Qreate - The Qrayon Blog

A Brief Rant on Documents

.size100px tl;dr: Help us reinvent documents for the tablet age.

Here's a trick question: There's something really odd about Pages, Apple's word processor. What do you think it is?

Here's a hint: How many pages does this article have?

Pages, Word, and every other enterprise productivity App were designed for a bygone era when people shared documents on paper. Even as we are now well into the web and tablet age, those design assumptions were never revised.

The document-as-paper metaphor has served us well for a long time. It has a lot of useful built-in conventions that we use intuitively, things like page numbers, footnotes, and a table of contents or index for longer documents.

These conventions were ported over from the real world when electronic documents were first designed, and were necessary when documents actually ended up as physical books. But nowadays documents are seldom printed, and they've become unnecessary constraints. E.g. page numbers don't make much sense when the size of a page is variable. In fact, the very idea that a document consists of a linear collection of pages is itself a relic.

We now get most of our information via the web, presented as hypertext. Hypertext is clearly a superior way to navigate information electronically, and has been around for a long time. So why do we still author our own documents with 100-year-old conventions and limitations?

Impedance Mismatch

.size100px One reason is that while it is easy to consume something like hypertext, it is still relatively more difficult to author them, particularly in a business environment.

Imagine you were a manager for a small company, and your task is to create an employee handbook. These days, the end product would be an internal website, perhaps supplemented with a downloadable PDF file with links. What tools would you reach for to build this document?

While there are many specialized web authoring tools available, most are designed for professional web designers. There are content-management-systems such as Django, but unless your company has already deployed it, and has someone maintaining it, setting up a server is probably not worth the trouble.

Ideally, you want something easy to use like blogging software (e.g. Wordpress). The problem is blogging software has its own set of built-in assumptions and conventions, some of which are at odds with creating business documents. Yes, you could almost do it with these tools, but none are particularly great at it. E.g. it's not easy to take a snapshot of a website, say as a legal archive.

When you look down the list of options, it's clear that there is a conspicuous gulf between web-based tools and “work-productivity" tools. It's like the two categories speak completely different languages, and pretend like the other doesn't exist.

But the Puck Doesn't Stop There…

.size100px It gets worse. Even the best web authoring tools were built in an age before smartphones and tablets. They were designed to be used on desktops and laptops, with the main emphasis on text editing. In contrast, things like page layout or photo organization are secondary concerns.

The mobile versions (if they exist) tend to be straight ports from the desktop. This is fine if your goal is to update your existing blog on the go. But these tools still carry all the limitations designed for a different time, and don't take full advantage of new platforms.

For example, smartphones and tablets are great for taking photos and videos of what you are doing. Let's say you are documenting a set of physical steps (e.g. how to use the office coffee maker). It's natural to take a quick series of photos of what you are doing to make a short guide. You can kinda do this with blogging software, but what if you want to overlay one picture on another? Not so easy. Why not?

What if you wanted to sketch out a quick diagram on your iPad and include that? That's another perfectly natural thing to do on a tablet, yet most Apps have no ink support at all.

So What's the Solution?

.size100px It's time to rethink what a “document" is for the tablet age. There are glimmers and hints of what this could include here and there, but so far no one has pushed this nearly as much as it needs to.

The problem isn't technology. HTML, for example, is more than 20 years old, and the idea of hypertext is much older. The problem lies in the assumptions designers had when designing the tools we use.

At Qrayon, we've been thinking about this problem ever since the iPad was released. Since then, we've had many ongoing projects to try to crack this puzzle, and a few things are finally coming together. It's still early in the process, but we have a working prototype I'd love to share with you and get your feedback on.

We Need Your Help!

So I have a plea to you. If you are at all interested in this issue, we'd love to hear from you. Here's how you can help:

Let us know how you are currently authoring documents on your iPad (if at all), and your context via this short survey. It'll take 5 minutes.

If you are willing to spend 1-2 hours trying out some prototypes and sending us additional feedback, just answer ‘yes' for question 5.

We think this is a very important and interesting area. By no means do we think we can solve everything, but we believe we can help move the ball forward. I hope you'll join us on the journey!