When I was in grade 8 I learnt French. I say learn, but it was a handful of disconnected words and maybe a sentence or two that I couldn’t possibly remember now. The problem for me was that I knew I was going about learning it the wrong way, but relied on the teacher to teach me the “best way”. See, when I wanted to say a word in French, I first had to think of the word in English, then check my mental filing system for the equivalent word in French. It’s a slow and cumbersome way of recall that never really worked for me, no matter how many times we repeated the words by rote.

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I’m not bringing it up now to point out the flaws in my year 8 education, but to highlight something about the way people learn. When Wave was first announced and launched it was described by various people as “sort of like email” or “part instant messenger, part Google Docs”. This is because we often find it easier to understand something new when we “pin” it on a concept we already know and understand. Likening one thing to something else is sort of like my metal filing cabinet I had in 8th grade, useful up to a point, but no way to go about using something on an advanced day-to-day basis.

Which is why I think Google or a third party need to seriously consider how the non-tech-minded are going to learn how to use Wave.

The problem as I see it is how the tech-illiterate are going to learn how to use Wave. I work in an industry where technology is secondary to the primary business, and am constantly amazed to find that there are still people who can’t use email and often even refuse to turn on a computer. It’s sometimes my job to explain even the most rudimentary of modern communication tasks. I might normally do this by comparing email to snail-mail, email addresses to post office boxes and so on. The user then keeps these analogies in mind the next time they use their email without me around.

With Wave, the analogies are all different. There aren’t yet clear real-world examples we can use to explain Wave concepts and so far all the analogies I’ve heard compare it to other technology concepts. For example, a wave is compared to a message board and individual blips are like single emails. While somewhat helpful for technology types, these analogies will fail with non-techies who are already struggling to map these concepts to the “real-world”. I suspect the thought-process to interpret these concepts might take two or three steps to “translate” these new ideas into ones the user is familiar with. So we have Mr Jones who has been told that a wave is like an email, which he remembers from his grandson is like a letter. But He’s also been told it can be used instantly like a telephone. Technically (and very loosely) these analogies are correct, but are they useful?

Perhaps this is exactly the reason the Wave team abandoned terms like “message” and “update” for brand new ones like “wave” and “blip” - to give everyone a level playing field when learning the new technology. I just can’t help wondering however if new names and ideas might be more confusing.

What I’d like to see is a third party developer build a wave solution (server and client) that addresses the new concepts in an involving and intuitive way. It’s widely known that Google builds software the engineering way - by doing it the simplest way they know how, then testing multiple variations over and over and continually refining. This incremental approach can only work when it’s almost there to begin with. The huge shift in thinking that Wave requires might never make sense to the non-technical when built by engineers. Another party however may be able to research the best way to school new users in Wave right in the interface.

A radically different wave-compatible alternative could open Wave up to a whole new set of users that might otherwise pass it over as “too technical”. If Google want to encourage the world to embrace Wave and abandon email, they will need all the help they can get building a translation-free wave experience for new users.

  • Do you find Wave confusing?
  • What do you think your less tech-savvy friends and family might think of Wave the first time they see it?
  • How would you make Wave more new-user-friendly?

Image by http://www.flickr.com/photos/hectorl/ / CC BY-ND 2.0