Productizing Hacks

A great way to generate user insights is to look for hacks they come up with on their own to get the job done. This is exactly what pansa is ultimately about: designing an explicit feature out my note-taking hacks.

Despite I have already written (twice) about the rationale behind pansa and why such a product ought to exist, I still had second thoughts about embarking on such a large project without a clear direction or at least some certainty that it’d lead somewhere productive or valuable.

At the end of the day, why the world needs yet another note-taking app remains a legitimate question to ask. Quoting from Broken Notes:

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.

Aside from the market saturation, I even started to wonder why is it that my brain doesn’t map to any existing product — or if am I really the one to blame because of that.

This made me think deeply about what pansa is ultimately about. But first, let me show you how I currently use notes to capture my thoughts, clip information and connect ideas — through markdown.

> Quote — isolated author highlight
📍 Concept — definition
🔖 Bookmark — folding the corner of a page
✏️ Annotation — something I'd write in the margins of a page
🖇 Related to [link](#)

…what was that? ☝️

If you were to read through any raw note of mine — and the most public expression of these are my book notes — you’d inevitably bump into these Emoji-based remarks.

Each of them represents the digital version of a common action I’d perform in the real world if I wanted to capture the same item through an analog device, such as a notebook.

This way I can bring familiar actions to the digital realm and create a simple map that helps me translate the way I think into 0s and 1s.

For example, if you’d start reading a note and see a > mark you can expect something bold, an idea deeply connected to the author that I want to keep and remember. Along these lines, a 📍 would signal an interesting concept, a definition — you’d usually find it paired with a link to its Wikipedia entry. If you’re curious and want to see it in action for yourself, just skim through this summary of Thinking Fast And Slow.

Prior to this article, I’d never written down this legend. Annotating my memos in this fashion was something I did for myself, but never shared nor thought about it at this meta-level. These mappings — despite barely scalable — just came naturally to me. In other words, I never sat down to explicitly design them. They lived in my mind and were not part of a documented process.

But then I got it. This is exactly what pansa is ultimately about: designing an explicit feature out of these hacks.

At the end of the day, each Emoji signals a user story of sorts, an intent. Yet this is something I “organically” constructed on top of a medium that was not designed to hold that feature in the first place.

And it works? Well, yes it does, kind of. A bicycle can also get you from Berlin to Rome, but I’d argue that it is not the best way to go, I’d rather take a plane.

Mounting Emoji-based hacks on top of markdown is fine, and it has served me well for years, but it is not optimal. Yet they served, though, another — way more valuable — purpose: they paved the road for a new product to existing.

It inevitably reminded me of the design trend for turning user hacks into product insights, a widely shared pattern across the design community that advocates for stop thinking of the design process in terms of either “users don’t know what they don’t know” or “users know what we don’t yet know”, but instead treat it as a reinforcing cycle.

Our approach is to look for “the hacks” — the things users are already doing in an attempt to solve a particular need or problem — and turn those hacks into insights.

In a nutshell, that if you want to discover “true” user problems, you should look for hacks, workarounds users already make (and come up with by themselves) to get the job done. These are usually unpolished, yet highly creative solutions to real needs that provide extremely valuable insights, and ultimately, act as a proxy for building great features.

I see these Emojis as my own “hacks”, and I’d love for pansa to be able to productize and make an explicit feature out of them, one that sits at the product’s core, a first class citizen, not just an Emoji-based hack on top of markdown.

First published on January 22, 2019