Why are so many apps so complex – Part 2

Feature Creep

Continued from Part 1

I want to start with a small rant. One fairly common user interface action that irks me is having to hover over an area to reveal a hidden icon which you then tap/click to reveal a toolbar or menu. I don’t know about you but I find this awkward at best.

You randomly move your mouse around and out of the blue some icon appears and if you don’t stop at just the right moment it disappears again.

It gets even worse on touch screen devices, like your smartphone, which have no concept of mouse hover. So the designers/developers have to come up with others ways of enabling the user to perform the actions that are behind these hidden icons.

The end result is a different user experience and user interface for the very same application across different devices. Rant over.

Creatively, A publication about creativity and productivity-boosting tools.

Philipp Temmel writes a fantastic weekly newsletter named Creatively which I can highly recommend. As I’ve said to Philipp I don’t know how he is able to produce such high quality, insightful content on a weekly basis.

Creatively issue 243 is what prompted to write these two articles. My plan was to write a short intro and then with Philipp’s permission, republish the opening part of issue 243. However as I started writing Part 1 I couldn’t stop, so here we are now with Part 2.

And now with Philip’s permission the excerpt I mentioned.

Hey and welcome to Creatively 243

I am observing a trend I am following unconsciously. Over the course of the last couple of months, I simplified loads of my workflows. Based on that, I also started using new tools, got rid of some I used previously, and explored different integrations. While it all was exciting when note-taking and PKM tools introduced “self-organizing by AI” and everyone screamed at me that I do not need to use folders, tags, or anything else, it is simplicity for me to organize my notes freely, following a simple system, knowing where I can find stuff if I am looking for it. As we are evolving Scrintal, introducing new features and functionalities, we want to be sure that everyone can get started taking notes, building up a knowledge base, and managing projects. There should be no need to take a course, read through docs, guides, or tutorials. If you have a dedicated system, you should be able to apply it, but if you have no system that should not hinder you from starting out.

Nowadays, there are loads of note-taking, PKM, and productivity tools which are forcing systems on you. As those apps get packed and bloated with features, the simplicity gets lost. Back in the day, taking notes was as easy as grabbing a pen and paper. You could jot down anything you wanted, whether it was a to-do list, an important meeting point, or just a random thought that popped into your head. It was simple, effective, and didn’t require a computer science degree to figure out. But then technology came along and disrupted everything. Suddenly, there were all these fancy note-taking apps that promised to revolutionize our lives. And sure, they did bring some cool features to the table. You could now organize your notes in different categories, add tags, and even sync everything across devices. It was like having a personal assistant in your pocket.

But here’s the thing: these apps got so caught up in trying to be the best, they forgot about the one thing that truly mattered – simplicity. They became bloated with unnecessary features, confusing menus, and an absurd number of customization options. Suddenly, taking a simple note turned into a complicated task that required a user manual. The same thing happened with PKM apps. They started off as a promising way to manage our personal knowledge, allowing us to store articles, links, and ideas in one place. It was like having an external brain to rely on. But then the developers decided to throw in a bunch of additional features – smart filters, complex search algorithms, and even machine learning. Suddenly, managing our knowledge became a PhD-level task.

And don’t even get me started on productivity apps. They used to be all about helping us stay organized and get things done. But now they bombard us with notifications, reminders, and all sorts of time-tracking features. It’s like they’re constantly breathing down our necks, making us feel guilty for not being productive every second of the day.

As of recently, I have the feeling that simplicity is making a comeback. Users are starting to realize that they don’t need all these complicated apps to be productive. They’re looking for tools that are intuitive, easy to use, and don’t require a steep learning curve. In the end, simplicity is not about dumbing things down or removing features. It’s about understanding what truly makes a tool useful and optimizing it for a seamless user experience.

This really resonates with me and the landscape I see. I encourage you to visit Creatively and Sign Up for the newsletter.

That’s it until next time.

Neville

PS. Follow us at X on Medium and on LinkedIn.

