Thursday, April 7, 2011

Why does the Google Talk web interface suck?

I am a big Instant Messenger (IM) user. I've been using one service or another since the mid-to-late 1990s. First it was ICQ, and then AIM. Yahoo and Microsoft came along with their IM services. Each of these had their own client applications that you used that allowed you to sign on, see which of your buddies were online, and chat with them at your leisure.

Like most things, IM clients matured as time went by. They added features like telling you when your buddy was typing or had entered text without sending it. Voice chat was introduced. Rudimentary file sharing was invented. But also basic things, like contact sorting, message coloring, buddy icons, groups, and all other manners of customization came along.

Then, as it became unwieldy to run 6 different applications just to be able to talk to your friends on all the different IM networks, some enterprising developers came up with multi-service IM clients. These clients, such as Pidgin or Digsby on Windows, or Adium on Mac OSX, allow users to connect to many different networks from one application, using a unified contact list. This makes for a much cleaner desktop and a more streamlined experience. And all of these programs have countless customization options to make your IM experience as personal, efficient, and useful as possible, while at the same time being lightweight and unintrusive.

Enter Google Talk (AKA Google Chat, not to be confused with Google Voice). With the rise of gmail as the E-mail service of choice for the cool kids, Google strategically created an IM service to go along with it. Google Talk allows those in your address book who also have Gmail accounts to have IM conversations with you. Google Talk was and is still primarily a browser-based IM service, although it is based on a protocol that is very widely supported by third party clients (such as Adium, which is how I connect to it).

But most people (you included, probably) just use the browser-based interface to Google Talk that is integrated with Gmail. And oh boy, the thing is vile. So vile that I can't freaking believe that anyone can stand to use it.

First, the contact list and message box are ugly as sin with no way to customize them. Oh, sure, you can choose "small", "medium", and "large" for the contact list size. By the way, I actually mistook that to mean the font size. My mistake. What it really does is change how many of your contacts are actually shown. What if you want Medium-Small? or Medium-Large? You're SOL. Okay, so maybe that's not such a big deal. Setting it to small should be fine because I don't have that many friends. Okay.

The only other option they have for your contact list is "Show in chat list" whose two options are "Most Popular" and "All Contacts". There is no option to Hide Offline Contacts. C'mon, Google! this is IM Client Design 101! I don't care who's offline, only who's online! The lack of a Hide Offline Contacts option makes the "Show All Contacts" option a load of crap. So then we have our other choice, "Most Popular". You would think this would be based on who you talk to the most, either over email or in Google Talk itself. But when I chose this option, someone I hadn't talked to at all for over two years was placed near the top! Shit, Google.

And that's it. No other options.

But I'm not done yet.

One last thing. IM can be considered the least formal means of communications in the digital world. This means that grammar goes out the window. Sentence fragments are allowed. You may type a whole sentence and send it out without a period, and that would be okay.

The following is also acceptable: I and many others have the tendency to start a sentence, and press Enter to send the message before the sentence is complete, and then finish the sentence in the next line. I don't really know why we do it, but I guess it keeps the pace up and maintains the flow of the conversation, so the recipient doesn't have to wait for the whole sentence to be typed out and end up receiving a "wall of text" when it's done. It also can help to subtly indicate where natural pauses or breaks are, without resorting to putting commas everywhere, resulting in runs-on sentences, which nobody likes. Whatever the reason, I do it a lot. Like the full sentences described in the paragraph above, these "partial sentences" also do not end with periods.

What does this have to do with Google Talk's web interface? Well, the way the conversation box is implemented, consecutive instant messages from the same sender are grouped together, such that instead of being like:

omnigeno (6:30 pm): hey, have you ever been
to Original Tommy's
burgers at Universal
omnigeno (6:30 pm): I'm working 'til 8 tonight
omnigeno (6:31 pm): but if I leave to get food,
I ain't comin' back

It instead is displayed as:

omnigeno (6:30 pm): hey,
have you ever been to
Original Tommy's burgers
at Universal Citywalk?
I'm working 'til 8 tonight
but if I leave to get food,
I ain't comin' back

The first example sort of makes it easier to see where the natural breaks are, whereas the second one just looks like a pair of overgrown, deformed haikus.

In the first example, it's clear that the whole first sentence about Tommy's at Universal Citywalk was in one continuous message, but the word wrap was due to the small size of the IM box. In the second example, however, there's no way to tell. It's a big mess.

It's clear that this was designed purely to be utilitarian, to be sure, but I really feel as if they put all their effort into the backend, and hired the 10-week intern to design the user interface.. and she spent 3 days on it.

The Google Talk Gmail web interface is an awful piece of junk, and the only reason why I resorted to using it this week is because my work no longer allows me to install unapproved applications on my computer.

Google, why does your chat interface suck so badly?