Why Facebook’s Modern Messaging System is not Google Wave — Scientists take note

Posted by Rory on November 24th, 2010 @ 11:47 am

Is Google ‘socially’ challenged?

A while back I wrote a post quoting Tom Coates, who said in an interview in Fortune,

“Google is very good at building these utility-type products — search, email, and messaging . . .  But what they lack is a sense of how people share and collaborate.”

The Fortune article goes on to say, “Coates’s point is that you don’t have friends on Google, you have contacts and tasks.  These services reflect an engineering culture that is all about utility, but one that makes it hard for the company to create something that’s friendly and social.”

Google Wave — the exception that proves the rule

It’s ironic that one Google product which was designed to be social, Google Wave, got pulled.   Google Wave was/is “equal parts conversation and document, and allows people to communicate and work together with richly formatted text, photos, videos, maps, and more.”  Why did Google Wave not survive?  The facts that it was too hard to understand and use, and  ahead of its time may go part of the way to explaining the reason.  But that’s true of lots of early versions of products which later evolve into killer apps.  And Google Wave had a fervent following among early adopters.  To my mind, a more compelling explanation (from the Brisbane Times‘ Digihead) is that Google Wave “didn’t tie in with our existing forms of communication – it was an entirely separate world trying to start from scratch“.   In any event, the pulling of Google Wave can be seen as another failure on Google’s part to be ‘social’, albeit that in this case it failed notwithstanding the social intentions Google had for it.

Facebook’s Modern Messaging System — destined to succeed where Google Wave failed

Digihead argues that unlike Google Wave, Facebook’s Modern Messaging System is likely to succeed because

“Hundreds of millions of Facebook users will be quick to embrace [Facebook’s messaging system] because it will presumably integrate tightly into the familiar Facebook user experience.  They won’t need to go out of their way to use it, or wonder whether or not their friends are using it. [The messaging system] will complement our existing communications habits and gradually become more central without requiring us to completely abandon our old ways.”

But Facebook’s messaging system is not Google Wave reincarnated

Facebook is being very explicit in comparing its new messaging system to Google Wave.  In this video interview, Joel Seligstein, the engineering manager in charge of the messaging system, talks about how the two relate.  He says that Facebook’s messaging system contains some of the same  features as Google Wave.   He also notes that Google Wave was focused on interactions, whereas the messaging system is focused on people.  As my colleague Leigh Gordon pointed out, Joel does not mention the fact that  interactions were the collaborative features of Google Wave where the innovative, cutting edge and exciting features were included, and none of these exist in Facebook’s messaging system!

Two different kinds of innovation

So Facebook’s messaging system is innovative in adding a better messaging capability to an existing social platform, whereas Wave was a brave — perhaps too brave — attempt to make available a  new and improved platform for real time collaboration by bringing improved an improved ability to communicate around interactions.

Why scientists still need what Wave promised

How is this of interest to scientists?  Google Wave generated a fair bit of buzz among tech-friendly scientists, for example  this post from Cameron Neylon on using the Wave in research.  Cameron saw Wave as bringing

“three key things; proper collaborative documents which will encourage referring rather than cutting and pasting; proper version control for documents; and document automation through easy access to webservices. Commenting, version control and provenance, and making a cut and paste operation actually a fully functional and intelligent embed are key to building a framework for a web-native lab notebook. Wave delivers on these.”

Is Facebook’s messaging system going to act as a replacement for Wave for scientists, or indeed others who are collaborating?  Not really.  As I have discussed previously, scientists don’t use Facebook for research, for a variety of reasons including the fact that it does not provide support for structuring research data, and security concerns. Facebook’s messaging system isn’t going to change that.  So for the time being people are still going to use ‘non-social’ things like wikis and Google Docs — which let you share but not communicate — in their research.   And gradually they will turn to electronic lab notebooks, which are beginning to add to the ability to record and share research data the ability to communicate about it with simple messaging systems.

What scientists ultimately need is something like Google Wave that is designed from the start to support both sharing and communication.  Something like Google Wave, but not Google Wave, because scientists need three things in a collaborative research tool that Google Wave lacked:

  • A simple interface
  • Intuitive usability
  • The ability to add structure to the research record
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How to evaluate software: Testing an electronic lab notebook in 7 steps

Posted by Rory on November 17th, 2010 @ 9:37 am

Step 1: Decide what you are looking for

If you’re thinking about adopting a new piece of software, it’s a good idea to start by asking yourself the following question:  What problem am I trying to solve?  If you are an individual scientist who wants a better way of recording and organising your research data you will want to consider electronic lab notebooks.  You may also want to consider simple note taking devices.  If you are a lab that wants a better way of recording and organizing your research data in an integrated collaborative environment, then you will want to focus on electronic lab notebooks.