Why are so many apps so complex – Part 1

Feature Creep

Developing software to meet the diverse needs of a broad range of users is hard. You are continually be pulled in different directions and can eastly find yourself adding features your noisiest users want, only to find you’ve just complicated things for 90% of your users in order to satisfy that 10%.

Learn to say no

Designing software that is easy to use and delivers the functionality that the majority of your best users need is as much a craft as it is a science. As I recently posted on X, it is often times too easy to add a new feature (especially if you love writing code) and much harder to sit back, carefully weigh up the pros and cons and then conclude it is better not to add this feature, documenting the reasons why.

If you don’t carefully and thoughtfully follow this process you will most likely end up with a bloated, overly complex and hard to maintain application that may well be attractive to a small group of power users but not so the wider community. This could easily impinge on the success and longevity of the product.

Say no early and beware of hype cycles

Once you’ve built an application and have lots of users it can be extremely difficult to remove features or some would say cripple it. So you need to cull unnecessary features as early on as possible, or better still never include them.

With all the recent hype about AI, many applications have added some level of AI, so they get to join the AI hype bandwagon. In one case I’m aware of they’ve moved so heavily into AI that the app has morphed into something so different that the users are far from happy.

Experience counts

Having years of experience building user facing applications has made it easier for me to say no to creeping featuritis, code bloat and unnecessary complexity.

Having said that, every day I’m still learning and hopefully improving. In fact if I was to start Clibu Notes development today their are some user interface aspects I would do differently. Hindsight is such a wonderful thing.

Iterate and improve

Clibu Notes is our third generation of Note Taking application, each one a complete redesign and rewrite from the ground up. We started with a Windows only Desktop app, then a Cloud only Web app and now with Clibu Notes an application that works online in the cloud as well as completely offline. It can be installed like any native application on Windows, Mac, iOS, Android and Linux and also works in the Browser.

With each generation we’ve refined the user interface and we’ve made some quite major changes along the way. Each time the goal has been to try and further simplify the application and at the same time make it more useful.

Be current & take on big issues

To deliver on that premise Clibu Notes works across all of your devices, whether online or offline, merges all changes automagically and has the same clear and consistent user interface and user experience on all devices.

In my opinion many applications are stuck in an old way of software development. Separate apps are built for each platform, Mac, Windows etc. And often the user interface and user experience differs across platforms, especially on smartphones and tablets, assuming they support these.

Progressive Web Applications are a win win.

Progressive Web Applications (PWAs) work across all modern platforms and completely bypass having to build separate applications for each one. With a PWA you have a single unified, platform agnostic, code base which simplifies all aspects of the application.

Designing Clibu Notes as a PWA from the ground up was a clear and obvious choice. The benefits to us and our users are truly significant.

Continued in Part 2.

Neville

Aside:

I’m now publishing our Blog articles on Medium. You can subscribe to those via this link and see our articles on Medium with this link.

PS. Follow us at X on Medium and on LinkedIn.

Offline PKM has real and measurable benefits

Recently a Clibu Notes user had an issue which unfortunately caused Clibu Notes to crash. At that time we hadn’t got around to making Clibu Notes crash resistant. This quickly resulted in user emails telling me the server was down, which I was also aware of through our monitoring tools.

This brings me to the point of this post and that is no matter what happens with the Clibu Notes server (and in future your own hosted Clibu Notes server) life goes on pretty much as normal due to Clibu Notes ability to run with full functionality without an Internet connection.

Knowing that you still have full access to all of your notes and can edit them, create new notes, rearrange the tree etc. is wonderfully liberating. In the scenario above, as soon as the server was up and running again all changes were updated across all devices. Even edits of the same notes on different devices merge and are once more unified.

Online only applications

When applications only run on a remote server all work grinds to a halt when you lose your Internet connection or the server goes down for whatever reason.

Offline applications

On the other hand applications that run only locally will of course keep running, but these typically don’t have the ability to seamlessly merge changes or enable concurrent editing of content on multiple devices or by multiple users.

