This is why you should forget about formatting and focus on your ideas

This post originally appeared on the Minds Behind Dropbox Paper publication on Medium.

Illustration showing the evolution of collaborative tools

Creating something out of nothing is a beautiful challenge. But confronting a blank space can feel daunting. It isn’t your lack of imagination that’s the problem, though. It’s your tools. They’re not setting you up for success, because they aren’t always optimized for the right things.

Since my days as the co-founder of Presentate, I’ve been asking why so many collaboration tools get in the way of creating great content. As part of the team at Dropbox, I’ve been working on ways to help people develop ideas together, even when they’re on opposite sides of the world. What I’ve found is that few solutions are in sync with the way people create, or the way teams collaborate. Sometimes, the tools themselves are actually an obstacle to the creative process. That’s why I think it’s time to rebuild collaboration from the idea up.

The evolution of collaborative co-editing tools

For decades, people have become accustomed to using editing tools that are optimized for the wrong tasks. Most of them were fundamentally designed to make documents that print on an 8 ½ x 11 piece of paper. But how many people need that anymore?

Most of the attempts to move this technology forward just port it along to the next medium, to the web, to mobile devices. For example, presentation software followed the formatting of traditional projectors that used 35mm slides. But today, devices come in all different shapes and sizes. So a viewer is likely viewing your deck on different screens with different aspect ratios. In a world where many people have never even laid eyes on a carousel slide projector, why would new software need to be tethered to old conventions?

Begin with your ideas, not the format of your presentation

The point of a presentation is to tell a story. But I’ve watched countless people start making presentations, and without fail, they’ll fiddle with their title slide for far too long before they even know what they’re going to talk about. Why do so many tools force people to start by making formatting decisions instead of letting them focus on the flow of their ideas? When you create a new presentation deck, you shouldn’t have to choose the aspect ratio before you even know what you’re going to project it onto.

When you open up a presentation deck, it asks “What theme do you want?” and “What title do you want?” But you won’t know what the title is going to be until you’ve decided what you want to say. You don’t know what theme you want until you have your content. You don’t know what your content will be until you have an outline. Those are all decisions that should be made at the end, after you’ve developed your narrative. That’s why we think it’s time to stop constraining things by design convention from the outset.

If you start with a bunch of empty slides that need to be filled until they contain everything you need to say, you end up with walls of text and convoluted, hard-to-follow thoughts. If you think too much about the presentation of your content, you’ll focus on the presentation to your detriment. But if you start with an outline, build a long-form narrative, then use that narrative to build complementary slides, you end up with something closer to what cognitive psychologists would recommend: simple slides that are light on words, without a ton of bullet points.

Focus on how ideas are organized, not how they look

With Dropbox Paper, we want to turn the paradigm on its head. We want to help you focus on the substance before you worry about the style. When you open a Paper doc, you don’t have to start making decisions about design and formatting. Instead, you’re free to think about what you’re actually saying. When you only have a few ways to emphasize something — bold, italics, headings, etc. — it’s suddenly less ambiguous and more obvious what the hierarchy of emphasis is. So you don’t have to worry about whether highlighting a portion of text will cause confusion over whether that emphasis means the text should be deleted or if it’s something that must be read. Constraints can be liberating.

Paper builds a table of contents for you based on your headings. Then if you bold an entire line, Paper assumes that’s important, too. It puts it in the table of contents and treats it like a heading because the boldface text signals that something is important. Paper’s presentation mode is designed to use your table of contents to create a clean, well-organized presentation by splitting your text into slides.

Essentially, Paper guides you toward thinking in terms of information hierarchy. It encourages you to add semantic meaning to your content. The same things that give you a good outline give you a good document to share with people, because you can understand what things are and why they’re there. When you build good content, the presentation benefits from that.

Yes, and… Collaborating with the tool itself

Paper encourages an aggressive reduction in complexity. It’s not about having UI and chrome and buttons for everything you can possibly do. It’s about giving you a clean, efficient experience that has a lot of depth. And there’s a tension there — because if there’s a lot of a depth and not a lot of UI, it’s hard to discover things. But the first time you drop a YouTube or Twitter link and it becomes a full player inline in your document, you realize “Oh, that’s kind of cool, I wonder what else it can work with?” Paper takes what you did and responds, “Yes, and… We can also do this.” It helps you learn how to make better Paper docs as you go.

I’m passionate about getting rid of things that impede collaboration. Because I don’t want Paper to be incrementally better than our current tools. I want it to be transformationally better. I want to give teams more room to iterate and fewer problems with versioned files. This is something Dropbox has been trying to solve from a file sync and storage perspective. With Paper, we want to enable you to collaborate in a radically more powerful way — to share ideas when they’re raw rather than waiting until they’re finished. That’s what makes it transformational.

Justin Hileman is a Software Engineer and Tech Lead for Dropbox Paper, a flexible workspace that lets collaborative teams build ideas together and stay on the same page. To learn more, visit dropbox.com/paper.

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