What Google was thinking when redesigning the new Google+

May 16, 2013

When I am feeling kind, I think of Google+ as a social network by dictat — err, Larry Page’s mandate. And when I am in my curmudgeonly mood (which is pretty much every second day), then I think of it as a fly that keeps buzzing around your face: you try and swat it, but you fail and it makes your angrier. Yet, I can’t help but admire the newly announced version of Google’s social network. It is a much needed improvement and Google has finally developed an aesthetic that is visually different from Facebook.

Before Google’s senior vice president, Vic Gundotra announced the new Google+ Wednesday at Google’s annual developer conference, Google I/O, I sat down with Fred Gilbert who heads up design for Google+, who explained how the company arrived at this new, improved look; I see it as a hybrid of a stream and Pinterest-style cards that doesn’t look awkward and ungainly.

It is a responsive design and with a click you switch how you want to see your content — as a stream or as these tiles, Gilbert pointed out. A lot of the new design actually takes a lot of cues from the current mobile versions of Google+, which are actually more advanced compared to the desktop version. At first blush this looks like a unification of mobile and desktop, but there are changes that are visible only on Google’s Chrome browser.

Gilbert, who has worked for Google for over five years, explained that a lot of the new design has been shaped by how the web has changed. He pointed out that we are sharing more things more often and as a result the social web is getting busier. You can say that again!

“What I saw was a chance to make people and the content they share the star,” Gilbert said. “Everything else just fades into the background.”

Flat design for a busy world

The design of the new Google+ is muted and flat. The colors are actually quite neutral, allowing mostly the content to shine brighter. “Flatter design keeps the distraction away,” Gilbert said. This new philosophy is reflected in this new version of Google+, which is marked by simplicity and fewer distractions. For instance, unless you are ready to engage with a piece of content, the links appear as regular text, without the distraction of the blue link. Both the left and right sidebar and menus disappear, sliding in and out as needed.

Google has come up with a unique twist on the #hashtag concept and is using it as a way to surface contextual information on the new Google+ service. The new design also liberally uses the concept of cards (that first showed up on Google Now). Hover over an item, and on the back side of the card you get more information and related links and action items.

Gilbert explained that when Google started working on the new look, the idea was to take a lot of information and show it in as simple a manner, giving the eye the visual cues to understand the importance of content. Bigger photos, for instance are indicative of their importance. Photos become bigger based on analysis of past relationships to the people and the content and their ensuing interactions, Gilbert explained.

Data, Design, Experience

Underlying these visual cues are a lot of data analytics. This data-informed design is actually a clever approach and the wave of the data-informed design. Gilbert said that usually when companies undertake a redesign of their website, it is based on some kind of data they have collected over a period of time. For Google+, data is informing the design, except at a much faster speed and is hyper-personalized based on who you really are. “Data and design have to be used together to tailor experiences,” said Gilbert.

We’ll take a close look at how data is informing design at our RoadMap event in November in San Francisco. If you sign up here you can get first access to tickets that will go on sale this Summer.

While Google still is a few years away from developing the human quotient of Apple, the new Google+ shows that the company is thinking correctly about its design identity, not forgetting that its core competency is its infrastructure: its ability to crunch large sets of data cheaply and quickly and then deliver them at blazing speed to our browsers.

The biggest challenge for Google is that Google+ doesn’t really feel like a social network like Facebook or Twitter. Instead it is something that was launched because of a degree of fear and a dash of hubris. It was a social network that Larry wanted, not you and I.

However, it has slowly evolved and has found some fanatical users such as photographer Trey Ratcliff, blogger Robert Scoble and our very own Janko Roettgers, who has turned to Google+ to build a community for his Cord Cutters show and podcasts. Google needs accidental visitors such as me to become active participants. I think the new design will help.

(c) 2013, GigaOM.com.

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