Clibu Notes – the best of both online and offline

It is clear to me that if you want the peace of mind knowing your content is always available, can always be updated and added to across all of your devices, regardless of whether you are connected to the Internet or not then applications with the level off offline support Clibu Notes has are a must.

You can check how applications you maybe using compare with Clibu Notes offline functionality with the following:

Works without
Internet
Collaborative
Editing
Devices update in realtime*Awareness
Offline OnlyYesNoNoNo
Offline + SyncYesNo (1)No (2)No
OnlineNoNo (3)MaybeMaybe
Clibu NotesYesYes (4)Yes (5)Yes

* Awareness shows you other users/devices who are online, where they are editing and what changes they have made.

1) Edits on different devices will typically overwrite each other, losing content.
2) Synchronizing changes for offline apps is unlikely to be fine grained and and make take some time.
3) Unlikely to support real collaborative editing of the same content at the same time. Similar issue to (1).
4) The same note can be edited by any user on any device and all changes will eventually coalesce to the same content. This is regardless of whether a user is online or not.
5) When online, otherwise as soon as they go online.

Eventually consistent content

In order to update all changes from all users whether they were made offline or online, we need code the appears to work like magic. This includes edits to exactly the same content on different devices.

We get this magic from CRDT’s or Conflict-free Replicated Data Types. Discussing CRDT’s here is well beyond the scope of the article, however I can highly recommend a series of articles by Jake Lazaroff, starting with An Interactive Intro to CRDTs.

Conclusion

If you want to be able to access all of your notes, add new notes and edit notes on your Smartphone, Tablet or Desktop PC wherever you are, whether you have an Internet connection or not, then Clibu Notes is the solution you need.

PS. Clibu Notes is now Crash resilient. This means that if there is a serious issue which takes the server down it will automatically restart.

PPS. Clibu Notes V0.72.030 has just been released, and continues our steady stream of new releases. See the Release Notes in the Help for details.

How I use Clibu Notes

I’ve been asked to provide some information on how I use Clibu Notes on a day to day basis. Hopefully this article will help you get some ideas to fit into your note taking workflow, whether you are using Clibu Notes or a similar Knowledge Management application.

I use Clibu Notes for several purposes.

Research

Research is one important area. When I invest time in researching an area of particular interest, I want to ensure that what I’ve found is retained and readily accessible. The last thing I want is to have to do the same painstaking research all over again.

This might be about recommended places to visit for a future trip, detailed information I need to keep for specific development work on software projects such as Clibu Notes. Or information to help improve my Golf game or Fitness and maintaining a happy and healthy life.

Find it once, keep it forever and access it anywhere. You get the idea.

Research

Project Tracking

Next is tracking the work I’m doing. What new features am I considering, how useful are they to the broader community, how much will they cost to implement, can they be justified and what priority are they given.

When a new feature is in development I also track it’s progress, and ensure Help and other documentation is written for it.

Then there is a need to track bugs, usability and other issues.

I also track and keep notes on work around the house and things that need to be done.

Project Tacking

Planning

We like to travel, especially overseas and these trips take considerable planning. This something I do with my wife, so we share and collaborate on the various tasks. It is a combination of research and detailed checklists.

These tend to be intense periods of work which happen infrequently and are very important to us.

Planning

Experiences

When we’ve been to a nice restaurant, drank a bottle of wine we particularly like, visited an unusual and interesting place, we keep notes so we can remember to enjoy these again at some point.

Notes of places we’ve taken for trip planning will find their way here for the ones that stand out. Often times the memories you bring back home are as important as the original visit.

Trees and Work Spaces

In the examples above I’ve shown how I organize my notes using Clibu’s Notes Tree. However not everyone wants to organize their notes in a hierarchy and Clibu Notes in no way forces you to. You can even hide the tree, so you never see it.

For those of you who prefer a flat structure I recommend having a set of top level tree items to organize your notes into collections. This will enable you create (Work) Spaces for each collection.

