Google Reader Gets an Update, Kinda Sucks

So listen, Google Reader:

I know you want to stay current with the times, and make sure you look like all the other Google sites, and a whole bunch of other good ideas”; but if you’re going to do an update, there are some important things you have to remember. I’ve written them out for you, in handy list form, so you know for next time.

  1. Your update has to be functional and beneficial to the user, as well as look nice. We all like white-space, and big buttons, and I actually am a fan of the new black/grey/red/blue Google colour scheme. But when I can’t see clear separation between content items, or between my content and the side column, my brain gets frustrated. I know that when you click on the item you’re currently reading, a handy little box forms around it. I want that box all the time. I want complete borders around every article, so that each item is separate and defined_,_ not frolicking free in white-space land. Why did you think I wanted these borders to go away? Making the borders impermanent makes my eyes jump from item to item in a distracting, attention-deficit kind of way, if I should happen to forget to click before reading. (Yes, there is a foot-bar that separates each article, but its soft lines and gradients-of-grey shading do not help my eyes stick to what I’m trying to read; I still end up distracted by the wasteland of border-less white-space. And while we’re on the subject, why did you make my post titles this bland, grey colour? Why would you think it would be easier to read something if the title of the article didn’t stand out?)

  2. Your update has to add desired features, or fix broken ones, not take well-liked features away. I can understand replacing your like” smiley-face button with the +1. Like” is now nearly synonymous with Facebook”, and you’re trying to make the +1 as ubiquitous as that blue thumbs-up. Believe me, I get it; we all want to conquer the Internet. But why would you take away a well liked, oft-used feature with a strong community? Ditching your share/shared items” feature has alienated your core audience: the original users of Google Reader, people who have spent time and effort cultivating a small but interested group of like-minded content-hunters. People who look forward to being exposed to articles and feeds they wouldn’t see otherwise. People who don’t want to rely on the overly social environments of Facebook or Twitter to find new and interesting items to read. This was your biggest misstep, Google Reader. We don’t want you to integrate with Google Plus because we don’t want to use Google Plus, at least not for this purpose. We don’t want to share things to our walls”, or profiles”, or what have you. We don’t want to pass that nerdyQuantum Levitation article on to everyone we know. We want to quietly click share” at the bottom of that article and have it unobtrusively offer itself to the five, or ten, or fifty people we know who have shown express interest in reading the things we read, in the medium that we read them. We want our friends’ shared articles to appear as unread content in our sidebars, so that they’re there, like a treat, on the site we’re already using.  We do not want to be forced to use another site to share content, Google Reader. There are already multiple external sites that we use when we want to reach a wide audience. We liked the exclusivity, the closeness, the convenience, the built in ease of our Google Reader Shared Community. If we didn’t, we’d browse the web like the rest of the Internet, and post our articles to Facebook or Tumblr or Blogger or Twitter or Wordpress or… you get the picture. Which brings me to my final point:

3. No one uses Google Plus. As a documented fan of the idea, it pains me to admit it, but it’s just not working. Even though it’s cleverly built right into sites I use every day, I can go weeks without looking at my Google Plus profile, or checking in with my circles”. I have never had a hangout, and I don’t want to. Frankly, the only reason I even remember I have a Google Plus profile is because of those little notifications in the Google TopBar*, telling me that more people I don’t know have added me to their Circles”. Clicking ignore all” on those notifications is literally the only interaction I’ve had with Google Plus for the past two weeks, and ostensibly I’m your target market. No one likes failure, and I understand the huge desire Google must have to see Plus succeed. But forcing people to use your service is never the road to success, especially when you’re forcing people to use your service by taking away something they actually like and use. Removing a social service that people enjoy in order to force them to use something they hate seems, frankly, ass-backwards. 

As a devoted fan and long time user, Google Reader, I urge you to keep these three simple facts in mind before any and all future redesigns. I also urge you to take a good hard look at how people use your service, and why, before you go making changes. And if you really want to get rid of a feature, ditch sort by magic. No one uses that.

_*Ed. Note: It has been brought to my attention that the Google TopBar is actually called the OneGoogle Bar”. What’s more, there is apparently a way to share your Google Reader items with your Google Plus circles from the OneGoogle bar. File this under knowledge I didn’t have, and will not use”._

November 1, 2011