Before Notion, I don’t think I was ever happy logging my workouts or making sure I was making progress on action items. Now? I keep Notion open on my desktop and look for reasons to use it — and trust me, there are infinite reasons to use it.
Who am I and what’s my problem?
I’m an MBA student and trying to organize my life without the structure of a 9 to 5 job. At a corporate job, there are tools and an orientation for processes and best practices, so we don’t miss a beat.
But at home? My life was being pulled in completely different directions. As a student, I was a part of:
- clubs where I was planning a conference to creating a website
- classes where professors assigned work at high frequency due at different dates
- a dating pool, in which a curated list of places would have saved time wasted on researching
- a job hunt with a growing network, applications, interviews
- the daily grind of errands
To tackle the above, I downloaded and used Trello to track jobs, Todoist to manage quick errands and classes, Google Calendar for events and classes, and my trusty Apple designed notepad for adhoc thoughts and miscellaneous items.
So how did this affect me?
- Separation of action items: difficult to find across multiple platforms, inability to roll up into one overall prioritized list.
- Excess energy spent on categorizing action items across apps, because if improperly categorized or written, I also risked losing context and meaning.
- Most importantly, I was constantly running from meetings to classes to interviews, context-switching at a moment’s notice, with notes scattered and minimal time for debriefing insights.
Notion: what is it and what is it trying to achieve?
Beautifully designed in a minimalistic fashion, Notion bills itself as an ‘all in one workspace’. You can write notes, build an action items board, manage your calendar, and build a wiki for each part of your life. It does this by using ‘blocks’. A block allows you to write markdown text, insert a table, or embed media content.
Notion is Legoland, and the ‘blocks’ are the bricks. So it’s up to you to either follow their instructions (Notion hands you around 15 different templates to get started) or go off on your own and build something unique to organize your life and workflow.
Notion has two main challenges: acquisition and activation.
Primarily popular in tech communities, Notion’s user base is still niche when compared to Evernote’s (225 million — https://evernote.com/about ) or Trello’s (25 million in 2017 — https://www.drift.com/blog/trello/ ) user base; the app has a long way to go.
Moreover, Notion is a difficult product to wrap around one’s head once you’ve signed up. You’re dropped into a blank page with the option of starting from templates, but many struggle to build a page or customize one to fit their needs (thus, the many youtube tutorial videos for a workspace app). This is because apps have long dictated type of input unlike Notion. So if people find Notion difficult to navigate at the start, then Notion typically will lose them as a future paying customer.
Why do I love Notion?
Those who use it absolutely love it. In a survey I ran this week, 70% of respondents stated that they would be “very disappointed” if they could no longer use Notion, indicating a tight product market fit. Moreover, you may have come across several articles titled similar to “why Notion is the app to watch in 2018” or statements like “In my view they’re the biggest step forward in productivity apps since Excel was released.”
How has it personally delighted me?
In my opinion, a product delights me when it helps me perform a job to be done in an exceptional manner. In my life there are three primary jobs to be done, and the following explains how Notion goes above and beyond for each:
- Notion helps me think and inspires free form thought
- Notion helps me organize and manage anything, professional or personal
- Notion helps me surface insights and take actions quickly and in a timely manner
#1 Inspiring free form thought
When I open up a new Notion Page, it’s completely blank and devoid of any extraneous information. With its beautiful markdown, it helps me just get started and write anything that comes to mind. It makes me feel as if I can just keep writing and writing without judgement — akin to a journal.
Notion has also wonderfully hidden away functionality until a user types ‘/’. There I can find additional functionality like bullet points or design flourishes such as adding color to my text to make an important point.
Moreover, because I know that I can customize and structure these notes later with ‘blocks’, I feel even more empowered than when using a notepad to write at will. This resonates true especially when I’m using Notion on my mobile phone. This is because I will have random non-linear thoughts as I’m jostling around in a subway and they can go into Notion with full confidence that I can rearrange these pieces of information with ease, just by dragging and dropping, for it to make sense later.
Overall, the design with minimal flourishes result in my keeping the app open as more of a decorative element on my screen. I look for reasons to type something into Notion, just to interact with all of what it has to offer.
#2 Organizing anything and everything
As I mentioned before, any thoughts I have can start free form but I don’t have to just stop at dragging and re-arranging these thoughts for them to make sense. Instead, Notion gives me the power of building them into long lasting structures such as: calendars, kanban boards and lists.
For my classes, I can create a calendar for when the classes are, and when assignments might be due. For my dating life, I can create a curated list of restaurants as a table, and then have it be transformed into a gallery if so choose. For my job seeker life, I can create a Kanban like board for tracking jobs, but then also create a CRM to manage relationships.
The value of this is that:
- These pages, calendars, lists, CRMs, and Kanban boards all live next to each other — making the ability to find information quickly as I switch between tasks and action items.