Spaces enable you to segment the tree and focus on a single branch of notes.

When a space is selected the tree and notes list/grid only shows notes in that that space. Search and Filters are restricted to notes in the space. You can still open linked notes, which are outside the current space.

Nitty Gritty

In order to produce notes that function well for me I make heavy use of backlinks, which enable me to navigate between related notes. Note icons and colors to visually locate notes. Search and less so Filters to drill down to specific sets of notes. I use the My Order view along with drag and drop to arrange the tree just how I want it. And Date views to see notes in a timeline. Spaces to segment the tree into actionable work areas.

A Note with Links, Backlinks & Collapsed blocks

When editing I use a mix of markdown and toolbar functionality for text formatting. Task lists, well for tasks. Drag and drop to reorder lists, block select & move to reorder blocks, details for collapsible blocks and text highlighting. I typically have two note editors open.

I’ll Archive notes that I want to keep, but that are no longer of interest in the context of my current day to day work.

Smartphones & Tablets

On my phone and tablets Clibu Notes is installed as a Progressive Web App (PWA) and added to the home screen. A single tap then opens it. When I’m primarily consuming content, I’ll tap the Editable icon on the bottom bar to prevent any accidental changes.

Using Clibu Notes to take short notes on my phone is very convenient. I’ll typically flesh them out when I’m back on a device with a physical keyboard.

Knowing that Clibu Notes automagically synchronizes changes down to the character level, across all devices is and I’ll repeat magically liberating. Along with the ability to work offline, which is a must in todays mobile world.

Note on Smartphone + Search

To finish up

There are no hard and fast rules about how you use a PKM app like Clibu Notes. Different people have very different ideas about what works best for them and ways of accomplishing that.

You need to sit down and work through your requirements and then see if you can find an application that meets those criteria, or at least comes close.

Think about how you want to structure and organize your notes, but don’t stress over it. Your PKM of choice should make it easy to restructure and reorganize your notes, as the need arises and as you and it grow together.

Unfortunately a common trait is to spend too much time and effort organizing notes. Think more about note retrieval – how can I quickly locate a specific note or set of notes and the notes that are related to them. What tools does my PKM provide to assist in fast and accurate note retrieval.

There are plenty of Youtube videos on organizing notes. Some are focused on specific applications and others more generic or focusing on a methodology. 

Tiago Forte is quite prolific in this area. This is a new video on his PARA method. A methodology called the Zettelkasten method has received quite a bit of attention the last few years.

The ways that people are using PKM’s is exploding in much the same way that PKM applications are.

I hope you’ve gleamed something useful from this article. Please do leave a comment below and follow us on Twitter (now X)

And if you haven’t signed up to use Clibu Notes yet, please do give it a try. We’d love to get your feedback.

– Neville

Clibu Notes, Preview Release is live

I’m pleased and excited to let everyone know that we have launched the Clibu Notes Preview release.

Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) applications have really taken off and blossomed over the past few years to the point where you have a plethora of choices, so why Clibu Notes.

Clibu Notes is the third generation and evolution of PKM software that we have developed, each one building on and refining what came before it. We can actually go back further, but that is another story.

With Clibu Notes we’ve strived to present a simple, effective and attractive application. We see these as its core strengths. Content seamlessly updates across all devices in real time and feels quite magical. This gives you a freedom you’ve unlikely ever had before. And if you don’t have an Internet connection everything just works. Content magically synchronizes and merges once you are back on line. Multiple people can even edit the same notes either on or offline and all changes will be magically resolved.

Clibu Notes goes beyond PKM, meeting the needs of Teams with full concurrent editing of the same notes at the same time.

Simple to use doesn’t mean sacrificing capabilities. Clibu Notes delivers a rich and more than capable set of PKM features and we’re not done yet.

Clibu Notes works across all of your devices, Smartphones, Tablets and Desktop PC’s. It works in the Browser and can be installed as a native application. Updates happen automatically.

For more information and to sign up for early access see the new clibu.com website.

– Neville Franks