The Poor Useability Tell – User Edition

Android L Contacts, now groupless #

My 1st-gen Moto G had the Android L OTA update a few weeks ago, and I was happy with it until I realised something today:

Android L Contacts app
Android L Contacts app

One of those things you don’t notice until you need it: the Groups feature is missing. I am not the first to notice, and not the first to miss it.

Something rumbled deep within my memory; it generally rumbles whenever I encounter what seems like deliberate feature removal, or UX friction. And Ribbonfarm’s Poor Useability Tell surfaced again:

When a technology is adopted that is “less usable” to workers than what it is replacing, this is simply an indication that worker and organizational interests are no longer in alignment, and the workers’ interests have been trumped.

The article is about how in-house productivity tools used in large companies have undergone a counter-intuitive decrease in usability—for seasoned data entry clerks and advanced users. While commonly believed to be a way of cutting costs for companies, Jordan explains that it also leads to a more gradual learning curve for first-time users, thus enabling an employment policy focusing on short-term-contract workers.

The context may be different, but replace “workers” with “users” and a very similar idea applies.

Experienced clerks who can really fly their fingers over the keyboard are expensive to train, and also highly productive—a high investment cost which leads to them holding a lot of bargaining power. Predictably, a profit-driven corporation would want to avoid that. But why would a big company like Google want to do this and alienate long-time users?

Google PR #

For starters, Google has never shown any signs of being interested in user loyalty. The rate of idea-churn, and the kind of positioning they do, appeals to users through an ethical–engineering narrative (“Don’t be Evil”–“Build New Things”) rather than a user-centric narrative. From Ribbonfarm’s Marketing–sales–PR analysis:

And what about Google? They don’t advertise. They know your name and everything about you but they don’t even attempt to personalize or customize your experience. Instead they spread stories about great buffets, whiteboards with “Don’t Be Evil” scribbled on them, and how Brin and Page insist on less than 7 +/- 2 items on the Google home page. They make sure that every geek knows that in PageRank, it is Page as in Larry, not as in Web. Every marketer recoils in horror at a brand name being commoditized into the category name (Asprin, Kleenex, Xerox). But Google doesn’t care that Google has become a generic verb. Unlike marketing and sales brand equity, PR brand equity is amplified when a brand becomes the category generic name. And perhaps the most compelling evidence of Google’s PR-driven culture? They mangle their logo every chance they get (know any other major brand that allows this?), to reflect PR opportunities.

Google doesn’t try to grab individual customers (sales), or position themselves in a particular space (marketing); they just keep churning new things out and generating interest. Keep making things, then breaking them; that’s okay as long as you continue to make new ones. If you build it they will come. But who’s “they”?

Long-term users are troublesome #

Long-term, staying users are desirable if you can monetise them—but when was the last time you, as a non-enterprise user, paid for anything from Google? If they’re not paying you directly, the longer they stay, the more legacy they generate. And unlike companies that rely on stable, static branding, in today’s software development zeitgeist, legacy is something you don’t want to keep around—look how desperately Microsoft is trying to get users away from XP and onto Windows 7/8. Legacy means more things to support: old mistakes, ad-hoc hacks, all accumulating to form the technical debt of software.

So one way to shake off this technical debt is just to shake off those old, crusty users who’ve gotten to know and love the oldest but now legacy software products. And one way to do that is just to kill them off. Another way is to remove features that have gotten troublesome, or no longer fit into Google’s PR-spin-of-the-moment. And when I stare at my group-less Android Contacts screen, I am wondering if the contact groups feature has fallen into that category.

Algorithmic grouping #

It is not difficult to identify Google products that are soon to be killed off or merged into other products. They are the ones that don’t get the newest UI updates, of which the flavour of the day is Material Design. At this moment, that means Google Groups and Google Calendar, among other products. Interestingly, a less-used product, Google+, is one of the first to get the Material Design update.

Chances are, Groups are going to be deprecated in favour of Google+ Circles. I’m not quite sure how that will look, but what I know with increasing certainty is that my reality and Google’s reality are drifting apart (not that they’ve ever aligned fully, but as we say in A level Physics, the speed of approach has become the speed of separation).

In less complicated words, I’m the kind of user Google is not-very-slowly trying to shake off.