Google spreadsheets vs. Microsoft OneNote: competing notions on the autosave function

By Brian Donohue | 4 Comments

One of the first blog posts I wrote, back in May, was about Microsoft’s OneNote program. Generally I was quite positive about the application, but I noted one design flaw: they fail to adequately communicate to users that you don’t need to save.

In the comments, Chris Pratley, of the app’s developers (his blog is here), explained the rationale behind their decision to exclude any clues to the user about the fact that you don’t need to save:

“We actually did consider putting a dummy Save button in the UI as a crutch to help people who felt they had to Save. But in the end we couldn’t bring ourselves to waste prime UI real estate for a button that didn’t actually do anything…In our tests, the people who had trouble with the concept finally got up the gumption to close OneNote, then open it, and after that they were OK. This is a one-time thing for most people. As a fairly emotionally charged moment in their OneNote usage, we also felt that it would help form a bond with the program.”

How Google deals with the same issue

Recently, I’ve started using Google spreadsheets on some client projects. Like OneNote (and like Gmail), Google spreadsheets automatically saves the document — there’s no need for the user to click save at any point. But what’s most interesting is that Google provides several “crutches” to ensure the user is confident that they don’t need to save.

At all times, the following view is apparent at the top-right of the screen:

The grayed-out Automatically Saved button

The disabled “Automatically Saved” button really is a pithy way of explaining the feature. The “Save & close” button next to it, however, is a bit confusing. If it’s already saved, why would I need to save and close it?

In addition, the File menu, over on the far left of the screen offers another reassurance:

The File menu with the disabled Automatically Saved option

It also has a disabled option saying “Automatically Saved”. This might seem to just duplicate the other “Automatically Saved” button at the top right, but I think it’s justified because some users might not notice it there and instead go right to the File menu to save their changes. This duplication ensures they’ll recognise that they don’t need to save.

So which method is better?

As both Chris and I discussed in my OneNote post, the Save issue is a big one for lots of users. Everyone has learned to be paranoid that they save their work, because we’ve all suffered the pain of forgetting to save.

I think the OneNote approach is too dismissive of that need-to-save angst that many of us have. In contrast, Google goes to some lengths to ensure that no user experiences any angst at all. Perhaps a bit too far, with that apparently useless “Save and Close” button.

For me, the bottom line is this: autosave is clearly a great feature. But Google ensures that no one wastes any time adapting to the new approach, while Microsoft assumes you’ll just figure it out yourself, and if you suffer a little to get there, so be it.

In a small way, it kind of captures what separates the two companies, doesn’t it?


4 responses to “Google spreadsheets vs. Microsoft OneNote: competing notions on the autosave function

  1. Essentially, we are all apologists, i.e. we blame ourselves for not saving our work when an application crashes.

    I can’t imagine too many scenarios where you’d want to spend hours on a document and NOT have the application auto-save for you. Yet, this was precisely the standard for most desktop office applications. Crazy.

  2. In the new version of OneNote we address the lack of a save button in OneNote (thanks to feedback like yours!) The first time you boot OneNote 2007, you see the OneNote Guide. On the first page of the Guide, we present a nice picture of the Save button “diskette” with a big red “X” through it and text reading “There is no Save button on the toolbar because OneNote saves all your notes automatically!”

    Hopefully this will help users be more aware that they don’t need to worry about a Save button.

  3. Glad to hear it, Mike. I look forward to the new version of OneNote. It’s the only app that would make me think twice (if just for a minute) about switching to a Mac.

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