In May 2009, Google announced Wave, a new tool for its suite of co-operative platforms. Finally, Google would take a step into the brave new world of social media, launching a platform that would compete with Facebook and Twitter.

Surely, a powerhouse like Google, riding the successes of Gmail, Google Maps and Chrome, couldn’t fail to dominate the competition?

In September, Google released the tool to a pilot group of 100,000 users and allowed them to invite their friends to try it out too. By November, accepted invites were being turned into active accounts immediately, and the system went live for everyone in May, 2010.

But by August, Google announced that the site was a legacy system and it was finally deleted in April 2012.

From public launch to cancellation, Google Wave lasted three months. So what went so catastrophically wrong?

Riding the Wave

On announcement, Google Wave had everything going for it. Named after the fictional interplanetary internet from the cult TV show, Firefly, Wave was touted as a way for like-minded people to find each other and discuss and debate topics close to their hearts.

Users could be invited to ‘Waves’ by their friends. These closed groups of users could contribute to threads of text that would be stored in the cloud, rather than transferred completely back and forth. This would combine the permanence of an email chain with the immediacy of an instant message.

Groups of users could have long conversations that they could either respond to instantly or come back to at a later stage. At any point, they could go back through the conversation history, and new users could be invited to the Wave, reading up on what’s been said before chipping in.

In addition, users could collaborate on cloud-hosted documents, working together to produce documentation, presentations, IT knowledge bases and… HOLD ON A SECOND!!! THIS IS SLACK!!!

Yes, the collaborative business tool used by 10 million people to avoid the horror of a full email inbox is almost identical in features to Google Wave. Slack has been so successful that Microsoft has almost completely copied Slack for its Teams service, but Google had a live version of the concept four years before Slack was even launched. How did Google muck it up so badly?

There can be little doubt, of course, that Slack has a better user interface than Wave did, but as a minimum viable product, it wasn’t nearly bad enough to make the difference between being dropped after three months for lack of interest in the free product and 8,000 users paying to sign up to Slack in the first 24 hours. What was the issue?

Wipeout

Well, to paraphrase the classic John Carpenter movie, Big Trouble In Little China – Google Wave’s mind and its spirit were going north and south. Yes, die-hard Slack users spend so much time on the service at work that they have been known to force their unwilling family to contribute to a household Slack team where they can passive-aggressively attack each other for not taking the rubbish out. Still, Slack is not intended for personal use.

According to the H1 of their own site, “Slack is where work happens.” Slack is a workplace tool, allowing remote teams to collaborate and socialise over a digital workplace. It’s used to message your boss and tell them the trains are a mess and you’ll be in late; to ask IT if the office email system is down and when it’ll be fixed; to check HR are okay with the comms you’re sending out; to ask who’s going to the pub after work. It is not a public social media platform.

Google saw Wave as a platform where you could get your geeky friends together to debate the merits of Marvel vs DC comics. You’d invite your DC-fan mates and your friends would invite their Marvel-fan mates and you’d all have an intelligent debate about the merits of each publisher. Anyone becoming toxic would be removed and if someone mentioned being a fan of gaming, you might invite them to your XBox vs PlayStation Wave too. Essentially, it was supposed to be a Geocities-style chat room.

Meanwhile, social media is increasingly becoming a platform for users to throw filtered pictures of their lunch into the void in the hope of becoming an influencer – it’s mostly a one-way affair – and that was evident even back in 2009. Facebook was started as a catalogue of pretty girls on Mark Zuckerberg’s college campus and Twitter was intended to be a ‘micro-blogging’ platform. Productive collaboration was on no-one’s mind.

With Wave, what Google had discovered was a much-needed way for traditional workplaces to move into the digital age. In fact, as a pilot user of Wave back in 2009, my initial reaction to the platform was that this should have been Gmail 2.0. As such, Wave would have been a disruptive, innovative and incredibly-useful evolution of the email concept, which had remained largely uniterated since the 70s. Instead, Google marketed Wave as a new social media platform – something the tool was completely unsuited for.

Ideas are like Google+ accounts…

In fact, Google’s attitude to social media was so off, they followed up the failure of Wave with yet another disastrous social media pilot two years later. Google+ looked and worked much more like a social media platform as we know them, but it repeated the same mistake Google made with Wave – it relied on you connecting with people regarding your interests instead of allowing you to cast the best moments of your life out into the ether to be preserved for posterity.

All users want in return is likes and follows – hence the rise of Twitch, YouTube vlogging and the Instagram influencer.

I find this all very interesting, and I hope you do too, but we aren’t just here to talk about Google. What can we learn from all this as UX designers?

Well, it’s something fundamental – UX design means designing for the right users. If you create the cure for the common cold and give it to a hayfever sufferer, you’re not going to get much success. If you want to launch a social media platform, you need to find out what your users need from it and build it around them; you can’t just build a tool, market it as being for something else and expect your users to fit the round peg into the square hole.

To build a good tool, you can’t start with an idea.

Ideas are very much like Google+ accounts – everyone has one, but very few people know what to do with them. You need to start with a problem your users have and then make the solution to that problem. Do that and users will flock to you and gladly pay you for your assistance. Build something cool without any idea of whether your users actually need it and you won’t be able to give it away for free.

Even if you’re Google.