Collaboration is what all the cool kids—well, all the competitive businesses—are doing these days because it’s efficient and effective. See “Stop Mailing Files Around and Use Collaborative Apps” and for users of Apple’s iWork, “Collaborate with Colleagues in Pages, Numbers, and Keynote.” Today we’re going to look at collaborating using Google’s Web-based productivity suite, Google Docs, which businesses can use for free or as part of a G Suite subscription.
The Google Docs suite competes with Apple’s iWork and Microsoft’s Office 365, providing Google Docs for word processing, Google Sheets for spreadsheet work, and Google Slides for presentations. You can manage all your files in Google Drive. Although all are Web-based and work best on a Mac or other desktop computer, Google also makes iOS apps that let you work—a bit less flexibly—on an iPad or iPhone.
You’ll need a free Google account to create new documents, and for full-fledged collaboration, your colleagues will need Google accounts too. You can share documents with people who lack Google accounts or don’t want to sign in, but their comments and changes will be anonymous.
Once your document is ready to share, you can invite collaborators by clicking the large Share button in the upper-right corner of the window.
Flexible permissions let you share with specific people, and for each person, set whether they can edit, comment on, or just view the document (below left). You can also add a note that will be sent with the invitation.
If that’s too specific—you’re sharing with a large group, for instance—click Get Shareable Link to turn on link sharing (above right). Then you can set the permissions for the link by clicking the down-pointing arrow next to “Anyone with the link can…” This works well for things like self-service signup spreadsheets. Copy the link and send it however you like, such as via Messages or to a mailing list.
If you add people over time, you can see who has access by clicking Advanced. That view also provides more owner controls, including the option to prevent commenters and viewers from downloading, printing, or copying.
When you’re done, click Send or Done.
Accept an Invitation
People you invite receive an email invitation and click the Open In button to start working on the document. With link sharing, all the recipient has to do is click the link.
The main gotcha is that recipients must sign in to their Google accounts if sharing has been restricted to specific people. A less common problem can occur when you send an invitation to someone at an email address that doesn’t match their Google account, which prevents them from collaborating. They can then request that you share the document with their Google account; click the Open Sharing Settings button in the request email to grant access.
Add and Change Data
Apart from the permissions that restrict collaborators to commenting or viewing, there are no limitations on what people can do in a shared document—all editors are equal, and Google Docs works the same whether a document has one person using it or ten.
You can see who is in the document by the little avatar icons in the menu bar. It also tells you when the last edit was, and Google Docs always shows where other users are working with a color-coded cursor and marks when other users have selected content in the document with a colored highlight box.
The beauty of comments in a collaborative scenario is that discussions can occur in context. To add a comment, select some text and choose Insert > Comment. Comments show up in the right-hand sidebar in Google Docs and Google Slides; in Google Sheets, the cell containing a comment gets a little yellow triangle in the corner, and the comment appears when you click the cell.
Google pioneered comment conversations, which allow collaborators to reply to each others’ comments and keep the discussion connected to the initial comment. You can edit or delete your own comments by clicking the stacked three-dot More menu. Do that for someone else’s comment and you can get a link to the comment—it’s useful if you need to point someone to the discussion.
To see all the comments in a stream, click the Comment History button in the menu bar, which looks like a speech balloon. It’s especially useful when reviewing comments in Sheets, where you would otherwise have to click all the little yellow triangles in cells.
View Versions and Suggested Changes
The main way to see who has done what in a document is by choosing File > Version History > See Version History. That displays a right-hand sidebar showing dates when the file was changed; click an entry to see the changes in the main pane. Arrows above the main pane let you highlight each change in turn. If you want to revert to the selected version (which will delete all subsequent changes!), click Restore This Version.
For Google Sheets and Google Slides, version history is all that’s available, which can be frustrating because when you’re reviewing edits in version history, you can’t make changes. As a workaround, open a second browser window so you can review changes in one window and make edits in another.
Google Docs (the word processor, in this case) offers another choice: Suggesting mode, which works more like Track Changes in Page or Word. Switch into it by clicking the pencil icon in the upper-right corner and choosing Suggesting. From then on, all edits are non-destructive and are color-coded by the person who makes them. They’re coupled with boxes in the right-hand sidebar that detail the change, provide and X icons for accepting or rejecting the change, and offer a Reply field that enables discussions of each change—a brilliant feature.
If you want to be guided through all the suggested edits, or accept or reject changes all at once, rather than handling them one at a time in the right-hand sidebar, choose Tools > Review Suggested Changes.
When you’re done collaborating on a document, you can click the Share button and remove people or turn off link sharing. That immediately prevents others from making more changes.
When choosing a collaboration platform, you’ll generally pick what your colleagues use, whether that’s Google Docs, iWork, or Office 365. However, if you’re sharing with people whose platform and app details you don’t know, Google Docs is the best choice—Google accounts are common and the Google Docs apps work equally well on all computers. Plus, since Google Docs was built from the ground up for collaboration, it’s a mature solution that’s quick, easy, and effective.