May we suggest?

When we first launched the Google Talk blog, Mike, the product manager, had encouraged the support team to contribute posts as well. Since support does more of the behind-the-scenes work (answering email, creating the Help Center, investigating problems with the engineers), this would be a great way to give users a glimpse of what we’re up to. While focusing on providing great support, we’ve been a little remiss in posting to the blog (ok, this is our first post). But, finally, inspiration strikes!

A couple weeks ago, in one of my regular product/support sync ups, Mike said, “For our next build we really want to target some of the top user pain points. Would you mind putting together a list of the top ten issues our users currently have with Google Talk?” I think I just about died and went to support heaven!

So I called a team huddle, and we rolled a white board into the middle of our cube. We started listing the top issues that we see when answering user emails every day. We noted known bugs, better error messaging (if you haven’t figured out what “Can’t authenticate to server” means, please see here), and better diagnostic tools. Then we realized that it wouldn’t be good enough to just fix users’ issues. This was an opportunity to make the product better by giving our engineers increased insight into the feature requests that we see on the frontlines each day.

We’ve been collecting suggestions since we launched, and we have tons of anecdotal evidence, but engineers like numbers, so we needed a solution fast. By the end of the week, we launched our new suggestions page.

We’ve already had thousands of users vote, and we’re sending an updated list to the team each week. If you haven’t had the chance to voice your opinion, make sure you talk to us!

Jeanne DeWitt
Online Operations Associate

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Not really the worst feature ever

In response to Joe's post, yes, it is true that I said "This is the worst feature ever." Unfortunately, my passion often gets the best of me and I am prone to hyperbole. What I really meant was that I think the feature can be a lot better.

Google has a reputation for building clean and simple UI. It often just works a lot better than what came before it. Google search offered an uncluttered UI that provided the most relevant results. Gmail and Google Maps provided a web-based experience that was a giant step forward from existing services. I don't think presence notifications in Google Talk, as they are implemented today, meet the same high bar. I know we can do better.

First, the feature needs to never become annoying to the user. When you have a large Friends list, somebody is always going on and offline. The notifications can become overwhelming. We need intelligent throttling of the presence notifications, especially for people in my list that I don't care about very much.

Second, we have this arbitrary distinction between being "idle" (you stepped away from your computer) and being "unavailable" (you shutdown chat or turned off your computer). It's problematic. Some people leave their computer on 24/7 and are always logged in. Their presence toggles between available and idle and I never get a notification when they become available. On the other side of the spectrum, there are people who are constantly moving their laptops from wireless network to wireless network and I will get notifications for them every time they reconnect. What I am getting at here is that there are flaws in our presence model already and the notification feature as it exists today exacerbates the problem. A prerequisite for a good notification system is having the right presence model. I don’t think we’re there yet.

I think we've made a great first step with this feature, but it's not ready yet. If we put more work into this feature, we can build something that is really thoughtful and differentiated from what is already out there. Unfortunately, there is always a tradeoff between really nailing a feature and launching something earlier that is still useful. I think Joe made the right decision to let users who want this feature turn it on.

Jon Perlow
Software Engineer

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Are we there yet?

I remember long road trips with my family when I was a kid. Partly out of boredom and partly to annoy Mom and Dad, my sister would start in on the familiar "Are we there yet" refrain. After a while they would just tune us out. (You'll see how this relates to Google Talk in a bit.)

About a month ago, one of my team members sent around a screen shot of a plugin/hack that Bruno Stuani had made for Google Talk that showed notifications when friends come online. I thought this would be a quick new feature to add to the next release. It would also be a great place to show the pictures feature we'd been working on. I coded the feature and we released it for alpha testing inside of Google.

(Fun fact: these notifications are commonly called "toasts" as they look like toast coming out of a toaster.)

Over the next couple of days, there was quite a bit of discussion about whether this feature was a good idea or not. Jon Perlow stated: "This is the worst feature ever. Shut if off please." Jon defends his statement in the next post. I think that this feature is a great way to keep up on what your friends are doing and see their updated statuses and pictures. If you have a really large Friend list it also helps you see deeper into that list. The idea behind the feature is sound, but I agree with Jon that we have more work to do here.

We eventually decided to turn the feature off by default, at least until we can find a way to make sure it didn't annoy users (or Jon). What helped convince me was that this notification might make all of the other notifications less useful. If there are too many notifications vying for the user's attention, the user starts to ignore all notifications -- just like my parents ignoring the annoying "Are we there yet?" cries of me and my sister.

So we're still working on fine-tuning this particular feature. If you have suggestions for it, or for other Google Talk features, please let us know here.

