COMMENTARY – Design Analysis of Google Docs: Inconsistent Visual Cues

(Originally posted on the blog for my section of WRTG 3035: Technical Communication and Design.)

(This post serves as an example of what you might contribute under the Design Successes and Failures category. Note that I analyze the design problem and offer a solution, in a manner similar to the posts on

Here’s an example of what I’d consider to be a design problem, based both on general principles for design and also on my experience of watching students and colleagues struggle with the problem created by the design.

These are the two buttons that appear in the upper left corner of the Google Docs main screen:

Google Docs create and upload buttons

The first one is fairly straightforward. It simply contains the word “Create,” which leads most users to click on it when they want to create a new file within Google Docs. They are rewarded with a drop-down menu of available file types.

But the second one follows a different paradigm: instead of containing a word that describes what it does, to match the “Create” button, it contains only an icon. That mismatch wouldn’t be a big deal if the icon was universally recognized as a symbol for a particular action. But it’s not. Only a close reader might notice that the icon is trying to symbolize the concept: “Upload.”

Some users might immediately see that that’s what the icon represents, while others might simply infer that the button next to “Create” is probably for “Upload.” But I can assure you from the number of times I’ve had to help people figure out how to upload files to Google Docs that the meaning of the button is NOT clear to a notable group of users.

Recommendation: Revise the icon so that it contains the word Upload and no icon.