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Concept: Google Chat
Making Allo/Duo/Hangouts/Messages something we’d actually want to use
At Google I/O this year, not one, but two new communication apps were launched by the search giant. Now that they are out in the wild, I’ve been taking a look at them both and, you know what? Something doesn’t quite sit right about them. So I thought I’d sit down and try to figure it out.
First off, a little disclaimer: I am a Literature teacher. I know nothing about design nor developing. I am writing this in my lunch break, waving students away, pretending I am doing something important.
I did a two minute sketch, but don’t expect much. This is just gonna be about the ideas. This is really rough.
So, we know Google makes great products from time to time. But sometimes it seems to lack a story to tell its readers and appears to ‘lack focus’, as a friend of mine put yesterday. The Allo and Duo apps are emblematic of this. Google had Hangouts, but instead of relaunching that with a new back end and a facelift, they appeared to abandon it by saying they had created not one, but TWO new communication apps.
Oh, how we all laughed at that. Go on — you know you did too.
So, as I was ploughing through my marking yesterday (The Road is a thoroughly depressing novel without hope nor light. To what extent do you agree?) I couldn’t help but try to work out what I think Google should have released and why they should have released it.
These are the results of those thoughts. And for what it’s worth, after thinking this all through, I think Google were probably right to do it their way. My idea stinks. But here it is:
I would use the same lovely tech from Allo and Duo, but tell the public it is a ‘rebirth’ of Hangouts or something like that. I don’t think people want to download yet another communication app and most folks willing to do so will probably already have Hangouts anyway. We could just stick to the name Hangouts to maintain continuity, but for this little experiment we are doing here, that might get confusing. So instead, I am going to imagine Google are going to rebrand Hangouts as Google Chat. It still sounds nice and casual, but also explains exactly what it does in the name. If nothing else, it will help me not to confuse it with Hangouts. The point is, Google are only going to have ONE communications app from now on.
So welcome to Google Chat
This is a big one. Google need a reason for doing this. So Chat is going to become another way for users to search from within the app or conversation so Google can get all that lovely data within its proper context. I think this is what Allo is trying to do. But I want the video calls to have it embedded as well. We’ll see that later on.
Everybody already has a chat app, so they don’t really have a need for signing up to a new one unless you give them a USP and a really easy way to get on board. Because of this, Google Chat is going to start in the universal SMS form and then try and seamlessly move to Chat form. Here is how:
1 — Chat is going to be tied to your phone number, just like Duo, but integrated with SMS (at least when you start using it). If you want to message someone who has not signed up their number to the service, you can do so, but the conversation will be limited to SMS and MMS features. If you try to use any of the Chat features, Chat will ask if you want to send an invitation to ‘move the conversation to Chat’. If the other party accepts and signs in on Chat, you can use those features. If not, you can keep on pestering theme with those SMS sign up requests. In the mean time, you can carry on the conversation as a SMS conversation
2 — Chat can tell if the other person is online. If they are not (because they are out of service/uninstalled the app/not signed in/phone is off), you can continue to send them SMS until they come back online. Until that point, the Chat features are blocked as the other person wouldn’t receive them anyway. You can still pester to ‘move the conversation to Chat’ if you suspect they have uninstalled the app.
3 — (This is a really boring paragraph. You should probably skip it) Chat can count as ‘Online’ if you are signed in on the web. (I really don’t get Allo and Duo’s phone only approach. I want to talk everywhere. Google Chat would be available on the desktop, but I haven’t thought of how yet. Let’s just pretend that it is and that it works fine and instead focus on the mobile experience for now.) In addition to showing ‘sent’ and ‘read’ symbols on the messages you send, if Chat detects web sign in but their phone is offline then it will display a little ‘Web Only’ symbol over the person’s profile pic to show that they might not get the message. If the recipient hasn’t interacted with the app in some time (maybe it is just on in the background and they never turn off their computer), Chat will display a message telling you that ‘X hasn’t been active recently. Chat will send SMS from now on’ and the normal text Chat messages you send will also be sent as SMS. Chat will sync SMS and Chat messages, so you will be able to see all those SMS messages across your devices and the web anyway.
