Google Docs sharing and its cloudy usability

Background: SkySQL is a distributed company. Nearly all of us work from home. To be productive, we need to emulate the best aspects of collaborating as if we were working next to one another. Given that nearly all of us had worked under similar distributed conditions at MySQL AB, we knew what we were getting into when we were founded. Obviously, we wanted to learn from our past experiences when making our choices for tools and processes. In my last blog entry related to our lessons on collaboration and communication, I went discussed some email configuration issues. This time, I turn to document sharing.

For document sharing, we picked Google Docs and have now been using it for two years. The journey hasn’t been without emotions.

Our starting point was “Email attachments considered harmful” (paraphrasing Edsger Dijkstra‘s ACM article from March 1968). We decided not to have various versions of the same document lying around on individual SkySQLer’s hard disks. Our expectation was to avoid issues with simultaneous updates. We also expected to avoid issues with software upgrades, i.e. with not being able to open attachments. Ideally, we expected to crowdsource the maintenance of company-wide and group-wide lists of documents, for individuals to be offloaded some of the duplicate work of keeping the same documents in order.

It’s worked so-so.

We have had issues both with usability and with bugs, as well as with user attitudes.

Let’s take the user attitudes first. You’ll see everything from “I can’t find any documents on Google Docs!” to “Google Docs works just fine, what are you whining about?“. As can be expected, reality is somewhere in between, but finding the exact reality isn’t made simpler by having bipolarised groups of “nothing works” and “there are no bugs”.

Usability issues sometimes relate to old habits. “Company_Meeting.docx” as a GDoc document name reflects anomalies of the past, confusing the reader. I can’t find that document searching for “Meeting”, due to the old habit of using underline characters to avoid operating system issues. And the “.docx” ending leads me to believe it may be merely a read-only Word document, when its creator in fact made it editable. It takes time to change the culture. Now that document names are uncoupled from operating system file names, blanks are no longer problematic, nor are non-7-bit characters. In GDocs document names, I don’t need to misspell my last name as “Arno”, I can write it properly: “Arnö”.

Moving documents formatted in Open Office or Word to Google Docs merely through an upload could also be considered harmful, in itself. Fonts, formatting and bookmarks seem to frequently get out of control and lead to maintenance issues. Clean docs that are natively formatted in Google Docs work the best.

Bugs are the worst. Here, we’ve seen claims that documents cannot be found, claims being denied by others who find their docs perfectly well. It seems both are right. What I would expect of document and search lists is that they would show all documents that I have access rights to. It doesn’t. It shows a combined list of company-wide documents and documents I’ve opened. What it doesn’t show is documents that I’ve been given Google Group access to, that I’ve not yet opened. I’ll never see them, unless I click directly on the link that accesses them, which may have drowned in my inbox.

Our top learnings from two years of Google Docs?

  1. Google Docs relieves a lot of the pain from sharing attachments. It’s worth using.
  2. Colleagues working on the same GDoc during a meeting cuts a lot of review cycles short. It’s a great relief.
  3. Native Google Docs do not consume space from your storage quota, while any other format does. So if you have legacy documents it is wise to take the time to convert or at least decide how important they are.
  4. Naming conventions for GDocs require re-education of old habits.
  5. Document lists and searches of Google Docs are incomplete and hence buggy, which creates frustrations.
  6. A Google Sites intranet page by topic, with index pointers to relevant Google documents, makes it easier for everyone to find what they’re looking for. Such index pages centralise the maintenance of document lists and work around Google Groups bugs.

What’s your experience? The good, the bad, and the workarounds of Google Docs, now renamed Google Drive? Alternative solutions?

As VP Collaboration, Kaj wants to turn SkySQL Ab into a role model for frictionless, productive and creative work. Prior to co-founding SkySQL in 2010, he held a number of VP positions at MySQL AB, Sun Microsystems and Oracle since 2001.

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