How to predict a successful Google product (Hint: it’s the name)

Google announced last week that it will discontinue support for Wave, and I’m not surprised. At launch, the hype was huge and everyone was excited to bother their friends for Wave invites. But when I finally got mine, I opened Wave and thought, “What’s this? What am I supposed to do with this?”

The Wave interface is not as intuitive as what I had hoped for in a Google product. When I’m conversing in a wave, I’m never sure where I’m supposed to click or what I’m supposed to select. Judging by popularity, I don’t think I was the only one who thought so.

It’s not that Wave doesn’t have great features. Real-time playback of conversations looks cool.  Google pushed Wave’s spellcheck that checks based on context in addition to spelling. Once you get over the learning curve, Wave is pretty cool. But for some reason, not enough people found Wave useful enough to warrant continuing support for it.

There’s a simple thing I think Google could have done to increase adoption rates for Wave, and that is to have chosen a better name.

One of Google’s product strategies, it seems to me, is to pick a service you can describe in one word and do it really really well. A well-named, simple, straightforward product minimizes the learning curve, so people know right away what they can expect to use the product for. Search, Gmail, Calendar, and Maps all exemplify this strategy. You know Latitude will deal with location. Even Picasa suggests it has something to do with pictures. Wave, on the other hand, tries to do a lot without priming the user with what to expect by using a good name. (Buzz is another example of a Google product that tries to do a lot with a vague name.)

I can hear the disagreement now: “But if Google comes out with a new, innovative service, it can’t help but pick a new name for it.” Yes, that’s true. It’s not that I think Google should stick to improving existing services and forget innovation. My point is that with an innovative product with a steep learning curve, a descriptive name will go the furthest to help customers figure out how they are expected to use it.

There are two websites in particular that I think do this really well (though they take the strategy to the extreme). The first is a to-do list tool at The page is incredibly simple. All you see is a command, a button labeled ‘done,’ and a link to edit the list of commands. When you click the ‘done’ button, it shows you the next item on the list. There isn’t even a title on the page; the title is implied in the url. The site does exactly one thing very well, with no fuss and no frills.

The other site is Like NowDoThis, it features a plain white screen with one simple tool, in this case one that checks if a given site is down. This is simplicity to an extreme, without even a button to submit the form (instead, “or just me?” is a link to submit the form). I love the way they incorporate the tool and instructions to use it into one sentence.

One of the benefits to designing products this way is that once you have a simple tool, you can incorporate it into other services. I can put a small Google Maps widget on my business site to highlight my location. I can open NowDoThis in the bookmarks sidebar in Firefox for an in-browser to-do list. To Google’s credit, it is possible to embed a Wave in another site; I just haven’t seen it done more than once or twice.

I predict that Google will integrate Wave’s best features into Talk in the near future. Unlike Wave, Talk is simple and well-named; even before you open it, you know what you can do with it. I think Talk will benefit from Wave features like context-sensitive spellcheck and easy media sharing.

The ironic part is that I’ve used Wave this summer more than I did all of last year. My friends and I found it was a great way to share data in our Skyped Dungeons and Dragons campaign. We used it to share initiative rolls, HP and pictures of the monsters we faced. We could have also incorporated dice-rolling widgets. However, we could have done the same with a shared Google Doc, which is probably what we will have to do when Wave support is lost for good.

Oh well. I’m not crushed.

  • Joey1058

    The problem with wave is that it’s more of a colaboration tool than a general social tool. Not a lot of people have running projects, or in your case, games, that need coordinating. If I need to send an email, there’s gmail. If I want to chat, ther’s messenger. I just had no use for Wave. And neither did anyone else.

  • urssur

    I guess talk does make more sense … and come to think of it, talk could do with some media sharing and , more wave features.