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My plan was to use Google Docs exclusively for two weeks. I wanted to test it as a Microsoft Word alternative.

The experiment fell at the first hurdle. I caved in after two days because my productivity dropped too far. Worse, I made more errors with Google Docs than with Word.

I’m a journalist. I write 10,000 or more words a week.  When you type that many words, the tools matter.

Productivity hit

My productivity dropped 25 percent when I switched to Google Docs. This may have been temporary – maybe my speed would pick up as I became familiar with the software. But the price was too high – a 25 percent productivity drop means I working 33 percent longer to produce the same output. This is not acceptable.

What was the big problem? Google Docs requires more mouse activity than Microsoft Word. Both applications offer a full set of keyboard shortcuts and many of them are the same. Scrolling up and down the page to read my work is harder on Google Docs.

Cutting and pasting copy from other documents was also harder. And I had problems switching between web browsing and Google Docs. Switching between a browser and Word using alt-tab is easier than control-tabbing through a large number of open browser tabs.

To make sure the problem wasn’t browser related, I used Google Docs with Firefox and Internet Explorer. I also tried using Google Docs in a separate browser Window.

Two days into the experiment my wrists ached from the extra mousing. I didn’t experience serious pain – I bailed out before reaching that point.

Never mind the quality, feel the width

Speed is important. So is quality.

My other problem with Google Docs was proofing. That’s the business of rereading your words to find and correct mistakes or improve the text.

At first, I struggled to find why my proofing was so bad. Then it hit me. Text extends across the entire width of the screen. With Microsoft Word, the text is restricted to relatively narrow columns. Proofing is harder with wider text columns.

There may be ways to work around these problems, but I need to get on and earn a crust, so earlier today I went back to Microsoft Word – a better experience.

4 thoughts on “Google Docs harder work than Word

  1. I agree with you, Bill. Your experiences with Google Docs mirror my own and are similar to those I had in my own OpenOffice experiment. I’ve decided there’s something to be said for familiarity; it overrides contempt. This even applies to programs with serious shortcomings and that conflict with your personal work-habits, such as MS Word. (Anyone who tries to claim formatting in Word is intuitive is likely to experience the sharp end of my tongue.)

    It’s perhaps an indictment of human nature that if you’ve been using anything for any length of time you get used to it. I’ve been trying to think of a musical analogy but so far have drawn a blank – I never did get to like that Faust album a mate at school gave me for free because he hated it so much…

    By the way, if you want to prove me theory that everyone is essentially a creature of habit, try dragging a Word toolbar (or one in the word processor of your choice) to an unfamiliar position, even if it’s only a couple of centimetres from where you’re used to finding it, and see how annoying it can get.

    Thanks for testing Docs under rigorous working conditions all the same.

  2. Chris

    Yes. I’d say familiarity is about two-thirds of it. The other third come from Google Docs being more clumsy than Word in some respects – partly because it sits inside a web browser. Things may be different when it runs under Google’s forthcoming operating system, but I’m not sure that’s something I’m to going to experiment with.

    It’s easy to overlook the importance of how a word processor displays text. Word’s fonts looks crisp on screen and the size can be zoomed up and down. Word can be adjusted until you’re looking at exactly what you are most comfortable with. Google Docs simply doesn’t do this.

    How about this for a musical analogy? Word is like an album you never liked but who has now become so much part of the landscape that you no longer automatically walk out of a bar or restaurant were it is playing.

    Finally, it’s worth re-iterating that we’re talking about tools for professional writers who spend hours each day in front of a word processor. Much of this wouldn’t apply to casual or part-time word processor users.

  3. Google Docs is fantastically useful – and a pain to use. It is invaluable to me, as I have to keep track of my ongoing work when I’m out of my home office and in other people’s. It’s much, much better than carrying around different file versions on USB sticks or emailing them to myself and then downloading to whichever desktop I’m working on in order to update a quote or a contact.

    But as for writing in Google Docs – I’ve done it, but would avoid it unless I had to. Partly it’s the way that the software saves itself every few seconds. I would play around with a paragraph different ways and then realise that I couldn’t simply undo what I’d done to reinstate the original. I did eventually find the history cache that the software keeps, but it’s time-consuming and clunky to use.

    Great for keeping documents easily available via the web though…

  4. One of my jobs requires me to use Google Docs to file stories and, occasionally proof or sub other people’s copy. This often happens with someone else looking at the document at the same time, So those regular saves can be even more annoying.

    On reflection, I’d say the screen width is a far bigger problem than I originally thought.I notice a lot more literals slip through on Google Docs than on Word. Of course the best way to proof is to print the document on paper – but that’s another story.

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