Microsoft Word, Google Docs, and Millennials

This article was originally published on Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight, and perspective on the tech industry. It was then republished on Recode.


The venture capitalist Marc Andreessen recently retweeeted Ben Throop, who wrote:

Can we just take a second and recognize what a god damned miracle Google docs is? The collaboration tools are ridiculous.

Throop surely wasn’t trying to, but he actually expressed the sentiment of US millennials. We at Creative Strategies recently surveyed over 350 students at more than 40 colleges across the country. It turns out that they, like Throop, love the collaboration Google Docs enables.

When students write papers by themselves, only 12 percent use Google Docs. But when students write papers in groups — when they collaborate — 78 percent use Google Docs. On the other hand, 80 percent of students use Microsoft Word for individual work and 13 percent use it for group work. The dynamic is the same for all millennials, regardless of gender, the phone they use, or where they live: Microsoft Word for individual work, Google Docs for collaborative work.

Through qualitative and quantitative interviews, we learned this behavior is firmly entrenched. Not even losing important files in a computer crash prompts millennials to start using Google Docs for individual work, even though doing so would prevent future file losses. There is so much behavioral debt associated with using Microsoft Word for individual work, not even a catastrophic event can overcome it.

Millennials are similarly loyal to Google Docs for collaborative work. In our qualitative interviews, we asked students how they would collaborate if they couldn’t use Google Docs. Many had emotional reactions. One person responded with five seconds of silence, another with a solemn, “I would be very sad”. Needless to say, it was shocking to discover that millennials are emotionally invested in a word processor.

That’s just some of what we learned from our study and it has many important implications. As millennials continue to join the workforce, they’ll be frustrated if they have to use Microsoft Word for collaborative projects. They’ve grown up using Google Docs because of the real-time collaboration it enables and, to them, it would be a giant step backwards to email files back and forth.

Additionally, the fact millennials’ behavior is so entrenched is both good and bad for Microsoft and Google. Microsoft owns individual work and Google owns collaborative work but each company definitely wants to own the other’s domain. However, because millennials’ behavior is so entrenched, it’s unlikely either company will convince them to change any time soon.

For both individual and collaborative work, Microsoft Word has been older generations’ default word processor for decades. But not for millennials. Microsoft failed to address their collaboration needs, so millennials don’t use Word to collaborate.

This illustrates two important points. First, when you don’t meet the needs of your customers, your customers will leave you and go find someone who does. Second, it shows millennials behave differently than older generations do.

Ultimately, Microsoft’s failure to address a behavioral change is a lesson others can learn from. Millennials are different and you need to understand their needs and behaviors to successfully build and market products for them.