29 Mar 2015

Rethinking Word Processors

(Disclosure: I work for Google, but these are my personal opinions.)

Word processors haven’t advanced in decades. Probably the biggest advancement was Google Docs, but while Docs put documents in the cloud, the basic feature set of the word processor remained more or less the same.

Then came Simplenote, which is a notes app, not a word processor. It seemed like a completely different app, but then I found that the vast majority of my documents didn’t need formatting, and worked great as plain text. There was no formatting to worry about and waste time tweaking. I’d stay focused on the content instead. The app was much simpler and had far less of a learning curve than Docs. It worked much better on mobile, where you don’t have screen space for the usual set of menus and toolbars. Simplenote also shows you all your notes in a single window or browser tab, rather than forcing you to juggle multiple tabs, one for each document. You didn’t have to worry about coming up with a good name for each document, and repeating that name once again as the title. All your notes were available offline, and with zero latency. Something as simple as opening a document suffers latency on Docs, but not on Simplenote.

I moved the majority of my Google docs to Simplenote, and created hundreds of notes in Simplenote that I’d have never created in Docs, given the overhead.

But there are always a few documents that need more structure than plain text allows. Maybe you want to divide into sections, with headings, to keep it manageable. Or use bulleted or numbered lists. Or URLs which, because of their length, hurt readability in plain text documents [1] [2].

When I needed more power than plain text permits, I went back to Docs [3]. But Docs was more complex than I needed, and not optimised for phones.

In the last couple of years, another option emerged — Quip. One way of looking at Quip is taking plain text as a starting point and then asking, “What’s the least amount of structure we can add to plain text to make it work for more complex documents?” Quip is a delightfully simple word processor.

For example, Quip has three predefined styles for headings: large, medium and small. You can’t manually set a font or font size, as with traditional word processors. In other words, Docs also has different text styles, but these are only conveniences — you can always manually set the font, font size, bold, italic, underline, etc. And you can customise these styles.

But Quip has just three styles for headings. Which is all you need to define a logical structure for your document. You can’t manually customise the font, font size, bold, italics, etc. You can’t redefine the three styles. Quip makes you focus on the content rather than obsessing about formatting. You want the least amount of formatting you can get away with.

Other features in Docs that are missing in Quip include indenting and dedenting a paragraph of text. There’s no ruler or support for equations, as there is in Docs. Quip doesn’t support headers, footers, footnotes, horizontal lines, bookmarks or tables of contents.

Quip documents don’t have a fixed page size. Come to think of it, a fixed page size makes sense for printing. It’s ironic that Docs, for all its futuristic cloud-based credentials, is designed for paper, not for reading on screen. Quip documents don’t have a fixed width — they adapt to the medium they’re being displayed on. Which is, after all, what you want, anyway — you want your document to look the best it can on every medium, whether a phone, laptop or paper. Having a fixed page size amounts to premature optimisation, optimising for one of the many mediums a document is displayed in, while neglecting others.

Not only do Quip documents not have a fixed width, they don’t have a fixed page height, either. So there are no page breaks which occur at inopportune places in your document and interrupt the flow of the document. If a document must have a break in it, it should be based on its logical structure and not a fixed page height like 8 inches. Further, fixed pages lead to more complexity like manual page breaks, widows and orphans, wanting to show the page number on each page (which Docs supports), and so on.

Quip also does away with controls for line spacing (or paragraph spacing or the spacing for the first or last line in a paragraph). Both Quip and Docs let you insert images, but Docs also lets you draw vector images using shapes like rectangle or circle, which are editable (unlike raster images). Quip doesn’t support these.

So what does Quip support, then? It supports heading in three styles, and three kinds of lists: bulleted, numbered and check lists. You an insert a link, a code block.

These are all the structure and formatting functions in Quip:


(Open the screenshot in a new tab to see it at a readable size. Tumblr doesn’t let me display it inline at a larger size. Sorry for that.)

Yes, all of them fit in two popup menus, and can be seen at once in this screenshot, as opposed to Docs, which has multiple menus, menu items, nested menus and toolbars.

Google Drive lets you create three types of documents: docs, sheets and slides. Quip supports only two: docs and spreadsheets.

Quip also lets you embed a spreadsheet in a document, as with OLE on Windows. Google Docs is more limited: you can’t embed a spreadsheet in a document. You can only insert a table.

With Quip, you get almost exactly the same UI for a top-level sheet:


… as you do for a sheet or embedded in a document:


This is simple, consistent and powerful.

In addition to spreadsheets, Quip supports sharing a document with collaborators, but it has only one level of access, where they can edit the document. As opposed to Google, which lets you give write, comment or read-only access. This is a surprising and basic omission in Quip.

Quip also lets you mention someone using the @ symbol, to draw their attention to a particular part of the document, or to solicit their input on that part. Docs has similar functionality, though perhaps not as integrated — you have to leave a comment on the part that you want to draw someone’s attention to, and mention their name with a + sign in front. This is more convoluted.

In summary, Quip tries to provide the most commonly used features from word processors, a few features that hopefully let you create a wide variety of documents. One way of think of it as an intermediate point between plain text and rich text. That is, if Simplenote aims to work for 80% of cases, Quip aims for 90% [4].

Google docs can easily end up looking ugly because Docs gives you too much rope to hang yourself with. Unless you’re a designer or have an eye for esthetics and proportion and balance and weight, you can easily end up creating documents that look ugly.

It’s interesting how many options we have, how many points on a continuum there are, from the utter simplicity and beauty of Simplenote to the semi-rich-text of Quip to a more powerful word processor like Docs, and ultimately Microsoft Word.

None of these tools is good or bad, just applicable to documents of increasing levels of complexity. And you’re better off choosing the simplest tool that can handle a given document based on its level of complexity.

Using too complex a tool for a given task is like taking a plane to go to the supermarket. You’ll suffer from too much overhead. On the other hand, using too simple a tool is like driving from Bangalore to Paris. The tool is not powerful enough to efficiently do the task at hand.

Choose the simplest tool that works for what you need right now.

[1] It was mostly structure that I needed, not formatting. There was a tiny amount of formatting I needed, mostly right-aligning things in letters (like “Thanking You”). But for the most part, when plain text is inadequate, it’s the structure that’s lacking, not the formatting.

[2] Traditional word processors like Microsoft Word or Docs provide too many ways to achieve a particular goal. For example, if you want to highlight a key phrase in a paragraph. You can change the font, the font size, apply bold, italics or underline, change the text color, or the background color. Why do you need so many ways to highlight a phrase? Word processors suffer from having too much complexity for most tasks —complexity that doesn’t let you do something you couldn’t do otherwise.

[3] I tried Evernote a few years back, but it was a train-wreck of a UI, with layers upon layers of menu bars and toolbars. That was worse than Docs, not better.

[4] Don’t take the numbers literally. Maybe it’s 60 and 80, not 80 and 90. No matter.

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