Unstructured to Structured #

I find that I often don’t know a structure or abstraction until I’ve worked with something more concrete. This happens in programming but it also happens when creating structured information.

While helping Wild Shadow Studios with Realm of the Mad God, we held our discussions in Google Wave for two years, until Google shut it down. Why did we use a tool everyone else thought was useless?

  • Group Chat: The 3–6 of us could chat about the game.
  • Asynchronous: We could continue conversations while not all of us were online.
  • Nesting: We could reply to individual points made in another message.
  • Attachments: We shared test binaries or screenshots.

It was nice for keeping everyone “on the same page”.

Wave didn’t work well for us when it came to adding structure. We had thousands of chat messages in the system, but when a bug or feature or idea came up, there wasn’t an easy way to transition into a task tracker. As a result, those kinds of things were too easily forgotten.

When I use tools like Asana or Trello or Cohuman, they want me to start with structured data, but they don’t handle the informal unstructured nature of IM or Wave. Where do those tasks come from? They came from somewhere, but that history isn’t preserved when you create a new task in a task tracking tool.

I want a tool that lets me hold unstructured conversations, then extract portions of conversations that led to a task, and move them into my task tracking tool. Unstructured comes first for me; structure is what I add later, once I understand what structure I want. Databases and most structured tools I use get this wrong — they ask me to decide the structure first. Spreadsheets, Wikis, Wave, and most unstructured tools also get this wrong — they let me easily work without structure, but don’t offer me a transition to something structured. JotSpot, before it was bought by Google, is the only tool I tried that had a smooth transition from unstructured to structured.

It’s also possible I’m cursed to like things that have a lot of potential, but can’t be understood in five minutes, and thus are doomed to niche status. I think Wave and JotSpot both fit into this category.