Friday, September 6, 2013

Of Yahoo, And Opportunities Bungled

This is an odd post for me, in a way.  You may find it boring, and if so you may simply skip it, I won't mind.  But this has been bugging me for a while now, so...

I am a member of a bunch of Yahoo groups.  Years ago, I think, yahoo bought some small company that made the original groups product.  Or perhaps I am wrong and they created it themselves.  Groups is an interesting beast. It has a web based UI but mostly works via email.  You send a message to a particular email address and it is forwarded out (as email) to the group members.  It's a handy way of organizing people and distributing information.

There are competitors, of course, most notably Google's very similar functionality.  And you can use any number of bulletin board systems from various sources, which you can host such things on your own server or find services to host them for you.

But a number of the groups I am a member of have a significant proportion of members who still aren't all that computer savvy.  Trying to get them to go to a website every day (or multiple times a day) is tough.  You're competing for limited time and interest, and it's a losing battle.  But most of these folks already use email, so if you can get them signed up as a member of a group, they're in, without changing their daily routine.  In ten years or so that worry won't be a problem.  Most people will be much more computer friendly, and getting something setup to move the information around will be easier, so there will be fewer hurdles in any case.

But back to groups... when I started using them, Yahoo had a clear UI advantage over Google's implementation.  There were still places it sucked, but Google's UI was pretty much impenetrable, so Yahoo won the day, particularly for those lists that contain a larger percentage of people who are less comfortable with computers and the Internet.

But Google has continued to work on their product.  They have improved it over time, and it may be to the point where it is usable by laypeople now.  I'm not sure of that because I haven't tried to create a new Google group in some time, but I have used Google's groups a bit since they use them to provide some kinds of support and discussions about their products.

Yahoo, on the other hand, let its groups product stagnate.  Nothing changed or was improved for years.  It's been the same UI and feature set since I first started using it, and problems have crept in.  Sometimes messages are delayed for unknown reasons between Yahoo's servers, images as part of email messages aren't always handled well, and so on.  But overall it worked, and Yahoo milked it by spending as little as possible on it to keep it running.

Then, just a few days ago, something changed.  The first indication of a problem was a huge batch of email delays that no one could explain.  They got so bad that people in my most active group complained bitterly.  And then, for some of us, the word "neo" entered our consciousness.

"Neo" means a new UI for Yahoo groups, and some reorganization of the features.  But it also means a lot more, including, but probably not limited to:

  • Bugs.  And features that don't work or don't work reliably.  It's not clear if some of these issues are based on the browser, the OS, or just buggy code, but there are a number of serious problems.
  • Features that have gone missing.  Things you used to be able to find in the UI are now gone.
  • Incredibly bad UI design.  Want to search the contents of the messages in a particular group?  Don't click on the obvious "search" icon and enter your text because that only lets you search for message numbers, which no one will ever know or use.  Instead enter your text in the search box at the top of the page and press the button that says "Search Groups", clearly indicating that your search will span all of your groups, or - more likely - all of Yahoo Groups, which is clearly not what you want if you're searching for a message in one particular group.  Who designed that and how did they get the job?
  • Unhappy customers.  Tens of thousands of requests to abandon the neo update and go back to the way things were.  Really.
  • A complete lack of QA effort.  Neo is clearly not ready for prime time.  It's alpha quality software, or early beta at best.

So the nightmare that is "neo" is now a part of my life.  Users are switched, not whole groups, so some of the people in my groups are using the new UI with me, while others see no changes yet.  But they will.  Yahoo claims there is no going back.

Meanwhile Marissa Meyer seems to think the most important thing she can be involved in is the redesign of the Yahoo logo.  Something that no one cares about - but her, apparently - and that definitely deserves a lot less attention than the neo debacle in Yahoo Groups.

What can I do about all of this?  Looking at it reasonably, very little.  Moving from Yahoo Groups to some other platform might result in a newer and better feature set, with more ability to control and archive the contents, better search features, and so on.  But moving entails change, and that is always risky.  There would, no doubt, be a large loss of participation in all of the groups I am involved with if they were to move to some - any - new system.  So, unless neo proves unbearable and the bugs really don't get fixed, we're probably stuck with it.  And I'd bet those working at Yahoo know it.  They're probably counting on it.

The funniest thing about this is that I am ranting about it in a post on Blogger... a Google product.  Want to know how relevant Yahoo is these days?  Look no further than that.