The difference between blaming the algorithm and blaming the product

A rather irate post on TechCrunch this morning blamed The Algorithm for an unwanted feature: the forced showing of unwanted birthdays on Google Calendar. I noticed this feature a few weeks ago when the birthdays calendar showed up uninvited and took up very significant space at the top of a day’s schedule to add birthday notifications. Not just any notifications: of people who I didn’t even know. Actually, it’s not that I don’t know them, they are people I follow on Google+ and like other single-sided social network, I don’t really care about their personal information and I definitely don’t want that information in my personal, private calendar of events and appointments.

Google calender app:  useful but perhaps not as social as Google would like.

Google calender app: useful but perhaps not as social as Google would like.

So OK, Google added unimportant birthdays as a calendar. Why was this such an annoyance?

For me, and for many other users I assume, the calendar is one of my most-used applications, on both desktop and mobile. Google took these unwanted birthdays and added them to this important, personal tool, and then refused to let users remove them. The normal, easy, predictable check-box that allowed users to select if the birthday calendar was synced and viewable was disabled. As the TechCrunch post noted, a Medium post on how to disable it (which I used as well) garnered thousands of views before Google disabled that roundabout way as well. I agree with TechCrunch, it’s annoying.

Yet, as annoying as this product behavior is, this is not a result of an algorithm gone wrong, this is a clear-eyed product decision that perhaps wasn’t made with the goal of “delighting the user.” These are the missteps I see in terms of the product’s design:

  1. The hierarchy of contacts. Not all contacts are equal, and this is a major design flaw in almost all the social networks. Everyone on Facebook is my “friend,” and there is no lesser designation of “former coworker,” “old classmate,” or even “family member.” They are all friends though on Facebook at least the relationship was mutually agreed upon. On the follower type networks such as Google+ and Twitter, most of the people a user follows are not even distant acquaintances, much less close friends. Yet, Google chose to lump people who I followed who share my support for the 49ers, or who take beautiful photos or share tech news and put them on equal standing with people I email every day. Ironically, it was Google+ who had/has the best way to group contacts: with circles and with “my contacts” grouping for people I contact more often via email and gchat. The problem is that by lumping everyone together Google destroyed whatever value was in this feature that would have reminded me of birthdays of important people.
  2. Invading a private space. Calendar is a private and useful tool. Adding birthdays that look exactly like every other calendar entry is invasive and deters the usefulness of calendar as a whole.
  3. Removing the “turn off” option. Why do this unless, as a product manger, you really, really believe that users need this or it’s a corporate directive that might have something to do revenue. For the former, I can’t justify not providing a turn-off option. Sure, turn it on upon launch, make users aware of it, but allow them to decide whether to continue to use it. If it’s the latter, a corporate goal, it might make sense in the general push to integrate Google+ across all Google applications, but my impression was that the Google+ integration was waning. Moreover, the current solution Google offers to remove unwanted birthdays is to remove those people from your circles, driving less use of Google+ and not more.

The point is, all of these are product decisions, they are not the fault of an algorithm making the wrong decisions. To see an example of a misbehaving algorithm all you need to do is to go back to Facebook’s Year in Review product, which ended up causing so much pain to those who had a bad year because the algorithm couldn’t distinguish between heartbreak and triumph when choosing what status updates to include in the Review. That product was built on a set of decisions that created a great result for most people but extreme pain for others. It’s that unintended consequence that can be blamed on the algorithm and that’s clearly not the case with Google’s birthday calendar.

Blame the product manager, not the algorithm, for this one.



One thought on “The difference between blaming the algorithm and blaming the product

  1. Pingback: Previewing the new Google contacts | What it all boils down to

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