“Review” Category

The Notepad Beside Your Bed

We don’t need a notes application to fully develop an idea, from beginning to end. We already have applications for that. They offer all kinds of ways to write down and organize your thoughts. What we do need, however, is a way to capture a thought just as quickly as it comes to mind, and then get out of the way. This application is for those moments when you are busy with something else (paying attention in class, writing, or stuck in Photoshop), but an important thought pops into your head and, unless you write it down, you are likely to forget it.

You can think of this application as the notepad beside your bed. It isn’t supposed to be a productivity nerd’s wet dream of a notebook, with tabs and an inbox and everything else — it is just a notepad. It is there so, when you get those brilliant thoughts at night, you can quickly scribble it down and fall back to asleep, secure in your knowledge that the thought will be there the next morning.

This application has the same intent. Its goal is ease and speed of entry, not features. I must be able to write it down and get back to whatever I was doing as quickly and easily as possible. If the application doesn’t do this, I simply won’t use it, and I’ll likely forget whatever the thought was.

That’s what Notational Velocity is for.

A Different Kind of Application

Notational Velocity has one intent: to quickly write notes, and that’s it. You can’t email notes from it, send them to Twitter, or even change the text color. There are no extraneous features to slow it down and, worse, confuse its use.

Notational Velocity’s design is almost preposterously simple: it has only three parts. On top is a single field, which functions both as a search and title field; in the middle is the list of notes; and below that is the note itself. To create a new note, you type in a unique title, and hit return. That’s it. When you hit return, the text entry area gains focus and you can begin typing your note immediately.

To search for a note, you begin typing in its title. The note list is filtered live as you type, so when you find it, you can just hit return and begin editing the note. Using the mouse is completely unnecessary, from launching the application to writing the note.

The application is wonderfully minimal. Combining the add a note and search functions into one field means that adding new notes is very quick. After bringing the application to the front (I use Shift-Space), I can immediately create a new note or go to the one I need — I don’t need to move to the mouse, or even make another keyboard command. I just begin typing, hit return, and type the note.

This is one of those seemingly small things that changes the entire feel of an application. The dominant way for doing this kind of application would be a toolbar at the top, where you can add a new note by clicking the “Create Note” icon. Using the mouse to click a UI widget, then type in a title, and then click on the text entry field to finally begin typing the note is a much more complicated interaction. Of course, you can eliminate a step by hitting CMD-N if the application supports it, but the effect is the same: the artificial controls for creating new notes separate you from the actual act of writing the note. Rather than focus on the idea you want to save, you are thinking about interacting with the application.

Notational Velocity doesn’t do that. Your very first interaction with it is typing the title. There’s something important there; rather than look at UI widgets, you see your note titles and text; rather than interact with the application, you interact with your notes.

That’s very different conceptually from most applications. Notational Velocity is much more like a notepad; there’s no buttons or animations to get between you and your notes.

The only reason this is possible, though, is because of the application’s singular focus on being a simple note-taking application. It has one well-defined use case in mind, and it is designed just for that. In this sense, Notational Velocity is just like a good iPhone application: anything not necessary for the use-case isn’t there.

This focus, of course, means it isn’t that great for more intensive uses. John Gruber stopped using it and switched to Yojimbo because it doesn’t support rich-text and thus he could not paste in images.

But it is precisely this lack of features that makes it so compelling. The only thing it does is take notes quickly and easily.

I love applications that take a specific use-case and design the application to work brilliantly for that case, possibly at the expense of other uses, because the application has a unique identity. Within that use, it’s incredible; outside of it, irrelevant. The application, and its developer, will succeed or fail based on how well thought-out both the use-case and the application are. It forces them to make it really, really good, because it has to be absolutely convincing for users to use it.

General use applications are timid. They are the easy way out — instead of figuring out precisely how the application should work, developers throw in three different ways to do the same thing. It is the software equivalent of a buffet. There’s bound to be something you like, but everything is mediocre.

Notational Velocity is anything but. It is the dish that you have never had before, but just might be precisely what you love. Then again, it might not be — and that’s okay. There’s likely another application that fits you perfectly.

September 30th, 2009

Things in Review

Junior year of high school (2004-2005), I realized that committing my tasks to memory was not a viable strategy, but up until that year, that was more or less how I managed doing work. I was facing a memory-storage deficit; between my course load, and debate, which was a work-intensive activity, I simply could not remember everything I had to do. Due to sheer number of tasks, I sometimes turned in incomplete assignments or, worse, forgot to turn anything in at all. My productivity diminished under the strain of remembering what I had to do, and my stress skyrocketed because of what seemed like an insurmountable amount of work and obligations.

My English teacher had a Ti Powerbook, which he used every day in class. This was my first real experience with post-OS X era Macs, and I loved its elegant design. But what struck me, in brief flashes as he switched between applications on the projector screen, was iCal. He had several calendars set up, and his month view was full of events — all colorfully differentiated. iCal, from what I saw, was easy to conceptualize and use, and most importantly, was a joy to work in. It looked like it was fun to add events to and manage a calendar.

I bought my first Mac in December 2005 (a 15″ Powerbook), and iCal was the first application I fell in love with. It made — and still makes — managing my schedule simple and enjoyable.

But when I entered college, I had a problem: I needed less to manage events (turning in papers, taking tests, study sessions, et cetera), and more to manage tasks associated with courses (research for a paper, write an outline, study for a test), which iCal is not very good at. I tried using iCal’s to-dos support for three weeks, and after painstakingly entering hundreds of to-dos, I stopped using it — because I did not enjoy it.

So for my first and second years of college, I suffered much the same way I did in high school: I mostly committed tasks to memory, with even more disastrous results. My stress rose to a new high as I struggled to keep my tasks straight for five courses and work.

What I really wanted was a well-designed, simple and beautiful application to manage my tasks, which would make managing tasks as much a joy to use as iCal.

After reading Chris Bowler’s excellent GTD Series, I decided to try Cultured Code’s Things.

Continue reading →

August 6th, 2008