Note-taking is Broken

27 AUGUST 2014 by JÜRGEN

Note-taking is broken. Of course, this was our original assessment and the reason we started the Kards project in the first place. But now, with the influx of emails we received since our last post, it's clear that we are not alone in this assessment. Not by a long shot.

We've heard note-taking apps described as “information graveyards” or “silos of non-essential data gathering dust”. While there is obviously a huge desire for better software, the failings of existing apps are harder to define. Everyone had a hard time describing the problem in more specific terms. And none of the users who tried to suggest improvements where completely happy with their own suggestions.

What we've done differently is try to uncover some of the hidden but fundamental assumptions that drive the way we usually organize ourselves, then question those assumptions and develop alternatives.

This shouldn't come as a surprise. If there was a clear path from existing apps to the solution we're searching for, it would have already been realized. What we've done differently is try to uncover some of the hidden but fundamental assumptions that drive the way we usually organize ourselves, then question those assumptions and develop alternatives.

This is the first in a series of three blog posts. My goal for this series is to introduce the most critical aspect of Kards' interface: the mechanism by which new information is added. This mechanism is responsible for making Kards faster by an order of magnitude, and more scalable than any other knowledge management app. But everything comes with a price, and Kards is no exception: realizing these performance benefits will also require a change of habit from the user. In order to explain what kind of change and why, we need to take a step back and examine the hidden assumptions we referred to earlier.

Note-taking apps can be classified according to their understanding of what needs to be controlled. In order to understand what I mean by “control” let's consider the practice of wu wei from Taoist philosophy. The literal meaning of the Chinese word wu wei is “not doing”. But wu wei is not an invitation for being passive or accepting fate at any price. Instead, wu wei is much better described as not trying to control what ultimately cannot be controlled. The martial arts – most notably Judo and Aikido – provide great examples. An important principle of Judo is not to oppose strength with strength. Attacked by your opponent, you do not oppose him. Instead you yield to him and use his strength to bring about his downfall. This approach could also be described as “not forcing” or “not obstructing” (c.f. Alan Watts, What is Tao?).

The 900 pound gorillas of note-taking

How do note-taking apps measure up against the ideal of forcing/not forcing? The feature-rich 900 pound gorillas of note-taking have certainly brought significant advances – most notably ubiquity – but fundamentally fail by encouraging users to try to exert levels of control which are almost impossible to maintain. What the user is encouraged to control is nothing less than the future. The opponent is information overflow, and the tools of the trade are folders and tags.

There is nothing wrong with folders and tags per se. It is the usage pattern they encourage – or fail to prevent – that causes harm: there is no inherent relationship between the note and the folder where it is put! The same goes for tags. It is the sole responsibility of the user to come up with a meaningful system of organization. Furthermore it is the duty of the user to maintain this system indefinitely.

What the user is encouraged to control is nothing less than the future.

Whatever the system is, it always looks great in the beginning. It seems obvious and clear. But we tend to organize our things according to our current view of our work and interests. Usually the arrival of new information then requires a reconsideration of our previous approach and results in the need to reshuffle notes. Our work is changing, we constantly learn new things and adapt our views and goals accordingly. By attempting to come up with a complete system we are indeed trying to control the future.

It gets worse. Consistently adapting and extending our system would require that we actually remember it. How many of us write and maintain a document describing the organizational scheme they've devised? And if we don't, how are we supposed to remember to keep using it consistently? If the relationship between the contents of our notes and the folders and tags we use is not completely obvious, it is not possible to keep using the scheme consistently without regularly going through all notes to refresh one's memory. And who does that?

Although we like the apparent power that comes with the ability to create arbitrary hierarchies of folders and tags, they provide us with plenty of rope to hang ourselves. The solution would be to only use folder names and tags which reflect the actual contents of the note. Even if we were capable of the kind of self-restraint required to make such naming and tagging viable, a typical note often contains multiple thoughts. Completely classifying those isn't feasible.

Back to wu wei. Our 900 pound gorilla note-taking app is mislead by its apparent power and wants us to attack information overflow head-on. It is possible to do so, but requires a lot of energy and resolve. We are only human, and most of us will fail to keep up the stamina required to make it work over the long run. When that happens, our information turns stale – ultimately leading to the feeling of having produced an information graveyard.

The Tao of note-taking

Is there another way – perhaps a way of not-forcing? So far we have looked at one end of the control spectrum. But what about the other end? Some apps don't use tags and folders but rely on full-text search instead. Besides providing examples of not-doing, the feedback we received has shown that such apps are also popular among our readership. These apps never encourage the user to invent an organizational system external to the actual content of notes. As search is the only tool available, users might even be inspired to write their notes with this restriction in mind.

Kards' understanding of what should be controlled lies somewhere between minimalistic apps and the 900 pound gorillas.

While we would always prefer a minimalistic app over one using tags and folders, we believe that they are leaving too much on the table. Kards' understanding of what should be controlled lies somewhere between minimalistic apps and the 900 pound gorillas. This means that Kards needs to provide an alternative to tags and folders, which cannot be misused to create an external organizational system. But this alone wouldn't be enough. Since a typical note can contain an arbitrary mix of heterogeneous thoughts, it cannot be uniformly described no matter how clever the tag/folder alternative might be. And so, in order to fix note-taking we took the next, logical step: we had to kill notes! This is the reason we prefer to describe Kards as a knowledge management app instead of a note-taking app.

Even though we didn't know this at the beginning, it turns out that the fundamental idea behind our replacement of notes, folders and tags has been around for quite a while, more than 200 years, to be more precise. Our work mostly consisted in creating a modern implementation: the digital knowledge card. Our next post will explain in detail how they work.

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