Google+ Turns 2: How Hangouts Completely Changed My Work Routines

Google+ turned two this week and by all accounts Google has won over critics with a compelling social network experience. I have been a fan from day 1 and perhaps what I admire most about Google is that they ignore the pundits while playing a very long game of their own making… so while my initial reaction that Twitter and Tumblr would be the biggest losers, which obviously was not the case, there are other factors that are worth looking at.

Simply put, Hangouts have been enormously impactful on me and how I work. Here is something they nailed and it is so profound that I didn’t even realize it until just this week, Hangouts are built around the notion that a video experience is YOU first, and then whatever you are sharing second.

Think about how Gotomeeting and Webex handle video, it is something that is added to the act of presenting something and despite a significant push to feature video, I have encountered few instances where someone says “hey share the camera!”. Contrast that to Hangouts where video is a primary experience… Google just figured this out while Webex and Gotomeeting are still locked into their traditional mode, which also limits their ability to have an instant video conference in the absence of a persistent conference room.

We have a very distributed company and on any given day I will have between 3-6 planned video Hangouts and a bunch of ad hoc ones. This has become such a fundamental mode of communication for me that I invested in SteelSeries gamer headsets to provide the best audio quality while also improving the comfort factor.

The integration with Google Calendar is another winner, where adding a video conference to a meeting is as simple as clicking the link. No scheduling service, passwords, dialin numbers. and so on… it just works.

Another experiences I had recently that drove this home was at HP with one of their sophisticated teleconference systems. Yes, it was remarkable but I kept thinking that I could do something a lot easier with Hangouts… instead of getting a bunch of people in dedicated rooms just to talk to each other, we could have each run a separate video in Hangouts and the result would have been the same in terms of what we accomplished… and for free.

The integration of Talk with Hangouts is a mixed bag and I hope that Google restores the ability to place voice calls from the Hangouts add-on in Gmail. Google has an interesting integration challenge that is a result of an embarrassment of riches with a robust chat product that built on XMPP, Google Voice, and Hangouts. A big change they announced last month was the abandonment of XMPP, which has a lot of features as well as a big developer community, and the replacement of Talk with Hangouts. I like the user experience and having my chats pop up in Hangouts in addition to Gmail, but the degradation of features is disappointing, most significantly the inability to place voice phone calls right from Hangouts.

I don’t know where they are going with this but the result for me is that I now use Skype more frequently for voice calls instead of hitting the phone icon in Talk and placing a call.

Lastly, the mobile experience is completely seamless, and that extends to video as well. On my Samsung S4 the mobile video conferencing is surprisingly good and glitch free… how far we have come from commercial video phones that started showing up in the 1980’s that used super expensive hardware and puts POTS through an extreme gymnastics routine.

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Customer Service Hell: Web Conferencing

I have gone through some really bad customer experiences with online and offline services but few have rivaled that of my recent trials and tribulations with web conferencing service providers.

This all started when I suffered from dropped Gotomeeting web conferences and encountering people who requested I use a different service provider. When the web conference service you are using becomes the focus of attention it is never a good thing so I looked at alternative offerings.

I signed up for Infinite Conference, which had a really slick website and a feature list that was attractive. My trouble started when I attempted to login to “my account” to, you know, manage my account. My email/password combo was not accepted so I clicked on recover password and after a dozen or so repeated attempts to get past their captcha system I sent them an email to their customer service link. I dislike captchas in general but when they serve to frustrate legitimate users who want to get something done, they are a major problem.

That was last night, this morning there was an email in my inbox explaining that because I was on a trial I didn’t have access to the “my account” feature area.

  1. It’s not clear that there is a limitation in the trial experience… this is a UX problem.
  2. The “my account” link should take me to my account whether or not I have all the features or not. It’s still the place I would logically go to manage “my account”.
  3. The password recovery flow should clearly state the error message rather than continuously cycling the captcha, which suggests the captcha wasn’t being accepted.

All of the above are representative of a poorly designed system flow and confusing messaging on their application and website and here’s the WTF moment… I noticed that the email I received from Infinite Conference (an unfortunate product name by the way) included a thread that was clearly a result of internal communication and in reading through it the agent referred to me as a “rude customer”.

Rude? Really? I reviewed the original email I sent and this customer service agent probably has too thin skin for the role, here’s what I wrote:

Here’s the deal, I can’t login because my password isn’t being recognized and when I try to recover my password the captcha system you are using is dialed up to near impossible. You need to fix this… captchas are lame to begin with but when they primarily serve to frustrate people who are legitimate users you have to ask yourself is the scheme worth it. I can’t use my account and I haven’t even got through the trial period.

This is a fail that is all too common in “old world” customer service organizations that are measured by case benchmarks rather than their contribution to brand and product metrics. I provided very specific feedback about the product; actionable product issues that are solved by UX tweaks and everything I offered will be discarded because the customer service agent thought I was rude. And when the next customer has the same problem it will be groundhog day all over again.

So then I tried Intercall and that product experience was so bad that I wanted to immediately cancel but had to call customer support where the helpful customer service agent told me I needed to send an email to a different team in order to cancel. Why not just put that information on the customer service site and save the hassle of going through an IVR system only to find out I needed to back online? But this is a story for another post… why the hell are web conferencing services so bad?