Please Tell Me Your Google Experiences For “Google 2017” Report

Executive Summary: Please tell me your Google Experiences for my upcoming “Google 2017″ report, via email to:

google@vortex.com

I believe that it’s obvious to pretty much everyone that we’ve now entered a new era of major Internet-related companies directly and indirectly impacting political processes and other aspects of our lives in ways that — frankly, to say the least — were not widely anticipated by most observers. So understanding where things stand these days with these firms is paramount, in terms of their own operations, and their impacts on their users and the world in general.

For many years the most common category of questions and comments that I receive relate one way or another to Google (while I have consulted to Google in the past, I am not currently doing so). So I’ve now begun work on what I’m tentatively calling “Google 2017” — a report (or “white paper” if you prefer) discussing the perceived overall state of Google (and its parent corporation Alphabet, Inc.) in relation to the sorts of issues that I noted above and other relevant related topics.

As part of this effort, I’d very much appreciate your emailing me your own noteworthy experiences with Google (and Alphabet). Good — bad — exemplary — abysmal — confused — resolved — pending — fantastic — or otherwise rising to the level that you feel could usefully contribute to a better understanding of Google and Alphabet overall.

Whether involving specific Google services (including everything from Search to Gmail to YouTube and beyond), accounts, privacy, security, interactions, legal or copyright issues — essentially anything positive, negative, or neutral that you are free to impart to me, that you believe might be of interest.

I would like to keep this report focused on relatively recent experiences and observations, so events that took place years ago that aren’t any longer particularly relevant are frankly of lesser use to me right now.

Your identity will be considered confidential, and any information that you send to me will also be considered confidential in the details — unless you specifically indicate otherwise. That is, I will use your information toward the effort’s reported aggregate analysis, and any of your specific examples or other data that you provide — that I might include in the report as illustrative examples — will be carefully anonymized, unless you give me permission to do otherwise. If you don’t want me to use your examples at all even anonymized, please let me know and that will be respected of course.

Please send anything meeting the criteria above that you feel comfortable sharing with me to:

google@vortex.com

I’ll keep you informed of my progress. Thanks very much!

Be seeing you.

–Lauren–

Don’t (For Now) Use Google’s New “Perspective” Comment Filtering Tool

I must be brief today, so I’ll keep this relatively short and get into details in another post. Google has announced (with considerable fanfare) public access to their new “Perspective” comment filtering system API, which uses Google’s machine learning/AI system to determine which comments on a site shouldn’t be displayed due to perceived high spam/toxicity scores. It’s a fascinating effort. And if you run a website that supports comments, I urge you not to put this Google service into production, at least for now.

The bottom line is that I view Google’s spam detection systems as currently too prone to false positives — thereby enabling a form of algorithm-driven “censorship” (for lack of a better word in this specific context) — especially by “lazy” sites that might accept Google’s determinations of comment scoring as gospel.

In fact, Google’s track record in this context remains problematic.

You can see this even from the examples that Google provides, where it’s obvious that any given human might easily disagree with Google’s machine-driven comment ranking decisions.

And as someone who deals with significant numbers of comments filtered by Google every day — I have nearly 400K followers on Google+ — I can tell you with considerable confidence that the problem isn’t “spam” comments that are being missed, it’s completely legitimate non-spam, nontoxic comments that are inappropriately marked as spam and hidden by Google.

Every day, I plow through lots of these (Google makes them relatively difficult to find and see), so that I can “resurface” completely reasonable comments from good people who have been marked as toxic spammers by Google spam detection false positives.

This is a bad situation, and widespread use of “Perspective” at this stage of its development would likely spread this problem around the world.

For in fact, much worse than letting a spam or toxic comment through, is the AI-based muzzling of a comment and commenter who was completely innocent and falsely condemned by the machine, where a human would not have done so.

“Vanishing” of innocent, legit comments through overaggressive algorithms can lead to misunderstandings, confusion, and a general lack of trust in AI systems — and this kind of trust failure can be dangerous for users and the industry, since AI’s potential for greatness toward improving our world is indeed very real.

