We need to Talk about Google. Or Chat. Or Hangout. Or whatever.

This is a rough transcript of a conversation from the other day:

Him: Did you not get my text earlier?

Me: No.

Him: Oh. Maybe I sent it through Google hangouts.

Me: Would I not have seen it on my phone? Or am I supposed to download a GChat app for iPhone?

Him: There’s no such thing as GChat anymore, it’s hangouts now.

Me: Did it not used to be called ‘Talk’? I’m sure I remember having a ‘Talk’ app on my Android phone.

Him: No, it’s hangouts now.

Me: Well it should have arrived in my inbox if I wasn’t logged into chat. Or Hangouts. Or whatever it’s called now.

Him: No it won’t go to your inbox, Hangouts is different to your email inbox.

Me: It should. Is that not usually what happens when you’re sent a Hangout message while not online?

Him: Maybe I sent it as a text message, they’re the same thing now … but then why didn’t you get my text message?

And so on.

My friend had just got a brand new Nexus 5, complete with KitKat 4.4 and we’ve been having communications difficulties since then.

Google’s amalgamation of SMS, MMS, video call and IM into one app is a nice idea, but the user experience is poorly thought through; it’s just too complicated to be usable.

Knowledge of Hangouts is low

The first problem is that it’s presumed that users know what Hangouts is (or are?). They don’t. As illustrated from our conversation above. Google’s IM service has been renamed so many times in the past decade that the service proposition is not generally understood. Mixing it in with SMS is a recipe for confusion.

Research from Deloitte shows that more messages were sent via IM than SMS last year, and the gap is widening as the influence of apps such as WhatsApp and Viber grow. But SMS is still an integral part of the phone experience and particular popular among less techie users. SMS is simple. It’s easy to understand. Virtually everyone can send a text message. Do we really want it replaced with something that not everyone gets?

Lets not forget, SMS was once a very big deal.

Poor facilitation of multiple digital identities

The second problem with the Hangouts/SMS integration is that it presumes that everyone has, or even wants to have, one identity across different communications channels. They don’t. People have multi-faceted lives, and multiple digital identities. I have two email accounts (work, personal) and use a pseudonym for my Facebook account. This is pretty typical behaviour. Different identities allow people to keep different parts of their lives in different places.

Mixing the identities and places that users have up until now kept separate – can have deleterious consequences

Combining Google+ contacts with the phone’s contacts – mixing the identities and places that users have up until now kept separate – can have deleterious consequences. A few months ago, when the new Hangouts was first launched, a transgender woman was outed at work when she inadvertently sent a hangout message to a colleague instead of a text message. When a message is sent via SMS on KitKat, the recipient only sees the sender’s phone number. When it’s sent as a hangout message, the sender’s entire Google+ profile is viewable. In this case, the woman was still using her male name at work but sent a message to a colleague using the female name on her Google+ account. The combination of phone contacts and Google+ contacts in the messaging app makes this surprisingly easy to do.

This is how the iPhone iMessage app succeeds where Hangouts fails. iMessage sends either an SMS or IM, but uses one identity; the phone number. There’s nothing to mix up.

The image below shows what happened when my friend tried to search his Hangouts/SMS app for my name. Only my Google+ contact details appeared. I eventually figured out that in his Google contacts, my primary phone number was an old UK one (I lived in London when we first met), and because my Google+ account is linked to my current Irish number, the two contacts didn’t recognise each other.

Are you confused? You should be.

Texts and Hangouts messages are for different things

The third problem is that Google presumes that users want all their communications to happen through one channel. They don’t. So yeah, sometimes it’s annoying to bounce between Hangouts, SMS and email to talk to the same person, but different forms of communication have different characteristics that define how people want to use them. For me, Google Chat/Talk/Hangouts is often for medium length conversations about non-urgent topics. Video chats are for in-dept conversations, often with friends living abroad. Facebook Messenger is good for group conversations because so many people are on Facebook.

A quick survey around the Each & Other studio revealed similar multi-channel communication preferences. One person I spoke to said he used SMS for friends and an app called IMO for all his IMs, which were usually work related. Another person said she mostly uses IM, except when she’s not sure if the person has an IM account or will be online, in which case it’s safer to send a text. A third person reported always using SMS, because it’s standard and she only uses IM in work because she has to. To her, SMS is always personal, IM is always work. All members of my extensive sample of three, expressed consternation at the gall of Google forcing them to marry their multiple modes of communication.

Which is why the Hangouts/SMS thing fails. Text messages are for when you need the recipient to get a short message immediately, or tell them about something important. They’re ideal for time sensitive messages because network coverage is virtually ubiquitous, internet coverage not so. In our conversation above, my friend had been trying to tell me that he was unexpectedly free that day – time sensitive information. By the time I eventually found his message, it was too late for us to hang out. Ironic.

So what have we learnt?

Forcing user behaviour doesn’t work.

Forcing [the user] to use one channel, and one identity, can lead to error and frustration

What does work, is observing existing behaviour and using technology to enhance it. That’s the basis of user experience design. People choose to communicate through different identities across different channels. Forcing them to use one channel, and one identity, can lead to error and frustration.

iMessage does it perfectly. You write a message to your friend’s phone number and if you’re both online (and have iPhones), it sends as an iMessage. If you’re not both online, it sends an SMS. Either way, a message is delivered immediately. This functionality supports and enhances our observed user behaviour. People send text messages instead of IMs because it’s important to them that their message is received, and quickly.

Don’t make me think!

It’s the basic rule of usability. The user should be able to ‘get’ what a thing is and how to use it without too much effort. Again, iMessage does this perfectly. You don’t have to think about which communication channel you’re using, because it will be received immediately either way. You don’t have to think about which personality you’re contacting, or which of your personalities you’re contacting from, because it’s based on the phone number. There’s no opportunity for error. Simple.

Poor user experience will cause a service to lose users

When I told him about the transgender woman story, my friend became worried about his personal Google account being tied to his phone number. His Google name is ‘Shane Assman’ (in reference to the Seinfeld episode where Kramer get’s the wrong plates from the DNV).  Shane is a teacher and immediately saw the risk of inadvertently sending a message via his Google identity and having a classroom full of teenagers calling him ‘Mr. Assman’. He has now uninstalled KitKat and replaced it with a custom ROM so that he can personalise his messaging experience.

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