Feb. 2nd, 2009

kohaku_wind: (Default)
So it appears that someone *else* from BoingBoing turns out to be a passive-aggressive douche-wazzle. In this case, a racist one. Xeni gave a sortof-apology about the Violet Blue incident; let's see if this even garners enough publicity to force Teresa Nielsen Hayden to do the same. (probably not; this is lj after all)
kohaku_wind: (Default)
Note: Part 1 can be found here.

As everyone who actually cares about the issue doubtlessly knows, Google Notebook was kicked out of the family about two weeks ago. Service will continue, development will not. Most notably development of the Firefox plugin which needs constant updating along with FF in order to not spiral into unusability. So, a bit of a problem. The plugin is damn useful and a large part of why I picked up gNotebook in the first place, ditching Treepad (more on that later).

This has given me the opportunity to examine what my requirements are as they pertain to these kinds of things, as well as view a great many other opinions on the matter.

It all leads to one conclusion: there is no perfect universal notetaking software, because there is no one universal user. (cue the "duhs" from the audience)

This is in part because of the First Law of Optimization (as related by one of my CS professors), which reads approximately as follows: the more important the task, the faster accomplishing that task should be. You can word it slightly differently depending on whether you're optimizing UIs or computer architectures or toaster settings but it's the same gist each time.

Optimizing note-taking software is mostly a matter of optimizing the UI. Doing so requires close attention to both the organization of the computer and the brain of the user. The FLO then becomes the following, from the user's perspective: The more frequently I need to do something, the faster it needs to be. A clever UI accomplishes this, providing an optimal fit for the user's brain, accomplishing a set list of tasks in a minimum of actions. Good implementation makes this UI possible without major delays (more important than a lot of web-designers realize)

With that in mind, there are several considerations to be made when designing this kind of software, and the issues at hand aren't always obvious. I'm giving a rundown here of the kinds of issues that are important to me.

1. Online vs Offline

There are many, many note-taking programs in both camps here. Foremost among the offline crowd is Microsoft's OneNote, a heavy duty, feature-rich monolith of corporate power and awesome (in the medieval sense of the word). More modest (and numerous) online offerings include the (mostly deceased) Google Notebook, Evernote, Ubernote, Zoho Notebook... and even more that I won't cover unless someone asks me about them.

There are two issues at play here when deciding whether to go with an offline or online service. (if one must choose; we will see that you can combine both if you're willing to spend the money). The first is data accessibility. This is an old debate: is it better to store your data on your computer or online? Storing your data on the computer invites data loss if something happens to it (preventable with backups) Storing your data online invites data loss if the company goes belly-up. Storing your data online lets you access it from anywhere you have a web-browser, whereas an offline service forces you to transfer files every time you switch computers. How important that is depends on how often you want to do that.

But that's obvious. What isn't so obvious is the second issue: User Interface Adaptability. This follows from the idea of user's FLO: common tasks (such as creating a new page or retagging a note) should be accomplished in a single click, with a single button. This isn't a problem if your program has only a few functions. However, the more bells and whistles a program boasts, the more buttons you need. Carefully designed layouts are required to ensure that the user finds the function they need with a minimum of delays and confusion. That won't be enough, eventually. Buttons become menus, which are useful for program functions that a) are needed less often and b) are easily grouped within the user's mind. What determines how functions are grouped, and how often they are needed? Ultimately, the user.

Ideally you want an infinitely customizable interface (with good defaults). However, that's not nearly as easy to do on the web as it is with a vanilla windowed program. In fact, I have not seen a single note-taking program with an customizable interface, and the closest anyone has gotten has been collapsible windows in the sidebar. On the other hand, OneNote is king here. OneNote doesn't *have* to come up with the ultimate interface, it just has to come up with a decent one and show the user how to change it.

Tomorrow (or Wednesday, or next week, or whatever) I'll look at other design choices are involved in making note-taking programs. Sometime after that I plan to give a rundown of the various programs (Evernote, Zoho, One Note, uberNote, tree-based note programs, and anything YOU use yourself), using a crazy dwarf-related task that most people wouldn't think of when they think of note-taking programs.

(Except me. Mother always said I was a "special" child)

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