Usability, Accessibility, and Ethics of Google Docs (Web version)

Usability and accessibility and ethics about Google Docs



a year ago | 4 min read

Google Docs is a free web-based word processor offered by Google within its Google Drive service. It supports real-time collaboration and updates of document editing. Users can easily save their documents online and edit them with different devices.


1. Visibility & Feedback

System should always inform users what is going on, showing appropriate feedback with reasonable time. Google docs makes a good example of it by displaying the synchronizing status on the top bar with a lighter color and underline tag, making it easier for users to notice the changes to their document.

(Status bar for changes made to document)

2. Mapping

Mapping shows an action made to the product and its associations in real world.

When users select certain text or images, an icon with a conversation box shows up on the right side, where users can leave comments when click on it. In this case, selecting the text with cursor maps to the habit that people leave notes on a paper document.

(comment tag)

3. Affordance

Affordance shows users how the object can be used.

Again, use status bar as an example. The underline of the text indicates that it is clickable, which lead users to another page where they can check all the changes made to the document.

Another example is the “start a new document” section, where users can select either to “add” a blank doc, or choose from given template, without much instruction. Even when hovering above a tag, the changing of color also indicates that it’s a clickable area.

(start new document)

(hovering effect)

4. Memorability

As from Designlan lecture, a good design should minimize the user’s memory load by making objects, actions, and options visible. Users should be able to reestablish the proficiency easily even after leaving the interface for a period of time.

Google Docs reduces users’ cognitive load by showing the instruction to almost every CTA icons and tags within the document interface. Therefore users don’t need to memorize the meaning of each icon and can quickly pick-up their functions by simply hovering the cursor over it.

(instructions for non-text tags)

5. Help and documentation

While it may not always necessary to have the help and documentation displayed for users, options for searching for help is important. A “Help” tag is always available in the top menu in Google Docs, where users can type in the features they are looking for, or look up the problems they have, and usually a Q&A window will show up to solve their problems.

(“Help” tag in top menu)

(Docs help that offers Q&A forum)

6. Flexibility and efficiency

While it’s important to make it clear for new users to learn how to use the interface, old users also need some accelerators to make their interaction with the interface faster and easier.

Google Docs has some features that makes the user flow more smoothly. Keyboard shortcut is a good example, which allows users to quickly access functions without having to click on each tag. Google Docs has a keyboard shortcut table displaying all the possible shortcut options in one place. Instructions of each tag also tell user its shortcut when hovering over it.

(keyboard shortcuts table)

(instructions with keyboard shortcut)

But wait, is it all good…?

Unfortunately not really. One nature of each document that kills the efficiency is the length of it. Although it’s possible to make multiple documents and save them in one folder, as a college student who always use the Docs to take notes for classes, I always make a single doc for each subject, which allows you to search for certain content from previous notes easier. However, after several months of class, it usually ends up with a doc of 50+ pages that takes you forever to drag down to the end, not to mention finding notes that took a month ago. The outline feature may help, but it usually shows the random pattern that doesn’t go as expected.

(outline of this article you are reading now, which doesn’t show the “real outline” that useful to me)

There are tools such as bookmarks or add-ons that may help with the organizing of content, but users really need to dig into the pool and research for what they are looking for.

And something basic is left out

Maybe there’s some specific reason for Google, but one of the basic features that we take for granted — — saving image directly into the device — — is not supported in the Google Docs. Users have to add extensions or using other methods to download their images into their devices. While it works well now, taking extra steps for a task that could have been done with one click really cuts the efficiency.

(all the possible actions when click on an image)


1. Screen reader

Users can choose to turn on screen reader as well as high-contrast colors to assist their visual interaction with docs.

(accessibility settings for google docs)

2. Keyboard shortcut

As mentioned before, there’s an extensive list of keyboard shortcuts, which allows users to move around the documents without even using the mouse.

3. Search the menus — — command and action

As mentioned in the “Help and documentation”, users can type in their commands and actions directly into the “Search the menus (Alt +/)” area that locates in “Help” tag. This way allows users with disabilities to easily finish their commands without moving around within the interface.


It’s not surprising that, while users enjoy the benefits of personalized designs, their personal information is also collected through interactions with the interface.

There are cases where users were blocked from their own docs, due to “terms of service violation”. Although it was reported as a bug and was fixed later to give users back their access to docs, the fact that Google can tell which docs “violate the term” indicates that users’ entry in their docs may be monitored.

(twitter reporting being not access to her own docs)

A list of Google data collection showing that merely for Google Docs, user data such as clicks, collaborations, email address, text, are collected as users using this application.

While there are reasons for these big companies such as Google to collect user data, whether or not it’s ethical remains to be discussed.

Do you find any other dark patterns that Google Docs has? Leave a comment below!



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