GMessage: how to fix Google’s messaging madness — a UX exploration

If one has been even moderately following technology news, they would easily know how much Google has failed within the messaging sphere. Not only this, but it seems this is a trend for the tech giant’s products that we all know and love, with most of its new ventures (according to the Google Cemetery) barely lasting 4 years, with the most recent victim being Inbox.

Google can’t decide on one messaging app.
Google can’t decide on one messaging app.

However, let’s focus on messaging, as that seems to be the largest problem Google has been having for years. Looking back, it becomes clear Google has ventured into this space more often than once. Google+ Messenger, Hangouts, Google Voice, Allo, etc have all fallen. Multiple and numerous attempts by Google seem to just not work. But it gets worse: iMessage. Apple got this and they got it right. Thanks to their walled system, Apple is able to force users into iMessage, whereby when someone signs up their phone number is linked and boom, that’s all they have to do. It has SMS fallback as well, so if their iMessage won’t send through or someone doesn’t have iMessage there is no need to worry; it gets automatically sent via SMS. It’s so easy.

Why is it so hard for Google? Well, Google doesn’t have a walled ecosystem. Rather, it acts as the wild west when it comes to Android. Not everyone on Android has the same apps or uses the same accounts — there’s no easy way to fallback onto SMS or detect if a user is signed up with the messaging service, so more likely than not a user would get sent the message through a service they didn’t know that they had. Hangouts tried to fix this by having SMS be a manual setting, where users chose whether or not to message via SMS or via Hangouts. This turned out inelegant and unsuccessful.

Time to identify some problems.

The first problem is product congestion. Not only were there too many messaging platforms, but there were also too many platforms existing at the same time. When a user is on YouTube they can use YouTube Messaging, on Gmail they use Hangouts, on Drive they use the built in document chat, etc. This giant ecosystem has no connecting platform that brings everything together… in reality each platform acts as its own walled garden.

The second is obvious: lack of users. Each platform ends up shutting down because nobody uses it. This goes back to the first problem, all the users are spread out between the different messaging platforms; there’s no aggregation. In the larger picture, it gets more complicated. Most users don’t use Google’s platforms at all.

The third (which is really more of an explanation of the second) is user complacency. 51% of smartphone users aren’t downloading a single app per month. People are happy with using Facebook or WhatsApp simply because they’re already so ingrained in their daily lives and culture. The first response one will give when asked to install a new messaging app is “Why not just use Facebook/WhatsApp/GroupMe?” At the end of the day it becomes a hassle for people to switch to new messaging platforms.

Cross-platform support is finicky at best.
Cross-platform support is finicky at best.

The fourth is cross-platform support. Hangouts actually did this quite well, but Google’s implementation of Allo along with their current implementation of Android Messages does this less so. They are not cloud-based messaging platforms, which means the desktop app runs through the middle-man of the phone. Therefore there are constant sync problems and the requirement of having one’s phone constantly connected to the computer. It becomes a pain and ultimately hard to set up and annoying to upkeep.

Lastly is of course poor SMS support. This is a generally a more US centric problem as most other countries rarely use SMS, but in any case it is still a problem. I’ve already touched on SMS support in Hangouts and iMessage and why iMessage is superior. Despite SMS being on the decline, there are still billions of these messages sent out annually, and in order for Google to truly insert themselves into the US market, they have to get this correct.

So how do we address these problems?

The first step is to boil them down to a more concise thesis. For this, we should address the third stated problem (which is really also the second). People don’t want to install new messaging apps (or really just apps in general), which leads to low user counts. According to Statista, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are the most used messaging apps in the world, with WeChat coming incredibly close in third with its absolute domination of the Chinese market. One might notice the lack of iMessage — unfortunately Apple holds all of its statistics in house for that, but we can safely assume it has a huge user base in the US. So these are the giants of the messaging world. How does one make an impact into this space? Well… Google is really really big. They have a vast empire of resources along with over 85% market share in the mobile sphere on the global stage.

It is incredible to think that the Android operating system has become so ubiquitous yet has no primary messaging system across even its own platform, let alone desktop and iOS. Google has the power to do this, though, and this is how:

Appeal to user complacency by inserting the service in a product they already use.

