Archive for July 2009
Just last night I received an invite to the Google Wave Developer Sandbox. Since Wave’s initial announcement at the Google IO developer conference, I had been reading up on the protocol and the API specifications, but this is the first opportunity that I’ve had to actually play with the front-end application. My thoughts here will be limited to the user experience and the implications that the paradigms introduced by Wave will have on the way people might choose to collaborate and communicate on the web. There is just so much to talk about, that I really have to limit this to first impressions of the UI and basic interaction model. I’m also going to ignore the fact that the Wave system is really not ready for prime-time yet. The developer preview requires periodic reloads to regain its sanity, and there are frequent error dialogs that pop up. Peformance is also not up to what Google showed in the Wave demos previously.
The basic layout of the UI is very much like a standard email client. Standard navigation catagories appear in the left sidebar accompanied by a list of contacts. An inbox list and reader panes appear to the right of the main navigation. Google’s use of GWT for the UI affords them a very dynamic UI, but I don’t think that this is a game-changer by itself. Yahoo mail has been able to achieve similar things using YUI. The reader pane shows a threaded view of the discussion around the wave. Again, very similar to an email discussion thread, with the important difference that replies are shown as children of the original comments instead of quoting the original text.
User Interaction Model
In my opinion, the real significance of the Wave client is not in the actual UI layout, but in the interaction model that it introduces. There are several notable departures from what would be considered a typical email system or personal information management application.
First, items in the inbox are not static. Items that have been recently modified get bumped to the top, much like in a discussion forum. The difference is that it happens in realtime. This sometimes means that as you are reaching to open a wave, it may shoot to the top, out from under you. This allows you to see at a glance what is changing but as I quickly found out, once several very active waves are in the inbox, things will get quite busy.
The second major difference is that any part of a discussion thread may be modified at any time. This is significantly different than a typical email thread, or even a discussion thread on a forum. Collaboration can happen at the micro level of a single comment on a comment. This level of granularity could be very powerful, but it also enables a complex set of interactions that could be equally confusing to newcomers to a wave, or to one’s future self, coming back to an archived wave.
I think that the really interesting thing about Wave is to see the kinds of communication patterns that could emerge as a result. Wave offers integration points with the Web that email doesn’t have, and offers more power and flexibility than current Web-friendly communications mechanisms like Twitter. Other attempts have been made to merge messaging and the Web, but Wave seems like the best bet so far for connecting your inbox to the Web.
LaunchBox demo days are coming up, and to get into the demo spirit, what better way to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t than to watch other demos? I took some time to watch some of the demos given at the DEMO 2009 conference.
I came up with a list of 10 takeaways that I got from watching the videos:
1. Prepare the script ahead of time. The risk of repeating yourself is too high. When describing the Vue wireless camera, the woman in the video freewheeled by repeating the same features several times. Not only is this distracting, it wastes valuable time in a short demo like this.
2. Don’t vamp too much. The message needs to be crystal clear. This is somewhat related to the first point in that preparing the script well should allow you to clearly articulate all of the points that you are trying to make in the presentation without filling time with chatter that conveys little meaningful information.
3. Don’t go into too many details. In such a short demo, listing every detail about the product serves only to distract the audience from the main product and market focus points that you need to get across to make an impact.
4. Come up with some meaningful examples to use in your demo. One of the presentations sent messages like ”DEMO is the greatest” during their demo. You miss out on the opportunity to make a better connection with the audience by making the examples align with the story that you are telling.
5. Contrived acting scenes can go badly. Good ones can help tell your story. During the demo for Touchbook, the touchscreen netbook, the two presenters engaged in a mock question-and-answer routine that belabored some trivial points about netbook computers. This did very little for me in terms of feeling a connection to what they were trying to achieve. This contrasted sharply with the 7 Billion People presentation where the presenters set the stage for their product demo by introducing their personal similarities and differences before demonstrating that the product could tailor their shopping experiences accordingly.
