Random blog-like rambling from Rachel's brain. A mixed up mess of usability posts, fiction, and travel.

On Google Wave's Complexity and Usability

Over the summer, Google released a rather astonishing video of Google Wave in action. All across the internet enthusiasm was at an incredible high. Google Wave was going to be a paradigm shift of a collaboration suite. It was going to surpass email as the way people communicate with each other. I work a bit with collaboration software, mostly Sharepoint, so I was particularly interested in where this might go. Thus, it was with excitement that I acquired an invite to Wave.

Now, I've been scooting around this interface for about a week attempting to figure things out and I've come to a few conclusions.

The first: Google Wave won't replace email

Why not? It's far to complicated. What makes email a powerful medium is in actuality it's pure simplicity. The learning curve for email is almost trivially small. Wave is chock full of features, but in a sense they are features that are simply more than what the average person requires and that is a barrier to entry. I want to stress though that this is not so much a criticism as it is merely an observation. Wave probably isn't seeking to solve the email problem.

The second: chat is necessary for real time collaboration

I hadn't realized this before, but in the process of attempting to plan a trip to Greece with a friend using Wave as our platform I found the lack of a true chat interface unbearably frustrating. While you can "ping" a person in Wave, that ping merely acts as a mini wave. It's fully featured, which is absolutely overkill for a quick chat, and is also saved as a separate wave from the one you are currently working on, meaning the chat information and any decisions made there are separated from the rest of your collaboration work. 

I think for Wave to really take off, it needs to have a true chat feature, one that rather than being a wave is truly optimized for chat. For me, the lack of this was so frustrating I had to supplement my work in Wave with chatting over Adium. 

The third: There really needs to be connectivity between Wave and other Google Apps.

You're welcome to attach documents to your waves, but there doesn't appear to be a way to link in Google's already relatively successful collaboration suite. Prior to using wave for our "Plan a Trip to Greece" project, my friend Shane and I had both a Google doc of information and a Google Map of places we wanted to visit. My enthusiasm for Wave was damped when it became clear I could not capitalize on this existing work within the application. I could drop in a map gadget, but I'd have had to build my whole map again from scratch.

It felt extremely limiting to not be able to bring in work completed in other places, especially considering that those other places are ... well ... Google.

The fourth: this interface is wicked confusing

I have general faith that this will improve with time, but there are a lot of little things about the Wave interface that make it frustrating to use. I won't detail all of them here, but here's a brief sampling:

1. Why the funky scroll bars? They're a little clunky and it confuses me a bit that they didn't just use standard scroll bars which work perfectly well.

2. In a long wave, how can I jump to the unread changes? Right now I can't find a way to do this. If the changes are spread throughout the wave, it's extremely difficult to move through it to find the relevant changes.

3. Nested replies get quickly out of hand: one thing, having to double click to even find these features is messy. Another, those nested replies seem to not always show up where you expect it to. As they grow, it makes following them a bit difficult. I think they perhaps would have worked better showing up in the style of notes in Microsoft office revision mode.


Wave might yet prove to be a paradigm shifting project. Niggling usability issues are a part of any release like that, so it doesn't concern me overly much. However, the lack of Google Docs and Maps integration surprises me and makes me wonder how long we'll have to wait to see what I view as very necessary new features.

One other thing that came to mind as I was playing with this... will the masses, who aren't perhaps looking for a robust collaboration solution, find themselves driven to use Wave at all? I have my doubts. Most of us in our day to day lives don't require that much complexity and jumping right into it is an overwhelming experience.

On the other side of the fence we have gmail kind of quietly doing its thing. More and more it seems to me that it's gmail that could really take off as a collaboration platform that everyone can start using. Already it has integrated chat with the email client, and it's starting to build in a connection with Google Docs as well. It's a way of easing users into a more robust experience by trickling the features in over time. Not a bad approach, although maybe not a paradigm shifting one.

Some references and other opinions on Wave:

1. IT Pro agrees, Wave won't replace email

2. Mashable's opinion is generally positive

3. Louis Gray thinks Wave is way way too noisy

4. Some thoughts at CNET