26 Oct 2016

Notes Apps Should Strike the Right Balance Between Simplicity and Features


For many years, I used Simplenote to store my notes. As the name says, it's a simple, minimal, streamlined notes app. No formatting, no photos, nothing. Just text. You don't even have a separate field for the title. The first line of the note becomes the title. This seemed like a hacky way of setting a title, but it worked better in practice.

When I use Simplenote, I focus on the content, not the formatting [1]. Nor the organisation, like titles. Simplenote gets out of your way and lets you focus on your thoughts, not the administrivia of using the app. The product design and UX of Simplenote are very well thought out [2].

I used Simplenote for years. Once I accumulated too many notes in Simplenote, I added tags to organise them. At one point, I probably had a couple of dozen notes with each tag.

I did have the problem of finding untagged notes, because I occasionally like to review my notes to see if any of them need acting upon. In this screenshot

there's an All Notes view, but no Untagged Notes view. How do I find notes that don't have any tag like health, requirements or money? I can't. They are lost. I can't review them to see what notes I have, or to see if any of them needs acting on.

Despite this problem, I was happy using Simplenote.

You can pin a note to keep it at the top. This is useful for my shopping list. I use it the most frequently, so always want it at the top. When I used a notes that doesn't support pinning, I found that the Buy list would sometimes be pushed down by other notes, requiring me to hunt for it. With pinning, it's always in the same place, for consistent and convenient access.

Simplenote supports sharing: to share a note with someone, just tag the note with their email ID. Instead of tagging a note Financial, for example, I would tag it mom@gmail.com, to share it with mom. When I first heard of this, it felt like a hack, like they didn't bother to spend the time implementing a sharing dialog box.

But after using it, I found that Simplenote's sharing works just as well, and is simpler. No dialog boxes, no separate UI to see who can see a particular note, or to add another person, or remove a person. Like all of Simplenote, this feature is carefully designed to get the job done with the minimum overhead and bureaucracy.

If you accidentally edit a note, Simplenote has revision history [3].

But, as time went by, I found the need on multiple occasions to add a photo to notes. For example, when I listed different varieties of mangos and which ones I liked or didn't like, a photo is necessary to identify it in a shop, and confirm that I'm getting what I want. When I was traveling and staying in a corporate apartment that had a cycle park, they gave me a diagram of the layout of the garage, which roads it opens onto, where to enter, and where to park my cycle, which I wanted to attach to the relevant note. When I made a list of what features I was looking for in a fridge, and then went to a shop and photographed a fridge that seemed to meet my requirements, it would have helped to add it to the note, to keep it all in one place. When I make a list of thoughts for a blog post, I want to attach a screenshot to illustrate my point. And so on.

Absent that feature, I ended up emailing them to myself, storing them in Google Drive, etc. None of these are ideal solutions, and having to put things elsewhere that logically belongs as part of a note takes away from the point of a notes app. You now have to somehow link the two apps. It's hard to organise things this way, and you may not find them when you need it.

Formatting is still unimportant in a notes app. You can use dashes for bullets, caps to EMPHASISE a word in a sentence, use blank lines before and after headings to mark them as headings, and so on. You can number lists manually. Which is fine since I number lists rarely. I'll take a simpler app over one that supports a rarely-used feature.

Google Keep

Google Keep is the first major app that got this right — it supported images in notes.

It added an interesting new feature — Archive. When you're done with a note, but feel you may need to refer to it in the future, you can archive the note, so it disappears from view, but is still there if you need it later. It's interesting that the company that introduced archiving to the world, with email, brought it to notes.

In an app without archiving, like Simplenote, when I was done working on a note and I'm unlikely to use it again, I tend to manually archive the note by emailing the content to myself, and then deleting it in the notes app.

For example, I did a photography-related experiment: what's the longest shutter speed for which I could hold the camera steady, so that the photo isn't blurred? When I was doing the experiment, I took notes in Simplenote. I then repeated the experiment with a second lens, and updated the note with another section. And then with my third lens. I then went back and edited the note to present it in the form of conclusions rather than a raw data dump. I summarised and put the most important conclusions first. After a while, I didn't see a need to edit the note again, and I wasn't referring to it frequently, either. In fact, it sometimes came in the way of notes I was referring to frequently enough. So I emailed the content to myself and deleted it in Simplenote.

