For some reason, I’ve always been obsessed with note-taking apps. It took me some time to understand why, but looking back (literally at notes from the past), I’ve noticed that they have essentially become idea vaults. Note-taking apps is where we store our ideas, hence their value.
Initially, it wasn’t so much about the apps per se, but rather about finding one that actually worked for me. Simply because when you find a good notes app, you take more notes, and if you take more notes, you store more ideas, and when you have a lot of ideas, you get to that quote about the best way to have a good idea:
“The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.” — Linus Pauling
I have tried them all. I really have. But with each new app comes a new method for organizing notes: folders, sub-folders, tags, stacks, feeds, lists, and the list goes on.
We’ve all been there. You download the new app on the block and start taking a few notes here and there, but before you realize it; it’s already a complete mess. You have failed. So you do what most people do to solve problems these days: you download another app.
And so the cycle continues until you run out of space on your phone.
The Aha! Moment
For a long time, I thought it was my fault and that I was just bad at taking notes. But when talking to other friends and colleagues about the problem, it became clear that I wasn’t alone. It turns out, filing is a hard thing to get right.
As an app designer (and admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte quotes), I couldn’t help but think that if I wanted to find the right app, I had to design it myself.
The first insight came while chatting with my then-boss at Cabify, David Smyth. Quoting from memory and without permission, he mentioned something like:
“I need an app where I can quickly capture an idea and worry about organizing later.”
Aha… 🤔 Seems like most apps expect you to have a system in place before you even start typing. But ideas don’t work that way. It’s not easy to know where they belong. They might start as one thing and quickly morph into another. A skeuomorphic filing system based on how we organize physical paper just doesn’t cut it these days. David continued:
“I’ve just started using [insert popular notes app here] and have already messed it up. It makes me feel like I’m failing before I really get started.”
This resonated so much. The perfect app should be flexible. It should allow you to make mistakes and most importantly, to change your mind. It should make it so easy to capture and organize notes that you actually feel like you’re good at it.
Putting It All Together
With those insights in mind, I remembered a classic Mac app called Notational Velocity. It was last updated in 2011 and never really hit the mainstream, but it developed a cult following because it had something to it. The secret behind Notational Velocity is that it has a single text input to both search and create a note. So you just launch the app and start typing: if the text matches a previous note it will show up on the list, if not, you hit Enter to create a new one. No folders, no tags, no filing system at all. It’s so fast and so simple that using it becomes almost a reflex.
That seemed to solve part of David’s problem. You never have to worry about filing anything. You just have to type!
“How come no one has ever designed this for mobile?” I thought. 🤔
So on a long flight from Madrid to Mexico City (which has become my go-to-workplace for side projects), stuck to my seat and filled up on cheap in-flight coffee, I set out to design the “mobile version” of Notational Velocity.
The result of that flight was this Marvel prototype:
A couple of months later I had a working version on iOS, and while it was indeed great to completely forget about filing, it was still hard to group similar notes that didn’t contain the exact same words. It looked like it was inevitable to come up with another layer of organization. Damn it! Another failed attempt at designing the perfect notes app. 😔
But without consciously deciding to, I started adding emoji as a prefix before each note. This way I’d start typing the emoji related to the topic and that would filter the notes associated with it, and/or just continue typing to create a new one under that topic.
It seemed to work. In fact, it worked great! It was just the right balance between the velocity of Notational Velocity and a very simple tagging system. In this case, even a happy tagging system.
For the next few iterations, I gradually started pushing emoji more and more into the design until eventually, it was all about emoji and Emojinote was born.
The “secret” to why emoji works so well as a tag system is because you don’t have to come up with a set of names, you just have to choose. Emoji are already out there for you, and they happen to contain an intrinsic meaning which is both personal and different to each one of us. And in contrast to filing systems, we are actually quite good at it!
This is just the start and it’s not perfect (yet), but at least for now, it’s already making me take more notes, and feel a bit happier when doing so.
Give it a try and let me know what you think!