6. Your product needs an identity. If it does too many things you lose the audience focus. I almost didn’t include this because it follows from point number 3 that too many extraneous details detracts from your message, but I think that it deserves special note since establishing an identity with the product made me gloss over some other shortcomings in the presentation.
7. Spend enough time at the beginning of the presentation to frame the problem before getting to the demo. The demos that I felt flowed the best usually spend 1:30 to 1:45 setting the stage and introducing the problem. Getting to the demo too quickly felt a bit disorienting without enough supporting context.
8. Be careful about playing videos during the presentation. Qualcomm played a technical description video that really broke the feel of the presentation. The presenter was just starting to connect with the audience and playing the video seemed to break that connection.
9. Spend time on what makes the product different. Don’t waste too much time on demonstrating feature parity. This goes along with the third point about too many details. The best demos went into laser focus on the most relevant product details to cement their identity with the audience.
10. Make sure the demo is ready to go. The transition time here is critical to keeping the flow of the presentation. 10 seconds spent walking over to the demo station and getting the first page up seems like an eternity.
Reading back through these points, it looks like I focused on the negative more than I had planned for this post. Maybe in a follow-up post I will try to give things a different spin.
I was fortunate enough to have attended a panel discussion recently where Hooman Radfar, CEO of Clearspring, sat on the panel. During the discussion, he mentioned an experiment that he did to see how many of his Twitter followers clicked on links that he posted in his updates.
I repeated this experiment by tracking a bit.ly link that I created and posted to my Twitter updates. Within 3 minutes I logged 6 clicks to the link. After 30 minutes there were no further clicks.
One thing that we can calculate is click-to-follower ratio:
hoomanradfar: 40/890 = .045
dnewcome: 6/68 = .088
In Hooman’s experiment, he also posted the link to Facebook. I’m not including his Facebook friends here. This should weight things a little in his favor, but I’m also not handicapping the results by assuming that only 10% of the audience saw the link at all.
How do we interpret these results?
Is this a measure of your power as an influencer, or is the variability of the follower population too much of a confounding factor to make such a conclusion? Is it likely that this will scale? If I had as many followers as Hooman, would I have been able to muster 80 clicks? Is there a better metric than click-to-follower ratio that we can use?
I was thinking recently about how to more reliably get into a productive flow when working on my programming tasks. Typically, I think that when I really need to get deep into things, it is best to go sit at my desk with the big monitor and ergonomic keyboard and get to it.
However, it doesn’t always follow that the most productive work will happen given the `perfect’ circumstances. I forced myself to think back on the times recently where I really felt like I got clicking on something.
After some reflection the following two instances came to mind:
1. I was on the back balcony at 10:00 or so one night with a cup of espresso and my laptop. It had already been a long day of coding, but I had just taken a shower and was feeling kind of fresh again. I think I posted a tweet about it being a nice night to be outside on the balcony, and I emerged from thought an hour later to find that I had solved a problem in my code that I had been trying to solve since earlier in the day.
2. On the metro riding into the LaunchBox offices. It was later in the day, so I was able to get a seat on the train by myself. I don’t usually have any inclination to take my laptop out on the train, but somehow I really zoned in that day. Sitting on a moving train created an artificial sense of urgency and focus I think. A heightened sense of awareness. Sort of like going to a coffee shop where the bustle of people can be just the energizing factor that you need.
I’ve tried to replicate the first scenario several times since with varying degrees of success. The second scenario has been tougher for two reasons: First, I can’t control whether or not I’m going to have room to pull my laptop out on the train. Second, since I got a smartphone, I’m more likely to pull that out instead, and I have not quite reached what you would call `flow’ on the little keyboard yet.
I don’t know what the critical elements are to recreate the perfect storm of productivity. Maybe there isn’t really a repeatable formula. Maybe it is a function of all of the day’s or week’s events and the phase of the moon. I have a feeling that it is mostly internal though, so I think that there is hope.