> *

Reader redesign: Terrible decision, or worst decision?

Update: This post was originally published in October 2011 when the changes were initially rolled out. The timestamp is wrong because I migrated away from Posterous to Tumblr. Google has since fixed most of the visual issues below.

Full disclosure: I am an ex-PM on Google Reader, and I worked on comments and the last round of sharing changes. I also left Google in July.

Google released the previously announced set of changes around G+ integration and UI updates today, and boy is it a disaster. Since the general changes were pre-announced last week, most of us were prepared for the letdown, but actually seeing how it works end to end has made several flaws abundantly clear. Let’s start with the obvious.

The Visual Changes

In the name of visual consistency, Google has updated the visual style to match Gmail, Calendar and Docs. I have nothing against visual consistency (and in fact, this something that Google should be doing), but it’s as if whoever made the update did so without ever actually using the product to, you know, read something.

When you log into Reader, what the hell do you think your primary objective is? Did you answer “stare at a giant header bar with no real estate saved for actual reading”? Congrats, here’s your prize:

Reader

(thanks, Kristina for the image)

Reader is a product built to consume information, quickly. We designed it to be very good at that one thing. G+ is an experience built around browsing (similar to Facebook) and socializing. Taking the UI paradigm for G+ and mashing it onto Reader without any apparent regard for the underlying function is awful and it shows.

The second and more obvious change, is that someone took the magic color-removing wand and drenched the whole page in grey. It’s so unbelievably stark, it’s hard to imagine a more desolate experience. Even G+ has blue links for post titles. Blue titles are good enough for Google search. Reader, which is built entirely around posts with titles, does away with this in the name of the almighty grey god.

Screen_shot_2011-10-31_at_5

The only thing left with any color of consequence it the obscenely red subscribe button in the top left, which in keeping with the spirit of prioritizing the exactly wrong thing — you don’t even need to use very often.

There plenty of other areas to nitpick like the fact that there’s no separation between the reading pane and the subscriptions panel, that the active post you’re reading no longer pops out as much as before, and the extra padding crammed into the subscriptions list — but the old interface wasn’t perfect either, though it was designed around satisfying the primary use case of reading. In any case, I only have so much time, and need to save my rage for the next section of even more egregious changes.

The Sharing “Improvements”

Ok, before we get started - let me be very clear about one thing. I think integration with G+ should happen. Reader friends should be managed in the same place you manage G+, with the same metaphors (whether you think they’re flawed or not). Sharing should utilize the same infrastructure and plumbing that G+ does. I am not objecting to any of these things. Google has clearly made its bets with G+, and Reader should be part of those plans.

But the new sharing flow around the +1 button has actually made it harder to share. Where you used to be able to click one button, or hit shift-s to one-click share to your audience, you now need to:

  1. Click +1 (no keyboard shortcuts for you)
  2. Click the text box that appears that says “Share to G+”
  3. Then choose your circle you want to share to (or let it default to public)
  4. Then click Share

Keep in mind that on top of requiring 3-4 times as many clicks, you also now must +1 a post publicly to share it, even if it’s shared to a private circle. That bears repeating. The next time you want to share some sexy halloween costumes with your private set of friends, you first must publicly +1 the post, which means it shows up on your profile, plus wherever the hell G+ decides to use +1 data. So much for building a network around privacy controls.

The frustrating thing is that these pitfalls could have been avoided through a more thought out integration. As Kevin Fox has already pointed out, Google could have easily made it so that sharing was pushed through G+ (therefore giving providing content on G+, and gaining all the benefits of an integration), but also replaced shared items from People You Follow with a Reader-specific Circle.

But no - instead, they’ve ripped out the ability to consume shared items wholesale from the product. The closest analogue might be if Twitter made it so that 3rd party clients could use the Retweet functionality to push Retweets to a user’s stream — but only allowed you to consume Retweets on twitter.com.

It’s almost as if Google wants to demonstrate that, yes, they don’t really get platforms. Instead of improving the G+ API to support Reader as a fully functional 3rd party client (a la Twitter), they’ve instead crippled the product under the guise of improvements.

A History of Neglect

Google has long neglected Reader as a product. (Hey can someone fix Recommended Items? Please?) Reader was fortunate to have a passionate team that was trying to do the right thing for their users by continuing to innovate and build on the experience, but it’s not hard to tell from the official blog that core updates died down a long time ago.

Reader never achieved the massively popular status of Gmail or Google News. But it did develop a fanatical following of users, and was one of the few places that Google was able to experiment with and learn about social features.

After I left Google in July, I heard that there was renewed effort around the project and that a new team was bringing some much-needed attention to the product. I expected them to give the product a facelift, and integrate G+ — both things that needed to happen.

But killing off functionality that could have easily been built on top of G+, and missing the mark by so much on the UI… and then releasing them under the guise of improvements?

Bad decisions, indeed.

(Thanks to Harry Glaser and Zach Brock for reviewing this post.)

Update: It turns out there is a way to share without +1’ing first. If you click on the top right “Share…” field on the OneGoogle bar, you can bypass the +1 button. It’s just completely undiscoverable.

Also, some other things that have jumped out at me after using it some more:

  1. Links within posts are also universally grey, making them harder to see
  2. Since there’s no keyboard shortcut to share, if you’re in the middle of a long post, you must scroll all the way down to the bottom of the post to click the +1 button and share, unless you know to use the alternative sharing method by clicking on the OneGoogle bar. Which you won’t.