Google's buzzkill

Yesterday, my reaction to Google Buzz was bafflement. Today, it's frustration, and I can see why some people are finding Buzz to be infuriating.

Product marketing flubs
The Buzz roll-out was not exactly a triumph of product marketing. Starting with the "Try Buzz Now!" entry page, It isn't clear what Buzz does, or is supposed to do, or does in some other part of the Gmail UI that you haven't found yet. Is this a micro-blogging tool? A first step into something like Facebook, with a lot of other Facebook-esque capabilities yet to be implemented?

The introductory video wasn't much help. It did make it clear that Google wants to be the place you consider the center of your social media universe, the place from which you see and link to everything else. For a lot of people, Facebook is that place. For others, it's Twitter. Now, Google wants to compete with them.

Whether Buzz is going to pull users away from Facebook or Twitter, or if it's going to attract people who don't really use anything yet as their social media hub, remains to be seen. As of today, there's not a lot of functionality in Buzz, so other than it being a tool that enhances your experience using other Google applications, it's not clear what Buzz's special value is.

On launch day, Google didn't make the basic use case clear. Are we seeing a failure of product marketing, or is the Buzz development team itself unclear about how people would use this product, or why?

Today, I may have an answer to that question. It's not comforting.

Product design gaffes
Some of the people using Buzz in the last 24 hours have discovered that, in an attempt to be helpful, it exposes the list of people with whom you regularly exchange e-mail. As the Silicon Valley Insider said, "Imagine a boss discovers a subordinate emails with executives at a competitor."

There's nothing in the Buzz UI that tells you, loudly and clearly, about the visibility of the followers list that it auto-generates from your frequent active e-mail correspondents. To make a bad situation worse, even if you learn about this problem, it's hard to fix it.

It takes a lot of digging to unearth the place in Google's UI where you set this privacy flag. Here's a quick list of logical places where I looked, but did not find that option:

  • The Google Buzz Privacy Policy Page. Thank you for telling me that I have options. Why not also give me a link to the page where I can exercise them?
  • A Buzz post. I thought it might be here, if there were some options at the post level about the visibility of that content. Who knows, it might lead to other security options.
  • Your list of followers. Nope, nothing there about the visibility of the list.

Eventually, I found the option. Here's how you get there:

  1. Click your picture. Why I would ever click there is unclear. There's no hover text about this being the link to my profile, but that's where it is. Perhaps I'm such a narcissist that I always click pictures of myself, just to see what happens next.
  2. Click Edit profile. The Buzz profile is another exercise in obfuscation. It includes information you've already seen, such as your picture and the list of recent Buzz posts. In a very narrow strip of small text links, there's something labeled Edit Profile. That's the right one to click.
  3. Click About Me. Huh, I saw another tab with the same name earlier, but this is where I edit that information. Why I can't jump to the About Me editor from the About Me page is unclear.
  4. Check or uncheck, er, something. Earlier, I peeked to see if my followers list was public, and thankfully, it wasn't. However, this page tells me that I have exposed that information. What else would you conclude if you saw a check mark next to Display the list of people I'm following and people following me?I'm afraid to touch the Allow people to contact me (without showing my email address) option, since I'm not sure what it means.

Clearly, the UI needs work. It hides the existence of a privacy problem, makes it hard to find the page where you can fix it, and then confuses you about what happens when you check or uncheck an option.

Privacy in social networking isn't exactly a new issue. Why then did Google release Buzz with a big privacy defect? Probably because the Buzz team didn't see the problem, or didn't think it rose to showstopper proportions. 

Problematic assumptions
In a post earlier this week, I discussed the assumptions about privacy (or lack thereof) that many social media companies make. If your baseline user is a teenager or twenty-something, you might build a product that makes assumptions about privacy that work only within that population segment. Relative to other age groups, young adults don't mind sharing where they are, or what they're doing, or what they're thinking, throughout the day. As you grow older, you get a bit more finicky about your personal information. The appeal of a service that splatters your personal information across the Internet drops dramatically.

When I wrote that post, I had no idea it would provide a segue into a discussion about Buzz. Unfortunately, once again, we see a product designed for an archetype of the avid social networking user, a 23 year-old with lots of friends who are interested in how good the udon is at a new restaurant near the Ferry Building. In fact, some members of the Buzz team probably fit that profile themselves. Google prides itself on its ability to hire smart, young engineers who are brimming with ideas and enthusiasm. Left to their own devices, they'll build software that makes perfect sense to them. Unfortunately, many of their users are not like them at all.

In other software companies, the development team has an ally who can tell them when the design doesn't fit the concerns, work habits, and skills of users: the product manager. Google does not have strong product management, so there may not have been a gatekeeper to tell the Buzz team that the product wasn't ready to go out the door.

There's nothing wrong with focusing on young adults as the first adopters of social media, or even the vast majority of your intended users. However, what works for them may not work for other age groups. It may not even work for everyone in that age group, since there are plenty of young adults who don't like giving out personal information. From a product management and a product marketing perspective, it's time for some companies in the social media business to grow up.

[Cross-posted at The Heretech.]

Comments

re: Google's buzzkill

Great article, and thanks for the tips on how to control buzz. You're right, they make no sense from a UI or privacy perspective. I just turned it off on my account.

re: Google's buzzkill

Yes it is great article. I totally agree with Jon

re: Google's buzzkill

Facebook made a move recently to make more of your profile public by default, and I think Google tried the same purposefully; that it's a feature.

Ultimately I think Google is continuing its tradition of releasing half-baked software *because they can*.

re: Google's buzzkill

I think for Buzz to get widespread adoption it needs Google Mail (or whatever their enterprise mail product is called) to get bigger marketshare. I can see huge value from seeing what my coworkers are up to IF they were using Gmail. Buzz for our corporate environment would be terrific!

But even as an avid Gmail user and early adopter (borderline fanboy) of it as a personal email client, Buzz is of little value to me right now. I already know what my friends are up to - from Facebook and twitter (and with the added benefit that they don't need to be gmail users).