Notion — A New Paradigm for Working in Teams

The New Quip?

Your first encounter with Notion will be perplexing. Product Hunt describes Notion as the new Quip. It will be better because it won’t have to serve the agenda of the great evil overlord Salesforce, it will serve you.

After you sign up on Notion with your Google account you are brought to a pre-configured workspace and it’s immediately clear this is not Quip; it’s different. Different good or different bad? You’re not sure but it is definitely different.

Quip’s mission is to be your living document, the next logical step in the iteration of real time collaboration first introduced by Google Docs.

Notion’s mission is to become the unified workspace for modern teams.

After using Notion for a month, I’ve realized that it’s not just an iteration of Quip, it’s a new paradigm of how we can work together as team.

Notion: A New Paradigm in Workplace Collaboration

To understand why Notion ushers in a new paradigm in workplace collaboration it’s useful to understand what a paradigm is, the role it plays and when & why new paradigms emerges. [1]

What is a paradigm?

A paradigm is a worldview underlying the theories and methodology of a particular subject, often associated with a scientific subject. In more practical terms it’s a set of constraints, expected behavior and outcomes a large group of people agree on. For example, a paradigm that we use to fly across vast distances is fluid dynamics, which explains that with enough speed a surface that meets a perpendicular fluid force will experience lift.

Once a paradigm is established and accepted, it provides us with a set of patterns of expected behavior and outcomes we can use to explain other similar phenomena and manipulate the patterns to help us achieve our own goals. In the case of fluid dynamics, by understanding the the relationship between weight, surface area, angle, speed and lift we have been able to build planes that both fly and have 🚿 in them.

Why do new paradigms emerge?

But over time as we apply the paradigm to new situations, cracks sometimes begin to emerge. At first we patch the cracks by placing artificial boundaries around the paradigms and call them exceptions. However, when so many exceptions are made to a paradigm, no one ends up knowing what the paradigm explains and what it does not. Case in point — the padphone.

New paradigms emerge when existing paradigm cannot reliably explain the same phenomena in new contexts and situations.

The existing paradigm of what a document is, how it functions and the role it plays in the workplace is cracking as we have transitioned from physical documents -> to local digital ones -> to cloud hosted ones.

The Transitions

Physical Documents

As physical objects, documents in the workplace helped us record information that could be used later to help share knowledge, make decisions and keep track of events. But it was difficult for physical documents to accomplish these tasks alone and so we created a set of external tools to support the role of a document. We relied on a printers to make copies to share; binders to organize relevant information for a decision committees; forms to standardize sets of information to be captured over time.

Local Digital Documents

When we transitioned to locally digital ones, we removed the physical property of the document but they were still trapped within our computers. The internet had not arrived and in the early days connection speeds were so slow that there was a running joke that a USB strapped to a bird would be a faster way to transfer information than over the internet. In the end we replaced the printing with USBs, binders with power points and forms became project management software. Documents remained at the center but again we relied on a set of external tools to support the role of the document.

Cloud Hosted Documents

The final transition to cloud hosted documents — an environment where documents were connected to be shared instantly, searchable at scale and standardized to be interoperable — finally provided the fertile soil for the document to support itself.

However, it never materialized.

Since introduction of Google Docs — the first mass-adopted cloud collaboration document tool in 2007 — what a document is and how it functions has largely remained un-changed. Documents remained stuck in the previous paradigm. Instead of extending the role of what a document was beyond content, we hired a supporting cast around it.

  • To share we have Email, Slack, HipChat
  • To organize we have Dropbox, Box, Google Drive
  • To track we have JIRA, Asana, Trello

Lower friction in development and distribution coupled with the zero-marginal cost of digital applications lead to a Cambrian explosion of application specific tools — which is great until you you need 5 tools just to keep share, work on and track a document. It wasn’t uncommon for teams in an organization to use entirely different set of tools that were loosely tied together through incessant updates on communication mediums like email and Slack.

Friction between these tools became unbearable and the previous document paradigm no longer was enough.

Notion — A New Paradigm for Working in Teams

When a paradigm begins falling apart, multiple groups will emerge with competing theories on what should replace it. For the document paradigm it was no been different:

  1. Google Drive focused on collaboration across all content types.
  2. Quip focused on the intersection between communication and collaboration.
  3. Dropbox focuses on integrating your cloud storage with collaboration.

But it wasn’t enough, what about organization, project management, attachments or media. Google, Dropbox and Quip weren’t willing to let go of the past mental models of a document which prevented them from embracing an entirely new one.

Notion let go and introduced what I believe is a glimpse at what documents should be; a fully self-supporting workspace.

Notion — Documents as a Workspace (DAAW)

To be a valid self-supporting workspace you need to fulfill two criteria:

  1. Able to support the needs of multiple different roles within a team
  2. Not be reliant on other tools to organize, share, discuss and track progress

Notions meets these criteria with three bits of magic.

Notion’s first bit of magic; break a document into collection of rows where each row is a block.

Each block can be set to a different type of content and inherits it’s set of properties. Currently there 22 different types ranging from from to-do list, link embeds, toggle-lists, video and images. But it’s not too hard to envision a future where Notion open sources the creation of blocks which will enable users and developers to create their own.

The second bit of magic; blocks are draggable.

Blocks can be dragged and combined to make any layout that you like. At first glance that feature may seem trivial but when you consider why so many people use Trello over a simple doc to manage a project it’s because the layout is preferable to visualize progress.

The third bit of magic; most blocks share a common data structure.

A common data structure allows all the blocks to be interoperable between one another even if their content type is different. The ability to convert a list into a page and back again or create alias to blocks that seamlessly update in multiple locations. It’s beautiful, you have to try it to fully appreciate the intricacies of it. What will be more interesting is if they will eventually allow even the most distinct content types to share a common data structure, like an image. A potential solution would to use a similar algorithm that Google uses to create captions for images.

Three bits of magic — blocks and content types, draggable and flexible layouts and a common data structure make Notion a true workspace for the modern team.

To conclude, a couple months ago I met with Ivan Zhao, Founder of Notion and after a great conversation he left me with one of those statements only a visionary could articulate. He said — Notion is the Minecraft of applications. Mic drop 🎤 .

1. Patterns I describe here are based on the The Theory of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn