Welcome to the Note Taking Apocalypse

In a sea of apps, what matters most when taking notes?

macOS App Store — Search Term ‘Note Taking’

If you’re like me then you’ll have found yourself often standing at the front door of your app store staring at the sheer wall of note taking applications that are available at the moment. Variety and diversity of any type of application is usually a good thing, it allows you to try out different combinations that suit your needs and style, you can find what works for you and what doesn’t.

Yet a plethora of productivity options is often far worse than no choice at all.

I’m an organiser. I like to keep the words I write collected in specially labelled drawers, for the time that I need to quickly find a specific piece of text I wrote months ago without having to hunt through multiple folders (or god forbid hard drives).

I’m also a believer in keeping research and writing a little separated so I don’t end up writing more backstory than actual story. Personally I use a self-hosted wiki (Dokuwiki) for my research and exploratory writing, and use Ulysses as my premier writing application when I’m getting down prose.

Naturally, an app store full of note taking applications that offer me ways to better categorise, tag, collect, and manage my thoughts and words is going to be like offering a junkie a crack buffet. So being the kind of person who always looks for an edge in optimising the way I organise my notes I’ve trekked down many odd and dispirit paths on the journey to the ultimate note taking app.

The choices you have to select from are incredibly vast. From uncomplicated apps like SimpleNote with tiny footprints, right up to the immense behemoth that is Microsoft OneNote, there are plenty of options.

The hardest part for anyone remotely interested in a solution among this immense array of software is that each and every note taking app developer to date has decided to reinvent the wheel every time they’ve turned on their compiler. It gets even worse once you open the door on purpose-specific note taking applications.

Thankfully tags are a fairly common mainstay of note taking offerings and certainly seem to operate the same across most (if not all) apps, but beyond tags you quickly get bogged down in app specific nomenclature and paradigms set forth by a developer attempting to improve the world. This causes disparate, bespoke, and sometimes bizarre features to leak into their software which only serves to polarise users.

Note taking is an incredibly personal thing. What works for you may not work for another, yet conversely may work for others, and this is where the conjecture is formed surrounding the different applications available to us.

When it’s all boiled down there are a few things a note taking app needs to absolutely nail, but tack-on features don’t make the cut.

Frictionless and gets out of the way

First, and foremost, it needs to feel frictionless. The single biggest detractor to any note taking app is the need to faff about solving minor niggling issues. Things like copy and paste that gives the user choice to preserve or ignore formatting is a tiny little issue that can save a user an absolute ton of rework when moving from an older platform. Similarly not preserving copied links causes much the same kind of headache. Other things like poor image and file support, clunky search and lack of speed all cause friction.

Getting out of the way also means excellent platform integration that allows a user to use the note taking software in the way they expect, and not in the way a lazy developer demands.

Customisable, flexible organisation

Now this is something that is a little contentious among developers.

Like I mentioned at the start of this article I like my notes to be highly organised so I can find them at a moments notice. But not everyone works in the same way. Some people prefer a single flat structure and use tagging and search to surface their notes.

Often the reasons why people dislike a piece of note taking software is because they feel they are being bent into a shape they’re not used to and forced to use the paradigms present in the particular piece of software rather than a more preferred method. This is where the flexible organisation is a must. It should work for the user in a way that helps them succeed, not break them by demanding they conform to the developers preference.

The right to chose a better theme

I know this is a huge.

Most people do not enjoy staring into the sun… so why send them blind while using your note taking app?

When you open a note taking app the predominant thing on screen is space to write. Making that space ‘operating system default white’ may seem like a good idea at first, but like staring into the sun it quickly hurts.

I don’t like squinting at my notes.

It needs wiki-like superpowers

If there is one feature that excels above all others in information software of the past two decades that deserves its place in the note taking pantheon, its the humble double bracketed internal link.

We all recognise power to store and retrieve information at will, but when you combine this power with the ability to successfully create new knowledge trees from existing documents, to follow thoughts in a ‘stream of consciousness’ non-linear fashion then individual notes transform from multiple static word-silos into a living information system system.

Sadly, this is the one major feature that is always neglected, or is piecemeal at best… and one time note taking king Evernote is to blame.

Evernote had long been the gold standard of note taking, flexible, functional and best of all affordable. While its user interface was a little odd at times, the features were excellent, but they made the simple mistake of not enabling wiki style internal links. Instead, they required a user to copy a note link from one note and paste it into another.

This is a trend that other note taking software developers have seemingly taken to heart as quite a number of top-tier apps now emulate this somewhat novel but far from useful feature.

While this seems to give the same end result, it doesn’t achieve the effect that Ward Cunningham intended when he began to develop some of the first Wiki Software.

Cunningham first developed the ability to automatically create internal links (read: new notes) when typing text in CamelCase. This meant you could easily be typing a sentence while describing a piece of information and simply type a word (or series of words) in CamelCase which would create a link to another piece of information (even if its page hadn’t already been created).

This was quickly superseded by the double square bracket links most wiki’s use today to achieve the same results, and its the staple creation method in both wiki’s and other premier information systems today.

Quickly typing in double square brackets [[ This would be a link ]] lets you get on with the text you’re currently typing, while also recognising another important subject you also want to write about later. Clicking on the resultant link creates and visits a new document to which you can immediately add information.

The only piece of note taking software on the market that currently supports this feature (that I’m aware of) is Microsoft OneNote.

If I could have only one note taking wish fulfilled is that this wiki-like feature be first on the minds of developers, copying a note link and pasting it in just doesn’t cut it. (I’m staring at you Ulysses, Bear, and Apple Notes devs.)

Never perfect, but you can get close

All in all, we’ll never find the ‘perfect’ state of note taking. There will always be a new method, feature, or some other shift that turns our workflow on its head, but the reality is that we can get pretty close by embracing the learnings of others and not trying to remake everything that came before.

So developers before you roll the dice on yet another piece of note taking software ask yourselves if you’re actually building upon good practices and features? or just carving a new wheel out of code?

Do you have a particular note taking app you love? Or one you absolutely hate?

I’d love to hear your experiences and thoughts on the subject!