Google Helpouts wasn’t helping

helpouts-gGoogle shuts down plenty of products. Reader, Glass, Talk, Wave. But the closing down of Helpouts gives particularly valuable lessons for those who are building WebRTC based applications and services for the always on ‘find an expert market’, of which there are many.

 While it’s clear that it didn’t get enough  traction and had some monetization issues, the real question is why? In healthcare in particular there is a large and growing world of people for whom video communications, powered by WebRTC, is a critical lifeline (literally).  This is a world that includes housebound cancer-patients, the blind, recovering drug addicts, time-constrained parents and their community of carers, and healthcare practitioners. A recent report cited 89% of healthcare executives that said they expect telemedicine to transform the U.S. healthcare system in the next decade, with the number of patients using telehealth services growing to 7 million in 2018, up from 350,000 in 2013.

So if there’s clearly an active, growing market for telemedicine, what’s the real reason Google Helpouts failed?

It’s not about the tech

Online expert knowledge marketplaces, built on WebRTC, are growing, and growing fast.  Applications are popping up in many verticals for everything from doctors, to plumbers, to tax consultants, educators and even retail specialists. There is no shortage of demand, and no, this market is not nascent and undeveloped.

 Helpouts didn’t fail because the timing was wrong. There are numerous examples of successful ‘Helpouts’ style platforms in a range of markets, like LiveNinja, Fountain and Valspar, so it appears not to be ahead of its time.

Helpouts failed because too many different marketplaces had to play by the same set of rules – and none of them wanted to. Rules that included having to come to a Google page rather than a trusted/relevant destination, work through a directory with somewhat arbitrary rating system, limited support, and, perhaps most importantly, conduct the conversation outside of the natural context for it to happen. In many ways this had no great advantages over a simple Skype or FaceTime call.

Google Helpouts offered a destination or a marketplace, whereas it needed to be a widget in the world of the patients and practitioners it was looking to service. And in this world there is everything from complex patient management and medical software systems through to mom and pop practices with rudimentary IT support. Learning and operating yet another system clearly didn’t appeal.

Medium and message

There are two factors equally important with the types of conversations that should have been on Helpouts – content AND context. Seamless integration, enhanced with contextual detail such as a file that’s been shared, or an x-ray being examined, are critical components of the conversation. This needs to be done within the same environment as the conversation itself, rather than parallel systems or sites, and need to be commensurate in quality in order to meet the requirements of all parties. Within healthcare there is a necessary sensitivity of handling of data and adding it to third party applications, something that HIPAA is very concerned with.

It is about the ‘virtual’ location

Helpouts was located outside the practitioner’s own website, requiring businesses and clients to navigate to the Helpouts website. When most small businesses already have a digital presence which they’ve devoted time and money to drive traffic to, pushing traffic away is undesired. Integrating an in-site video chat retains your traffic and potential customers. That integration needs to be flawless – easy to implement for the site owner, and easy to use for their client. No-one wants to be fiddling with code, or doing training on yet another software platform – it should be easy to use right away.

Heading to a portal offering multiple verticals isn’t a natural journey for a customer, either. They’re more likely to seek a well reviewed doctor, plumber, or tutor via their own research.

Each vertical has its own specifics, including discovery, payment processes (such as insurance rebates for healthcare providers), and regulatory and compliance requirements. The embedded communication functionality is almost a secondary requirement to these primary needs for each vertical.

For example, in telemedicine, security and identity management are not just a personal consideration. Legislation is exceptionally specific when it comes to the ownership and usage of digital data, and care should be taken accordingly. In the U.S. for instance, HIPAA regulations require healthcare organizations to follow strict confidentiality and security policies when handling patient data.

It’s not about the big box widget on a page

 When a service provider wants to offer online video and audio capabilities into their existing systems, consideration must be made to match the existing digital workflow, such as queues, schedule management, and existing files and clients. Trying to shoehorn a widget out of the box to seamlessly integrate in existing technology isn’t going to deliver the required experience for clients or businesses. And for those businesses who wish to create such a workflow, the offering must be agile enough to fit the service providers desired user experience, brand, style and content. To ensure uptake, flexibility is key, and Helpouts was decidedly one size fits all.

It is about the customer experience

Helpouts sought to bring online video and audio to experts and their customers, assuming all were familiar with this communication method. That might be a simple assumption – today’s smartphone uptake means we’re used to communicating via video and audio. While some users have familiarity, applying it to an industry newly using this technology will require education and walk through at set up to encourage comfort around adoption. Experts and their customers want to know how does the system works, is it secure? How do they set up the service from their end? How will it differ from an in person conversation? The end experience should be a successful one, and experts implementing online video and audio interactions should take care to educate their customer base, and provide reassurance and guidance to foster a great outcome for everyone. Sometimes in a video-enabled world this could be as simple as learning how to allow for use of your computer’s camera, not always simple to do out of context.

When you put it all together, I think it’s easy to see that Google Helpouts showed us all that it isn’t expert knowledge that wasn’t ready, but a one size fits all approach that wasn’t going to work. When each industry relates to its customers in very different – but key –  ways, it’s the flexibility that will make the implementation of a technology offering more likely. Whether it’s simplicity of install, security considerations, or the ability to customize, technology must remain useful for its users – Helpouts failed to help out, and that lead to its ultimate failure.