Smart(Er) Documents — Quip, Notion, Airtable, Coda Or Good Old GDocs&GSheets
I’ve talked about the importance of written communication before. I highly believe that written communication is the best and purest way to accumulate and share knowledge. Most importantly, it allows all of us to communicate on our own terms/time/speed, enabled asynchronous communication.
This is a key concept to eliminate unnecessary meetings, or making everybody’s time is utilized well. Also a key requirement for scalability for whatever the knowledge transfer needed between peers at work.
I also mentioned multiple times that I use Quip personally and for my team communication and management. There are a lot of great tools came before or after Quip, namely a new up and the coming tool is Notion. Regardless of the tool itself, we grew our need to “document” beyond just writing.
Writing is the storytelling part of the documentation and it’s necessary. Any tool helping us writing better, faster and with fewer errors (i.e: Grammarly) is good. But I have a hunger for more, as an engineer. I have been thinking a lot of displaying information in different ways, making it interactive due to my education background (Statistics). I also operate highly in data filled environments where there is always a need to “simplify” information to readable, easier to digest formats. So I always look out for making data, or a plain timeline of events in a more creative and fun way.
I see 2 very common way of documenting things.
1) A story, or instructions on some topic. How-tos, technical documentation, etc… These documents are generally static. What I mean by that is, we generally just read these documents. There is not much interactivity or dynamic outcomes we expect from them. Although, even if a document is displaying a few numbers, we may want to treat it to be reports that we may want them to update with more recent versions. So the story outline stays the same but the mentioned numbers or dates, or some other info can be changing over time.
2) Complex information like technical data shown in tables, charts. These are the information we generally come up with ways to look at the same information from multiple angles. Like an expense table showing the category of the expense, it’s date, amount and more. Sometimes we want to only see certain dates or categories, or sometimes we ask a question of “what is the totals of the expenses per category”… Similar approach is applicable for charts and some other smarter elements. But essentially they all come from static information that is displayed in a static way. For this type of information, we choose to use tools like Excel, Google Sheets, where they already have a lot of formulas, chart creation tools included in them to help us come to the conclusions we want.
These tools are subtle differences between them but with enough optimizations, it can make a big difference in how we work day to day. In a lot of cases, if we do these document creation, editing frequently enough, we want to automate the process.
Now, after talking about the reasoning of it, what are the sample scenarios we may want more from the traditional tools we use.
Traditionally, we use word, google docs, quip like tools to create story-heavy documents with text formatting, images, and other elements. And we use excel, google sheets, airtable like tools for spreadsheets, showing table or data that we can analyze easily.
What about other type of either repetitive data, or ways to create a better understanding of things like calendar-based information (like marketing calendar), or the same simple bullet point list but with more context as a todo list in a more visual way also showing it’s progression? Eventually, we are all talking about tabular-like data with multiple attributes but displayed differently when it comes to read/consume them.
Here are a few tools I really like worth checking out in this matter:
Quip is a very plain and clean tool that does not have super smart features but has enough that is one of the easiest to learn and most portable that has been around long enough that is very reliable and slowly becoming more powerful. The features I like and use often in quip is:
- Spreadsheets embedded in regular docs
- Project tracker
- Kanban board
All of these components are very plain and bare-bones in quip. It’s ideal for quick drafting when documenting project plans, or other things but they are not advanced that you can export and utilize with other platforms. So it falls short when I feel I need more capabilities from these in my documents — or at least linking with existing systems so we can display information in our documents (like monthly planning).
Notion is the new kid in the block and it is filled with a lot of advanced views and custom “data” modeling (they call it “database”). You can create a database of anything and display them in a lot of different views. Calendar view, board view, gallery view, list/table view…
With good design, you can plan and manage a lot of things in Notion. In some respects, it can easily become a company/team knowledge base as well as a task/project management tool.
I loved Notion except 1 hard blocker for me is the mobile experience on iPad with keyboard. I had to change a lot of common sense navigation and editing gestures I use in pretty much everywhere in order to work on Notion properly when I edit the content.
Other, minor issue is the pricing is way steeper than the tools we currently use for a small team. The free quota gets filled very very quickly for a team producing a lot of written documentation like ours.
If you think in spreadsheets mindset, you’ll love airtable. Airtable actually is a database engine for me. I find it extremely API friendly that if you want to code stuff that feeds data to tables with views and stuff, Airtable is perfect. I’ll write about using Airtable as a light db via their API in a separate article later.
Airtable has smarter table management that can also display the same table data in different views like calendar, board views.
I kinda liked certain aspects of Coda, but I didn’t like the UX that much. I found it’s mobile experience is a big deal-breaker, but it’s unique approach, it’s promising if the makers catch the wave against other tools out there.
Traditional Tools Can Do That Too
Some of these stuff have been in traditional tools for long time, but not utilized well, or they are more advanced topics for their own environment, requiring technical knowledge or have steep learning curve (like Excel Macros). The only exception I still use and encourage teams to utilize is Google Docs’ App Scripting. We use google sheets for exported data, importing data to our micro services. We also use for plain documents for planning projects, content and other stuff.
One of the common things we did actually came out as a team product. Check it out: https://sheet2cal.com/
This article is first published on my blog: https://mfyz.com/smarter-documents-quip-notion-airtable-coda-or-good-old-gdocsgsheets/