Ex-Google Reader Product Manager Posts Scathing Review Of Reader Redesign

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Former Google Reader Product Manager Brian Shih has posted a scathing, but fairly accurate, review of the update to Google Reader. The update, which removed Reader’s own social sharing features in favor of Google+, was unpopular among Google Reader’s most active users because it destroyed their niche community built up over the years. But in Shih’s opinion, that’s only one of its problems.

Just as bad is the new visual style, he says, referring to the stark, black-and-white user interface Google has been rolling out to all its products in recent weeks. Says Shih: “it’s as if whoever made the update did so without ever actually using the product to, you know, read something,”

Regular users of Google Reader will likely cheer upon reading Shih’s critique, which hits the nail right on the head:

Reader is a product built to consume information, quickly. We designed it to be very good at that one thing. G+ is an experience built around browsing (similar to Facebook) and socializing. Taking the UI paradigm for G+ and mashing it onto Reader without any apparent regard for the underlying function is awful and it shows.

The second and more obvious change, is that someone took the magic color-removing wand and drenched the whole page in grey. It’s so unbelievably stark, it’s hard to imagine a more desolate experience. Even G+ has blue links for post titles. Blue titles are good enough for Google search. Reader, which is built entirely around posts with titles, does away with this in the name of the almighty grey god.

And the trash-talking doesn’t stop there.

Aside from the horrid visual style, the other head-scratching question Shih poses is why Google chose to remove Google Reader’s internal sharing mechanisms in favor of Google+ instead of building out a more thoughtful integration. As another former Google Reader engineer Kevin Fox previously noted, Google could have made it so that sharing was pushed through Google+’s API, while the “People You Follow” in Reader became a Reader-specific Circle.

It’s almost seems like Google doesn’t even care what happens to Reader or its community, as niche as that may be. (Except in Iran, that is). In fact, it’s been rumored that as far as Google is concerned, it would love kill off Reader entirely if it could. The horror!

Sadly, today’s alternatives to Google Reader are few and far between, and most don’t serve the needs of the heavy RSS user. Other readers attempt to differentiate themselves with features that appeal to mainstream readers, have interfaces that don’t quite work or run only as a desktop app. For what it’s worth, I’ve experimented with Feedly, NewsBlur, NetVibes, Fever, NetNewsWire, Pulse, and even the newly launched Intigi, but none come close to duplicating the Google Reader experience – they are all their own, very individual, news-consuming products. Fever is probably the best among the “host-your-own” crowd, and Feedly is a personal favorite for its design, but these are not real alternatives to Google Reader, they’re complimentary to it.

The most interesting alternative, HiveMind, is currently in the process of being built by a devout Google Reader user Francis Cleary, but has yet to launch. The hope there is that Cleary has an understanding of what Google Reader did right and what the others still lack. Time will tell.

For now, the best you can do is remain in Google Reader, tricked out with the Google Reader Rectifier Chrome extension, which at least helps fix the whitespace issue. (Reader seems slower after its install, however.)

At the end of the day, the changes Google is now making, both to Reader and otherwise, indicate it has a clear agenda for pursuing social at all costs. It has even shuttered a number of under-performing services, its Labs offerings, and products from acquisitions, so it can focus its efforts on its core products, which now includes social. That may prove the right thing for the company in the long run, but it is coming at the cost of some of Google’s most passionate users.

Image credits: top Google; second Brian Shih