I’ll have more to say about this later, but for now, while you should of course feel free to experiment with the Google Perspective API, I urge you not to deploy it to any running production systems at this time.

Be seeing you.

–Lauren–

Does Google Hate Old People?

Originally posted February 11, 2016. Reposted today after a weekend of struggling to support a variety of older and not-so-old users via Chrome Remote Desktop.

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No. Google doesn’t hate old people. I know Google well enough to be pretty damned sure about that.

Is Google “indifferent” to old people? Does Google simply not appreciate, or somehow devalue, the needs of older users?

Those are much tougher calls.

I’ve written a lot in the past about accessibility and user interfaces. And today I’m feeling pretty frustrated about these topics. So if some sort of noxious green fluid starts to bubble out from your screen, I apologize in advance.

What is old, anyway? Or we can use the currently more popular term “elderly” if you prefer — six of one and half a dozen of another, really.

There are a bunch of references to “not wanting to get old” in the lyrics of famous rock stars who are now themselves of rather advanced ages. And we hear all the time that “50 is the new 30” or “70 is the new 50” or … whatever.

The bottom line is that we either age or die.

And the popular view of “elderly” people sitting around staring at the walls — and so rather easily ignored — is increasingly a false one. More and more we find active users of computers and Internet services well into their 80s and 90s. In email and social media, many of them are clearly far more intelligent and coherent than large swaths of users a third their age.

That’s not to say these older users don’t have issues to deal with that younger persons don’t. Vision and motor skill problems are common. So is the specter of memory loss (that actually begins by the time we reach age 20, then increases from that point onward for most of us).

Yet an irony is that computers and Internet services can serve as aids in all these areas. I’ve written in the past of mobile phones being saviors as we age, for example by providing an instantly available form of extended memory.

But we also are forced to acknowledge that most Internet services still only serve older persons’ needs seemingly begrudgingly, failing to fully comprehend how changing demographics are pushing an ever larger proportion of their total users into that category — both here in the U.S. and in many other countries.

So it’s painful to see Google dropping the ball in some of these areas (and to be clear, while I have the most experience with the Google aspects of these problems, these are actually industry-wide issues, by no means restricted to Google).

This is difficult to put succinctly. Over time these concerns have intertwined and combined in ways increasingly cumbersome to tease apart with precision. But if you’ve every tried to provide computer/Internet technical support to an older friend or relative, you’ll probably recognize this picture pretty quickly.

I’m no spring chicken myself. But I remotely provide tech support to a number of persons significantly older — some in their 80s, and more than one well into their 90s.

And while I bitch about poor font contrast and wasted screen real estate, the technical problems of those older users are typically of a far more complex nature.

They have even more trouble with those fonts. They have motor skill issues making the use of common user interfaces difficult or in some cases impossible. Desktop interfaces that seem to be an afterthought of popular “mobile first” interface designs can be especially cumbersome for them. They can forget their passwords and be unable to follow recovery procedures successfully, often creating enormous frustration and even more complications when they try to solve the problems by themselves. The level of technical lingo thrown at them in many such instances — that services seem to assume everyone just knows — only frustrates them more. And so on.

But access to the Net is absolutely crucial for so many of these older users. It’s not just accessing financial and utility sites that pretty much everyone now depends upon, it’s staying active and in touch with friends and relatives and others, especially if they’re not physically nearby and their own mobility is limited.

Keeping that connectivity going for these users can involve a number of compromises that we can all agree are not keeping with ideal or “pure” security practices, but are realistic necessities in some cases nonetheless.

So it’s often a fact of life that elderly users will use their “trusted support” person as the custodian of their recovery and two-factor addresses, and of their primary login credentials as well.

And to those readers who scream, “No! You must never, ever share your login credentials with anyone!” — I wish you luck supporting a 93-year-old user across the country without those credentials. Perhaps you’re a god with such skills. I’m not.

Because I’ve written about this kind of stuff so frequently, you may by now be suspecting that a particular incident has fired me off today.

