When should I use Google Docs instead of Dropbox?

At our Tuesday session at the 2011 International SIM Conference (thank you again to everyone who joined us!) we had a good conversation about when to use a file sharing tool like Dropbox versus when to use a web-based editing tool like Google Docs. The short version:

  • Dropbox is best for sharing documents with heavy formatting requirements (for example, a richly-styled Word document or PowerPoint slides with extensive use of embedded media.
  • Google Docs is best for developing content quickly, without the distraction of fancy formatting tools, in real-time.
  • Dropbox may be your best bet when you’ll be working offline, away from the Internet.
  • Google Docs works best when you and your collaborators are online.

A great example of the latter–not to mention a great example of what can happen when you crowdsource big projects like creating product manuals–is Google+ Tips and Tricks. Created by more than 120 authors in real-time (and currently being translated into three additional languages), this 51-page guide to Google’s new social networking venture displays how authors can work together to develop extensive content in short order (Google+ has only been public for a couple of weeks, after all).

Easier said than done, you say? Perhaps–allowing multiple people to edit a document of this caliber at the same time takes a little planning and management. Productivity blog WebWorkerDaily has five tips for successful collaboration on documents in real-time. In sum:

  1. Establish rules for writing and editing–who’s going to do what?
  2. Plan distinct phases for brainstorming, drafting, reviewing, and revising.
  3. Determine a time frame–does the document have a set due date, or will it evolve over time?
  4. Give people responsibility for certain sections; don’t just rely on Google Docs’ controls for distributed document editing.
  5. Agree on rules for commenting on content during editing and review.

Be sure to read their full suggestions and use them as a template to get started on a collaborative document editing project of your own.

I would add two more, echoing some common themes we worked from in our workshop:

  1. If this is your first time doing live, collaborative document editing, don’t start with a major, high-stakes project. In other words, start with agendas and meeting notes before you move on to grant writing.
  2. Stick with it! Online editors like Google Docs may lack some of the formatting features and fonts you’re used to in the likes of Word and Pages, but in many cases these aren’t necessary when you’re chiefly concerned with the content of your work. Give Google Docs an honest go for your content; you can always export to your standby word processor for a final sprucing up later.

Want to know more about Google Docs? Check out the Oodles of Google presentation from a CRL Learns session held earlier this year or take the Google Docs Tour.

Source: 5 steps for effective real-time document collaboration from GigaOm

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Related posts:

  1. Why we use Dropbox instead of Google Docs
  2. How Google is making Docs even more social
  3. How do I create folders in Google Docs?
  4. How do I edit my Google Docs on the go?
  5. Turn Google Docs into a virtual drop box with GoDropBox

Aaron Sumner

Aaron Sumner is the Director of Technology for Research and Development at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning. He has worked in web development and instructional technology since 1994.
  • Cindy L. Anderson

    Beware of Google Docs.  It has restrictions on sharing Docs that can bite when you need them to work. I keep my classes on Google Docs.  In the middle of teaching, it stopped my sharing of instructional materials.  Posting after posting complains of this issue with no response or fix coming from Google supports, people like me in critical professional situations when they could no longer share.  It appears to be a bug too, because my situation was not consistent.  Some of those complaining were only trying to share a new document with 1 person and could not.

    Cindy Anderson

  • http://www.facebook.com/selim.dizdar Selim Dizdar

    Many users concurrently use both Google Docs and Dropbox. For creating documents and spreadsheets, there’s Google Docs. For storage, many companies and individuals rely on Dropbox. The dilemma that users have is that their documents, files, and other assets are spread across different services. To modify a specific asset, you have to use the specific service. This situation causes a fragmentation between the different cloud computing solutions. I highly recommend use of service that integrates Google Docs and Dropbox (sync, backup, copy, move, edit etc.). Maybe cloudHQ ( http://cloudHQ.net/dropbox ) service could resolve the fragmantation problem.

  • http://www.aaronsumner.com/ Aaron Sumner

    Thank you for sharing this, Cindy. I have had a few weird errors with Google products as well but wonder if I were paying for them I’d have a different experience.

  • Carlos

    Dropbox becomes difficult with more than two collaborators even when they are not online at the same time. I believe docs is lacking an interface that takes advantage of collections, sub-collections and meta-data in a way that helps all collaborators and not only the user.