Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ten Steps Evernote Can Take Toward Perfection

image After Google announced the demise of their awesome Notebook product, I was pretty bummed. In the aftermath, I looked at a few other tools, but I’ve mostly been using Evernote. I haven’t been totally happy about it, though. As I said my earlier post reviewing Evernote’s Google Import utility:

Overall, I think Evernote has done a nice job … and it’s definitely a strong contender to replace Google Notebook as my app of choice. Next week, I’ll let you know why I’m withholding my full endorsement.

As you’ve probably noticed, I still haven’t followed up. Frankly, I forgot I was supposed to get back to my readers. A couple weeks ago, a commenter named Larry reminded me of my outstanding obligation.

So here it is, 3 months later, and I’m about to tell you how I think Evernote could improve on what I must admit is the leading notebook product available. Where possible, I’ve linked to other folks articulating similar complaints.

Major issues

  1. Keyboard shortcuts in the Web version. I find the Web version of Evernote nearly unusable, thanks to a near complete lack of support for keyboard shortcuts. I can’t bold or underline. Can’t create bulleted or numbered lists. And you can’t cycle forward and backward through your notes. As a Google Reader / Gmail user, I know perfection in this regard is possible. But in Evernote Web, just about everything has to be done by clicking on a damn menu button. This is item number one for a reason.

  2. Shared notebooks need an overhaul. In the sidebar, I used to link my readers to a shared page in Google Notebook. That’s not really possible in Evernote, because the shared notebooks look like ass. They need to ditch the framed navigation and make each shared notebook look more like a blog, and less like Evernote. You can tell there’s an ambition to make their notebooks more like blogs, because there’s a permalink  button and tags right up there with the title and link. But the framed navigation and lack of a tag cloud kills the natural inclination to browse. And, of course, there are no comments. Which is kind of inexcusable given the lack of more advanced collaboration features. I should say I don’t mind the ads, but they’d get a lot more impressions if they made a more readable product. For real, Evernote could make for a killer Tumblelog, but until they get it right, I’m using Tumblr

  3. Collaboration in shared notebooks. This is a nice-to-have, but it’s something Google Notebook did very well. Because Evernote is a cross-platform behemoth it’s a bit tougher nut to crack, but they could speed it up by enabling collaboration in Web mode only. And make it a premium feature. Now that’s something people would pay for. P.S., I’m aware this is on Evernote’s 2009 to-do list, but it would be silly not to include such a major feature on this list.

  4. Sane tag navigation. Evernote features a fantastic import tool for your Delicious bookmarks, but I’ve avoided it because adding all my Delicious tags to the already crowded sidebar would make things entirely unmanageable. For a small amount of tags, Evernote’s vertical hierarchy of tags makes sense. But once you achieve a critical mass, tags become unusable. You can’t quickly identify or locate your content. I realize tag clouds aren’t universally appreciated, especially in the blog context. But in an app like Evernote conserving screen real estate and minimizing scroll time (in an already scroll-heavy app) becomes very important. Also, the size convention common in tag clouds, in which larger font size indicates greater tag frequency, would allow users to quickly identify their most important content. Tag clouds should at least be an option.

    This still isn’t all my tags. Keep scrolling…
  5. Highlighter would be awesome. I’m struggling to think of another notetaking app that doesn’t offer a highlighter. Guess what? Nearly every major Evernote competitor offers a highlighting function. Certainly every app I’ve covered here does. Usually in more than one shade. This feature is also included in Zoho Writer and Google Docs. Ditto Gmail and Yahoo Mail. Not sure what Evernote is thinking here, but if the idea is that it’s an overrated, underused function, just about every other user and developer on earth seems to disagree.

Minor issues

  1. Would a little color kill you? There’s a certain stoic panache to Evernote’s palate of green and gray, but it sure would be helpful to add a little color that helps differentiate content. Gmail is the model here, with options to color code tags/labels. An even better model would be the Gmail labs feature, SuperStars, which itself is similar to the visual tags in OneNote. This could add an additional categorization feature to the already helpful tags and folders. The use of these small, colorful cues would actually enhance the function of apps relatively monochrome color scheme, because the color-marked items would stick out all the more.

  2. Nested folders in notebooks. I realize that under the current Evernote regime, tags are nested. Notebooks are not. This makes very little sense, but it’s not quite the dealbreaker that lack of a tag cloud option is. Still, notebooks are, by definition, designed to house broad categories of information. As you see in OneNote, it’s natural to subdivide these broad categories into tabs (or subnotebooks).  Evernote mysteriously avoids this organizing principle in favor of nested tags. I say mysterious, because one of the foundational justifications for tags over folders is that they can apply in a variety of contexts. That is, one tag might belong to several “folders” or ideas. They are atoms, free to combine and recombine according to their different valences and properties. But in Evernote’s bizarro world, the very strengths of tags are neutralized so that you end up with a large clump of useless folder-like tags. Meanwhile, your Notebooks are static and cannot themselves contain sub-units.
  3. Click-less access to edit menu. Both the Web and desktop versions of Evernote force you to 1) Select a note, then 2) click again before you can access the rich text editing menu. In a perfect world, like Google Notebook, you’d only have to click once. Obviously, in the Desktop app, this doesn’t annoy me as much because keyboard shortcuts are available once you’ve selected a note.

  4. One click Web mode. I absolutely love Read It Later, mostly because to save an item for later reading, I only have to click once. No tagging, no confirming. It’s great. The desktop version of Evernote has this feature, and I love it. The Web-based clipper and bookmarklet require an extra step, as you have to confirm your saved item. Evernote could easily create a second bookmarklet, that allowed users to save links using a single click to which they could return.

  5. Additional email options. I recently started using Evernote’s email function so that I could simultaneously save items to Gmail. Unfortunately, when you use Evernote’s email option, there’s no way to indicate which notebook the item should go in or which tag should be applied. For example, it would be nice to add #hashtags to the subject or body of the email and have Evernote automatically read this as a tag or notebook. I saved this for last because Evernote’s saved searches feature can be used to accomplish the same thing: Simply create a saved search for {your hashtag here}. Then, including that text in your email will ensure it shows up in your saved search. Still, Evernote could easily add a syntax parsing feature that allowed you to define notebooks and tags for your emailed items. I would love it because I could then take advantage of Gmail’s highlighter feature in every note I clipped. :p

Well, there you have it. My suggestions for Evernote. Most of them aren’t new or groundbreaking. Indeed, the fact that so many have suggested these changes is a sign of Evernote’s overall strength as an incredible cross-platform notetaking option. Still, there is some frustration because many inferior apps and services already include the above features. These glaring omissions and design errors are sometimes enough to make you forget that Evernote has a peerless mobile app, voice recording, and text recognition in photos.

I look forward to Evernote improving because they responded to many of these ideas within their user forum (many of which are included above as links). Despite what Robert Scoble or Facebook thinks, I believe listening to users is usually a good idea, and I’m glad to see Evernote is listening to people like me.