Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Lessons Learned from Using Google Docs

By Dennis D. McDonald

I’ve been a fan of remotely hosted web based applications ever since I used a sales tracking system called Salesmetrics several years ago. Applications I now use regularly include:
  • I use Squarespace to maintain this blog.
  • I use DabbleDB for several personal and consulting related databases. This has replaced my personal use of Microsoft Access.
  • I use MindMeister for concept mapping and the ease with which its figures can be embedded in web pages.
  • I’ve posted presentations on SlideShare.
Since I use several computers this type of flexibility has proven to be quite useful. Fear of losing data when Internet access is down has in my case been outweighed by the fact that these services have much more robust maintenance and support capabilities than I’ll ever have.

Google Docs is another tool. I use the timesheet feature to track consulting time and expenses. I’ve also used the word processing feature quite a bit.

Last week I used the word processor to jointly develop a technical and business proposal with a business partner. In the process I learned quite a bit — mostly good — about the tool.

I especially like the simple to use interface. As a Microsoft Word user on both Mac and Windows platforms from way back I can say that I don’t miss all the extra features.

But my recent experience did raise some issues.

Originally I had expected that, once my team and I finished our document, we would generate an exported Word document for final editing and printing. That didn’t work out. Editing the Word export was much more pain than I was ready to handle.

Modifying styles in Word for heading and subheadings as exported from Google Docs was a repeated issue. Also, the export from Google Docs to Word format always seemed to add extra lines between paragraphs; these had to be manually deleted.

I found , however, that the .pdf export feature of Google Docs from the word processor is extremely efficient and attractive. The document when exported to .pdf just looked better than an exported Word file. So I decided we would do final edits in Google Docs and then export to pdf for printing.

There was hitch, though. We had to first learn how to manage page breaks within the Google Docs word processor. I noticed that, when a page break was inserted immediately before a heading or subheading, the formatting of the heading or subheading was deleted and the heading would show up in the .pdf version formatted as the default text.

I finally figured out that if you insert a line between the page break and the heading the heading retained its formatting in the .pdf. That’s sort of 20th Century functionality, but I ‘m willing to live with that.

Tables are very easy to create and format in Google Docs. I use a lot of tables so that was much appreciated. For what can be a very complex feature I think that Google Docs has really done a nice job with the Tables interface.

Printed page numbers are another matter. Initially I could not figure out how to generate the .pdf version of the document with a page number printed on every page. The Google Docs Help files were not helpful since, when you have to use a Google Groups feature as part of a Help system, you quickly find it can be difficult to link up the date of the Groups comment with the version of Google Docs you’re using.

What I finally discovered is that you need to figure out how browser based printing works when trying to make sure that page numbers are automatically inserted int the .pdf version of the document. I don’t know how many hours it took me to finally figure that out, but it does work — but don’t ask me to explain it!

One missing feature that I do wish Google Docs had would be the ability to automatically create a Table of Contents. For this past week’s proposal we decided to go without one, but that feature would be something to look for when checking out other online word processing services.

I also had no difficult inserting figures (graphic images including Microsoft Project charts) into the document. That process was clean and intuitive.

Periodically in Google Docs I did receive a warning that an error had occurred and that I could not assume that the Google Docs auto-save feature had worked and that I might need to re-enter recent changes. Whenever I got this message  and checked to see what was missing, though, I never did see anything that was missing.

Perhaps there’s a file somewhere that includes all the basic tips and tricks I’ve discussed above. The page break/heading format problem was a minor annoyance. The difficulty in figuring out page numbers was a major annoyance.

The major feature that the system supports that is most welcome, of course, is the ability to cooperatively work on a document. I’ve also been experimenting with the Google Docs “Form” feature, which might serve as a straightforward way to collect questionnaire-survey types information into a single spreadsheet. 

In summary, Google Docs is impressive. The fact it is available free and can be configured to run locally are additional reasons to consider it for serious applications. Still, I can see how introducing its use into an organization accustomed to more traditional tools might take some time.

  • Copyright (c) 2008 by Dennis D. McDonald

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