The service, which was already pretty darn slick, is now among the most attractive and engaging web apps I’ve ever seen. ... it (Google+) now has its own style and signature features. ... It’s fun to use.
No. It's not. It sacrifices the usability of the product in exchange of a superficial look of pretty. The design stands in the way of presenting the content. It is easy to whip up a "beautiful" page by throwing together some nice fonts and high quality pictures. But engaging? Fun to use? I don't think so.
Here are the three major problems I noticed.
First, images are out-of-proportionally big. They steal the attention away from the texts. Here is the What's Hot page.
It looks pretty because of the two high quality photos which have taken up the majority of screen real estate. You eyes will inevitably look at Larry's face and the new Android Studio but did you notice much of the text at all? Did you realize that Android Studio is based on IntelliJ IDEA? (That news is, in my opinion, probably the most important and positive one for the Android developer community.)
Here is what I get if I hide all the images.
Do you notice the text content better? Do you realize how huge those images were? Sure this can't be a good design unless Google+ wants to become the next pinterest clone.
The second problem is that the reading experience is weakened even further by endless demands for actions. Google+ constantly asks you to do things. Lots of them. Now, go ahead and count how many actions you are suppose to do in the following page.
I found 27, how about you? This does not even include the 3 drop down lists which will certainly give you more work. And we are cheating a bit here. The space taken up by "Where did you go to school?" block could easily pile in another 10+ actions if it's a normal news block.
Third problem, the lack of discipline in using the whitespace. Whitespace is one of the most powerful, visually pleasing and least intrusive way to bring orders and visual hierarchies to a design. Yet what do you think of the whitespace in this Best of #Python page?
What is this?! The only thing that seems to be useful is this one single line: "Hy: Lisp subset that compiles to Python". The rest of the screen space? Wasted.
Let's take a step back and think about what's the goal for Google+. It's fundamentally a river of short messages that might be interesting to the user. I imagine most of the times people would just scroll through and see whether something catches their eyes. The new Google+ fails to deliver an experience that maximizes this goal.
PS. Even at a pure visual design level, Google+ is still not up to the standard. The vertical alignments, margin between elements within one block would use more refinement. The avatar is inconsistent. Sometime they're round. Most of the times square. But arguing design for design's sake is missing the point here. It has to be functionally useful first. Without that, it's a castle on the sand.