Another Look At The Google Hangouts Changes

on Friday, May. 17th

We've had some more time to kick around the changes over at G+ and the new Hangouts app, and despite my initial distaste, I'm starting to come around.

The Good

I feel like I unfairly maligned the new Hangouts app on day one. At the time I said that the UX broke the standard flow of what we're used to on a messaging app… I was wrong. Mostly.

Now that I've got more than one conversation loaded into the app it feels exactly like every other messaging app out there.

I traced back the thought process that led to me being so wrong and found the source of confusion: on initial load we are shuffled very quickly into the contacts interface, and that felt like it was the center of the design.

The billboarding of six users at the top of contacts is a deliberately different choice, and that flash-froze in my brain as the "node" of the design. When I came back in and saw the one and only conversation I had initiated in the app I felt completely lost.

That launch experience was, essentially, needlessly confusing. On top of that, a chat program that is almost empty on launch just looks weird in this day and age. It's like something out of the 90's. There's nobody in here!

Still: it was my brain fart working alongside the weird billboarding in contacts that created my unfortunate assessment. After a day with Hangouts I can unequivocally say that it is just fine–except for that contacts billboard–and that I hope more people use it so I can walk way from Facebook.

The new app–and the G+ web interface for it work seamlessly along with the standard Gmail chat and iMessage. A message posted on one pops up in the others all at once. This bodes well for those who want to recenter their messaging into one service.

The Ugly

I'm a little less sanguine about how many hoops I had to go through last night to get a Hangout On-Air started up.

Once upon a time there was a little button on the G+ page encouraged you to start a Hangout, meaning a video call, not just any old chat. When you hit that you then had the option to turn that Hangout into a Hangout On-Air with a single click.

That button is gone now, replaced by the right hand column that replicates the Facebook chat experience. It wants to drive you into single or Circle based group chats. There's the option to start a "Hangout Party" at the bottom of that column, but this is a standard video Hangout and not one of the on-air variety.

To start a Hangout On-Air you have to summon the left hand pop-over menu–the central nav tool of the new G+–and go to the dedicated Hangouts On Air hub. The button to start your own Hangout On Air is underneath billboards for two featured upcoming On Air Hangouts.

I can understand some of the logic here. Google wants users to think about Hangouts On Air as a broadcasting tool and not just an extension of their ability to group chat. However, as someone who like to make use of the feature pretty regularly–and who does think of it as part of his own standard communication toolbox–the deliberate distancing of these two functions seems needless.

Why not just have the ability to take an existing Hangout/Hangout Party to broadcast? There's likely an engineering issue here, since YouTube servers get involved with the On Air Hangouts. Perhaps it would be better to rebrand the On Air product altogether.

Follow Noah Nelson on Twitter (@noahjnelson)


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