Google Hangouts: Thoughts on Concept vs. Functionality

Today’s discussion topic was sparked by the launch of the new Google+ experiment, specifically Google Hangouts, which represent a new twist on video conferencing.

There’s an important lesson here about how you can take a product with not-so-revolutionary functionality and present it in such a way that it is instantly more useful to potential users.

The Launch of Google+

Having apparently learned from their past mistakes regarding making a big deal out of product releases, Google decided to roll out Google+ this week in a fairly quiet fashion. Of course, all of us web-addicts instantly flocked over anyway to see what’s happening.

If you don’t have an invite yet, Google+ is not one but a group of integrated products: Circles, Hangouts, Instant Upload, Sparks and Huddle for now with more to come later.

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The basic hub has an undeniably Facebook-like stream showing you various activities from your Circles, which are distinct groups that you create for certain people: friends, family, coworkers, classmates, etc. Circles make it easy to share certain things with certain people rather than pushing out every update to everyone on your friends list.

Instant upload is a new way to quickly get photos from your phone to the web, Sparks is a sort of personalized news aggregator and huddle is a group messaging system.

Whether or not Google+ as a whole is a great idea or doomed for failure is a topic for another day and likely another blog. Today I want to focus on the product that I haven’t explained yet: Hangouts.

What Are Hangouts?

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Google is spinning Hangouts as a way to organically meet up online. The basic idea is that hanging out with people used to be a lot simpler, and can be that way again.

For instance, in my fairly small home town there was a public basketball court a couple of blocks from my house. When I was growing up I would frequently walk to the basketball court to hang out with some friends. I didn’t need to call anyone and have them meet me, just being there pretty much guaranteed that someone I knew would walk by and stop to shoot hoops for a while.

Google Hangouts seek to accomplish the same thing via video chat. The basic idea is that you start a new “Hangout,” which essentially tells your friends that you’re on your computer and willing to chat with anyone that shows up. If three of your buddies happen to be on as well, you can all meet up and, for lack of a better term, hang out.

Same Old Functionality

The way Google explains this feature and shows it off in videos is really great. It makes you nostalgic for simpler times and eager to start your own Hangout to meet up with old friends, drink Coke from a glass bottle and shoot the breeze.

As I watched the video I couldn’t help but think of what a great idea this was. However, the more I thought about it the more I realized that there’s really not much to it that we don’t already have.

What Google has set up with Hangouts is a fairly straightforward video conferencing system just like we have everywhere else. If I’m on Skype, iChat or FaceTime, I can easily see which of my friends are on and launch a group chat so that we can all “hang out.”

“The core functionality of these video conferencing systems is nearly identical”

Sure, there are some quirks and features that make each competing system its own (Hangouts has a cool center stage feature based on who is talking), but the core functionality of these video conferencing systems is nearly identical. We’ve had the resources to create digital hangouts for years, and yet this still feels new. Why?

New Concept

There’s an interesting mental barrier with the older systems (Skype, iChat, FaceTime, etc.) that we’ve had for years. The relative newness and awkwardness of video chats for us all makes it difficult to know when it is and isn’t appropriate to invite someone to talk face to face. Just because my pal David is signed onto Skype doesn’t mean that he wants to have a video chat.

This is one of the main hurdles that I wrote about when Apple first launched FaceTime for iOS devices. Face-to-face conversations on a mobile device are incredible, but who is really going to take that leap and start making video calls to their friends? When is a video call not appropriate? None of us know the etiquette yet.

“There’s no awkward protocol here, the concept of the system is structured so that you’re supposed to launch video chats with people.”

Google has solved this problem with Hangouts in an extremely simple way. If you’re on “Hangouts” it means that you’re willing to start a video chat with anyone and everyone who is also on (given the Circles that you have selected). There’s no awkward protocol here, the concept of the system is structured so that you’re supposed to launch video chats with people.

Concepts vs. Functionality

Analyzing Google Hangouts really got me thinking about the idea of the concept of a service vs. its functionality. As designers, developers and entrepreneurs, we are forced to make countless decisions on this front whether we even realize it or not.

“We have a solid product, and when it doesn’t work, it’s back to the drawing board to rethink the features.”

From our technical vantage point, the biggest mistake we are likely prone to make is by focusing on functionality at the neglect of a solid concept. Sometimes we get a basic idea in our heads and work like crazy to make sure it has all the best bells and whistles that it possibly can, and yet, no one really finds the need to use it. We have a solid product, and when it doesn’t work, it’s back to the drawing board to rethink the features. However, the problem is likely that we haven’t really thought of a great way to sell it to potential users.

Non-web-developer entrepreneurs can often be guilty of making the opposite mistake: focusing on a concept at the neglect of solid, stable and user-friendly functionality. Both of these pieces of the puzzle are necessities in a well-design and well-planned product.

Conclusion: So What?

The goal of this discussion is to get you to think differently about problem-solving. Instead of always updating the design or functionality of your site in an attempt to reel in more users, why not give some thought to your core concept?

How is your product similar to others in its category? How is it different? Most importantly, what are the general conceptual barriers that users face when interacting with products in this category and how can you position your product in such a way that those mental barriers are reduced or eliminated?