The End of Documents

Last verified May 24, 2021

Documents are conceptually an amazing example of digital analogy. In order for business computing to flourish like it did in the 80's and 90's, designing systems that were analogous to the physical world was paramount. So what better way to accomplish this than to create the Document. It even looks like paper! Often times Document Processors even incorporate things like "margins" into their applications, a holdover to when we used typewriters to craft our documents. The earliest operating systems were all based around the core ideas of Folders and Documents, concepts that map directly to the physical world.


But now it's 30 years later and the analogy no longer works. Documents will live on of course, as they are ideal for capturing "records in time" like a legal contract or meeting notes. This type of content doesn't change that much once it's written. Or in the legal document case there is a very prescriptive process to amend the document, which requires the original version live on as well in most cases. But for many of our content needs today, the concept of a Document actually does more harm than good. Let's take a look at why that is...

  1. They are not designed to be changed. So much of our world is about content that changes, it evolves as our thinking evolves. And that means trying to find all the places where we said that thing that we now want to change becomes a fools errand. It also means you have to communicate the new change to everyone, and then you have to remember who you told about that new version. But then later when I open a Document, how do I know if it is actually still right?

  2. They are not designed to be shared. Well not at scale anyway...the way to share is often a lot like the way we share paper. You make copies of the Document and mail it out. Notice the words I used are exactly the same in the physical world as they are in the digital world. The problem in the digital world is every time that happens point 1 above gets harder and harder.

  3. Once you have more than a few of them, they become a mess. At least with paper you had to make an effort to copy it. Not so with Documents and so you end up with a sea of similar but different versions of the same document all over the place. It's digital pollution.

  4. We use phones now more than any other digital device. Documents come from a time when smart phones didn't exist. Try reading a Document on a phone and after a few pinches and slides you will give up.

  5. Documents are too long. The length of a document has a direct correlation to its usefulness. The longer (and wider a document is the less of a chance anyone will read it, and the higher the likelihood that it will get out of date. These days our expectations for brevity and accuracy have never been higher. We have information overload and expect just the right information without the noise.

  6. You can't tell if they are useful. So you wrote a document and sent it to someone, now what? Did it help them accomplish a job? Did it help close a sale? Did it solve a customer problem? No way to know. These are almost unfair questions because we never designed a Document to tell us things like this, we designed them to be a digital analogy, to solve a basic horizontal problem of authoring and storing written text.

While there have been attempts to fix some of this, we just aren't there yet. Many of the cloud-based document editors today are just that, cloud versions of the same document editors we are used to using. Sure its easier to share them now and edit them at the same time, but they are still documents. It reminds me of when SaaS was still a fad and on-premise vendors were cloud-washing their products to make them appear to be SaaS, quickly realizing that all they really accomplished was moving the same old software into a different data center.

What's next?

We are now in the early stages of the era of specialization. Category by category we see SaaS applications emerging that solve specific business problems vs. trying to be general cloud computing platforms. And today's applications leverage the data we already have about our work lives and use it to make us more effective at our job.

  • When you create a lead in RelateIQ, it automatically creates a stream of every interaction your team has had with that lead simply by connecting it to your email.

  • When you have an upcoming meeting with a prospect, Refresh emails you a report about that prospect so you are better prepared for your meeting simply be connecting it with your calendar, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.

  • Ambient Services add value to your life without you explicitly doing anything. Google Now will tell you when you need to leave for a meeting in order to make it on time once you connect it with your calendar.

  • During your meetings, rather than using a document to take free form notes, WorkLife has launched to help structure your meetings into agenda, action items and open issues so you dont have to manually create your follow up process, chase people down, or remember the outcomes of meetings.

And the same thing is happening with "Documents". We don't think in terms of "digital paper" anymore, as many feel card design is where things are going (including us!). So we now think about work that has to be accomplished, and how technology can help us do that work more efficiently and tell us things we could never know about our business otherwise.

  • When you share content with someone was it useful to them?

  • When you read content how do you know if it is accurate?

  • When you use certain content does it create a better relationship with your customer?

  • Do you send every customer the same content? Or should you dynamically assemble it based on their stated interest?

  • How do you make sure the popular, valuable content is more visible to your team while the stale, unread content goes away, without spending all of your time managing it?

And there is sooo much more. Exciting times for sure. So lets close the filing cabinets and get some real work done :)