How Google Documentation Problems Can Lead to Public Relations Nightmares

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UPDATE (October 1, 2018): Please Don’t Ask! There Are No “Google Explainers”

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Google has been going through something of a public relations nightmare over the last week or so, all related to a new feature that was added to their Chrome browser — that actually was an excellent, user-positive feature! (Please see: “Ignore the Silly Panic over Google Chrome’s New Auto-Login Feature” – https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/09/24/ignore-the-silly-panic-over-google-chromes-new-auto-login-feature).

After a massive backlash — which I personally feel was almost entirely uninformed and unnecessary — Google has announced that they’ll provide a way for users to disable this useful feature (my recommendation to users is to leave it enabled).

But how did we get to this point?

This entire brouhaha relates to Chrome browser sync, which enables the synchronization of data — bookmarks, passwords, browsing history, etc. — between multiple devices running Chrome. It’s a fantastically useful feature that unfortunately is widely misunderstood.

Part of the reason for the confusion is that it really is not well documented — the associated help materials can be misunderstood even by hardcore techies, and obviously this can be even more troublesome for non-technical users. This has been exacerbated by some aspects of the associated user interface, but Google documentation and other help resources are primarily at fault.

The triggering event for this Google PR mess was the false assumption by some observers that the new Chrome auto-login feature would automatically enable Chrome sync. It doesn’t, and it never did.

But how many Chrome users realize how much flexibility actually exists in the sync system?

For example, while the default settings will sync all categories of data, there are customization options that permit users to specify exactly which classes of data they wish to sync or not sync. I tend to sync bookmarks and not much else.

The main concern expressed about sync during this controversy relates to Google seeing your synced browsing history (which again, I stress has always been possible for users to disable in the sync system).

But how many users realize that you can choose to sync any or all data classes between your devices without Google being able to interpret them at all, simply by specifying a sync “pass phrase” that encrypts the data so that it only exists in unencrypted form on your own devices — not at Google. Doing this means that Google can’t provide various centralized value-added features, but that’s your choice!

If all of this had been better documented (in ways understandable to a wide variety of users of different technical skill levels) much or all of this entire controversy could have been avoided.

While Google has made significant strides in their help and documentation resources over the years, they still have a long, long way to go, especially when dealing with the non-technical users who make up a large and growing segment of their user population. 

I have long asserted that Google (and its users!) would greatly benefit from a new class of Google-related documentation and help systems, created and maintained specifically to assist all users — including especially non-technical users — to better understand these necessarily complex systems and environments. 

I would suggest that these include textual materials specifically written for this purpose, with supplemental video content as well. Call them “Google Explainers” or whatever, but in Google parlance I would assert that ongoing deficiencies in this area represent a “Code Yellow” (extremely important) class of issues for both Google and its users.

–Lauren–