a traveler, I appreciated the nod to the famous Karouac quotation (with the sample circle called “the mad ones.”)





When I hit the join button, I was prompted to link my Picasa account. I appreciated this because, all too often, Google does this automatically. The G is a giant with tons of web services and I would prefer to know when they are being interlinked as a user rather than being surprised by it.




Next up, I was taken to the thing I had actually been invited to: a “hangout.” Turns out, this was a video chat room. Rather uninteresting, if you ask me. Besides, I had started playing with Google+ instead of getting dressed or brushing my hair, so I was not quite in the mood to be in a video chat. I was amused that Google told  me to check my hair, though. The dropshadow under the window turned out to be consistent throughout the site, which proved a nice graphical touch.



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My Profile


After canceling the hangout, I was ejected from the page. Um, WHAT??

I had to spend a minute or two looking for the Google+ home page before I finally arrived at my newly-created profile. Once I arrived there, though, there were lots of pretty shiny things to click on.




One of the main things I use Facebook for these days is sharing pictures of my travels so my family and friend can keep up with where I am at (since I move countries every month or so as I work). So I decided to open up the photo sharing section and create an new album…



So far, so good. I didn’t bother with the Circles bit just yet and simply created a new album.



As to be expected, the uploader was smooth and seamless. No sooner had I created the album than I was asked to share it, but I suppose that is the point of a social network. I just hope I don’t get this window every time. Still, it looked good and was easy to use.



Finally, I arrived at the album page – which had some nice effects, like the pop-out effect you see here on mouseover. Photos could not be dragged to re-order (what? why not?)




Clicking on a photo led to a beautiful full-screen slideshow view that let me write comments and flip through the album. Unfortunately it did not play perfectly nicely with Firefox on Mac OSX, but it wasn’t too big of a deal.




When I clicked on “My Albums” on the left side, I found a collection of albums pulled from my Picasa and Blogger profiles. If I had ever bothered to really use either of these, this would have been nice. Instead, I found myself deleting a bunch of junk. I’ll give credit, though: Google made me want to curate my albums in order to make my profile better.


The very cool mouseover effect here is worth mentioning – notice how the photos in the China album fan out when I hover over the album:













Groups! Er, I mean, Circles!


Okay, so having explored and been duly impressed by the photo capacities of Google+, it was time to move on to the big bread-and-butter feature everyone is talking about: circles!



Some of the recommendations at the top of the screen were a bit odd, but that’s more my fault for having a cluttered gmail contact list (3,500+ at last count).


As others have pointed out before me, the animations when interacting with circles are simply great. It was a very smart move by Google to pay so much attention to this bit of UI. Again, like with photos, I don’t mind curating my circles… to an extent. I added a few members and created a new circle, but had no desire to go through my thousands of contacts and organize every one. I have to imagine that I will use this part of the site intermittently as I feel the need.  For example, I don’t need to find each one of my friends right now… but later on, if I  want to share an album with all my friends, circles are a great way to do it.


Let me point out that this depends entirely on how well the circles are integrated into the rest of the user experience. When I’m about to share an album, if I can add a user to a circle and share the album with that circle in the same place then I will be infinitely more likely to use circles as an organizational technique. If Google pulls this one off correctly, then circles will not only be useful but easy and widely adopted.


I did fill out my list of family members and at least a few of my friends. I would have gone further, but the fact was that searching through so many contacts is tedious. This is why my above point about being able to add contacts to circles as-needed when doing something else is so important. If it suddenly occurs to me I forgot a good friend, it is important that I can add him on the spot rather than flipping around. Finally, Google’s sense of humor is evident (as usual):











My Favorite Feature


So, sometimes I’m a little vain. Aren’t we all. When I returned to the profile page I had the opportunity to fill it out a bit more. It has space for bragging rights, linked websites (which it automatically populates with FavIcons), nicknames (where did it get my nickname of “inZania”? I didn’t fill it in). But by far, my favorite feature was the ability to list the places where I have lived. I pride myself, as a traveler, in living in different countries rather than simply visiting them. This played to my vanity and easily let me share my locations.



Sharing something onto my stream was also a wonderful experience. Links were auto-detected, I was able to tell it to include my geographic location (which it automatically detected), and most important of all it required me to select who I wanted to share with (circles, etc). Clearly Google is trying to make good of its promise to make sure that this site has all of the privacy that Facebook lacks. In fact, it is not so much about the privacy itself, but making people aware of who can see something. The whole site is built from the perspective of “let’s take the one thing Facebook does terribly wrong and build a network on that.” Thus, we have circles.




Of course, there are errors and problems. The first time I tried to update my profile I failed because I used the format “Aug 2009″ instead of “2009.” I received an ambiguous error and the whole form was reset, forcing me to do it again. There are certain parts of the site that just don’t seem to work, and sometimes I get failure errors. As a whole, though, the site seems quite polished.










Final Thoughts


Google+ is bringing together many different aspects and services of Google. I might (just might) be actually tempted to click on the +1 button now that it appears in my Google+ profile and stream. I’m still not very interested in Buzz (even though it appears in my profile) but we’ll see. Everything is smoothly integrated into one place, from Google Chat to the notification center in the upper right. I wonder if I will be able to access my gmail and iGoogle widgets from Google+? If so, then it could provide a one-stop-shop for everything and take over as my browser homepage (something Facebook never had a chance at doing). One thing I have to be thankful for in that Google+ works well internationally because it remembers my Google settings. No other company could manage this.


Overall, like any social network, the #1 determining factor will be adoption. If my friends use it, I will use it. But adoption is based upon a good user experience and a service that solves a problem, and to my surprise Google+ seems to be accomplishing just that (I actually did not expect to like it). As usual, XKCD said it best.


What do you think? Will you jump ship onto +1? Or is it going to go the way of Google Buzz, Wave, and whatever other products the big G has (failed) to launch recently?

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