You’d be correct. I’ve been arguing publicly with a Google program manager and some others on a Chrome bug thread, regarding the lack of persistent connection capability for Chromebooks and Chromeboxes in the otherwise excellent Chrome Remote Desktop system — a feature that the Windows version of CRD has long possessed.

Painfully, from my perspective the conversation has rapidly degenerated into my arguing against the notion that “it’s better to flush some users down the toilet than violate principles of security purity.”

I prefer to assume that the arrogance suggested by the “security purity” view is one based on ignorance and lack of experience with users in need, rather than any inherent hatred of the elderly.

In fact, getting back to the title of this posting, I’m sure hatred isn’t in play.

But of course whether it’s hatred or ignorance — or something else entirely — doesn’t help these users.

The Chrome OS situation is particularly ironic for me, since these are older users whom I specifically urged to move to Chrome when their Windows systems were failing, while assuring them that Chrome would be a more convenient and stable experience for them.

Unfortunately, these apparently intentional limitations in the Chrome version of CRD — vis-a-vis the Windows version — have been a source of unending frustration for these users, as they often struggle to find, enable, and execute the Chrome version manually every time they need help from me, and then are understandably upset that they have to sit there and refresh the connection manually every 10 minutes to keep it going. They keep asking me why I told them to leave Windows and why I can’t fix these access problems that are so confusing to them. It’s personally embarrassing to me.

Here’s arguably the saddest part of all. If I were the average user who didn’t have a clue of how Google’s internal culture works and of what great people Googlers are, it would be easy to just mumble something like, “What do you expect? All those big companies are the same, they just don’t care.”

But that isn’t the Google I know, and so it’s even more frustrating to me to see these unnecessary problems continuing to persist and fester in the Google ecosystem, when I know for a certainty that Google has the capability and resources to do so much better in these areas.

And that’s the truth.

–Lauren–

Here’s Where Google Hid the SSL Certificate Information That You May Need

Google has a great security team, so it’s something of a head-scratcher when they misfire. Or should we be wondering if the Chrome user interface crew had enough coffee lately?

Either way, Google Chrome users have been contacting me wondering why they no longer could access the detailed status of Chrome https: connections, or view the organization and other data associated with SSL certificates for those connections.

Up to now for the stable version of Chrome, you simply clicked the little green padlock icon on an https: connection, clicked on the “Details” link that appeared, and a panel then opened that gave you that status, along with an obvious button to click for viewing the actual certificate data such as Organization, issuance and expiration dates, etc.

Suddenly, that “Details” link no longer is present. Seemingly, Google just doesn’t feel that “ordinary” users need to look at that data these days.

I beg to differ. I’ve frequently trained “ordinary” users to check that information when they question the authenticity of an https: connection — after all, crooks can get SSL certificates too, so verifying the certificate issuance-related data often makes sense.

Well, it turns out that you can still get this information from Chrome, but apparently Google now assumes that folks are so clairvoyant that they can figure out how to do this through the process of osmosis — or something.

The full certificate data is available from the “Developers tools” panel under the “Security” label. In fact, that’s where this info has been for quite some time, but since the now missing “Details” link took you directly to that panel, most users probably didn’t even realize that they were deep in the Developers tools section of the browser.

To get the certificate data now, here’s what you need to do. 

First, get into Developer tools. You can do this via Chrome’s upper-right three vertical dots, then click “More tools” — then “Developer tools” — or on many systems you can just press the F12 button.

But wait, there’s still more (yeah, Google took a simple click in an intuitive place and replaced it with a bunch of clicks scattered around).

Once the panel opens, look up at its top. If you don’t see the word “Security” already, click on the “>>” to the right of “Console” — then look down the list that appears and click on “Security” — which will open the Security panel with all of the certificate-related goodies. When you’re done there, click the big “X” in the upper right of the panel to return to normal browser operations.

And don’t feel too badly if you didn’t figure all of this out for yourself. Even Houdini might have had problems with this one.

