Recently, while working through a list of agenda items with several people on my team, I noticed a new feature in Google Docs: recognition of what is likely an action time and a suggestion to create a task for the person mentioned.
This has been a common theme for Google products over the last few years. From consolidating travel information into easily-actionable bundles via Inbox to offering suggested analyses of data in Google Sheets, their ability to turn raw data sources into semantic, proactive features for users is impressive to say the least. (If you’re unfamiliar with these features, click on the “Explore” icon in the bottom right of your screen next time you open a document in Google Drive.)
As a company originally built on search functionality, Google has combined that search prowess with semantic features to automate a whole host of functions for their users. Another byproduct of those combined powers, it would seem, is that Google is moving users away from traditional approaches to file organization. Or, more accurately, if users access information primarily through search and automation, organizational hierarchy becomes irrelevant.
The amazing Inbox
Inbox, Google’s new interface for Gmail, is a great example. The paradigm of individual messages has been replaced with “Bundles,” or groups of similar messages.
Perhaps the most powerful example is Inbox’s Trips feature. Flight, hotel and car rental confirmations are seamlessly collected into Trip bundles and elegantly presented to the user in a timely, useful way.
If you need to deal with an email later, there’s no need to file it—just “Snooze” it and it will appear after a specified amount of time. How about collecting those emails that are action items? You can “Pin” them to a clean list. There are more features, but suffice it to say, if someone’s first email experience was with Inbox, the act of filing emails into labels would rarely be necessary.
Though the experience feels subtle, Inbox is a strong hint at the types of automation we will continue to see.
I consider myself a fairly meticulous organizer when it comes to digital assets, but using Google Drive has made my need to keep things in a tidy folder structure less and less of a burden. Like Inbox, the Drive interface asks, “why dig through folders when you can find it instantly by searching?” The paradigm of search is so ingrained in today’s users from exploring the web that using the same methodology in Drive seems logical—more natural, even. Again, if Google gives you the right search result almost every time, the need for file structures becomes irrelevant. Even now there are people whose idea of document management is decoupled from the concept of proactive organization.
Drive’s interface reinforces these concepts by de-emphasizing manual organizational features. I used to think the small window with a limited view of folders was a frustrating way to move files around until I realized that it isn’t intended to be used often. It’s a peripheral, non-primary feature. This is probably a paradigm shift for those who have worked professionally using digital tools even in the last 5 years or so, because many business processes still require employees to work in environments where digital assets are organized hierarchically.
Google is building products that map to the way things happen in reality. Work creates chaos (as I’ve written about before1) and that often means that meticulous file organization takes a back seat. The path forward is to remove that conflict by making organization unnecessary.
Scale and the future
While impressive, these features aren’t perfect—yet. As is often the case, scale is the enemy2. For example, when the volume of files your company has created in Google Drive numbers in the thousands (or tens-of-thousands), common naming conventions make search less accurate (and less efficient). If 5 or 10 files have similar names, or even the same name, hierarchical naming conventions or folder structures become necessary again. There are gaps, too. The first example I used in this post showed how Google can automatically suggest tasks to assign to specific people—all within a document. It would make sense for those tasks to automatically be added to Inbox as “Reminders,” but they aren’t.
It’s tempting to adopt a critical tone about shortfalls across Google’s products, but any criticism is likely to be short-lived. Google’s product leads have already expressed their ability to shift entrenched workflow paradigms in ways that seem logical and natural to users, meaning that it won’t be too long until they scale those solutions to match the complex needs of large companies.
What’s more, Inbox and Drive are only two examples. Products like Google Photos (and Apple’s Photos), utilizing automatic organization and facial/object recognition, are already making meticulous photo organization irrelevant for many people. (Increasingly, these tools are being connected to hardware, including cars and homes.)
Before we know it, we’ll be remembering what having to file documents into folders was like.
1. I’ve wrote about work creating chaos in an article called Chaos Behind the Magic. You can read the full post here.2. You can read one of my previous articles about scale, titled Solving Scale is Hard at Every Size, here.