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Yahoo launched a social network very similar to Buzz as a part of its popular e-mail service more than a year ago, notes Jared Spool, founding principal of User Interface Engineering, a consulting firm based in North Andover, MA. But in Yahoo’s case, the network was opt-in and largely ignored.

Spool says Google’s recent experience with Buzz points to several big problems in social network usability that he would like to see the company work to solve. For example, Spool wonders whether even deeper analysis of user e-mail behavior might produce algorithms that could identify the level of intimacy of a relationship, or flag potentially worrisome connections.

He sees promise in the concept of a social network that could help users discover people they might like to follow–without violating user privacy.

Dana Chisnell, an independent researcher who runs the consulting firm UsabilityWorks, says that user experience research currently focuses mainly on mechanical tasks, such as whether users can figure out the process for adding friends. The case of Google Buzz illustrates that, particularly for social networks, it’s necessary to figure out the implications of each feature.

She notes that it’s very difficult to find a good population to do such testing. Google, for example, says it didn’t find problems with Buzz when it tested using 20,000 of its own employees.

Some see potential in the design of Google Buzz, despite the privacy concerns. Ben Bederson, an associate professor at the human-computer interaction lab at the University of Maryland, says that Buzz is a great attempt at creating “a single integrated hub that supports my communication activities.” This integration, along with the service’s support for longer posts and inline picture and video, solves some important social networking usability issues, he says.

However, Bederson believes Buzz loses in its poor integration with Facebook and Twitter. “There isn’t room for three major independent networks,” he says. If Buzz can solve some of the new usability issues it’s introduced since launch and get effective connections going with other popular networks, Bederson says, Buzz could still be very attractive to users.

Google says it’s working hard to improve Buzz based on user feedback, and that it’s open to receiving suggestions from privacy organizations. The company says it does not plan to remove Buzz from Gmail, though it has discussed setting up a separate, additional destination site for Buzz.

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Credit: Google

Tagged: Web, Google, privacy, social networks, gmail, Google Buzz, usability, testing

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