April 23, 2014

An open letter to a Google Now product manager

Google Now is awesome. You can search for an address in Google Maps and automatically get that destination transported to your phone for super-easy directions, etc.

Unless, of course, it doesn't work for some reason. And there’s no indication of why the address you searched for isn’t on your phone; could be a lot of things—sync problems, maybe Google didn’t think it important enough to surface, etc.

After a number of months of feeling like Google Now didn't work for me all that well, I finally realized that it’s because I don't have Web History enabled on my Google Apps domain. Presumably, Google Now consumes the Web History logging stream, and if you don't save your searches, it can’t copy them over to your phone. Fair enough (although one might hope for the ability to ephemerally share such data across your account without logging it forevermore).

What is insane is that this is the default and how hard it is to discover and fix. Google Now, which is one of Google's big tech advances and product advantages, they should be making it easy for people to use and discover. It took me about a dozen steps to turn it on for my domain after I’d diagnosed the problem (with no prompting from Google).

It should be absolutely clear to a Google Now user that they’re missing out on functionality if they have Web History disabled. When you open Now, there should be a card at the bottom telling you that it's off. Even in the Now settings, I don't believe that the Web History setting works for Google Apps domains.

And in the Google Admin console, it should make it clear how to turn on Web History with a direct link to the setting. Right now, it's super-challenging for a Google Apps admin to turn it back on: I knew what it was, and it still took me a lot of back-and-forth between the admin panel and the documentation to find it:

  • Go to my Google Apps Admin console
  • Click on “Manage the way Google Apps Works for You”
  • Fail to find Web History
  • [back and forth between console and admin docs]
  • Determine that it's in “Other Google Services”
  • Can't find that anywhere
  • Discover that it's hidden by default under "More Controls". (BTW: this hidden icons thing was a bad idea.)
  • Go into “Other Google Services”
  • Can't find Web History anywhere.
  • Figure out that the bland, easily overlooked blue bar is filtering to only show me ”Top Featured Services” may be hiding something useful (BTW, this should be more noticeable and be a more common idiom.)
  • Dismiss it with the [X].
  • Discover that Web History is the ONLY disabled service (beside AdSense) in my domain.