Early reviews of Google+ are in and they’re generally positive. Obviously, not everybody love Google’s latest social network experiment, but I’d like to debunk one piece of criticism that keeps being repeated over and over. And that is, that the Google+ Circles feature is basically the same thing as Facebook’s Friend Lists.
Facebook Friend Lists lets users group friends under different lists; family, co-workers, etc., so that you can share things with subsets of your overall Facebook friends. As in real life, you don’t share everything with all the people you know, and with the Friend Lists feature you can emulate that. Sounds very similar to Circles right?
The problem with Friend Lists is the poor usability of this feature. Unlike Circles, you get the feeling that this feature was tacked on, and that it’s not a central component of the service. Creating and assigning people to Circles in Google+ is a lot easier and friendlier than managing Friend Lists, just look at this video from Google which gives you a good overview of how the Google interface handles this.
The main problem with Friend Lists is that once setup they’re a pain to use, which is probably why a lot of Facebook users either don’t know about this feature or don’t bother to use it.
Let’s try to share a message only intended for our family;
First non-obvious thing you have to do is click on the padlock icon. This icon gives you 4 choices; “Everyone“, “Friends of Friends“, “Friends Only” and “Customize“. Unlike Circles, it doesn’t list your Circles of friends or in this case your Friend Lists. What you have to do here is select the “Customize” option which opens up the “Custom Privacy” dialog.
The “Custom Privacy” dialog now gives us another 4 choices; “Friends of Friends“, “Friends Only“, “Specific People…“, “Only Me“. Again, Facebook decides not to show you your Friend Lists, and to select one you have to chose the “Specific People…” option. Now, in the previous screen, we already told the interface we don’t want to send a message to “Friends Only” or “Friends of Friends”, why is it showing us these options again? Bad UI design.
There’s also the strange option to only share an item with yourself (“Only Me“), I guess that’s usefull to save things and share them later. But instead of listing this, I’d rather see my family Friend List.
To find our desired list, again we select “Specific People…“ (1), which shows an empty text entry field. As we start typing “f” for family (2), Facebook is nice enough to show us friends with first or last names that contain the letter “f”. Note that I have so many friends with that letter that in none of the choices my family Friend List shows up. After typing a bit more, “fa” (3), we still see other friends but at the bottom of the choices we finally see our family Friend List. Finally we select it (4) and our family list is added to the field.
Another bad design choice is how Friend Lists are mixed in with regular (singular) friends, at the very least it would be nice to get a visual hint that something is a Friend List vs a singular specific friend.
We then click “Save Setting” at the bottom right of the dialog and go back to our Facebook wall. Obviously, the last step is to press the “share” button, unfortunately Facebook doesn’t make it clear what Friend List or group of friends I’m sharing with. To see that, you need to click again on the padlock icon which instead of indicating what Friend List is selected, it shows a cryptic “Custom edit” selected item on the padlock popup menu. Not clearly showing who we’re sharing with makes it easy to share the wrong thing with the wrong group of people by accident. Again, bad UI design.
And that’s how Friend Lists are used in Facebook. The feature is hidden via the padlock icon, the option is not clear (“Customize“), selection is cumbersome, and Facebook does its best to hide away Friend Lists from the user. It’s almost as if the UI is designed on purpose to discourage the use of this feature.
In contrast, in the Google+ interface, you simply type the text you want to share (or image, video, etc.) and then click on the “Share” button;
From right there you can select with Circle of friends you want to share with. The Circle can be typed in or selected from the list, if it’s not shown in the list simply clicking “more …” will show the rest of the Circles. Unlike Facebook, Circles are not hidden but featured front and center. In this case 2 clicks allow me to quickly select who I want to share with.
Another key usability item to note, once a Circle is selected, Google+ makes it very clear who you are sharing with. In this example we can see the family Circle highlighted in blue and with a Circle icon to denote it represents a group of people. Singular friends added to the group, will also be shown highlighted in blue but without the Circle icon to differentiate them with Circles.This is much better than clicking on a padlock and trying to figure out who “Custom edit” is.
Simply put, when contrasting both approaches we note that;
- Google has spent a lot more effort on usability in their User Interface design; minimizing clicks, removing the need for additional dialogs, preventing users from sharing information with an unintended Circle, etc.
- Circles is a key and central feature of Google+, whereas Friend Lists seems more like a feature added as an afterthought, rather than a fundamental aspect of how people share information with different groups of friends.
It is clear that Google+ Circles are friendlier and easier to use than Facebook Lists. On this one central aspect of sharing, it seems Google has done their homework while Facebook really needs to evaluate and reinvent their approach to usability.