Design Flaws in Google Docs’ Collaborative Editing ?



I observed this on August 30, 2008.


One of highlighted features in Google Docs is its collaborative editing, which means different users can edit the same document simultaneously. But users should be careful in production scenarios.


Here is what is happening. Suppose user A creates a document named “our plan”. In the document, he writes:

B can provide $100,

C can provide $200,

Considering that we only need 250$, so we can buy that product.


Next, he invites user B and user C as collaborators. B and C open “our plan” respectively in their computer. According to latest changes, B changes line 1 to “B can provide $50,”. Coincidentally, C changes line 2 to “C can provide $150”. Finally they both click “Save & Close”.


Google Docs will NOT report conflicts when different users are editing different lines.


As a result, final version of “our plan” is like follows:

B can provide $50,

C can provide $150,

Considering that we only need 250$, so we can buy that product.

The document makes NO sense now.


In any case, it's not a design flaw. After certain discussion with my friends, this is the concrete conclusion I get. It's making a trade-off around ease of collaboration vs. potential of unflagged semantic conflict. Lots of products need to make similar types of decisions with respect to how to merge changes from multiple users, for example Microsoft OneNote 2007 shared notebooks.

There is no "money for nothing" here. You have to make a design choice.

Comments (3)
  1. Anonymous says:

    it’s not a design flaw…you case requires google docs can “understand” semantic content from the doc…it breaks the privacy and might bring potential content leak issues.

    a better design is to notify B or C that C (or B) is editing the doc.

    since they’re editing different lines, they still can finish the editing. after save&close, they have another option to “sync” other’s change…so they may see the changes from each other.

    Overall, i think the doc author needs to check the doc and make sure it makes sense.

  2. MSDN Archive says:

    If every user has to always care about what others’ editing are, I am a bit concerned about the gains of this feature considering efficiency loss.

  3. Anonymous says:

    In real life, the chance that B and C make the change at exactly the same time (e.g. within 1 second) is very small. If the network between B and C is fast enough, most likely one of them will notice the other contributor’s change before he/she hits the "save and close".

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