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What’s The Secret to Figma and Notion’s Ascendancy?

Nimrod PriellNimrod Priell
  • Product
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That was the core inspiration behind Notion. “The best people can do is to duct-tape everything together, previously with emails, nowadays with Slack,” noted Notion CEO Ivan Zhao. Notion was built “to challenge this status quo of ‘software as silos.’”

A similar focus on in-app collaboration is what propelled Figma’s incredibly fast growth. “87% of first-time Figma users were invited by a colleague,” shared the Figma team.

Give people the tools to talk and take on tasks, together, and something ✨ magical ✨ happens.

A brief history of multiplayer collaboration

Communication inside software feels obvious today, but it was revolutionary when Google Docs first launched. “Merely taking Excel or Word or Powerpoint and putting them onto the web may make the file share thing work a bit more smoothly, but doesn’t actually create a new workflow,” wrote analyst Benedict Evans. Commenting, conversations, and collaborative workspaces do.

Douglas Engelbart’s 1969 “Mother of All Demos” was the first demonstration of how multiplayer collaboration would work. It had a collaborative real-time editor, shared cursors, and built-in video chat—Google Docs, Figma, and Zoom all in one. You could “collaborate quite well over a period of time by working on joint files. You can… go leave a message and get a response in a matter of minutes,” as he explained.

That workflow is familiar to everyone who’s used Google Docs, but was visionary at the time. It took five decades for tech to catch up to Engelbart’s dreams.

In the interim, email, then team chat filled the gaps. Instead of direct collaboration, we’d email a file to a colleague then tediously reconcile their edits later. Slack was merely a faster version of the same workflow. Share a file, talk about it, then go back to the file and make agreed-upon changes.

Multiplayer collaboration software changed the game. First Google Docs, later Figma, Notion, GitHub, and more killed the file and replaced it with the link. You share the software, not files, and the editing tools come along with the documents and designs. You invite people to work and talk there, instead of in Slack, email, or another app. Suddenly the app spreads virally through teams as one person then another joins in the conversation.

No more conversing in one place and working in another. No more juggling the cognitive load of reconciling the two. “The feedback loops of collaboration get so short that they become part of the productivity loop,” as Kevin Kwok described it in The Arc of Collaboration.

In the new world, collaboration is no longer external to productivity. Collaboration is productivity.

So, what is multiplayer collaboration?

Multiplayer collaboration is working together with multiple people in real-time, inside the same software, to streamline ideation and creation. And what makes multiplayer collaborative software different from the tools that preceded them is a focus on shared workspaces with collaborators and communication.

Like multiplayer games with avatars to show who’s where in real time, and voice chat to warn “on your 6!,” multiplayer collaborative software lets each person take on tasks independently with tools and features to coordinate group actions.

You don’t share files in multiplayer collaborative software. You work directly in products and apps. You don’t have to ask people what they’re working on. You can see exactly what they’re doing, with avatars to indicate who has the file open now, alongside live cursors and selected text. Your collaborators may be in your company, or they may be clients, contractors, and customers anywhere on earth.

Importantly, collaboration should be effortless. If you have to move a document into a team folder or upgrade your plan to invite others in, you’ll likely just share a PDF to Slack instead. The best collaborative software makes it easy to pull all of them in. With Figma and Google Docs, for example, you can automatically share docs and designs with your core team, or invite guests without licensing additional seats. Newer tools like Grid.is are building interactive spreadsheets, for example, built to be shared with anyone. The more, the merrier.

Features like comments, annotations , and live chat are vital to coordinate work once everyone’s in the same virtual room. We need to tell others our thoughts about the project as much (or more) than we need to directly perform the task at hand. Think editing, offering feedback, and getting approval. Some apps, like the new presentation app Pitch, even built video chat directly into the canvas to allow users to have full conversations alongside the work.

Debate, decide, and do all in the same app. That’s multiplayer collaboration.

Collaboration beyond documents and design

Collaboration was perhaps a natural addition to documents and design files. Microsoft Word has included suggested edits since 1987, back when computers were still black and white and powered by DOS. It was a logical progression to go from emailed documents with comments to online documents with real-time collaboration. Even still, the shift was transformative enough to erode Microsoft Word’s market dominance and make Google Docs the crowd favorite.

Every other software category stands to reap the same benefits with multiplayer collaboration—or risks similar disruption.

Multiplayer collaboration is what prompted the monday.com team to build Workcanvas as a free-form way to rethink project planning. It’s built around a collaborative canvas that shows who’s online. Alongside, it has Cord-powered chat, in-line commenting, complete with @mentions, and email notifications with reply support. Start a new canvas, map out a project, invite your team, comment and mention stakeholders, and chat to get everyone on the same page, all in the same platform.

