Mobile or desktop know how to comment on a Google Doc

Unlearning habits may be as important as learning new ones when working with mobile devices. Here's one example, using Google Docs.

I just finished reading #iPadOnly, a book by Augusto Pinaud and Michael Sliwinski. The authors share their experience using an iPad as a primary computing device. They mention plenty of software and accessories, but I really like what they have to say about workflow:

"On a traditional computer you write the email message first and then attach your document. The iPad works differently. You begin with the 'attachment' and later write your email. Sounds trivial, but it's an entire paradigm shift."

It seems to me that's really the big shift underway. Mobile devices enable new workflows.


Most apps on mobile devices don't work the same way as installed apps on desktops. Fluent users of traditional desktop apps may find mobile apps limiting. People who start "smartphone first" might find most browser and desktop apps equally foreign.

What a desktop user sees as a deficiency, a mobile user might view as an asset. The differences may be a matter of perspective.

  • Desktop user: "You can't run two apps at once"
  • Mobile user: "Why would I? I can only focus on one thing at a time."

Mobile and desktop workflows become habits, or patterns of behavior. As the #iPadOnly book points out, the difference between the two worlds can be as subtle as the order of tasks.

Commenting in Google Docs

The importance of sequence and habits struck me when I asked my spouse to review and comment on an article I drafted in Google Docs. She's used to editing Google Docs on the web.

To comment on a Google Doc in a browser, there are two steps:

  1. Click on the "Insert menu"
  2. Choose "Comment" from the drop-down menu.


On the web, select Insert, then comment on a Google Doc

Another way to comment on a Google Doc in the browser is to:

  1. Place the cursor where you want to insert a comment, then
  2. Click the "Comments" button in the upper right.


Or, place your cursor where you want to comment, then click the "Comments" button

But this time, she reviewed the document on an iPad mini. The workflow is reversed in the mobile app: choose the text, then action.

To comment on a Google Doc while editing the document on Google Drive on either Android or iOS:

  1. Select text.
  2. Tap Comment.


On mobile, comment options appear after selecting text in a Google Doc

She called me, instead of inserting comments. (To be clear, I enjoy talking to my wife. I'd almost always prefer she call me instead of "inserting comments" online.)

But the point is that on mobile devices, the workflow is reversed: select text first, and then choose the action. While the method that works on mobile works in the browser (e.g., select text, then choose Insert | Comment), there's no "Insert" menu on mobile. The feature isn't visible until text is selected. There's a reason for the many menus in Microsoft Word: the menus make features visible, even if they're not always easily findable.

Mobile first

The workflow is subtly different: insert, then comment, instead of select, then comment. Both work smoothly in the native setting, but someone accustomed to desktop comments might not easily discover mobile comments. Replicating the desktop workflow on a mobile device wouldn't help. No one wants to tap through menus.

However, there are some indications that mobile app workflows can improve web or installed app usability. As evidence, note that social media apps, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google+, all of which have evolved in the mobile era, work well on both mobile devices and in browsers.

Mobile app developers face a very real short-term challenge: to design apps that work well for both "desktop first" users and "mobile first" users. In the next few years, mobile-first users will far outnumber desktop-first users. So the next time your users struggle to use a mobile app, pay attention. There might be an opportunity to explore a new workflow and develop new, "mobile first" habits.

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