With Google Keep, I didn't have to do this convoluted dance. I didn't waste time moving my data from notes to email, which creates another problem: I never know where to search when I wanted to find something. I sometimes missed information I needed because I searched the wrong app and gave up. All these problems go away with Google Keep, where you can archive notes.

Besides archive, another great feature in Google Keep is reminders. You can set a reminder on a note. For example, I have to go to the bank tomorrow and have three tasks to do there. But I also need to be reminded tomorrow morning to go to the bank. With Google Keep, the reminder is associated with the note, as it should be. That's much better than independently setting a reminder in Inbox, or whatever other reminders app you use, or an alarm. Because then I'll try to recollect what exactly to do at the bank when I'd already noted it down.

In addition to archiving and reminders, Keep lets you copy a note to a Google doc. This is a great situation for when something outgrows a note. Yes, you can copy-paste a note into a Google doc, but "Copy to Google Doc" provides a smooth transition, rather than having the products be separate silos onto themselves. That makes no sense, when they're made by the same company. Since Google Docs's word processor is merely a more powerful version of Keep, they should work together to fulfill the user's goals, so that you can smoothly go the next level when needed.

Keep supports some features that Simplenote also does: tagging, pinning a note to the top, and sharing.

Unfortunately, Keep doesn't have the revision history Simplenote does. If I mistakenly edit a note and realise later, I've lost the data I need. Keep also takes a step back in having a separate title field.

Keep also has a few extraneous features, like the ability to color a note. While this does make the note stand out from the others, it doesn't remind you of what the color means. Was it meant as a reminder to act on it? If so, setting a reminder is better. Or is the color meant as a way of organisation. But that's confusing: If I have some red notes and some blue notes and some pink notes, which are related to finances? Photography? Travel? Colors are a bad way to organise notes. It also amounts to a separate method of organisation to tags. Why have both? One should be enough.

Keep supports checklists, which I don't use often and so find unnecessary. Or making a copy of a note, which can be done just as well by copy-paste.

Apple Notes

The main problem with Keep is that it doesn't have a Mac app [4], like Apple's Notes. I find native apps far better — they work offline, or on flaky connections. They're faster, since they sync in the background. Keep has an entry on the dock, so it's easier to launch or switch to. I can also Cmd-Tab to it, or open Spotlight and type "N" to open it. Which is far faster than opening a browser, remembering which of the four browsers I have is signed in to the correct Google account, opening a new tab, and typing "k" to autocomplete to keep.google.com. I can also use Spotlight to search for the data. For example, I have a note that lists the minimum balance I need to maintain in my bank account. I can open that by typing "minimum balance". That's far quicker than going through all the steps above to open Keep and then searching using its search box. Notes also appears in the macOS Share menu, unlike Keep, which lives in its own world, not integrated with the other apps on my Mac.

In cases like these, where web apps compete with native apps, web apps lose. Google's strategy of building web apps for the desktop works only so long as nobody builds a competing native app [5].

Notes is similar to Keep in some ways: both support photos and checklists but no revision history. All three apps can share a note with someone.

But Notes is also far more powerful in some ways. It supports three text styles — title, heading and text. And four types of lists — bulleted, numbered, dashed, and checklists:

Notes supports bold and italics, but only via keyboard shortcuts. There's no tool or button, so you wouldn't know that Notes supports bold and italic unless you tried it out. This makes it visually simpler than a heavy-weight app with an entire toolbar full of controls.

Notes supports photos like Keep does, but in a more powerful way: in Keep, photos are all shown together at the top of a note. Whereas in Notes, photos can be interspersed with text, so photos can appear when appropriate as you read the note. This give it a much more powerful word processor-style feel, as opposed to Keep, which feels like a plain text note, but with some photos at the top.

Notes goes beyond photos, and lets you attach any file to a note. This makes it extremely powerful. It can even replace some uses of email. A note in Notes is like an email to myself, with text, embedded images, and arbitrary attachments. But editable and stored in a more convenient place, for some reasons.

Along with all this power, you need good organisation. The more powerful an app is, the more data you put into it, and more complex data, which means that you should be able to retrieve all that data later, when needed, quickly. Notes has a three-column view, reminiscent of Apple's Mail app [6].

