January 26, 2011

Online Collaboration With Humans (i.e. non-geeks)

Over the past few months I’ve had to work with normal, non-technical people. They have lives in the analog world and say things like: I didn’t get the email, but don’t worry, that happens sometimes”.

I’d love to share some success stories on how we all arrived at a collaboration panacea, but currently most of my experiments ended in failure. Skip to the end if you just want some tips.


Pat Paulsen used to say:

I’ve upped my standards. Now, up yours.

Which to be fair, applies perfectly here. Opera Software was a collaboration nirvana. The tools weren’t advanced at all, but it was so ridiculously simple (plain text emails and wiki’s) and everyone was so technical, that online collaboration just happened.

Lowest Common Denominator

It’s email.

Talk all you want about social networking or Sharepoint, but if you’re working with people that bought a CD during their lifetime, the mail package analogy is the only one that sticks.

You can judge, laugh or scream, but a document needs to arrive, be modified, and sent back. The opportunity cost of explaining a shared folder, a public wiki or an online calendar, quickly leads you –the geek– to accept defeat and send … an email with the date of the event, the agenda and your version of the document attached.

Gratis is the Enemy of Good

One caveat I should mention is that an almost non-existent budget and a soft-requirement for spanish versions hasn’t allowed me to play with some interesting looking solutions.

Some open-source solutions exist, but the free price sticker quickly evaporates when you start investing your time to set it up. Higher minds than myself could make it all work, but I couldn’t justify it.

Blackberry is the Enemy of Done

Blackberry’s are ubiquitous in Venezuela, most of the normal humans feel very comfortable using it. While its closed system can become a problem (some users are not included), the biggest problem is that you’re limited to working on smartphones.

Although I’ve been amazed with what some people can type in those tic-tac keyboards, and the settings where the typing happens (“Give me 15 minutes to write it, I’m stuck in traffic”“). In most cases emails need to become a document, or some format that can’t be created in these devices.

Some Tips:

Enough bitching (if you suffered the above, thanks for reading), here are some things I’ve noticed myself doing to make my life easier:

Flood the Channels

Geeks hate duplication. Two songs in iTunes, three apps that do the same thing, five identical emails. Normal people don’t care.

If you created a mailing-list but also have a group of emails, send it to both. Include the same info on the website and also push it on the newsletter.

When somebody complains, you’ve found a fellow geek or the jackass of the group, both are important to identify early on.

Be the Duct Tape

There’s always something that you know just won’t happen unless you put it on Google Docs. Put it there and send the link.

Normal humans hate figuring things out online, but they love when their stuff becomes a link.

You’ll start getting stuff directly to be put online. (I didn’t say it was going to be fair or efficient, but at least it’ll be geeky)

Take Control of Naming:

If you don’t have Digital Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, you can skip this. But I can’t read/work/recieve a file named Untitled 5 ~ TEMP.doc.

This is just a specific example of the above, take the file and rename it. For some time I used:

  • Document Title v2r3.xyz

(V)ersion denotes major change and (R)evision incorporated feedback.

Smile, you’re now a carbon-based revision system.

Never Break a Working System

Very important.

If you’re late to the party, and somehow the regular humans have survived using one hotmail account and sharing notes as draft emails: Don’t Panic!

Look around, if no one complains, take a deep breath and leave. You really don’t want to be part of that accident.

Essay Productivity

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