Broken Notes

Note-taking apps are frustrating tools when it comes to building long-lasting domain knowledge. While they are delightful input mechanisms, most still fail at post-processing the information, connecting its content, and present it in the form of knowledge.

Something’s broken with note-taking apps.

It is not because of the lack of software available. On the contrary, this is precisely an over-served market that has already approached the writing experience from all possible directions. No matter the what, where or how chances are there is a writing app for that.

It is not because of the lack of good software, either. On top of being an over-served market, note-taking apps — alongside productivity apps, such as habit-forming routines or to-do lists — have become one of the favorite playgrounds for talented indie developers.

Yet at a foundational level, something’s broken.

Let’s start from the beginning.

My obsession relationship with note-taking apps started back in 2011 with Ommwriter — formerly OmmWriter Dana, a project with roots in Barcelona, whose creator I would randomly meet years later without even knowing who he was.

Then my notes embarked on an eternal journey with Evernote, Simplenote, iA Writer, Apple Notes, Vesper, Notability, Bear, among many more. Each one coupled with its own painful migration and set up process, in order to make the app behave the way my mind wanted to.

Maybe I was using them wrong, but seven years later, I still haven’t found a piece of software that fully satisfy my note-taking desires.

Maybe my needs sit many standard deviations away from what any sane product manager would consider reasonable or would be willing to design for, thus they haven’t even considered building such a thing.

After all, there’s nothing wrong with note-taking apps themselves. They are functional pieces of software that deliver on its promise of elegantly turning your thoughts into ones and zeros.

Then what is it, exactly, that I’m looking for?

Inevitably, we learn new things every day. The curious mind acts as a magnet that incessantly keeps on attracting small pieces of information. They might come up during a conversation, reading a book, watching a movie, listening to a podcast, or simply walking down the street.

These pieces of information might not be something we use right away, but we want to capture them, store them, and map them out alongside other related pieces we already have. Then we want them to generate new connections, while building an ever-growing knowledge base that, hopefully, will turn ourselves into better human beings.

Unfortunately, we are wonderful, fallible machines. If our brain did that out of the box, Moleskine would probably be out of business.

We miss, forget or don’t remember most of the things we learn, hence making it harder to relate and connect ideas down the road. The ever-growing knowledge fortress we dream of ends up looking more like a shattered hut.

It is precisely at this point where my knowledge forming requirements and the nature of the note-taking app start to collide.

The problem, as I see it, is that at its most fundamental level, these apps are structured around the core idea of a note — its atomic component. But a note can be anything: a quote from Hemingway, a physics assignment for college or an article pulled from the Internet.

Each of them tells its own story. Most of them have nothing to do with one another. Many of them are tangentially related. A handful of them are closely connected. But there is no way to architecture knowledge out of atomic, independent notes.

To be fair, as far as I’m concerned, there are ways around this organizational problem. Most of them deliver on its promise, but still fail when it comes to generate knowledge from its atomic parts.

For instance, tags are great to group notes that share a high-level theme, but they are rigid and do not group or link ideas visually. They don’t spot patterns or show the connection strength, either. In other words, tags make content easy to search, but they also make it difficult to find or rediscover.

On the other hand, a plain, physical notebook is also a great tool that gets the capturing job done. But again, fails miserably at clustering ideas. It doesn’t pull the content apart nor provides an easy way to search for things you wrote a while ago.

Simply put, note-taking apps are designed around the note. What I think I want, is for them to be designed around knowledge.

Beyond a delightful writing and note-capturing experience, what I want is a knowledge clustering interface — an external brain of sorts. An application that receives a piece of information as an input and creates information-based connections with its other pieces. Something that groups related information and generates structures of domain knowledge that map to higher levels of abstraction — not a tag, but a concept.

On top of that, each piece of information links back to its original source. This one is very important since the mind (especially true for visual thinkers) sometimes uses the content source as a proxy for retrieving the information. Thus having a clear backlink to the movie or the book you pulled it from would be a fundamental feature.

If this sounds confusing, this is because it is, indeed, confusing. Besides the fact of being the only human being asking for such a product, this confusion might be the ultimate reason nobody has built this product, yet.

To me, this looks like a product where the most important thing is how ideas are sourced and connected to one another. It should be something that’s always with you, ready to capture, but it doesn’t limit itself to the note-taking aspect. It uses this content to create meaning, the knowledge fortress we were talking about, outside your brain.

But, why?

I’m writing these lines because I wanted to crystalize my frustration, my inability to map my needs to an existing product. However, rereading the whole thing, I feel like I’m still far from it. Deep down, I know what I want, but I struggle when it comes to structure the thing.

Currently stuck on available products, I find myself running in too many directions. Using separate tools for what I envision should be a single product, creating silos of information here and there, disconnected, unrelated, that is ultimately not serving in my goal to create an accessible, lifelong knowledge base.

I’m starting to think that if I truly want such a thing to exist, I should build it myself. But my lack of product definition and vague wording about what I ultimately want also has me worried that I’d be walking on a dead-end path. On the other hand, I’m starting to think that if I truly want such a thing to exist, at the very least, I should try.

First published on November 16, 2018