Friday, 24 May 2013

Google Apps, New Possibilities for Old Tools?

Last week Google announced a number of new Apps Script features that have been added to Google Documents and Forms and Spreadsheets.

The features themselves may not seem worth shouting that loudly about, but the ability to add Sidebars to documents and add menus and arbitrary user interface items that run Apps Script code means you can start to dream about how you could extend and combine these really powerful objects in new ways.

Google Apps was already a collection of powerful objects ( Documents, Spreadsheets, Drive Files, Forms, Calendars, Sites ) that could be easily combined with Apps Script to create really useful applications, but with the arrival of these new features, the ability to combine them can be more elegant. And because you can create tools and interfaces within the documents you can extend the tools - rather than just combine them.

We've already seen a demo of Bibsto, an Apps Script Bibliography manager that changes Google Documents into Research papers - with added tools for adding references and citations.

We are going to see a flourishing of new custom-made add ons to Google Apps, mark my words. For example, Martin Hawksey has already been trying to create a "Document Map" feature, ala Word. There's a feature I'd love... and if only Martin and I want it, so be it.

More importantly, there's a high chance you might create some innovative tool yourself that makes Google Documents work the way you want them to. We'll see add ons for writers or for educators or for marketers or cheese makers or just you.

Ooooh, and it makes me wonder...

One of my long-standing criticisms of Google, from a UX perspective, is that many of their innovations seem isolated from the other ones - meaning simple features get implemented in one product, but not another creating an overall usability glitches of nothing working quite as you'd expect. For example, how search works, drag & drop, document ownership models, commenting, API access etc are just some of the things that work one way in one product and work differently in another.

The future is already here in Google Apps land, it's just not evenly distributed.

And so, whilst it's great that Google are starting to make scripting features available across two or three products, it does make you notice where the gaps are.

Google, being Google, often fail to see what they're sitting on and cock things up. For example, Google Wave should not have been a product, it should have been the real-time commenting system for all Google products. If delivered well, you would have barely noticed its existence ( except maybe you'd notice how appalling other systems were in this regard ).

So, What Should Google Do?

Mind The Gaps

There is something to the "small pieces loosely joined" idea that has legs. Originally it applied, I think, to blogs and RSS and other web2.0 tools that you could "wire together" to create newer, bigger, more complex things. It also applies to the ideas behind unix and maybe Galls Law ( "A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked" ). Google seem to be creating a compelling landscape of tools wired together using Apps Script.

Google simply need to look at what they have and ask "What if the good stuff was everywhere?".

So, where are Presentations and Drawings apps in the "small pieces loosely joined" mix? They're noticeably missing. Now I imagine most people don't really use Google Presentations and Drawings much. I see most people still using Powerpoint ( uploading .ppxs into Google Drive ) and traditional desktop based graphics tools.

Except, what if you could add scripts to shapes in Google Presentations? Scripts that took the user to the next slide, for example, or went to a slide based on which button you clicked. You'd be able to create a narrative experience, or a quiz or a mini learning object that branched in all sorts of directions. Kids could use it.

And what if, like you can in Google Sites, you could insert videos and documents, or get data via Apps Script and put it into fields on screen? You would have an interface builder anyone could use. It would be like an online HyperCard - a tool with which people could pull various resources together and make them work the way they want ( without serious programming ).

If you could script the Drawing app you might be able to create simple animations, or maybe simple visualisations.

And the thing is, all that functionality is sort of sitting there already. It doesn't need much in the way of design, it just needs someone to connect the dots.

And no, Google Presentations or Drawings might not be the *best* tool for creating presentations in, but if they were scriptable, like Documents, they'd suddenly become a new thing, loaded with possibilities, rather than an old thing hanging about being slightly embarrassing.

I think this process of making sure that your innovations touch all parts of your product range is a cheap one to conceive and implement - it's dealing with lots of known knowns.

There are dozens of "Mind The Gap" innovations Google could make that I can guarantee would initiate a huge wave of creativity using Google Tools. How do I know? Well, people are just like that.

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