There is something magical about paper and pencil. We probably start to use them before we can even speak properly, but no matter how long we live, we will never exhaust their possibilities. At any time, we can capture or express thoughts and feelings, fix memories, make plans, explore ideas and reflect the complexity of what goes on in our heads as visible marks, from the fleeting triviality of a shopping list or doodle to the profundity of a mathematical proof or heart-felt poem. We tend to call all these things “notes”: anything captured as part of a process rather than a finished work.
There are two complementary aspects to making notes.
Firstly, the process of making those marks, of deciding what to put down, how to show it and editing until we are happy. Doing this extends our thought process. It’s almost a discussion with our self: interacting with the paper and pencil does more than simply musing, remembering or reciting things. Secondly, the notes we make become an extension of our memory: an external form of our thoughts and feelings and a reflection of them. The notes we keep become a source for new things.
Recently, I have been thinking about why it is so hard to use a computer (including a tablet) for note-making.
At one level, that’s a ludicrous statement. Any kind of computing device comes with a way of making notes and it is trivially easy and quick to do so. The notes app is often one of the simplest to use, even without tutorial or manual.
At a deeper level, what looks like a simple problem, really is not. There are dozens of competing “notes” apps and systems, that can have significant differences of approach. There are whole YouTube channels (e.g. paperless student) devoted to the issue and discussions online arising from a restless search for a better way. There are, inevitably, “holy wars” in progress between those who think they have found it.
It should not be surprising that there are knotty problems to solve here. Understanding what is going on when humans use language, symbols or images to create or communicate is a vast, complex and barely understood field. Notes as free-flowing, provisional forms that can use almost any kind of writing or drawing for almost any purpose take us right into that complexity.
I haven’t found any neat conclusions from my own restless search for a favourite note-taking app, but I think I can offer some observations.
If notes are about capturing a process or moment, rather than a product in themselves, then almost everything you create on a computing device, in any app or form, is a “note”, at least until it is finished. A text or social media post is a note intended to communicate. A spreadsheet in progress is a note of your calculations and results. A social media thread is a collaborative note of a conversation. Events in a calendar app, items in a todo list app or on a shopping list app, outlines in an outliner, mind maps in a mind-mapping app: all these are notes and before the computer you probably used (and still use) pencil and paper to create the equivalent. Obviously, word processors and writing apps are used to make notes, as much as they are used for the final product, but so are image editing apps. Almost every time you (or the system) saves a file, you are doing digital note-making: replacing what you once did with pencil and paper with a more specific process on a computer.
It’s even more pervasive. Deep down, modern operating systems implement a metaphor: what you are looking at on screen is a desktop, on which sit pieces of paper, on which is information in a whole variety of forms. The sheets of “paper” can be filed into folders when not being actively used. You can put and edit things onto those pieces of paper via different tools or apps. The visual metaphor is paper and folders on a desktop, but the process it encourages is a form of note-making. We are so familiar with this that we take it for granted, and like all powerful metaphors it creates a new process as it creates a new way of describing what we are doing. Clicking, double- or force-clicking, dragging, copying, pasting etc. have meanings of their own, far beyond the pencil and paper that was used to shape the computer interface. There is enough that is familiar to help us, but the environment created by the new technologies, and the way we work in them, is new. This is a familiar story. Printed books and the way we use them inherit much from manuscripts, as do cars from horse-drawn carriages, electric lighting from candles and so on, but all new technologies extend what is possible and create their own ways of being used.
On our devices we have many options of more or less specialist ways of making digital notes, usually based on handling a specific form of data (text or images or lists or audio recordings). The question has to arise, do we still need a separate app to take notes?
The place to start evaluating any app is to ask what problem it solves or at least helps with. What problems do "notes" apps solve that other apps (e.g. word processors, drawing/painting, mind-mapping apps) do not? It would be impossible to give a comprehensive answer to that question without working through a list of "notes" apps. There are lots of reviews and comparisons out there and you probably have your own favourite “notes” already.