4 — Search. This is going to be the USP of the app. Most other features can be copied in a ‘me too’ way. I’m sure we’ll see knock knock on Skype soon, for example. But Google’s lead in search will continue to give people a reason to use Chat over other services for some time to come. I like how shared searches work in Allo and I’d like to introduce a similar shared search experience in the video calling section of the app. See the person and your search at the same time. It wouldn’t have the same search-within-context as a text based conversation (unless you want Google recording the whole conversation, which you probably don’t), but it still adds to the experience.
So that would be how I’d draw in users. Start with the universal SMS, move it to Chat and keep them there with Search.
This is all a lot of writing so far. I bet you probably want to know what it will look like. Well, as I said earlier, I’m not a designer and I don’t do art and I don’t have much time. This is as rough and ready as you will ever see. And there’s only one picture. But that’s OK. Less is more, and all that.
The app would be a combo of the features of Allo and Duo to make a fuller communication experience, all in one app.
The Landing/Home Screen
You enter the app to the last conversation opened. By default, the background behind the text is an image from the front facing camera of the device, in an attempt to encourage video calling. There is a toggle to switch this off. When it is off, the app will initiate a voice-only call rather than a video call. The text itself shows a record of the messages, stickers and video calls and other things sent in the conversation. (I’m considering suggesting that it stores the video calls as well, somehow, as an option, so you can go back and review them later. Not sure about that one. Definitely something you can disable from either end of the call anyway). Directly below the messaging area is a space for Allo’s quick reply suggestions. Below that is a box for text entry. Below that, taking up roughly the same size space as the keyboard does when it appears, are five larger buttons: A ‘+’ button on the far left (which brings up options to add photos, stickers, location data, Drive files and files from internal storage), an emoji button next to it, a larger central button showing a profile picture of your contact (more about that later), a ‘G’ for Google button (more about that later, too) and a new conversation button. These are all big (at this stage) to encourage their use rather than resorting straight to text input. Once you select the text box, the five buttons shrink to a small row between keyboard and text box and the video background turns off to stop you being distracted by your own beautiful face.
If you want to move between conversations, you can swipe left and right on the conversation area to quickly switch between recent conversations (older conversations are further to the right by default).
You can also see a list of recent conversations by swiping up on the five buttons (when the keyboard isn’t there), just like you do on Duo. There is also an action button on this recent conversations screen to create a new conversation with a new contact, in addition to the button on the main landing page (I just think it would be important to start new conversations quickly, so I’d want buttons to do so on both of the apps screens).
The Five Buttons
So, these buttons are going to be important in how we use the app. The first two (the ‘+’ and the sticker button) are fairly self-explanatory and work like their equivalents in Allo.
The larger central button displays a picture of the contact from the conversation firstly to remind you who you are talking to, but also as a way to quickly start a video call, using Duo’s KnockKnock feature if wanted, of course (It won’t be long before every video calling app has that, I bet). You can also tap and hold this button for a 3 second count down and an automatic send-a-selfie for quick reaction shots, a bit like what happens on Beme. The button works like this even when it is in its smaller mode, when the keyboard is up and you are typing.
The ‘G’ button is a quick way to include @google in the conversation without having to actually type ‘@google’ like you do in Allo. Just tap the button and @google is there, ready for you to type. Tap and hold the button for a voice search (Voice typing for normal conversation is, of course, still available on the keyboard, like normal. Tap and hold on the ‘G’ just makes adding voice search to the conversation that much quicker).
Tap the new conversation button on the far right to open up the contacts menu to select the desired contact for the new conversation. Tap and hold it to bring up that same menu to add a contact to the current conversation.
So that’s pretty much what I would like to see Google do with its communication apps. Most of the features like shout/whisper on the send button and taping to bring up message details/delete/share options (maybe add long press on a message to start a search from its content?) and the other nifty things within all the Google communication apps would still be included — I’ve only had time to write up how I think the most important features should be integrated into one app.
So, what do you think? Is it possible for Google to create one single communication app to rule them all, or can it only find success by dividing its communication services into different apps, the same way Photos found success only really after splitting from Google+?
Oh, and what would I have to change about my concept to make it work?
Thanks y’all. I’ve got to get back to class. My Y13s are coming in now. Time to crack open The Great Gatsby.