Conducting a group discussion with Google Wave

If you followed me on Twitter lately, you could not help but notice that I am conducting a series of focus groups on Web 2.0 practices among researchers. In the last group, we did not get to discuss a very interesting topic – career planning, that is – and participants were quite eager to talk about it in a follow-up. Since a second face-to-face meeting was not feasible, I decided to set up a Google Wave for this purpose. I hadn’t used Wave much before, but I considered it to be especially suitable in this case, primarily out of three reasons:

  • Wave allows you to have a structured discussion with different “threads” (indented replies). Thus, I could ask multiple initial questions without losing overview and confusing participants.
  • Wave bridges the gap between synchronous and asynchronous communication. You can have IM-like chat, because you see everything a person types, but the posts are all persisted into one place, and participants are notified of new content in the wave.
  • Wave has a number of extensions which add a lot of functionality interesting for a group discussion. There is a voting extension, a mindmapping tool, and many others (unfortunately I was not able to use extensions – see below for more details)

Getting people into Wave

Since most of the participants had not used Wave before, I had to invite them. A superfluous step since last week, I know, but this was quite challenging: I did not get a notification when someone had accepted my invitation, and not everyone who accepted my invitation was shown in my contacts. Moreover, I had trouble finding people on Google Wave without their exact Wave or Gmail address. Possibly these issues are now fixed though.

Once I got everyone onto the wave, however, problems stopped and the discussion started to flow. Wave is pretty much self-explaining. I had posted all the necessary visualizations from the discussion (flipcharts mostly), and three blips (Google lingo for post) with initial questions, to which I asked people to provide indented replies. An interesting side-note is that you can make an indented reply to every blip but the last one in a thread. This is done by hovering over the bottom border and clicking on “Insert reply here”. On the last blip, though, you only get “Continue this thread” (or “Click here to reply”) with the same procedure, which generates a reply on the same level as the preceding blip. Unless of course, you choose “Indented reply” from a dropdown menu within the blip. This confused all participants, and even the more experienced ones consistently failed to provide indented replies to the last blip in a thread, which disrupted the structure of the discussion a bit.

Even though the wave did not grow exceptionally large (about thirty blips containing mostly text), the application would get unbearably slow on rare occasions. Apart from that, the discussion went on pretty well; posts ranged from longer contributions over a few paragraphs to chat-like comments, such as “I agree”. Notifications about new posts came along rather reliable, containing the wave(s) that had been updated with a (supposed) excerpt from the newest post. This excerpt, however, contained text from a post that I had already read most of the time.

Extensions and data in the wave

One of the main drawbacks to me was the fact that I could not use bots and extensions in the wave. Why? The reason is simple: I had promised to participants that all their contributions would remain with me, and that I would only release anonymisied transcripts to third parties with their explicit consent. If you, however, add gadgets or bots to a wave, they can read the entire content of the wave (as detailed in Google’s privacy policy for Wave). Since most of the extensions are not developed by Google, I would have to check every provider’s privacy policy, (1) which does not exist most of the time, and (2) even if it does, I would still have to decide, if I can trust this provider.

This is also true for the “Ferry” extension which exports waves to Google Docs. Consequently, I had to manually copy and paste the content to a Word file and add all the formatting that was lost, e.g. bullet points and indentations. This was still a lot faster than transcribing the same content from video but a Wave-native export to overcome this problem would be appreciated.

Conclusion

All in all, I would say the experience was quite enjoyable. I would use Wave for a group discussion of this size again any day, but I would be more wary towards a whole focus group or discussions with more participants and longer threads. Then the issue of indented replies and the missing native export would be of more importance.

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