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Why do we append to digital documents?

There is a curious habit that people have when working with digital documents. When there is something new to add, they add to the bottom of the document.

This is a learned behavior from hundreds of years of writing on physical paper. When writing on paper, you have to write new things at the bottom. You can’t push the ink down the page and start writing at the top.

You might remember having a notebook in middle school for each subject. How did you fill out those notebooks? Chances are you opened the cover and started from the first page, and then worked your way to the back of the notebook as class went on. If you ever closed your notebook, you probably needed a bookmark, because to continue, you’d have to find the page where you left off.

What if instead you could always open the notebook to the first page and it would be empty? Then you don’t need a bookmark. Where you left off is always right there when you open the cover. When it’s time to study for a weekly quiz, you only have to look at the first few pages of your notebook. All the recent, relevant material is in the place where it’s easiest to access.

With digital documents, we can do that. But most people don’t.

Many times I’ve seen coworkers opening a Google Doc of meeting notes. It would be a document for a particular meeting, and each time we have the meeting, we add notes for that day. The document opens, and on the first page it’s always the very first meeting we had. They scroll to the bottom of the document to add new meeting notes. I hate always seeing that first, now irrelevant meeting.

Instead, whenever there is a new meeting, we can add a section on top, and push everything else down. We can’t push ink down a paper, but we can certainly do that with digital documents.

That way, whenever we open the document, it’s always showing the most recent, relevant information.

It could, of course, be argued that the tool should open to the bottom of the document, but in practice I’ve hardly seen this happen.

It’s not just meeting notes that it makes sense for. Journal entries are this way too, as well as your personal notes on a subject. As you learn more about something, your ideas and understanding changes, so more recent notes matter more.

Apart from documents that we write in, this is also relevant for other digital user interfaces. For example, the comments section on a video sharing website. A poor implementation will display the comments in the order they were posted. The first few people who comment will always have the stage, and the later people might as well not even comment since it will be buried. Though, in some cases this makes sense, like a forum where you want to read the discussion from top to bottom.

These days I prepend to many of my notes instead of appending to them.

We shouldn’t forget where our habits originate from and should break free when there’s a better way to do something.