Usability and people skills are the key to catching the Wave

8 10 2009

When you open the top of a soft drink and look under the cap, chances are you’ll see a code that you can text in or type into a web site for the privilege of entering a loyalty club or contest.  Years ago, that same cap used to tell you if you were an instant winner.

Soft drink companies made a choice about usability and culture – do you have far fewer entrants, but collect more information, or do you make more people instant winners and hope it builds anonymous brand loyalty?

How many of you have texted in one of those codes on a cap using T9 entry?

That’s what I thought…

So, usability and culture are intertwined (e.g. “do I want to go through the effort of texting” and “what are they going to do with my phone number?”).  The reward has to be tremendous to get over the “activation energy” of user inertia and suspicion.

Enter Google Wave.  Technically speaking, it has got some pretty incredible components underneath it.  No, I was not one of the 100,000 preview invitations to Wave, but I do think it shares the same soft drink cap adoption conundrum.

Google is looking for passionate digital natives right now (they build a tribe, the tribe can structure a community etc.), so a long explanation (an 80 minute intro video) makes sense.  But, if Wave requires a culture change or a large shift in user habits, there is a long road ahead for it.  Ray Ozzie has some great insight into this conundrum.  He should know a thing or two about collaboration as the founding father of Lotus Notes and Groove.  I like that guy.

In New York City, there are 2,375 mentions of “Facebook” every minute

I made that up.  But walk down the street (take your ear buds out) and you will hear “Facebook” at least once or twice on just about every avenue block.


Your friends went there because the MySpace functional and visual assault on users finally drove people away (it also proved most people are not graphic designers).  Facebook seemed easier to use, cleaner, less noisy, and had some features MySpace lacked.  Snobby geeks also approved of it.

Facebook’s ubiquity is due to users showing up (will it last, or MySpace out?).  Users went there because their geeky trail blazing friends started prodding people to go there (and they made it usable, created mobile / iPhone app, introduced features etc.).  However, in my opinion, Facebook wasn’t really a “social utility” until the initial geek presence got averaged in with the people who sit in the middle of the adoption curve.

Look at Friendfeed and you’ll see that it’s a very cool tool, but it is still waiting to become mainstream enough to become more of a utility (so now Facebook will incorporate the cool features and make them a utility).

Now Facebook has supplanted email for most of my friends.  Why?  Because you can check it anywhere, there are no attachments, you don’t have to maintain an address book, links and movies are handled intelligently, it shows up well on your mobile device, and you can “Share” you like right back.  You also get to decide how direct, public, or private any conversation should be (what happens after you “Share” or “Send” is beyond your control though…) 

Plus, it’s an ego stroke when people “Like” or comment on things you post.

Business vs. pleasure – context is everything

What motivates you to share on Facebook is very likely different than what motivates you to share in a similar collaboration tool inside your company’s firewall.  Aside from keeping with the usual social norms, in the business world, words can very easily turn into political problems and potential job-loss.  Pictures can be worse.  Sometimes interaction is governed by fear or turf.

I have seen (and used) a lot of collaboration technology over the years.  I’ve also worked on many software roll-outs and done some ethnographic user centered design. 

What I’ve learned is:

  • Collaboration is not a technology problem – it’s an organizational and people skill.
  • Choice of technology is usually more interesting and religious than the actual collaboration.
  • The main modes of business collaboration appear to be: passionate investigation of the experimental; being assigned a specific task / goal; getting noticed in hopes of career advancement; and passionate defensive positioning when jobs, products, or funding are on the line.
  • Small teams with a single focus can collaborate well and agree on technology.
  • Small teams share a mindset, context, and vernacular that does not translate well outside that team – even if written down explicitly.
  • Cross-team, division, or company collaboration can lead to culture clash, incompatible entrenched habits, and end with tepid compromises, or irreconcilable differences – especially when it comes to collaboration technology.
  • Enduring, broader value comes from post-conclusion content stewardship – which isn’t sexy work.
  • Nobody likes reading.

I sound cynical.  But take a look at any industry standards body (or Congress) and you’ll see the evidence.  Why are standards so vague?  Why do they take so much time to develop?  Why are they so bloated?  Why do they not actually solve the real problem?  How can there be so many implementation variations of the same standard?

It’s all about what motivates people.  A selfless act of collaboration is both rare and disquieting.

Catching the Wave

In thinking about the points I’m postulating, Wave feels like an answer looking for a problem. When some friends and I we began to discuss this article (via email) from about Google Wave we went back and forth about all these aspects of Wave and collaboration in general. The final comment in the conversation was:

“If this were done in Google Wave, it would be a blog post by now.”

But would it? 


My penultimate point about collaboration is that to resolve the collaboration and make its results quantifiable, someone has to summarize it, de-code it (remove abbreviations, short-hand team comments, inflammatory remarks, etc.), and publish it.

In my opinion, Wave is a great place to brainstorm and an inclusive means of working with a virtual team.  But, it simply can’t be a substitute for doing the hard work at the end.  That task is just as sexy as documenting your code, writing user manuals, or showing your work in geometry proofs.

A good rule of thumb appears to be that a chain of events worth communicating to a larger audience in an understandable manner will require at least twice the words and time you’d expect to refine it before publication. 

Why? Have you ever been forwarded an instant messaging transcript? Nobody is motivated to read the exposition and commentary to get to the point (if you can find one).  (Did you read this far?  Wow…)

Stewardship, motivation and adoption

My point about stewardship is, don’t skimp at the finish line. If you assign a “B Team” or “C Team” player to distill your results, you will at best, get ‘”C“ results.  The summarization-to-value process requires knowledge, experience and involvement in the process.  That means you have to assign someone valuable – as much as it might hurt.  That also means technology helps, but doesn’t replace, human stewardship.

If you’ve been playing along here, you’ll remember that I helped launch a new social network / collaboration tool for a very focused community.  Our main task now is motivating members to come back and contribute so we can get more of the bulk of the adoption curve to show up to the party.  Part of that effort will be stewardship.

I guess I know what I’m doing for the next few weeks…



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