Competing With Paper

I am currently working on a web application called Workable. It’s a collaborative task management app. You can use it solo to manage all your tasks in the cloud, or you can invite your team to work together, sharing tasks, files, messages and tracking time spent working.

There’s plenty of other task management apps, both on the web and offline, so you could say it’s a pretty competitive market. What I’ve realized though is that I’m not really competing with them. I’m not competing with other todo apps because todo apps aren’t an end, they’re a means to an end. Nobody gets a task management app for the sake of using it, they get it to get things done, and there are plenty of simpler ways to get things done than using a software application.

The simplest is paper. Jot down what you need to do on a piece of paper, and check things off as you work. Paper is incredibly simple to use. There’s no wait times for anything to load, there’s no learning curve, there’s no features to explore, nothing to confuse. Even though today we’ve got plenty of software to help make us productive, people still use paper organizers (or just plain paper) to keep track of their work. They do it because paper is the simplest tool for the job.

My objective with Workable is to make it as simple as paper. I’ll probably never beat paper, but I hope to get close enough so that the other advantages the digital domain brings would outweigh the complexity cost. As great as paper is, it can only do so much. It’s not great at keeping things organized, it’s not great at changing things you’ve already written, and it’s not great at sharing things.

For example, implementing a Getting Things Done system on paper is possible, but tricky. Keeping track of all the tasks you get throughout the day is easy with stickies, but it gets disorganized fast, and there’s a danger of forgetting things unless you work hard to keep it all in one place. Software solves these problems at the cost of having to use a PC or mobile interface to interact with your task lists. It keeps things organized at the cost of making things harder to access.

The truth is, I don’t actually like productivity software. Sometimes I keep track of stuff I need to do on paper, sometimes on a whiteboard. Having to access a piece of software just to jot down a little note isn’t something I want to do. I don’t think it’s something many other people want to do either. Having said this, I do want to stay organized, so I need a way to offload all my work into an external system.

So when I’m designing Workable, I’m thinking less about what the other todo apps on the market have, and more about how easy the app is to use–how easy is it compared to paper? I think this is the only way to design a good productivity app–you’ve got to make the app as invisible as possible and as lightweight as possible without sacrificing function. The interface has to be good enough to make me migrate from the physical medium to the digital, to give up the usability and speed of paper for the organization and power of software.

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Workable is currently in a public beta so if you’re looking for a collaborative task management app you can sign up for a free account. If you do, I’d love to hear your feedback so please drop me an email and tell me what you think.

August 2010