Step 2:  Do some research on what’s out there

It’s probably a good idea to Google on several terms, not just the first one that comes to mind or the one you think might help solve your problem.  For example, you might try ELN, electronic lab notebook, lab notebook, note taking software, etc.  That’s because, if it’s the first time you’re taking a serious look around, you can’t be sure that you are familiar with what the terms really mean and whether they adequately cover what you are looking for.  And even if you have looked previously categories evolve pretty rapidly these days and there may have been subtle or even dramatic changes since the last time you looked.  A good example of that is the evolution of higher end wikis into ‘collaboration tools’.

Step 3:  Poke around the candidates’ websites

Once you have identified one or more candidates, spend a bit of time on their websites.  You can learn a lot from the website about both the product and the company.  How transparent are they — do they tell you how much the software is going to cost, or if there is a free version and a version you have to pay for, what the real differences are?  How good are they at explaining what the software does — do they have videos and text that focus on the practicalities of setting up and using the software?  And from what you can find on the website does it look like as if the software is going to be able to solve your problem?

Step 4:  Decide which version to try

Often more than one version of the software is available.  Perhaps a free version and a premium version you have to pay for.  Perhaps a free persional version and a group version you have to pay for.  Or perhaps a variety of specialized versions that perform different tasks or focus on the needs of different users, e.g. biologists and chemists.  Deciding which one is right for you will come back to the problem you are trying to solve.  You also need to look ahead.  If you start with the free version, how easy is it to transition to the premium version?  Does it make sense to buy one of the specialized versions if you anticipate that next year your requirements may expand to include capabilities which are only available in another specialized version?

Step 5:  Download the trial version

Once you have decided which version to focus on, there usually is a free trial on offer.  Often the free trial version has limited functionality in comparison to the version you are considering purchasing.  So, you should understand in advance differences between the two versions, and when you are testing the software, focus on testing what’s there in the trial version, not on the missing elements that aren’t available for testing.

Step 6:  Try it out!

Now it’s finally time to get your teeth into the software.  As you go through it there are a couple of things to remember.  First, you need to keep the problem you have in the back of your mind and ask yourself periodically how good the software is at solving the problem.  But at the same time it’s a good idea to keep something of an open mind, because using the software may put the problem in a  different perspective, or even bring you to the realization that you have a  different problem than you thought you did at the outset and/or that the software is really useful even though it only partially solves your original problem.

Second, how good is the company at explaining how to use the software?  With the information they provide on their website?  In the software itself?  For example, do they have a useful help section or user guide?  Does the software itself have embedded videos explaining how to do certain things and perform certain tasks?

Step 7:  When in doubt, ask

As you go through the testing, there are bound to be some things you don’t understand and for which there does not appear to be a ready explanation in the help section or on the website.  When this happens, don’t hesitate to ask the provider.   Their response will not only (hopefully!) enlighten you about the problem you encountered, it will also tell you something about the people you are dealing with.  How long does it take them to respond?  Is their answer responsive to your question?  Is it honest?  Helpful?

Are electronic lab notebooks for individuals or groups?

Posted by Rory on November 11th, 2010 @ 5:51 pm

I wrote a post last week over on Bitesize Bio comparing electronic lab notebooks to other collaborative tools like wikis and Google Docs.  What was interesting is that most of the people who commented on the post were looking not for a collaborative tool but for something they could use to document their own research, i.e. an individual tool.  This lack of clarity about whether electronic lab notebooks are intended for group or individual use dogs much of the discussion about  ELNs, which tends to get bogged down in debates  about particular features people would like to see in an electronic lab notebook.   See for example the discussion currently going on here.

I thought I’d try to unpick some of the confusion by separating out what elements are essential in electronic lab notebooks used by both groups and individuals, from features that are useful only for groups.

Features for groups and individuals

I have argued previously that the ability to add structure to the research record is the key distinguishing feature of an electronic lab notebook.  That’s because with structure you can replicate online what has traditionally gone in a paper lab notebook, and so the electronic lab notebook can become a replacement for the paper lab notebook.  So in my view neither simple online note-taking devices nor wikis qualify as electronic lab notebooks because they don’t let you add structure to the record of your research.  In the majority of cases people who have adopted note-taking devices or wikis use them along with, not instead of, paper lab notebooks.