Joe Beda
Software Engineer
Personal blog: http://www.eightypercent.net

(Okay -- I admit that I was the one with the late Sam the ugly dog as my picture.)

[Edit -- 8:29pm -- Added link to Jon's post]

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Anything but the Dog

Dear friend with the ugly dog picture (you know who you are),

We begged, and we pleaded, and we finally got a set of thirty great pictures to give away free with Google Talk. You could have been a frog, a rose, a shamrock, a sun, or one of many other snapshots from the Google Holiday Logos, but instead you've chosen some picture of an ugly, ugly dog. Want to be something else? Go for it. You can set it to any .gif, .bmp, .png, or .jpg file. You can even set it to be a picture of your baby (who is in all likelihood cuter than that dog).

Lest you should worry that your friends using other clients will not be able to see your picture, you'll be happy to know that we've adopted JEP 0153. This is the same protocol used by iChat and Gaim 2.0.0 beta, which means that friends using these clients will be able to see your picture, and you'll be able to see their pictures.

On the off chance that you've forgotten how to set your picture, or you used a different client to set your picture, let's go through the steps. At the top of your list, you'll see your current picture - yes, that's right, the mutant creature that is the dog. Just click on the picture and you can select one of twenty-five other pictures from the drop down list. My favorite is the rose, but if you don't fall in love with any of pictures we've provided, that's ok - just click "More pictures" to pick any other picture off your computer.

Now, I know that deep down - very deep down - you just love the rose that I've chosen to be my picture. Hey, you can have it! Just right-click on my name and select "Set as my picture."

More than one million users have already set their pictures, and we think it's great. Don't like pictures? Just change that setting in the "View" menu at the bottom of your list. But, please, oh please, change your picture to anything but the dog. Is that so much to ask?

Sincerely,
Gayle Laakmann
Software Engineer

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I'm Sensing a Theme Here

If you're anything like me, you're probably a big fan of Google Talk's simple, uncluttered interface. A sleek roster, and a chat history that reminds you of Notepad. I know you're thinking, "I love Notepad!" and hey, who doesn't? But we thought some of our users might appreciate a little added color and design in their conversations. For this reason, we've created Chat Themes.

Chat themes change the appearance of your IM conversations. We've included several styles for you to choose from. Simply open Google Talk's Settings and select the new "Appearance" section. You'll see the name of the currently selected theme, along with a sample preview displayed below. Click on the theme name to see a list of alternatives. My favorite is Serene Picture. You'll notice that for most themes, there is a version with and without pictures. User pictures are another nice new feature of Google Talk, but we realize that some might see them as a distraction.

As hard as it is to imagine, some users might not be satisfied with any of the nine themes that we have provided. They may wish someone else would create more themes. Indeed, some enterprising Google Talk users have done just that. They've discovered that, under the hood, themes are just a few html and css files stored in Google Talk's application data folder. They might even notice a similarity to the theme files used by Adium. There is more than a passing resemblance, and if you drop an Adium theme into the proper directory, you might expect it to work in Google Talk! Unfortunately, it probably won't. Most Adium themes make use of CSS 2.1, which is not well-supported by Google Talk's html renderer.

At this point, you are probably thinking, "Wow, you could have made it easier for us to create, install, and share new themes." You're right. That's a darn good idea. I'll add it to my to-do list, right now. First, let me fire up Notepad...

Brian McBarron
Software Engineer

P.S. We're still experimenting with this new feature (as well as lots of other cool ideas), so the theme format may change in the near future. After all, we're still in beta!

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Pictures, themes, and more!

Today we're launching a new version of Google Talk with fun personalization features: Pictures and Chat Themes.

Pictures. Now you can set your own picture and see your friends' pictures, right from your friends list. It's easy to use: simply click on your picture to select a new picture. In addition you can see the pictures in chat notifications, optional friend online notifications, and new Profile Cards that show up over your friends list. We think pictures are a big visual improvement to Google Talk, and we hope you like them as much as we do.

Chat Themes. Customize the look of your chat conversations by choosing from a number of built-in themes. Just select your theme from Settings->Appearances. One of the themes replicates the simple style, and some get quite fancy and include pictures of your friends.

Keeping Google Talk simple and easy to use is a high priority for us. Sometimes it's a tradeoff between adding a feature and keeping Google Talk easy to use, but we're happy when we can find the line that lets us do both.

Many members of the Google Talk team contributed to this release, some of whom will be posting to this blog over the coming days. Stay tuned!

Scott Ludwig
Software Engineer

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