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TechSoup Battles: Collaborating in real time with Google Docs

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Are you new to TechSoup Battles? Find out what it's all about and check out our previous challenges. This review is part of our third challenge, on document collaboration.

Imagine this: you write up a draft of a grant proposal, and save it. Your finger twitches towards your email so you can send it to your colleague Bob for review, but instead you stop yourself and share the file instead. Bob gets an automatic email notification and opens up the document. All of a sudden you see a notice, “this document has 1 other viewer” and Bob’s cursor appears on the page! As you watch him editing your text, you can see his line of thinking so you jump in and start editing a different paragraph to make similar types of changes. Bob isn’t sure about one paragraph so he inserts a comment, and you reply. All of a sudden your grant proposal is coming together, and you didn’t even have to spend any time emailing documents, tracking changes or merging different people’s edits. (Having trouble imagining? See our short demo).

For this challenge we are looking at document collaboration, so I was eager to do a review of a tool I use every day, Google Docs (in fact I used it to write this blog!). I’ve found that there is a wide range of experience with Google Docs, so I’ve split up the post to approach it from two angles:

  1. If you haven’t heard of Google Docs or haven’t really used it before
  2. If you’ve used it and want to learn some new things

If you haven’t heard of Google Docs or haven’t really used it before

I find the simplest way to describe Google Docs is to think of it like Microsoft Office, but a bit more basic and it runs in your browser (Internet Explorer, Safari, etc.). However there are a few other things you should know that come with Google Docs by default: (these don’t come build in to Microsoft Office, but Jane will show you how to you can do it with OneDrive + Microsoft Office)

  • Your documents are saved online, so you can access them anywhere
  • You can easily change the sharing settings to control who has access to each document - just you, only people you invite, or the whole world
  • If you’ve given other people permission to edit your document, you can all have the document open at the same time and you will see each others’ changes in real time

This last point is the reason why I picked Google Docs for this challenge!


Short story - it’s free.

Long story: there are two main ways to use Google Docs:

  • Everyone signs up for a free Gmail account (or uses the one they have already). This gives you access to Google Docs for free.

Advantages : free for any number of users, simple to get started

Disadvantages : requires everyone to use a Gmail account. Potential problems if a document “owner” leaves the organization.

Advantages : documents are owned by the organization, not individuals. You can still share/collaborate on documents for free with Gmail/Google Apps users outside the organization, or with the public. And, you get way more than just documents!

Disadvantages : there is a cost if you have more than 10 users.

Types of documents

Google Docs supports a few main document types:

  • Document (formatted text, for word processing)
  • Presentation (for creating presentations with slides)
  • Spreadsheet (for creating spreadsheets)
  • Form (for creating online forms that people can fill out. Results go into a spreadsheet)
  • Drawing (for creating simple drawings and flowcharts)

Is it different from Microsoft Word/Excel/PowerPoint?

I find that Google Docs actually looks more like Microsoft Office 2003 (with traditional menus) than Microsoft Office 2007 and on, which have the Ribbon interface. Google Docs has less features than Microsoft Office, but it has been closing the gap by adding features such as more advanced formatting for documents, pivot tables in Google Spreadsheet and animation in Google Presentation. If you’re using Google Docs for the first time, be prepared for a learning curve, but it won’t be too steep.

If you’ve used it and want to learn some new things

Real time editing

Many people I talk to have used Google Docs but only for personal use, so haven’t experienced what it’s like to collaborate in real time. To give you a taste of what it’s like, here’s a short video demo (I asked Jane to have a spirit of collaboration and put our rivalry aside for a few moments...):


Does this mean that you should throw out your workflow/review process and start editing willy-nilly? Not at all. While real-time collaboration is great in certain situations, sometimes a more structured process (one person writes, then passes it along to another person to review) can still be the way to go. You still get benefits from using Google Docs though, because all the changes/edits/comments stay in one place instead of multiple versions of a file emailed back and forth.

Revision history

Did someone delete your brilliant paragraph by accident? Fortunately, Google Docs quietly tracks the document history for you, so you can always go back if needed.


Last year, Google Docs made some great improvements to in-document discussions. I use comments all the time to make notes for myself or give feedback on documents, and often the comments will generate a great discussion about a certain aspect of the document. I also like that you can now see the whole discussion/comment history in one place.

Meetings using Google+ Hangouts

Even seasoned Google Docs users may not have had the chance to try out this feature yet. While in a Hangout (video chat with 2-10 people), you can collaborate on your Google Docs. Very cool, especially if your staff work remotely.

What do you think? Have you used Google Docs? Do you use it for collaboration? Do you have any insights, tips, or things to watch out for that you can share? Share your thoughts on Twitter (#TechSoupBattles), Facebook, below in the comments or send us an email.