A Day At The Baraza: First Impressions of Google Baraza

Baraza – n. – A Kiswahili term. An attempt at translation would be, “a meeting,” but usually it connotes a meeting with a specific goal, usually solving a problem or answering questions, led by a village committee or village elders.

I thought I would take some time and share my first impressions with a new Google service specifically targeting Africa: Google Baraza. Last week I was lucky enough to be individually selected amongst a group of handpicked candidates to help pilot this amazing new program.

Actually, that’s a lie. I requested a beta invite, and got one.

But the first version makes me seem so much more important! I’m not important, and in fact, here’s the link so that you might sign up for the service yourself if you so choose.  Mind you, it is heavily Africa-oriented, so join only if you have specific local knowledge about various parts of Africa (with a heavy focus on Ghana, Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria at the moment).

What is it?

Let’s get the simple question out of the way first. You know it’s “for” Africa, but what is Baraza anyways? Baraza is yet another question and answer site (Q&A), though targeted for Africa. The most widely known site of this model is Yahoo! Answers, who have arguably pioneered the model in it’s current iteration. Other examples of the model include the widely popular Quora for Silicon Valley information, as well as the more functional Stack Exchange network for the uber-geeks out there (my favorite example).

The premise is simple: you ask a question, and other members of the site answer the question. Actions are motivated by positive and negative reinforcement that manifests itself in two forms: points and reputation. You gain and lose points for performing actions on the site. Asking a question costs points, answering gains points. There’s a whole list of actions and their point value on the site.

Reputation is a bit more complicated. Reputation is just that: how well you are received within the community. At the moment, the best way to increase reputation is to gain followers: people who like to see what questions you ask and how you answer others’ inquiries. Reputation also goes up when your answer to a question is selected as the “Best Answer.”

Other sites tend to blend the notion of Reputation and Points together, and Super User (personally the Q&A site I engage with the most) has Badges to show your achievements over time. Overall though, I don’t feel Google’s points/reputation combo is better or worse than any other model I have used. They could benefit from adjusting their wording in the FAQ about points though.  Should asking a question on a question and answer site really be considered “Negative behaviour”?

Should asking a question be considered "Negative Behavior?"

The Interface

I want to discuss the interface because I want to get the bad stuff out of the way first and end on a positive note (because ultimately the service is positive). It’s sad when a product with such great potential, in an already proven field, suffers from a terrible user interface. The one word that immediately comes to mind is one of the most loathesome words in my design vocabulary: busy.

A busy interface

What’s busy about that? First off, Blue and green, though Google’s favorite colors, are equal priority colors in the current design, meaning the links to question and links to categories get equal weight in the user experience, which detracts form the site’s primary focus of asking questions.  Questions should always be weighted with a higher priority in a Q&A site.

I am also not a fan of three column layouts, especially when other sites have pulled off the same format quite successfully with a two-column design. The third column, with a constantly available leader-board for followers (and reputation, which is above but cropped out), seems unnecessary. Though the whole site operates on a positive reinforcement model, the notion of publicly displaying everyone’s performance is unusual to me,.  However, here in Kenya it is typical for a school to publicly post the results of examinations for all students to see, so maybe it’s a cultural disconnect on my part.

Finally, some font deviations (aside from color) would be helpful indicators of the priority of various links and titles on the site. The only main deviation that catches my eye is that small titles are bolded. Otherwise, the overwhelming abundance of blue links and green categories at the same font size makes the site look cluttered and un-prioritized.

Which brings up my next major complaint. Apparently, Google and I have different priorities for a Q&A site:

the front page highlights googles priority: social-oriented activity

In the image above, nearly 65% my screen height real estate is devoted to my, “Activity Wall.” Mind you, I am operating on a netbook, so Google designers only have about 500 pixels to work with (resolution height – toolbars), but that is still an awful lot of pixels devoted to what has so far been a useless feature. For the curious readers, no, I cannot drag modules around to reorder the homepage dashboard.

Anytime I see the word “Wall” I am immediately propelled to think the module is a child of the social revolution we are currently suffering through across the web. Last month’s Zuckerberg remarks to Tech Crunch come to mind, basically claiming too many companies believe that “social” is a layer that can be tacked onto websites.

A question and answer site is inherently social, how do you screw that up in the interface? Questions cannot be asked and answers cannot be given if people were not interacting with one another. I much prefer Super User’s devotion of nearly 100% of screen height to the actual questions themselves. If you can’t tell, this is one of the most annoying aspects of the interface to me.

What do they do right with the interface? Not a whole lot. At the most, I can say that thankfully it’s not obnoxious and relatively consistent.

The Community

Thankfully most all of the interface issues are balanced out by the community utilizing the site. Most members seem to be asking questions regarding to Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and once in a while I try to throw in some Kenyan pride. The questions themselves are extremely varied, which I believe, is what Google wants. Whereas sites like Quora and Stack Exchange are specifically targeted (yes, Quora is targeted, sue me!), Google Baraza seems to want to answer all questions all the time. With questions ranging from, “How to get around traffic in Accra?” to, “What is the best Brookside Dairy flavored-milk flavor?” (ok, that one is mine…), as well as a bevy of tech-oriented questions, the site seems to be getting a full spread.

To help keep you, the user, helpful and useful to the site, Google pulls out questions that are of, “Your Interests,” based on what labels you subscribe to and also based on your, “Expert Topics,” which seem to be assigned to you based on unknown criteria when you sign up for the site.

One thing the community needs to start doing is awarding Best Answer points, especially considering these points are a driving force behind reputation. Over time, I hope this behavior develops, but maybe some reminder notifications would be helpful, prodding users to select a Best Answer on their open questions.

Also, the questions asked are very broad at times. I fielded a broad question, “How to design an educational game?” but I had to preface my answer with, “This is a very broad question, so don’t be surprised if you get very broad answers.” Over time, I hope specificity settles as the norm. Specificity will also help users more easily differentiate Best Answers from the answers provided. Specificity, and better label selection as well. Both are learned behaviors and will take time to cultivate, but it shouldn’t take up to three clicks to add a label.

Selecting a label

What would be a nice feature to aid this growth period would be a commenting feature. A commenting system would allow individual questions to be refined with input from the answerers, creating a dialog around the actual meaning of the question without cluttering the answer field and causing confusion. This allows a question to be distilled to its core meaning, while also helping select the obvious Best Answer to the “true” question. Such refinement gives the question better shelf life for when the site goes public and becomes indexed, or even to compliment the already-implemented “Related questions” feature, which attempts to reduce question duplication by instantly showing previously asked questions that may be similar to what you are asking (and which may therefore contain an answer to your very own question).

As we struggle through this community growth, it’s nice that everyone brings their best cheer. Answers are given to questions in polite and respectful fashion, and Google seems to be reinforcing this desired attitude with a very prolific “Report abuse” link. It’s also nice that Google team members are scattered throughout the site, fielding questions about the Baraza service itself quite deftly, and even answering personal inquiries. As for actual numbers, when I joined last week I was about the 70th member (I don’t remember exactly), and today there are about twice that. Not too shabby.

Overall, there is no reason why a targeted platform like this cannot, and should not succeed. It’s not perfect, especially its interface, but the questions being asked have some quality in them, and with refinement over time through natural growth and natural selection, Baraza has the potential to become a very potent store of local knowledge for the African continent. But for crying out loud, redo the interface!

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “A Day At The Baraza: First Impressions of Google Baraza

  1. jesseosmun

    This is really interesting!

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