The Missing Link in Google Wave – UI For Primates

The transitional fossil between a transformative concept and a useful tool is probably always going to be the answer to:

Would a primate find it useful?

Okay naysayers, New Caledonian crows are an example of a non-primate clever enough to use a stick to poke food, but the scope here is primates; the nearly hairless apes like you and me.

An amusing poll at EasierToUnderstandThanWave.com asks,

Which is easier to understand?

On the left hand side of the EasierToUnderstandThanWave.com poll, is a screen shot of the Google Wave inbox. On the right hand side, is a sequential series of screen shots of stuff that’s notoriously difficult to understand like:

Google Wave Inbox Notoriously Difficult to Understand
Google Wave Inbox

  • The Geopolitical Climate of Southeast Asia
  • Self-Balancing Binary Search Trees
  • Polymodal Chromaticism
  • The Raison d’être for the Movie The Sandlot 2
  • Mating Habits of the Red-Sided Garter Snake
Having an unfinished thesis on a hopelessly academic model for the flow of two immiscible fluids based on complex analysis, I added:

The 2D analytic manifold of a Riemann surface

to the mix of stuff easier to understand than Wave. The picture (above right) is a butt-simple graphical rendition of the surface of a square root, f(z) = Sqrt(z). To everyone’s dismay, the f(z) in my unpublished thesis took an entire typeset page. No wonder I drop-kicked a PhD fellowship to procreate; mating was the only thing I figured I could do as well as a snow monkey.

Google Wave is a transformative concept. To be fair, the monkey nuts of Google Wave are built on the shoulders of forward thinkers (Ray Ozzie) and well-established technologies and standards (XMPP). But it remains to be seen if humans will find it useful.

Last July I was excited about Wave, after attending the Hackathon at Googleplex with the inimitable Garry Smith. I wrote about Google Wave and Collaborative Projects.

I was talking to everyone who would listen. Now that WikiWikiWeb founder Ward Cunningham thinks Wave is cool, every curious person in the agile community and beyond is clamoring for Wave invitations.

Where’s the Grand Metaphor for Wave?

Primates need metaphors to understand. It is not human hubris to say that humans might need a smaller rock than an orangutan, nonetheless a confused human appears every much as pitiful as a confused orangutan.

Email has a metaphor. Email has snail mail where the internet is a carrier pigeon or IPoAC (IP over Avian Carriers). Instant messaging has the metaphor of Morse Code operators sending and recieving messages. A Wiki has a bulletin board metaphor. Google Wave has nothing. Yet.

Where are the Visual Cues in Wave?

To thrive in complex social interactions, primates form mental maps representing the social hierarchy of thier posse. One of the confusing things about a Wave is the absence of visual hierarchy.

In a Wave, there are no clear relationships between elements in one’s inbox. Every blip carries equal weight. One might issue a mind-bogglingly-profound blip that’s answered by

That’s awesome dude

Both blips carry equal weight to a subsequent participant joining the Wave.

A Wave needs some kind of tag cloud do-hicky, or real-time executive summary. When there’s information overload, humans need a lazy way to

Cull the salient from the slobber

Everyone at Googleplex, Younger and Smarter

I remain steadfastly bullish about Google Wave. Everyone at Googleplex is younger and smarter. The billiards-playing Stanford graduates toiling at Google’s Mountain View sweat shop, and the fledgling community of adopters and gold-miners, are bound to make Wave useful to the masses. But for now, I’ll continue using cotton string and re-purposed cans. tin can phone

5 thoughts on “The Missing Link in Google Wave – UI For Primates

  1. Good explanation of what feels wrong about Wave, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Wave will eventually become better but what you're saying about metaphors are really important.

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  2. GoogleWave reminds me chaos theory, i.e. the emerging order in disorder. Missing visual hierarchy could be a good thing. Commonsense/order will emerge from disorder just like in agile/scrum or chaos.

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  3. I personally was expecting more from Google, after all they usually create really usable and great interfaces (just look at Analytics).

    Though it's still on closed beta, so maybe they'll listen and make it more usable. If people need to “learn” to use wave then they'll probably stick to their old and familiar collaboration tools.

    Still want an invite just to try it out, but so far the reviews I'm getting from people are less oooww and more ouch!

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  4. Hi Irune,
    Thanks for your comment. Regarding “expecting more from Google”, I'm with you. Yet in fairness, Google deserves high marks for approaching the development of Wave in such a revolutionary way by opening it up to the open source community at such an early stage. That is quite radical for such a huge player. I suspect they're going to teach us a few things about what's possible in new approaches to product development.

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