Note taking might be one of the most straightforward app capabilities to design for. I think this naturally skews the execution of any note tool toward minimalism, utilitarian principles that most apps adopt. However, what separates the preferred note taking app from the rest is how fruitful complexities are built into the experience that caters to an individual’s needs. I took a look at how multiple note taking apps built on top of what was expected to create a niche for their product and possibly for me, someone looking for a place to take notes.
Taking notes (digitally) has been an ongoing journey. I’ve jumped across apps looking for something that is accessible, simple to jump in yet robust to organize my notes so that I can go back and study what I jotted down. The content within notes can be as quick and temporary as a grocery list or as thoughtful and semi-permanent as a thought. Thoughts across individual notes can be tied together to form concepts which just keeps adding on to the database of knowledge stored in the tool. This is what I look for in a note taking app.
Before the audit I was already using some standard apps including Keep, Evernote, Notion, Notes from Apple but I wanted to explore other apps that would better help me take down notes while reading books. I had been using physical notebooks but I figured a more durable, mobile medium might help me write and keep track of notes. I took the top note taking apps listed on the Play Store: SimpleNote, BlackNote, ColorNote, and FiiNote. Each app strives to provide a no-fuss note taking app that cuts straight to the chase, however, the differentiation is created in the details of the experience. Below I’ve noted overall takeaways from my audit and callouts to some delightful experiences.
Achieving simplicity by focusing on the main task
The typical design brief will almost always include the word ‘simple’. I think the word often creeps in as a result of a minimalist ethos that denotes efficiency for users as well as for the bottom line. However, actually implementing ‘simple’ is a harder exercise which is left up to designers to define and iterate on. The note taking apps I looked at executed simplicity by focusing on the user’s main task: quickly scribbling a note.
While it is much easier to conceive simplicity in note taking apps compared to a video streaming app or a news app, I think design can easily run wild in the execution. Being ‘simple’ might start to feel curt and look incomplete so more is tacked on at the expense of the user. To focus on the main task of an experience is to make sure the user’s goal is achieved precisely by making the fundamental functions the heroes of an experience with a supporting cast of secondary functions that add value.
Each note taking app let me cut straight to the chase to add a note through a call to action button on the home screen that led me to a plain screen displaying my typed text in big, bold letters. There were instances when minimalist design patterns hindered the experience, for example, figuring out the grouping models for each (tagging, color system, non-existent) was awkward when there was no clear affordance to tag a note. Some of my experiences could have benefitted from a quick onboarding which a few apps I audited took advantage of.
Onboard customers (not just users)
Landing on a new experience might cause a dazed feeling from trying to orient oneself amongst the nav bars, icons, and structure of information. I’ve found hard landings can be softened by a delightful onboarding flow that catches users and glides them along the main details users need to know. This onboarding experience can be a critical factor for users understanding the value of the app and converting from an auditor to a customer.
ColorNotes does a great job with their onboarding experience even if it felt exhaustive. On launch, the app took me through a step by step process of creating a note that was actually saved as my first note. Not only did I grasp how much more robust this app was in comparison but I had also created something that built a connection to the product (somewhat akin to the IKEA effect). Two important questions to evaluate an onboarding flow: 1) Does the information adequately prepare users to take advantage of the app? 2) How does the onboarding experience encourage adoption?
What each app did the best
Below are standout aspects for each app I audited:
- SimpleNote came out as the vanilla flavor of the bunch for its clean, sans-frills UX/UI. The app sticks to notes and gets it (mostly) right which leaves room to build more on top.
- BlackNote is an example of how designing for users at one end of a spectrum can yield exciting results for all. The app carved out a niche in dark themes and ran with it to create a visually supportive app.
- Aside from its onboarding experience, ColorNotes provides the most categories to organize notes. From colors, tags, modified time, created time, reminder time the app has enough models to satisfy the pickiest of organizers.
- Since I was focused on typed notes I hadn’t thought of the variety of forms a note might take. FiiNote thought of this and provides tools to create audio, typed, photos and even a digital whiteboard where ideas can float freely.
Though every app I audited has great individual strengths I don’t think I’ll ever find the one note taking app that will satisfy every need. This begs the question: Should an app ever strive to be the one? Especially for a task like note taking, the apps follow in the tradition of physical notebooks that were often kept separate according to subject and/or purpose. I think this is because we’re in different mindsets across purposes—writing in a diary will be a completely different headspace than when I’m jotting notes for a book. The structure of our tools complements the mindset we’re in, however, instead of the physical choices between college ruled, dotted, pad, legal we think about the digital choices of categorizing, information structure, and affordances.