Putting structure into the research record is equally important for both groups and individuals who are documenting their research.  And for individuals, that’s it!  The ability to create an online structured record of their research is really all they need.

Features for groups

Groups of researchers need two additional things in an electronic lab notebook, the ability to:

  • Share research data and information, and
  • Communicate about their research

Sharing research data and information

By definition a group of researchers needs to share data and information.    An electronic lab notebook needs to allow the group to do this in a controlled way.    It therefore needs a permissions system that allows some records to be kept private and other records to be shared with everyone or with selected members of the group.  To do this it needs to have an administrator.


In order to collaborate effectively groups of researchers need to be able to communicate about their research. Obviously there are plenty of ways to do that outside the electronic lab notebook.  But that’s limiting because it’s not possible, or at least not convenient, for members of the group to communicate about the research they are undertaking in the context of the research itself.  Therefore to be fully effective an electronic lab notebook should include an internal means of communication, e.g. a messaging or notifications capability, and this should include the ability to link the messages or notifications to the record of the research, e.g. experiment records.


In conclusion, electronic lab notebooks can be useful for both individuals and groups. Both individual and group users need the structuring capability electronic lab notebooks provide.  And groups in addition need to use the collaborative and communication capabilities of ELNs.  Beyond that it’s all about features, which are important, but I think it’s useful to separate the woods from the trees, and diving in to a discussion about features without thinking about these broader issues often proves to be unproductive.

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Interview with Nick Oswald of Bitesize Bio, the Online magazine and community for molecular and cell biology researchers

Posted by Rory on November 3rd, 2010 @ 10:40 am

Something a bit different this week, a post not directly related to electronic lab notebooks.  But it should still be useful for those with an interest in ELNs.  I‘m going to introduce our Edinburgh-based neighbor, Bitesize Bio.  Bitesize Bio provides ‘Brain Food for biologists’.  Free brain food, I should add.  Bitesize Bio is packed with practical information for biologists working in labs: information about tools, software, techniques, life in the lab, your career, you name it and it’s likely to be found on Bitesize Bio.  I thought the best way to provide an overview of Bitesize Bio is to let its founder, Nick Oswald, describe it.  Here’s what Nick had to say.

Rory:  Give us a top level view of what Bitesize Bio is all about.

Nick:  Bitesize Bio aims to bring together all of the technical and vocational know-how that molecular and cell biology researchers accumulate through years of experience into a central place where it can inspire and educate other researchers. But Bitesize Bio is not just a series of written articles – the community that has developed around the website adds another dimension by adding their tips, questions and viewpoints to individual articles and also seeking and giving assistance to each other in our new Questions section. I think that the combination of considered, insightful articles and lively input from the community is what makes Bitesize Bio such a useful and interesting resource.

Rory:  The site has developed into a great resource for biologists.  How did you get started?

Nick: I was working as a molecular biologist for a small biotech company back in 2007 and was looking for a change of direction. Since training/educating people was the part of the job I enjoyed most, I started writing down the training and tips that I was giving people in the lab, then began publishing it in a blog. Once it started to attract attention, people came to me asking if they could write something for us and it just snowballed from there.

Rory:  Tell us a bit about the community – what kinds of people visit Bitesize Bio?

Nick: The site was originally intended for PhD students, but we have been pleasantly surprised to find that researchers across the full spectrum of experience regularly use Bitesize Bio. As I mentioned, the community aspect of Bitesize Bio is vitally important so the input of the more experienced users really enriches the site.

Rory:  One of the things I like about Bitesize Bio is that you are always introducing new features.   What’s in the pipeline at the moment?

Nick: Well, earlier this year we piloted a series of six webinars on various topics related to PCR. They proved a real hit so now we are looking to put together a full webinar program for 2011 where each week we will present a live webinar on a technical or vocational topic of interest to our audience. We are excited about the prospect of bringing really useful lectures into labs all over the world throughout 2011.

Rory:  I know you are always looking to get new people and organizations involved with Bitesize Bio.  If someone has an idea or a suggestion, what should they do?

Nick: That’s right Rory, we are always open to new ideas from individuals, institutions or companies for new additions to Bitesize Bio. We also gladly accept contributions of articles, videos or webinar topic suggestions. If anyone would like to  get in contact about any of this (or just to chat in general about the site) they can email me on nick [at] bitesizebio [dot] com.

So there it is, Bitesize Bio.  It’s already a great resource for biologists, and it’s always developing.  Definately worth a look at www.bitesizebio.com.