How I Learned to Love The Wave

Posted October 23, 2009

[Alas, Google Wave, we hardly knew thee!  Google pulled the plug on Wave in early August.  It was fun while it lasted, and I hope it inspires others to build tools that challenge the status quo of how we communicate on the Internet!]

My knee jerk reaction to Google Wave was pretty poor: I fired up a Wave with the person who invited me, and immediately fell into the familiar pattern of instant messaging. It was a little disconcerting to see the other person typing in real time, and kind of a pain to click to start a response to the messages they left. The interface felt clunky, it was embarrassing to correct my writing in front of other people, and I didn't get the intuitive "ah hah!" moment I was hoping for.

Despite the initial let down, I decided to stick with it for a week, and try to use it for different tasks where I would normally use e-mail, instant messaging, or a wiki. The result?

I love it, despite a couple of rough spots.

The experience that won me over was working with a client on requirements for extending their web application. This is the sort of work I do every day -- collaborating with people to determine how and what we're going to build for them. It's an organic process, involving considerable back-and-forth discussion and documentation of expectations, assumptions, dependencies, time, and money.

Our approach with Google Wave was to make the leading message the canonical requirements document, with the subsequent messages serving as reference and justification for how and why we made the decisions.  It worked well.

The main thread principally contained questions -- we kicked off the session by writing out our initial thoughts and questions into separate messages. Then we regrouped and collaborated on answering those questions in their own threads. When we reached a decision, one of us would record it in the leading message at the top of the wave, while the other gardened the discussion to remove tangental points and highlight the important bits.

It was a fairly intense process, and took a couple of hours to flesh out a fairly complete requirements document for the features we were mulling over. The session was long, but it undoubtedly required less time than if we had followed the usual phone + email + meetings + instant messaging strategy to achieve the same result -- and it was easier to reference the original conversation points for how we made our decisions.

The icing on the cake is that we were able to share the discussion with our Wave-enabled colleagues, allowing them to trace our decision making process, and follow up with questions and concerns of their own.

So, I'm sold. I think Google Wave is a useful and practical tool for resolving and documenting complex processes in the real world, and beats the pants off of the traditional multi-channel approach of phone calls, e-mails, instant messages, and wikis.

But, like I said, there are still some rough edges.

The biggest problem is that not everyone has access to Google Wave. Invitations are scarce, and this poses a frustrating Catch-22: People won't use Google Wave for important documentation and communication until it's ubiquitous, and it won't become ubiquitous until everyone wants it for important documentation and communication. Fortunately, I think this is temporary. Google is opening up the invitation spigot a little more every day, and when the source code is released for public consumption, we'll all be free to set up our own Wave servers.

That said, once you have access to a Wave system, you'll still have to deal with the learning curve. It's similar to several tools we already use for online communication, but it's a fundamentally different beast, and most people will have to thunk around before that "ah hah!" moment arrives. That's particularly frustrating in a limited, invitation-only environment, where you may not be able to connect with people for meaningful discussions.

All things considered, I think Google Wave is a big step forward in online communication, and has the potential to be a huge win for Google. I can honestly say it has provided real world value for my clients, myself, and my employer. Wave has taken a prominent place in my communication toolbox, along side e-mail and instant messaging. I hope it stays there, and I'm looking forward to the time when I can connect with all of my friends, colleagues, and clients.

Who else has had the opportunity to use Google Wave in a production environment, to solve real world problems?  I'd love to hear how it succeeded or failed, and what techniques other people are using.

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