It’s a quiet day for me on this blog. That’s because 1,900 words by me has just appeared over on the GDS Government As A Platform blog. And although they weren’t written today, I feel the exhaustion of their long, delayed birth quite keenly.
This blog was written largely at the same time as its predecessor in mid-August. It was a long, long article, and I was happy for it to become two, maybe three posts. The first half was comparatively easy to write, subbed and – being government – get signed off by those that do signing off.
The second was a different story. It’s explaining some well complicated shit. Things that I didn’t fully understand myself so early in the Alpha phase. We’d come out of discovery saying “we think there’s a thing here, but we need to start building something to find out…whatever it is we’ll need to find out”. I just had a hunch there was a way through the mess that was worth looking into further. The article was correspondingly born in a time of instinct, intuition and slight bewilderment. It was passionate, rambling, anecdotal and also – being fair – pretty inaccurate and bloody confusing in places. For those very reasons.
The second post had the advantage of Colm’s amazing diagrams. I had one incredibly complicated piece of Omnigraffle that was part architecture, part user journey, part strategy. Colm was the one that pulled it into a bunch of different diagrams that a) looked a hell of a lot better than mine (see previous posts on aphantasia) and b) only dealt with one idea at a time.
We had the wisdom of Shan’s many years of thinking about this – but that made it tricky editorially. When you’re trying to carry all of someone else’s hopes and dreams, and running it through the filter of their many years of experience, it’s hard to end up with an article that still sounds like you wrote it. It’s a testament to content editor Claire that she managed to wrestle all of the inline comments from many people into something still resembling flowing prose at the end without me having a huff.
But – and this is the (eventual) point of tonight’s post – it was a real lesson in the opinion of software features.
The original article was written in Google Docs. It was collaborated on in Google Docs. Like mad. It was then split into further Google Docs and worked on some more.
But interestingly the first post was a lot more fun to knock into shape. Because of how we used the software.
The second half became a large number of comments, then replies to the comments and replies to those. There were also suggestions layered on top. These were all done at separate times, building a chain of argument about any given point. GoogleDocs take on “track changes” has an unwitting hint of the newsgroup about it. It also slighly encourages people to work, walk away, and wait for a reply. Just like a newsgroup, that has a very slight sense of escalating conflict about it. We’re all grownups, and we managed to avoid getting too tense – occasionally walking a few hundred feet to actually see eachother in person – but there was definitely a gravitational tug.
And, being fair, the second half was more technical and more rambling.
But the first half was subbed entirely differently.
I did this with Nettie from the engagement team, and we were under quite a bit of time pressure because of other things we had to do. And we were about eight miles apart at the time. So we did everything together, live, in the actual document window.
By ‘In the document window’ I mean that things were highlighted with I DON’T UNDERSTAND THIS written in the middle of a paragraph, or AW, AM I ROBBED OF A A MILNE CAPITALISATION BECAUSE GDS STYLEGUIDE?
Slowly we went through the document together, live, mapping out things we wanted to come back to or discuss. And then we’d pick them off, watching where the other one was and what they were doing – but discussing it together in the lines just after the paragraph we were subbing. All of which got deleted straight after we’d resolved it. I remember writing “AH, I GET THE ISSUE NOW” in the middle of a block of text. I then waited ten seconds, deleted it and wrote “GOT A PLAN, HOW ABOUT THIS” and rejigged the order of a few sentences. Meanwhile Nettie was tinkering with something else in a similar way.
It was like improvising with text, bouncing ideas off each other, live, thanks to the way GoogleDocs works. It was actually a lot of fun.
And I think that’s almost because of the opinions of the software features we used at the time – not the people or the content. Well, maybe the content a bit.
But, next time you want to collaborate with someone on a document, I really suggest you do it at the same time, together, in the main window, and don’t use any of those Word-like features. It’ll be far, far more fun.