Google Wave: a case study in why interaction design matters

When Google launched as a competitor search engine in 1996 there were two stand-out characteristics that separated the engine from its three major competitors, Yahoo, Infoseek/Go.com and AltaVista:

Google Home Page c. 1998 From Wikipedia

Google Home Page c. 1998 From Wikipedia

1. Pagerank: a system of ranking search results by inbound links that overcame a lot of the paid search and metatagging techniques which rendered results on older search engines effectively useless;

2. Page design: unlike its competitors, Google’s home page was sleek, mostly white, with no advertising and no rubbish category lists that made it hard to focus on your objectives.

While most commentators focus on Pagerank as the reason for mass migration to Google, I regard Google’s page design as of almost equal importance to the search results algorithm as a motivation for adoption. I have heard an argument that the reason for Google’s original minimalist home page was because they hadn’t attracted advertising when they launched, but if this is true, it’s mere serendipity.  It made the page easy to load (at a time when most of us were still on 28.8K dial-up connections), and access to search results was similarly speedy.  And in design terms, attention was focused on what the user wanted to do: get results from their entered search terms.

It may seem an overstatement, but simplicity of access is key to adoption of any technology.  Social media advocates may focus on ROI and performance of a technology strategy, but there’s no point in focusing on ROI if you can’t get people to adopt in the first place.

Barriers to adoption are not due to low ROI.  They are due to high complexity of an interface and high capital investment (in terms of time or money) for initial adoption.  Second Life is a classic example of an immersive social application that still exists but which is essentially populated by technology enthusiasts.  Adoption requires huge capital investment in very fast infrastructure and graphical capability to run the client, as well as education in the use of the tool to communicate with others and access content of interest.  The barriers to entry are profound. And many who tried Second Life just gave it up as a massive time sink.

In contrast, twitter requires almost zero technological literacy to adopt, it’s free and can be accessed either through the web or through a client.  Even the oldest and slowest machines can run clients and even though the early days of twitter involved lots of server downtime, it didn’t generally affect adoption because when it didn’t run, people got on with what they were doing, or reverted to search engines and email to access content and communicate.

Second Life: hard to adopt. Twitter: easy to adopt.

Second Life: 7 years old.  Twitter: 4 years old

Second Life: 18 million users (estimated, January 2010).  Twitter: 190 million users monthly.

Interaction design matters, because it affects adoption.  Keeping users after they adopt a technology is also affected by interaction design, but that is usually dictated by matching personal objectives with value derived from use of a technology platform.  So in the case of the early Google search engine, PageRank affected search results, creating value for the user.  In the case of twitter, personal investment in conversations and developing following lists of people who created useful content increased the return for users.  But those initial entry barriers deserve the greatest attention in order to attract users.

Unfortunately, Google failed to remember this when it created Google Wave.  The original developer preview took the form of a 1 hour and 20 minute demonstration which was fine for those present at the Google I/O conference but fundamentally useless for those who wanted to be able to adopt and play with it quickly.  Then if you managed to get an invitation to trial the service (a strategy that was supposed to create curiosity but was actually a means of minimising requests to the servers through use of the tool – another barrier to participation) the initial page design was a simple three column format, but unless you bothered to create lists of contacts (and there was no easy search facility to find useful users) you generally found yourself talking to yourself.  If you finally did find users, you could have extensive content sharing, real-time conversations with links and pictures and debate with multiple people.  Hmm.  You could also do exactly the same thing by email, or by meeting with these people in person and having an actual conversation with them in front of a live internet connection.  Or you could have a richer conversation on twitter with embedded links to content.  Plus with twitter you were not required to be in front of your PC all the time, unlike Wave which really required your absolute attention.

So Google Wave’s interaction design required high initial investment to adopt and then high investment for return.  And then the servers would crash when conversations got interesting.
Mmmm.  Fail.

And yet people are surprised today to find out that Google have halted development of the application.  To be honest, I’m surprised it lasted this long.  I found Google Wave awkward to use, far too much of a time sink and it duplicated functionality I could get elsewhere and more reliably.  To put it rather diplomatically, it was Second Life for conversations.

Google needs to go back to its early interaction design principles if it’s ever going to be useful in a social communication application market.  And as a model for innovation in the sphere I freely offer to Google my formula for technology success, shared on twitter this morning:

1. Provide easy, cheap (£ AND time) access.

2. Allows users to generate ROI.

3. NEVER forget step 1.

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