–Lauren–

The New Google Voice Is Another Slap in the Face of Google’s Users — and Their Eyes

I hate writing blog posts like this. I really do. I’m a big fan of Google. They’ve got many of the most skilled and caring employees in tech. Unfortunately, they’re not immune to being caught up in abysmal industry trends, so I’m forced to write another “Here we go again …” piece. Sigh.

I’ve been using Google Voice since pretty much the day it launched. Over the years since then I’ve come to depend upon it for both my personal and business phone calls inbound and outbound. Google Voice has been extremely functional, utterly reliable, and godsend for people like me who must deal with complex mixes of cellular and landline phones, lots of inbound spam calls to burn, and need this level of call management to help free up the time necessary for making inflammatory Google+ posts. That Google Voice is free for all domestic calls is a bonus, but I’d willingly pay reasonable fees to use it.

The Google Voice (henceforth “GV”) desktop/web interface has been very stable for something like five years now. In one sense that’s a good thing. It works well, it accomplishes its purpose. Excellent.

On the other hand, if you know Google, you know that when one of their products doesn’t seem to be updated much, it might be time to start being afraid. Very afraid. Because Google products that seem “too” stable may be on the path to decimation and death.

Let’s face it, an ongoing problem in the Internet world is that skilled software engineers by and large aren’t enthusiastic about maintaining what are seen to be “old” products. It’s not considered conducive to climbing the promotion ladder at most firms — the “sexy” new stuff is where the bigger bucks are perceived to reside.

So as desktop GV continued along its stable path, many observers began to wonder if Google was preparing to pull its plug. I’ve had those concerns too, though somewhat mitigated by the fact that Google has been integrating aspects of GV into some of their other newer products, which suggested that GV still had significant life ahead.

This was confirmed recently when word started to circulate of a new version (“refresh” is another term used for this) of GV that was soon to roll out to users. Google eventually confirmed this. Indeed, it’s rolling out right now.

And for desktop users at least, it’s a nightmare. A nightmare that in fact I was expecting. I had hoped I’d be wrong. Unfortunately, I was correct.

I probably don’t even really need to describe the details, because you’ve likely seen this happen to other Google products of late (including recently Google Wallet, though the impact of GV is orders of magnitude worse for users who need to interact with GV frequently throughout the day).

Once again, Google is on the march to treat large desktop displays as if they were small smartphone screens.

Legacy GV made excellent use of screen space — making it easy to see all call details, full voicemail transcriptions, and everything else you needed — all in clear and easy to read fonts.

The new GV is another wasted space, low contrast slap in the face of desktop users, especially those with less than perfect vision (whether due to naturally aging eyes or any other reason).

Massive amounts of unused white space. Call histories squished into a little smartphone style column (no way to increase its size that I could find so far), causing visible voicemail transcriptions to be truncated to just a few words. Plus we’re “treated” to the new Google standard low contrast “if you don’t have perfect vision we don’t care about you” fonts, that disrupt the entire user interface when you try to zoom them up.

And so on. Need I say more? You already know the drill.

There is one saving grace in the new desktop GV. For the moment, there’s a link that takes you back to legacy GV. In fact, after reverting one of my accounts that way, I didn’t even see an obvious way to get back to the new GV interface. In any case, we can safely assume that the legacy access is only temporary.

Compared to legacy desktop GV that worked great, the new GV is another painful sign that Google just doesn’t care about users who don’t live 100% of the time on smartphones and/or have perfect vision. Yet this maligned demographic is rapidly growing in size.

It’s increasingly difficult to not consider the end results of these changes in Google products to be a form of discrimination. I don’t believe that they’re actually intended as discrimination — but the outcomes are the same irrespective of motives. And frankly, my view is that in the long run this is a very dangerous and potentially self-destructive path for Google to be taking.

Nobody would demand that innovation and product improvements must stop. But we are far beyond the point where we should have come to the realization that “one size fits all” user interfaces are simply no longer tenable in these environments, unless you’re willing to simply write off large numbers of users who may not be in your primary target demographic, but still represent many millions of human beings who depend upon you.

Ignoring the needs of these users is not right. It’s not fair. It’s not ethical.

It’s just not Googley. Or at least, it shouldn’t be.

–Lauren–