From my own experiments I would say there are two basic approaches such apps take.
Some emphasise text content. They are optimised to create short pieces of writing possibly with images or other content included; to organise and find text once written and send that content to other apps, quickly, intuitively and without fuss or clutter. Apple Notes is like this, as is Evernote, Bear, Agenda and Notability. These apps see note-making as primarily the quick creation and later organisation and retrieval of (possibly enriched) text content.
Others emphasise the experience of using a paper notebook or pad as a creative tool. They are optimised for laying out pages in collections that have a particular look and feel, with a cover and title, and for using a stylus to put marks on those pages. Goodnotes and Noteshelf are obvious examples.
Ultimately, you pay your money and make your choice. If your main need is to create notebooks (e.g. to explore ideas, sketches, research, diagrams etc. for a project and to keep all the steps of the process together to review, use and even enjoy as a whole) you would need something like Goodnotes or Noteshelf, a collection of “papers” and “covers” to define how each notebook looks and a stylus as well as a keyboard. If your main need is to capture and retrieve mostly text snippets, retrieve and use them individually and perhaps move them to another more specialist app to develop them, then you are fine with something like Apple Notes, Bear or Agenda.
As with all fields of software, though, things evolve. It’s a competitive market and developers add features their users tell them they are missing in order to attract more customers. In these apps there has been a lot of cross-adoption of features between the two basic approaches. Stylus-based apps now recognise handwriting and allow direct and keyboard entry of text. Text-centric apps now allow you to draw, include images and lay things out on pages, which can look like paper. You can even put covers on your “notebooks”.
This process has gone far enough in some apps that they can make a half-decent attempt at both approaches: I’d personally say that Notability does, for example. There’s probably an endless debate about the right balance between specialisation and generalisation (Is a spork a brilliant combination, or is it just a bad spoon and/or a bad fork?)
At the end of the day, an app either solves or helps a problem for you well enough for you ad enough other people to pay for and use it, or it falls by the wayside.
I find myself routinely using two notes apps. I have tried to simplify my life down to one, but so far have always needed both.
Notability is my main app for capturing text, scribbles and short documents (or links to them) and for longer topics (e.g. lecture notes from a course) which are primarily text based. It has enough flexibility and clarity for maybe 85% of the notes I make and works reliably and well across all my devices. There might well be a point where Apple Notes that comes free with my devices catches up, but I still find too many things it won’t do, that I feel I need.
When I have a project where I want to keep all the creative or learning process alongside capturing things of all kinds, I make myself a new notebook in Noteshelf 2. For example, if I am working on an Art Project or wanting to capture my reaction to an important book, film, performance or discussion. If it is about text or handwritten notes, sketches, images and other things I cut and paste, ideas I want to try; where I am being creative and that I will come back to as a whole — part scrapbook, part sketchbook and part notebook — it is Noteshelf every time. It’s lovely to use on the iPad, and catching up fast on the Mac.
Two final observations. Firstly, all the apps I have tried could be better at sharing the content of notes with other apps. It should be as seamless and intuitive as the copy and paste I often end up having to do. Too often apps require you to export in particular formats (like pdf) which are better for preserving the content of the note instead of being able to use it directly. Secondly, these apps absolutely need to work seamlessly across devices, to synchronise reliably and quickly and to have the same features and approach whatever device you are currently using. The creative process waits for no-one and part of the power of notes is using and re-using their content in different contexts and for different purpose. Things are much better in this respect than they were even a year ago, but I still keep hitting painful exceptions and experiences.
I have found I still need two notes apps, even if most apps on my devices are really a means of note-making. I enjoy using both the ones I use, for slightly different reasons. Our devices are much more powerful than pencil and paper in many ways, but the cost of that is that we have to work in particular ways and use particular processes with different information and tasks. We do not yet have the digital freedom that we have with a piece of paper and a pencil.