Funnily enough, the way to accomplish this is by looking at the desktop first. Usually we think that we must do everything mobile first, as desktop usage is now far less than mobile usage, but in this case we have to think about the target market. Long term, this messaging service intends to become one of the most used messaging services in the world, so it is important to target the youthful populous — i.e. those in high school and college. These are the most tech savvy people around, and will ultimately be the ones to set future trends. On first thought, it might not seem very clear why we want to look at the desktop first for this market, as the younger generations are stereotypically (and perhaps rightfully so) always depicted on their mobile devices. However, one of the most popular chat apps for the age group is Google Docs.

Students will always slack off. Who provides the system for them to do so?
Students will always slack off. Who provides the system for them to do so?

Why is this? Well, it’s because it is already ingrained within their workflow and can easily be used without being detected. It is easy to pass notes in class and talk to one’s friends while giving off the look of doing work. From this we should take two key ideas: Docs is a successful messaging app because it’s on a device already being used for work, and it is being used for messaging because of how easily it is assimilated into the workflow of a student. This is a perfect example of placing a product into people’s workflow to get them to use it — even if Google didn’t have this intended effect at the time.

Chrome is the king of the internet. How can it be utilized as such?
Chrome is the king of the internet. How can it be utilized as such?

Google has the tools to accomplish this exact same effect with Chrome. Chrome, like Docs, is ubiquitous not only in schools, but also worldwide, with it owning over 60% of the global market share. Safari doesn’t even come in at a close second with around 15%. Not only this, but within a younger target market Chrome is the browser of choice as well, with many schools going so far as to partner with Google to provide students with Chromebooks. The more one looks at it, the more it makes sense to put Google’s universal messenger in Chrome. Most people use Chrome because of its deep connection with the Google ecosystem, whereby it syncs their passwords, themes, bookmarks, apps, Google accounts, etc. By adding a messenger, it only deepens the user connection with the product. Messengers of course require a phone number to work, and a large majority of users with Google accounts have their phone numbers linked to their account already for 2FA. However, if they don’t, Chrome can be utilized. The next time they sign into Chrome the messenger can easily be introduced and they can be prompted to add a number.

This solution works not only in solving the problem of user complacency, but also the SMS problem. Hangouts couldn’t default to SMS when someone didn’t have Hangouts because anyone with a Google account who didn’t use Hangouts would just not get the message. However, with Chrome being so ubiquitous across all platforms — desktop to mobile — the chances of a user missing a message are relatively slim. However, it is important to account for these cases. What if a user has linked their phone number with their Google account — enabling the messaging service — but for whatever reason doesn’t use Chrome? Simply any time they would visit the Google homepage, they would have the message notification there waiting for them, as we all know how many people visit Google Search based on the fact Google has quite literally integrated into our verbiage. Basically, as long as a user has a Google account with a phone number, they will get the message via Google’s new messenger. If not, SMS fallback! What a beautiful dream.

The final problem that needs to be tackled is the mobile front. This solution puts a messenger in Chrome, but if the messenger is in Chrome on mobile, the app could easily get congested and confusing by identifying as two almost completely separate applications. For this solution we look to Facebook Messenger. It started as being integrated into the mobile site and then was ultimately disabled and pushed its users to the mobile app. For the most part many people were upset about this when it happened (including myself), but today we’ve all forgotten about it — and now Facebook Messenger is the second largest platform in the world. By having this probationary period where Chrome acts as a messenger, it allows time to garner users and then ultimately herd them to the real app once they’ve bought into the platform, forcing them to combat user complacency.

Ultimately this all amalgamates into a universal messaging app that is easy to access and easy to understand. Now, let’s get into the app itself and some of its hero features.

The App

Here I will be delving into *some* UX, but mostly the visual design of the app — if you want to look at the UX and general wireframing, they are included in an annotated deck that can be found here. Within this annotated deck I explain just about every tiny design decision I made.

The app is called GMessage to of course rival Apple’s iMessage. Rather than have the app align with the Chrome brand, we want it to encompass all of Google’s products, which is why we utilize the iconic G rather than give it a name such as Google Hangouts or Google Allo, which can essentially be a little too long and clunky.

Contrary to the ethos of the idea, the design will be mobile first. While the hero launch will be on the desktop, the idea behind designing the application mobile first still persists, as it translates better for the responsive screen. The app is designed on a 8 dp grid with type aligning on a 4 dp grid.

Both desktop and mobile align to an 8dp grid with 16dp margins.
Both desktop and mobile align to an 8dp grid with 16dp margins.

