Google want the internet to be more open. They could help.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin complains to The Guardian today that oppressive governments, along with the ‘walled gardens’ of Facebook and Apple, pose a threat to the openness of the internet and consequently to innovation. While he makes a serious point I cannot help thinking that his argument is self-serving, particularly when he says that web-crawlers cannot access the data in apps, for example.

Brin argues that Google would never have got off the ground if the internet had been dominated by Facebook at the time. This may be true, but I suspect that an internet dominated by Google would never have become as widely accessible, popular and successful as it is today. Google could do a lot more to make their applications user-friendly and broaden their appeal to a wider range of users.

I have been using Google applications ever since the search engine’s beta launch and have noticed two prevailing characteristics:

1) They employ some very clever people, producing sophisticated products;

2) They assume everyone else is just as clever and don’t always give the rest of us the best user experience.

My experience with Google Analytics IQ Lessons demonstrates my point. It’s a great idea to offer these tutorials free online and it’s fascinating to see just how powerful the Google Analytics tools are. I completed the course, noting along the way a few areas for improvement.

The first page could be better if it gave the total length of the course, suggested how to space the lessons and advised what prior knowledge is required. For example, there is a presumption of understanding of terminology and concepts such as bounce rates and proxy servers. A glossary might be useful. Codecademy shows how much friendlier it could have been.

The Google Analytics toolbar includes a button reading ‘Old Version’ that toggles to ‘New Version’, but which one is which? Even a mouse hover-over fails to clarify whether it means you are ‘currently viewing the Old Version’, or should ‘click here to switch to the Old Version’. What are the differences and does it matter?

One of the most common items users are likely to search for under ‘regular expressions’ in Google Analytics, would be IP addresses, each of which includes three full-points. Unfortunately, the full-point can also be a wild card, so every time you enter an IP address, you must precede each full point with a backslash to prevent it going wild.

To set the timeout to one hour, simply enter the value in milliseconds. You knew that was 3600000, didn’t you? Similarly, to set a campaign expiry time of six months,  enter 15768000000. How many milliseconds would it have taken developers to allow users to enter a value in days and do the conversion in the background?

On completing the course, niggles aside, I am full of admiration for the power and sophistication of Google Analytics and for the team that created it. They are clearly happy working with code and strings of rules and formulae.

However, if they had dominated the computer world for the last 20 years, we would still be using MS Dos and there would be no user-friendly graphic user interfaces to enhance user experience. Google struggle to empathise with ordinary people, who are easily confused by jargon and technical detail. What they really need is a room full of dummies like me, testing their latest products to establish how easily they can be broken or misunderstood. Having said that, Google deserve a big hand for making their analytics suite completely free.

I can’t help wondering what ‘Microsoft Analytics‘ would have looked like. I guess there would be lots of standard templates of the most common reports, with a wizard to guide novices through the process of entering URLs, date ranges and IP addresses and a friendly paper clip to help when we get stuck. It would cost about £500.

But what about ‘Apple Analytics‘? I imagine it as a more graphic concept, elegant and intuitive, where users design data-flows using building blocks of different shapes, colours and textures, with slick icons that play a musical chord when clicked. This would cost around £5,000 and require the upgrading of  operating systems and possibly hardware, too, as well as the annual software release.

In conclusion, Google Analytics is an incredibly powerful and feature-rich suite of tools that  no web master can be without. It is written by geeks, for geeks and, if this practice were widespread, it would result in geeks inheriting the earth. Whether you think that is good or bad probably depends on whether you consider yourself a geek. I prefer applications to be more user-friendly, intuitive, elegant and accessible, broadening the base of potential users rather than restricting it to a select few.

If Sergey Brin really wants to open up access to the internet he should put user experience at the forefront of all future Google developments, so we can all gain maximum benefit from them.

© 2012

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