What’s Inside the Black Box? Behind the Design of Native Excel Redactions

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At DISCO, we have an extraordinary focus on giving our users and clients a magical experience – from software usability to ease of doing business with us. DISCO was founded on the principle of combining world-class engineering with a deep love and respect for the law, and we wanted to share the groundbreaking work done by our engineering team.

#DISCOmagic is a blog series that takes you behind the scenes to show you some examples of all the hard work that goes into making this magic happen. This installment comes from Principal Designer Adam Peterson.


Design—be it building architecture, software architecture or in between—is most successful when it starts from a place of principle.

In order for a product to be intuitive, useful, fast, and stable, any complexity must also be abstracted away — which requires full understanding by the design team. The quality and usability of a product or feature correlates with the depth of thought, intent, expertise, and care put into it. 

Let’s look at the design behind some seemingly simple features. A redaction is a simple thing, right? Just a black box?

And cells are simple things too, right? Just more boxes?

In reality, objects such as cells, rows, and columns only appear to be so simple because they have been typed, modeled, and managed well. However, identifying the complexity necessary to manifest a simple redaction usually looks more like:

This is only a very high-level view of the complexity that has to be managed relative to a redaction. Every object that can exist on a document, and even objects that exists outside the context of a document, are far more complex than they appear to any user… unless the software is bad. When the software is bad, that complexity (that usually stays behind the scenes to ensure utility, speed, and stability) leaks out in front of users in the form of unintuitive experiences and bugs. The poor integrity of the software comes from a low level of thought and lack of care put into it. Over time, these products become completely unmanageable for the companies that put them out, the internal bar is lowered to really anything being shippable regardless of quality, and then users suffer until the company eventually falls, inferior software with it.

Unfortunately, the legal domain is known for having exceptionally bad software historically — but DISCO is at the forefront of changing that.

Simplifying the complex

It’s important that a redaction appears simple and that a redaction tool is easy to wield for usability reasons.

When thinking about redactions relative to spreadsheets, the object most closely related to a redaction is a cell, which is even more complicated than a redaction is. A cell lives at the intersection of a column and a row and inherits many of their attributes, like width and height, and even data type, but it can override those locally. It can contain rich formatting options. It can be related to rules governing its conditional formatting. It can be protected or part of a protected range. It has a version history, or tracked changes relative to it. It can hold a ton of text, much more than might be viewable relative to its text-wrap setting. It can be driven by a formula. It can drive the value of other cells… in other worksheets… in other workbooks! 

And all of this content needs to be easily explored, independent of redactions, so cell selection and the action of actually redacting or unredacting must be separate. Basically, in order for two complex things to work well together in software, you have to define the bounds and nature of their relationship.

Redacting Excel files in DISC

Understanding the relationship between redactions and cells is important in making sure the spreadsheet is properly produced, too. When processing a document for production, we need to know about these relationships to be able to automatically translate what were object- and cell-based redactions into x- and y-coordinates, covering the same characters with the same redactions for the same reasons, and automatically ensuring those characters are removed from the text file generated for the opposing counsel, too. There’s a lot you don’t have to worry about because we’ve worried about it a lot.

After production, the relationship that the redaction and the cell once had can be purposely severed and they can really just be those simple boxes.

In short, we’ve put a lot of time, thought, and care into the way this feature works and hope it makes lives better!

 P.S. Want to play around with the new feature? You can make art with it, too.

Watch this video talking about some of these design intricacies we had to take into account when building the native Excel redaction feature:


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