GMessage’s hero feature will be the integration of the Google Assistant. Lately, Google has been trying to work its assistant into just about every product, and the messaging space is ripe with opportunity. For a long time messaging has been very utilitarian in its presentation, with a simple list of conversations and then chat bubbles inside. This isn’t to say this is bad, as this is definitely the correct way to do it, however there is certainly room for improvement. One can see the beginnings of this with many messaging apps including fun stickers, polls, games, etc to make the experience more about messaging friends and having fun rather than to accomplish some sort of task. These are all well and good and can certainly be worked into the chat screen itself, but so far there have been no improvements to the list interface. The only notable change is Facebook putting ads in its message list — which one would hardly say improves it (rather the opposite).

Smart Chats highlight the user’s most relevant messages.
Smart Chats highlight the user’s most relevant messages.

GMessage addresses this with what I’ve dubbed ‘Smart Chats’. The app recognizes the user’s most important messages and throws them to the top where the most important information is. The most important messages are of course the most recent ones, but also ones like food delivery texts or messages that can be dubbed as generally important by the AI (usually a message where deadlines are included) — something that we saw with Google’s Inbox.

But let’s think about the design of them little more. Recently one might note the heavy trend of bottom bar navigation — this is due to phones getting bigger and reachability getting smaller. Therefore, it is easy to reach things on the bottom rather than the top. This isn’t new. So visually these new chats are the most important, but are they even accessible?

After polling around 10–15 users of various device sizes, I’ve found that they’re definitely not. So it seems conventional wisdom certainly applies. However, the most reachable part of the screen turns out to not be the bottom. Yes, the bottom is more reachable than the top, but in reality the middle is the easiest to access. It seems obvious once it is stated, but I’ve found that users are actually holding their phones in two ways. First is the pinky hold, where the pinky holds up the phone from the bottom and the user’s thumb rests closer to the lower portion of the screen. Second is the standard grip, whereby the user holds the phone from the middle. In both of these scenarios, it seems the most reachable area was still right about the middle of the screen. This is a solution that Samsung certainly identified with their new One UI.

To solve this problem we must simply move the information down. To fill the empty space we’ve put useful contextual information there as well as personified the Google Assistant. Now we have the most useful information in the most accessible area.

Smart Chats have various states depending on what messages the user has received.
Smart Chats have various states depending on what messages the user has received.

One might also notice the small pin icon. Google and Android is all about giving the user choice, and users would certainly want to decide some of their most important conversations — say a thread with one’s spouse or family. These conversations a user can have pinned to the top to always have them readily accessible even if they aren’t their most recent conversation.

The messaging interface is very similar to the current android messages. However, there are some updates. Firstly, the customization of contact colours makes a return. Android has always been lauded for its intense customizability, yet recent updates tend to hinder this brand ethos. In GMessage, contacts are assigned a generated colour — but users can always assign custom colours to every contact. Along with GMessage being a cloud based service, there are of course cloud based features, such as the replying bubble, read message tags, and liking messages.

Touching back on the topic of customization, the entire colour theme of GMessage is customizable to the user, allowing them to change the main app colour to whatever they want. This adds that extra step of personalization that people on Android are looking for. They can already customize their home screens to their heart’s content, so now we should let them customize their apps too (while keeping the app’s functionality and branding in tact). This includes the addition of dark mode, which has been making large waves in the past few quarters.

Here is the money maker. GMessage integrates directly into Chrome as a slide out pane. When the pane slides out, it simply condenses the current site being viewed as if it were being responsively resized, much like the current Chrome inspect panel does. The desktop experience functions in almost the same way as the mobile messaging experience, allowing for a unified and seamless application across the different platforms.

And finally, here is GMessage in motion. No longer will the messaging app use bland system animations to transition from screen to screen. Messaging should be fun and useful at the same time, and the motion of the app conveys these ideas. If the motion feels utilitarian, the app will as well. By adding custom expand animations and staggering intros, GMessage shows that extra polish that makes a user not only trust the app’s robustness, but also appreciate its beauty, which will lead to user longevity.

In Conclusion…

Will GMessage ever be a thing? No probably not. As it seems, Google is trying to get RCS integration in America, and is banking on their current Android Messaging app to integrate with it when it launches. There could be a whole paper written on why this is problematic, but that’s another issue. In any case, Google, at the moment, is a bit of a mess when it comes to design and unification across their own products. Maybe someday we will see a Google that polishes everything it makes and starts shipping out fully backed and finished products. Maybe someday…

All Rights Reserved for Noah Semus

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