Google now has two recent examples of how not to launch a product. To be more specific, the launches of Wave and Buzz are unfortunate illustrations of product management and product marketing breakdowns.
The first, Wave, was clearly a product marketing failure. Whether or not Wave is a work of sublime genius is beside the point. The dominant reaction to Wave was confusion. Was Wave more an application or a platform? A replacement for e-mail, or a supplement to it? Something built for a general audience, or just techies? Google somehow fumbled the most basic product marketing: We built this product to address this specific problem, for this specific audience, in this specific way.
The Buzz launch also had its product marketing problems, but as discussed in this blog last week, it had at least one huge product management snafu: the privacy features. It wasn't clear whether the auto-generated list of followers was open to the general public or not, and whether you were helpless to deal with unwanted overtures from other users. If you wanted to check, or God help you, change the relevant settings, it took some grit and cleverness to figure it out. And then there were new revelations, such as, by default, Buzz exposed the list of your RSS subscriptions in Google Reader.
A Google PM announced on his blog that the company has implemented "some immediate improvements we are making today based on your feedback." . I would add the word somewhat to that previous sentence. Hunting down some of the options is still difficult. The Buzz UI doesn't clearly convey what the product is supposed to do, other than post updates to some group of people who already appear in my e-mail contact list. Am I supposed to continue e-mailing them, or use this tool instead? What are the pros and cons?
Google got itself into this mess because the Buzz team did no external testing. Once again, a team of very smart people are only smart about the world they know. I'm sure Buzz worked just great in the pocket universe of Google itself. Unfortunately, the domain of people who would be using Buzz was much larger.
I'm a bit worried that the mistakes may continue. Google is collecting feedback through the Gmail forum, an approach that poses two immediate obstacles: (1) knowing that the Gmail forum exists; (2) knowing that the Gmail forum is the right place for Buzz feedback. Plus, who's posting here, representative users, or a self-selected group of Google followers?
Google can get plenty of advice from social media mavens, but that may be exactly the wrong source of guidance. Anyone experienced (or jaded) enough to complain that Buzz commits all the same mistakes as Friendfeed is someone vastly more experienced with, and invested in, social media than the average Gmail user.
My unsolicited advice to the Buzz PMs? Get out of the office. Sit down with a few people who look like the archetypal user and watch them puzzle through Buzz. Then go back to the forums, the blog posts, and other sources of information for whatever good ideas they might provide. Ultimately, you also need to insist on control over the feature list.
That strategy might run against the grain of Google's engineering-centric corporate culture, but Google is also a company that prides itself on being open to new ideas. Here's the next experiment: give PM the opportunity to collect real requirements, and the power to enforce them. See what happens.
[Cross-posted at The Heretech.]