A few months ago, I switched from Evernote to Notion for online writing and notetaking because I prefer Notion’s text editor. (Multiple indents in a bullet list causes problems for me in Evernote — not so for Notion). I was just using Notions to create notebooks with text docs in them, but I recently realized that I can use Notion to create a perfectly customized and deeply rich and powerful environment for my workflows, and it’s given me a glimpse at what Notion may grow to become.
At its most basic, Notion lets you 1) create pages that can be linked and nested together and 2) save entries into a database, with custom attributes, that can be displayed in a number of formats (spreadsheet, calendar, kanban board, etc). Check out their product page to see demos of the core functions.
This is deceptively simple. So much so that it took me a few months of using Notion to realize how powerful those core features are. In some sense it doesn’t look good for them (or maybe me?) that it took so long for this to click, but I think it’s actually a testament of Notion as a tool limited primarily by it’s user’s imagination. The last time I encountered something like that was when I was first learning to code. That’s a big claim, but the flexibility of what Notion offers is incredible — I’ll explain.
A page is a space that you can fill with blocks. Blocks can be blocks of text (plain text, headers, numbered lists, quotes, to do lists, etc.) or media like images, links, etc. When I’m writing or taking notes, the page is full of just these media blocks, but blocks can do a lot more than create text documents. A block can be a link to a nested sub-page or a link to a page somewhere else in your workspace. A block can be a collapsing box that contains… more blocks. You can embed files, iframes, and databases. You can create custom-width columns on a page. You can create templates of block layouts, including new page templates.
They provide examples to jog your imagination for combining these features. The notes use case is pretty simple — make a table for your writing, and each entry will have a page (yes, pages can be attributes of a database entry!) and, for example, tags, notes, etc. You can keep track of to-do’s with a checklist or as cards on a “Next Up”→”In Progress”→”Completed” workflow board. You can build a webpage-like experience for a knowledge base/wiki. The database features let you create, for example, a CRM and switch between custom views of leads in a table, on a calendar, and on a kanban board.
There’s no file upload limit on the paid plan, so you could use it for cloud storage, and unlike with Dropbox, you’re not limited by the file cabinet analogy of file storage. You can arrange your files however you like, include notes, put them alongside other relevant pages, or put them in a database. Same thing for web links and other media. Notion lets you take anything from on your computer, around the web, or inside your head and organize it, however feels most natural to you, in relational databases throughout a network of pages.
That core feature set, which is already built, can replace notes+docs apps, team wikis, basic task management software, basic spreadsheet and database apps, bookmark tools, and cloud storage — all in one place. And I’m probably forgetting or failing to imagine a few other uses. They call it the all-in-one workspace. This is the first crazy cool thing about Notion: No longer is your digital life or your work life fractured between different single-purpose applications. Everything you could want is exactly where and how you want it, online or offline.
A basic problem with consumer software tools is that they would me more powerful by an order of magnitude if they were seamlessly integrated together, but creating a multi-tool workflow with integrations across the board is extremely rare and always limited. The experience of the super user is of worming around limitations rather than building around needs. The productivity tool space is fractured because user experience depends on the scope of the workflow that the tool can handle and how it suites the particular user’s design and workflow preferences. It’s annoying to have a tool that can do notes but can’t interact with your bookmarks or can do task lists but isn’t integrated with your calendar. Google and Apple have the widest product ecosystem. Most people use one or the other for email, cal, some files, and some notes, but these tools don’t harmonize well. I’m not complaining, but they were clearly built by separate teams in a large company. And there are tools built by independent teams that I’ve signed up for and never used again, not because they didn’t have the functionality that I needed, but because I didn’t like how they put it all together. No one can find a stack of tools that meets their precise preferences and integrates well together, so they just go with Google or Apple which could be better but win on their ecosystem. Notion gives you the core building blocks to create anything, however you want, so you can build the entire ecosystem that you need (scope) to your your taste and preference. Notion is the ultimate productivity product because it can provide the full scope and cater to any taste. Notion lets you build a beautiful mind palace in cyberspace and then turn it into a factory.
Letting the user be the architect of their digital mindspace is the second crazy cool thing about Notion. The basic building blocks of Notion, which enable powerful multipurpose workflows, are accessible to non-technical users. It’s similar to Scratch, the block based visual programming language. Notion let’s anyone create their own software and customized workflows without even realizing that’s what they’re doing. The flexibility of their basic features can cover the functionality, in some form or another, of almost any productivity tool you use today, solving the problem of integration between siloed tools, and that same flexibility lets users fit the pieces together however they like, solving the problem of diverse user preferences. I think that this is Notion’s core product innovation.
The idea that the words I typed were part of “blocks” threw me off at first, but when I learned how to create things out of blocks, things that only I would need, it really blew my mind. Blocks are primitives that can be combined to create things that the product designers wouldn’t have imagined. Like how playing cards are a set of structured symbols that games can be made around, AWS is an ecosystem of services that can be made into large, diverse, specialized products, a screen is a grid of dots that can change colors to display anything, or minecraft began as an environment of simple cubes that can be used for adventure, building, or storytelling. Unlocking creativity requires design that’s willing to sacrifice control to the user.
If Notion already lets you rebuild your favorite productivity tools, what might Notion become? This is the third crazy cool thing. Notion represents the further unlocking of Technomagic Possibility.
Technology levers human intelligence and enables capabilities, physically and cognitively, that couldn’t have been preconceived. Consider what language did for thought itself, and what writing did for language. The “office of the future” has surpassed the physical paper, typewriter, and filing cabinet paradigm on most dimensions, but also created new dimensions. Multiple people concurrently editing the same document, remote access, multimedia integration were all entirely new capabilities — that’s Technomagic Possibility. The technomagic of yesteryear becomes commonplace eventually, of course; trains and telegraphs were once technomagic. And if you want to build a successful consumer product, you should minimize bewildering technomagic elements by couching them in the commonplace. We can wax poetic today about how the iPhone isn’t a phone at all but a pocket computation and internet communication device, but at the time, the phone analogy was essential. Similarly, productivity tools have developed conceptually from the pre-computer office, right down to the desktop metaphor and filing cabinet filesystem of the personal computer.
I have to believe that there is Technomagic Possibility yet to squeeze out of the microprocessor, graphical interface, and internet, and breaking out of the workflow paradigms of the office of the past is key to unlocking that potential. An LCD can display anything, there’s no reason to be limited by form. By finding a flexible, powerful, and accessible alternative to the UX metaphors of the past, Notion can lever human intelligence in new ways and along new dimensions of Technomagic Possibility. Notion can be the place where you and/or your team can create and edit data without limits on what form that takes — a file system + a WYSIWYG html editor + a database creation and visualization tool, all accessible to non-technical users. Imagine a workspace where your files can live next to your bookmarks and your notes about them, and where you can organize these collections however you want, in hierarchies or in linked networks. It’s the digital experience refactored, made malleable. Notion is a trip; it dissolves boundaries. The old masters would love Notion. Notion is the intuitive, unverbalizable idea from the 1960s of what cyberspace would let us do. Totally cyberdelic.