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–