5 things the news industry can learn from Google Wave

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 12 August 2010

The demise of Google Wave has been much publicised, and widely described as yet another failure by Google to 'get' the social web. I think there are some valuable lessons for the news industry from the way that Wave was developed, launched and died.

And I promise not to include a single predictable pun...

Fail gracefully...

In the news industry we are constantly being told that the digital era means we need to innovate more, and fail more. Fail quickly, learn, and move on.

This can be pretty hard for an industry where 95% of the news content is basically saying "You failed to understand the consequences of your policies", "You failed to predict this economic crisis", "You failed to plan for this natural disaster" and "You failed not to show your knickers as you got out of a taxi when there was a photographer lying in the gutter underneath you"

Google have handled the failure of Wave gracefully. They announced they would no longer be developing the service, have given people time to move to other platforms rather than switch it off instantly, have open sourced the code, and are gong to be re-using bits of the technology.

As an industry, we would innovate faster if we learned that it was OK to fail in public when trying out new services and technologies. If you expect transparency from others, you should be transparent about your own shortcomings.

...and continue to leave time to experiment

Wave came out of a process of allowing a unit to re-think something from the ground up, freed from the constraints of day-to-day work. Google famously allows staff to spend a lot of time on their own pet projects. Of course, for news people, this sounds crazy - as there is always a deadline to meet and you never know when the next plane crash / political scandal / 'outrage' and 'fury' / accidental knicker flash is around the corner.

Nevertheless, it is important to give people time to develop new ideas, and evaluate new techniques. At Guardian News & Media, when Wave was first announced, a couple of our developers had a DevLab looking at what Wave might mean for us and our platform, which they blogged about at the time.

We need to find the time and space within our organisations to allow people to experiment and try things out.

Eat your own dog food

Malcolm Coles and I co-wrote an article for FUMSI about what Google Wave could mean for collaborative information sharing. We wrote it by sending text files to each other over email. Even though we both had googlewave.com accounts, we didn't use Wave to collaborate. That should tell you something about the utility of Wave for that purpose compared to existing tools.

But there is also a lesson there about 'eating your own dog food'.

In technology terms, it means using your own systems. Now, I don't know to what extent Wave was adopted within Google, but if it had been mandatory to use it across the company, you can be sure that user experience improvements would have followed.

We should be thinking about how to do this across newsrooms

Don't automatically reach for the printed edition to see how your latest piece appeared, use the website to find out how it worked digitally.

Instead of complaining your site search is rubbish and Google much superior - consistently use your internal search system and quantify why you find it inferior, so you can feed into a process of improving it.

Fed up with journalists and sub-editors complaining about the ease of use of the CMS you've built or procured for them? Spend a day trying to publish articles on it, or watching people struggle to use it, and learn what the issues are.

Worried about the quality of community conversation underneath your own articles? Instead of writing a column saying wouldn't it be better if everybody used their real names and was nice to each other, actually get involved in the threads and drive up the quality of conversation by responding to constructive users and ignoring trolls, just as anyone would do on their own personal website.

Good products don't emerge from one discipline

It has been said elsewhere that Google Wave appeared from the outside to be an almost entirely engineering-led project. The user experience was clunky, the interface not intuitive, and the learning curve too steep for the curious user to get to grips with Wave instantly.

Good products very rarely emerge from one discipline. Everybody champions Apple's design aesthetic, but as the iPhone 4 antenna issue has shown, it is also the hardware and software engineering, and the ergonomics of a device that make it a success, not just that it is 'nicely designed'.

In a news context, across the industry you can see many of the problems that have been caused by having editorial priority alone design websites, and management or IT teams build and procure publishing systems in isolation. They end up not being fit for purpose because they are driven by one discipline within the organisation, rather than a collaborative effort using expertise from a range of areas.

Audience scale is important

When Google Wave invites first became available, there was a scramble to get hold of them, and people were even apparently selling them on eBay. However, for a collaborative tool, there just weren't enough people on it. You couldn't guarantee, for any given task, that all the people you wanted to join in a Wave would have one of the coveted googlewave.com addresses.

In the news industry we often spend so long worrying about how we are going to pay for the future, that we forget to notice some of the strengths and advantages that we still have. One of those is mass audience - even more so on the web than we had in print. If you want to launch a trial of a new technology or feature on your news website, you know you can immediately present it to an audience of millions and gauge their reaction, rather than introduce it to a small clique.

Next...

Actually, there is a sixth thing that I think the news industry can learn from Google Wave, to do with the speed of live reporting and the synchronicity of conversation with the audience, but that deserves a blog post all of its own.

3 Comments

I think Google overall is getting to be too big and complex. its amazing how successful they became with almost no customer support!!

Google on one hand is growing by the new android OS, but on the other hand falling because of google buzz and growing competition from microsoft, facebook and twitter. I think these companies have decided to bring an end to google era, no matter how many companies google takes over.

I am a computer tech / web professional, and, while I didn't devote much time to studying it, I never understood what Google Wave was, exactly. I think most people had the same basic difficulty, if not any of the others you mentioned.

"Fail quickly, learn, and move on." - That's Google. They seem to announce something new about every day, from the car that drives itself to new kinds of solar power generation. Some are flops, like Wave, or semi-flops, like Buzz. Some are runaway hits, like Gmail. They try lots of these new ideas, but they readily kill or radically revise the ones that don't work.

Which probably has something to do with the fact that they are a $100 billion company.

Keep up to date on my new blog