- I can freely move information around Notion as my workflows change. For example, if I want to move a job that I’ve written into a table instead onto a Wiki, I can do that.
In a poll I ran this week, 7 out of 10 people said the main benefit of Notion was an “organized place for everything”.
I can organize any bit of my life in any number of configurations or conformations on Notion. It’s ‘lego like’ structure results in endless customizability.
#3 Drawing insights and taking action quickly
Last but certainly not least, Notion helps me draw insights and quickly take action. The following are ways it does this:
- I can transform any note into a reminder by adding ‘@’ which pulls up a calendar and times. This is especially helpful when I’m sending emails to manage my jobs and personal relationships that I maintain in a CRM in Notion.
- The ‘Marie Kondo’ view as I call it or the ‘Gallery’ view as they call it helps me to quickly pan over unimportant notes because my search is visually driven instead of textually driven.
- Notion also allows me to setup a relational database, which I’ve used to link my club members table to the club’s finance table. This helps me track who’s paid dues or donated money in different years, but also relate that to our club’s yearly spend ultimately giving me visibility over if we need to ramp up fundraising efforts.
- Since Notion is essentially Legoland, I can update my Notion setup so that it fits my workflow as it changes over time. For example, at Dorm Room Fund, I had initially setup my research into different partner initiatives as one single table called ‘Research’. But over time, each initiative required a different implementation and different sharing settings, and so I divided my partner initiatives into different and separate pages all living on the front page of the wiki below. I did this in less than 30 seconds and it helps me quickly contribute to different projects.
Market Players and Trends
A new generation of content creation, collaboration, and productivity tools are utilizing the concept of ‘building blocks like lego’ which allows for never before seen functionality. In that vein, the main competitors to Notion, in my opinion, are Coda and Airtable.
A few trends are:
- Bringing data and text closer together resulting in more powerful insights
- Building a rules layer over the notes and the data so that you can make your own apps that live inside the productivity app
- Being able to trigger external apps or events through workflows, notes or buttons inside the productivity app
Where can Notion improve?
In order to get a better understanding of pain points and to get a better feel for how others were using Notion, I reviewed and reflected upon my survey results, my own experiences, Notion’s twitter account, reddit comments, Notion Pages and other blog posts.
Acquisition: “Displaying up front value proposition for invitations”
Problem: Currently when I invite a non-Notion user to my page, she or he is annoyed about using an entirely new product. This is worsened by how Notion handles ‘invites’. As it is today, once invited, a new user has to first sign up, answer an on-boarding questionnaire, and get past a screen pitching different versions of Notion, to finally see the page I invited them to.
Improvement: Instead, upon invite, the non-notion user should be dropped directly into the page she or he was invited to and allowed to play around with the page for at least 30 seconds. At which point, Notion can initiate its traditional user sign up flow written above, starting with the ‘sign up’ pop up.
Activation: “Improving on-boarding with relevant templates displayed in a showroom”
Problem: People are having a difficult time quickly understanding how to start on Notion. The current templates are very tech community focused, and if Notion intends to expand to the masses, it needs to meet them where they are.
They say listen to your users if they are developing workarounds for something you’ve haven’t yet built. Right now, people are sharing their ‘setups’ on Notion Pages as a way to help others setup their own Notion.
Improvement: Show a showroom full of tagged and use-case driven templates sourced from Notion Pages during on-boarding as an MVP. If there is increased activation, then transition into improving quality of templates. This improvement was requested by 3 out of 10 people in my survey.
Acquisition: “Create and display landing pages to the world as if they were websites” + “Built on Notion”
They say to pay attention to your users when they’re doing something new and unexpected with the platform you’ve built for them. Some Notion users have started to use Notion as a way to host their resumes online.
Improvement: Many people use landing pages and cover pages as a way to inform a wide audience to an event and/or to collect RSVPs. If people can do this on Notion and they invite others and saw that these were ‘Built on Notion’, it would serve as a viral way to attract new users to the platform. To accomplish this Notion needs to the following:
- Extend the header image downwards to fit the entire page, and then still allow for the blocks to be written on top, a person can make free landing pages.
- Create a ‘text field’ block that can take input
- Create a ‘Can Fill’ option under the Share: Public Access portion
Altogether, someone can create a landing page, and share it to the masses.
Retention: Achieve parity by flushing out functionality
Lastly, many users are looking for the existing functionality, namely calendars and tables in Notion, to be flushed out. 4 out of 10 users in my survey requested Google Calendar integration and full formula support in tables. If Notion can improve on these issues, they can come much closer to achieving parity with existing competitors.
And that’s all folks! Notion is an amazing tool, and I’m so so glad that someone came along and decided to build it. And I hope moving forward, they come to making some of the suggested improvements so that more people are welcomed into the Notion community. ❤
Last but not least, thank you to everyone who answered my surveys!