In particular, Notes lets you create folders [7] to group notes:

Here, I've created folders named Blog posts, Business, Requirements and Travel. Notes is the default folder where notes that don't belong to any other folder live. All iCloud shows me all my notes irrespective of what folder they're in. This is a great way to cut through the hierarchy when it's not required. Hierarchy should be there when you need it, but not come in the way otherwise.

Every app that supports tags should let you see both untagged items and all items. Simplenote and Keep make it easy to see all items, but not untagged items. Notes let you see both. It seems like a minor difference, but makes a big difference in practice. Getting the details right can make for a much better, much more usable product.

Talking of organisation, there's also an attachment browser to find the aforementioned attachments.

You can also lock a note with a password, which is a great idea for sensitive information like bank passwords and PINs.

The big problem with Notes is that it stores its data in iCloud, which I prefer not to use, for three different reasons.

One is that I don't want to lock myself into Apple's walled garden. However, since I'm using an iPhone, 13-inch iPad and Mac for now, I've permitted myself to use iCloud. When I buy a non-Apple device, whether Android or Windows, I'll immediately move my notes out of Notes to a cross-platform app.

The second problem with iCloud is that it has lost my data in the past — Apple's Photos app once deleted an album [8]. I don't fully trust it not to lose my data like I would trust, say, Google.

The third problem with iCloud is its poor security. Remember the iCloud celebrity hacking scandal?

But for now, I'm using Notes, for lack of a better alternative.


Simplenote is a great concept of a simple notes app, but falls short of what I need. Or most people, since adding photos to a note is a common thing to want to do.

Keep is more powerful, with photos, archiving, and reminders.

Apple Notes is even more powerful, with a native Mac app, inline photos, arbitrary attachments and powerful browing features. I think this level of power will work best for me.

It's three to see these three apps take three different approaches to features, in a spectrum of simple to complex.

[1] Unlike Google Docs's word processor, which makes me waste too much time on formatting.

[2] But the app lost my data on multiple occasions.

[3] But it doesn't work as well as it could have. It just keeps the last 10 revisions to each note. Once or twice, I've made a major edit to a note, and then made 10 subsequent minor edits (like formatting, correcting typos, or reorganising the note without changing the content). I then needed the earlier information, but it was gone.

The ideal fix is to keep all revisions, as Google Docs / Sheets / Slides do. It doesn't take much space in Simplenote, since it's only text.

The second best fix is to make sure at least some revisions are older. Like: keep a revision each from a year back, 6 months back, 3 months back and a month back. The remaining 6 revisions of 10 can be the latest ones.

[4] It does have a Chrome extension, but that's crappy. It loads notes slowly over the Internet, not instantly as you'd expect a native app to do (followed by syncing in the background).

The extension works only in Chrome, which may not be your primary browser. The extension badly breaks fundamental Mac UI conventions. For example, it has a dock entry, so appears to be a separate app, but pressing Cmd-Q quits Chrome. Why? If it's a separate app, pressing Cmd-Q should quit that app. Does pressing Cmd-Q in Safari quit Terminal? And if it's not a separate app, it shouldn't have its own dock entry.

Similarly, the Keep extension has a separate entry from Chrome in the Cmd-Tab menu, so you'd expect that selecting Keep there will switch to Keep and selecting Chrome will switch to Chrome. But selecting Chrome also sometimes switches to Keep. It's broken to have two separate entries in Cmd-Tab behave the same. But only sometimes, which is even worse.

Keep's Chrome extension is so bad that I uninstalled it in favor of the web site. At least the web site doesn't mess up basic Mac UI norms.

More generally, Chrome "apps" are a crappy substitute for real apps. Chrome extensions are fine, like AdBlock or Pocket. These work in the context of the page you're reading, extending its functionality. But Chrome "apps" suck.

[5] With obvious exceptions like Google Maps, which wins on the strength of its data, not the UI. Which is also good, by the way.

[6] Except that Notes is excellent, while Mail sucks.

[7] Folders aren't as powerful as tags in Simplenote or Keep, because you can apply multiple tags to a note. But I have never felt the need for that. Maybe this extra power doesn't matter in practice.

[8] Not the photos themselves, just the album. I'd spent some time organising a set of photos into an album, and they were all jumbled together again.

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