It’s easy to imagine applying that same spirit to other categories. Take accounting software, for example. It’s a software category that is still typically used in single-player mode. But a multiplayer collaborative accounting tool could let finance teams tag team each other on expense questions and get replies in-app for quicker resolution. Or, imagine a collaborative analytics tool that shows when a colleague is looking at the same set of stats as you are in a dashboard. That’d open up a chance to start a conversation and perhaps gain cross-team insights, from a conversation that never would have happened with today’s analytics tools.

And as one software category after another implements multiplayer collaboration, you’ll see new collaboration ideas pop up and spread across industries.

How to build multiplayer collaborative software

Building best-in-class multiplayer collaborative software requires adding collaboration in-app from the beginning.

You’ll need rich user accounts. You need names and avatars to invite your team and see status indicators of who’s online. You need contextual comments to point to what you’re talking about and @mention people to get their feedback. You need a real-time collaborative canvas with annotations so collaborators can give feedback, suggest changes, or jump into the work. You need chat to keep a running commentary going about the work so no one needs to jump out to Zoom or Slack to discuss the project. And you need notifications so everyone stays in the loop even if they’re currently offline.

You’ll also need your core product to be built around sharing. Build sharing centrally into your product, where users can copy a link to invite anyone in. Include file history and tools to roll back changes, so people trust that their work won’t disappear. Design the interface around collaboration, so it feels natural to have everybody together.

You can code multiplayer collaboration from scratch, but it’s a daunting challenge to build the collaboration features people expect while also building what makes your software the best at what it does. A better option is to focus on coding your product’s unique features, and rely on a multiplayer collaborative platform like Cord to add the communication layer to your software. “Collaborative production can be valuable, but it is harder to get right than sharing,” argues Clay Shirky in his 2009 book on community Here Comes Everybody. That’s true for building collaborative software as much as it is at getting teams to collaborate together well.

“It made complete sense to adopt [Cord] instead of spending months building something more sophisticated in-house,” said trumpet CEO, Roy Sadler, who estimated they saved up to £500,000 versus building in-house. Spendflo CTO, Ajay Vardhan agrees: “If we only needed a commenting feature, we could have built it ourselves. But we required additional functionality beyond basic commenting,” which would have required almost a year and a half of full-time work for four people.

The future of multiplayer collaboration

The first time I used the internet, it took several minutes for the modem to connect. Early internet connections were flaky and annoying. The internet held so much promise that we still used it, just not for long, and often not even every day.

Then high-speed connections and wifi became ubiquitous, smartphones put the internet in our pocket, and we forgot how to live without it being just a tap away.

Multiplayer collaboration is closer to dial-up today. We open software for work and close it when we’re done. For the most part, email and Slack hold things together. Work’s still siloed. It can be even more confusing when there are separate Slack conversations and Google Docs comment threads about the same project, or when you use a tool that still doesn’t have built-in multiplayer collaboration.

But that’s changing. Google Docs’ dynamic email notifications let you add a Docs comment reply via email. Cord’s collaborative tools do the same (with Slack, too). That means when someone replies to a comment on a chart in ThoughtSpot in a Slack thread, those comments will show back up in ThoughtSpot alongside the relevant data.

“The true differentiator and competitive advantage lie in the amount of data flowing through the system, creating a single source of truth,” wrote the Northzone team on multiplayer software. That’s where multiplayer collaborative software is moving next. Instead of jumping in and out of conversations and work, we’ll reply anywhere that’s easiest, and our collaborative software will pull the whole conversation together.

It’s also where non-collaborative software will lose out. When multiplayer collaboration is the norm, tools without built-in collaboration will increasingly feel like legacy software that’s dragging a project down. People will switch to newer, collaboration-native software. The learning costs of switching will feel worth the hurdle compared to the switching costs of shuffling between one app for discussing work and another for producing it.

The gulf will only widen as the best multiplayer collaborative software becomes more deeply integrated into workflows, while legacy software continues to be single-player.

Collaboration has already shifted deeply over the past decade. What Figma, Google Docs, and other leading multiplayer collaborative tools started is only the beginning. The greatest changes are still to come as legacy software updates to build in multiplayer collaboration—or gets disrupted by new tools built around multiplayer collaboration.

Thinking about making your product multiplayer?

Want to learn more about multiplayer collaboration and understand if it’s right for your product? Check out this blog. And if you’re ready to start re-imagining your product with chat, comments, and more real-time collaboration features, you can start building with Cord for free now.