Why it’s time for Google to fix Google Now

Google (S GOOG) wants Google Now to be everywhere: on your phone, your watch and your desktop. But if Google wants to make the service truly ubiquitous, it has to get a lot better.

Case in point: The other day, I was sitting at home and catching up on emails. I checked Google Now, and it told me that it would take me 40 minutes to get to work. That would have been useful if it hadn’t been 3:30pm already. And if the place it called “work” hadn’t been my daughters day care. (I told Google Now about my actual place of work many moons ago, so it should know.) Also, that 40-minute estimate it gave me for going to the wrong place, at the wrong time? It was based on taking the bus. I’ve never, ever taken the bus to that address.

The problem with Google Now in a nutshell: It assumes that people only use one means of transportation.

The problem with Google Now in a nutshell: It assumes that people only use one means of transportation at a time, and presents information based on settings, not observations.

In other words: Google Now got pretty much everything wrong, and it does so on a daily basis. Part of the problem is that Google Now assumes its users stick to one mode of transportation. That may work for people who drive to the office every morning, and straight back home every night, but it’s just not what my life looks like. On some days, I drive to drop off my kids in the morning, then park my car and take public transit to work. During the day, I may have a meeting close to our office, so I walk. On other days I stay home and just run a few errands with my car.

Others are struggling with it too

It’s admittedly a bit more challenging to detect patterns in my commute, but I’m hardly the only one who mixes and matches these days — and Google Now seems to routinely fail folks like me. I started to complain about these shortcomings a while back on our weekly Chrome Show podcast, and have since heard from of bunch of people who have the very same issue. Here’s what one of them had to say on Google+: 

“Yeah it’s pretty bad for me, too. It suggests public transport for places that are just around the corner, just because it’s my default setting. ”

And here’s another experience that speaks volumes:

“I find Google Now useless full stop, it tells me about places I don’t care about, tells me I’m going to be late for work on my day off even though it’s in my calendar. Everyone in the U.S says how good it is but in the U.K, not so much”

To be fair, Google Now does more than just assist users with their commute, and some of those additional features actually work fairly well for me. It tells me when products I have ordered online are on their way, lets me know the weather in a city that I’m about to visit and occasionally even suggests articles that I want to read.

Google Now works well for some things, like keeping track of your trips Image: Google.

Google Now works well for some things, like keeping track of your trips Image: Google.

But the real promise of Google Now is that it doesn’t just react to things that I do online, but also anticipates my needs based on the things I do in the real world. And as Google building whole new platforms like its wearables initiative around Google Now, that real world-link becomes ever more important.

Why doesn’t Google Now know what Google Maps knows

The puzzling thing about Now is that it often fails spectacularly when it should know better, which makes you wonder whether Google just hasn’t done a good job integrating the service with its other offerings.

One example: The other day, I drove down to Mountain View for a meeting. Ahead of the trip, I looked up the traffic on Google Maps on my desktop, and then actually used the Google Maps app on my phone for navigation. So what did Google Now do when I checked it after my meeting was done? Suggest how to get back home via public transit, of course.

Currently, Google Now still depends too much on default settings. Instead, it should learn from real-life behavior. I, for one, wouldn’t actually mind to help train it if it occasionally asked me things like: How, exactly, did you get to work today? It’s something that activity tracking apps like Moves already do really well.

Instead, Google Now aims to get out of the way. That’s nice in theory. But in practice, it leads to Now being pretty useless — which isn’t exactly what I’d want the primary interface of my smart watch to be.