Notational Velocity and Simplenote Part Two: Making a good thing better

Posted by & filed under Apple, Suggestion Box, Usability, Web 2.0.

Last week, I wrote about my experiences using Notational Velocity and Simplenote to turn a collection of text files into a quick, searchable, cloud-based notetaking system.

Today, I’m going to complain about what’s wrong with it.

Now, to be fair, I’m quite pleased with the whole Notational Velocity package. Simplenote’s team are quick to respond to problems on Twitter, and quickly tackle bugs as they crop up. Notational Velocity is a well-developed app that can only get better since it’s been open-sourced.

So what’s missing from Notational Velocity if I like it so much? Actually, not much! I can only actually think of three real issues, and two simply aren’t that big a deal. Unfortunately, the third has proven to be surprisingly disruptive to my workflow.

1. Markdown Formatting
Notational Velocity supports bold, italicized and underlined rich text. Simplenote, on the other hand, does not. I’d love it if Notational Velocity had an option to save rich text formatting when exporting to plaintext–at least for bold and italicized text, that is. Markdown doesn’t care for underlines.

This would let me preserve rich text formatting round-trip from a file created in Notational Velocity, edited via Simplenote’s website or on my iPhone as plaintext, and displayed again in Notational Velocity, bold and italicized text intact. It looks like I’m not the only one who thinks this is a good idea, so I’m hopeful we’ll see this at some point in the future.

2. Multiple Windows
I get the philosophy behind Notational Velocity’s two-pane, no-buttons design. I do. I also get that, as such, it’s unlikely I’ll see this last feature without forking the codebase and adding it myself, which goes directly against my philosophy for using Notational Velocity and Simplenote: because it’s straightforward.

That said, I’ve occasionally found myself wishing that I could have two (or more) Notational Velocity windows. Why? Easy: sometimes I need to refer to a daily “to do” list while also referring to a second notecard, and sometimes I need to cut and paste between a couple different notecards, particularly when I’m breaking one up into smaller subcategories.

3. The Icon
Yes, seriously. Hear me out!

A rocket-powered filing cabinet. I can’t think of anything more appropriate to illustrate what Notational Velocity does.

Notational Velocity’s new “filing cabinet/rocket ship” icon is a huge improvement over the terrible, terrible “NV” icon it had for years. It’s clever, well-designed, and the metaphor, a rocket-powered filing cabinet, is both appropriate to what Notational Velocity does, as well as being a play on Notational Velocity’s name. It’s great. I wish I’d thought of it.

I can’t use it.

I tried. I really did! Even after four months of using the new Notational Velocity, my brain simply can’t get around the idea of a note-taking application’s icon not looking like a notepad or book. I’m not setting out to criticize Colin Cody’s ingenious rocket ship icon; indeed, I’m astonished that I can’t seem to get my head around the thing.

Human-computer interface expert Jef Raskin wrote about this issue in his 2000 book, The Humane Interface. He later summed up many of these points in an email to Tom Gilb:

Definition: A gesture is an action that you finish without conscious thought once you have started it. Example: For a beginning typist, typing the letter “t” is a gesture. For a more experienced typist, typing the word “the” is a gesture.

Rule 1. An interface should be habituating.

If the interface can be operated habitually then, after you have used it for a while, its use becomes automatic and you can release all your attention to the task you are trying to achieve.

Consequently, when an interface can’t be operated habitually, we run into problems. Since I started using Notational Velocity, I’ve experienced this exact issue on a daily basis: I’m reading a blog post. It’s interesting. Full of good ideas. I think, “Hey, this is related to that thing I’m working on right now! Why don’t I copy the URL and make a quick one-sentence note about the way the information therein can be tied into the project? Sweet!”

I select the URL, hit Command-C to copy it, Command-Tab to switch applications–and pause. Wait! Where’s my note…thing? My eyes dart around, as my brain’s needle abruptly skips across the surface of its record. 1

Suddenly, I’m forced to switch from purposefully performing a task–one that requires me to immediately jot down my current train of thought–to consciously trying to remember and recognize which icon I’m looking for. It’s really disorienting, and I’ve found it to be the one consistent hiccup in my Notational Velocity/Simplenote workflow.

Worse, because Mac OS X’s application switcher lists active applications in the order in which they were last used, I can’t even train myself to click a specific area of the screen, as I would, say, if their icons were instead ordered alphabetically. (Yes, I’ve tried Witch to switch between windows rather than applications. I like the idea, but it’s just not what I’m looking for.)

Incidentally, this quirk of OS X’s interface goes against another of Raskin’s points:

“Rule 1b. To make an interface habituating, it must be monotonous.

Commentary. “Monotony” here is a technical term meaning that you do not have to choose among multiple gestures to achieve a particular sub-task. Crudely, there should be only one way to achieve a single-gesture subtask.”

Here, Raskin’s criticizing the practice of giving the user more than one way to do a task, (To copy the URL of the aforementioned blog post, we can choose between the keyboard command, the Edit menu, right-click menu, etc.) but application switching in OS X is even more annoying. Depending on how many apps I have open, Notational Velocity can be anywhere in a horizontal list of a dozen other programs.

So I changed the icon.

Now that’s an icon you write things in!

Instead, I’m using DeviantArt contributor ^pica-ae’s beautiful Red Moleskine icons.

She’s also created a number of similar icons in more traditional Moleskine colours, but I find I prefer the red one. It stands out against the other applications I use, and as a bonus, feels easier to associate with Notational Velocity’s functionality than the black icons. I’ve used the red icon for about a week now, and it’s worked out well. Is that strictly because it’s an inherently more appropriate icon? Not at all. Perhaps it’s simply easier to find because I’m subconsciously recognizing the effort that went into thinking about the problem and finding what I felt to be a more suitable icon.

This is by no means a perfect solution. I’m frustrated that I couldn’t ever get used to using the rocket-cabinet icon, just because it IS so apt and clever.2

Another option might have been to simply train myself not to use Command-Tab to switch to Notational Velocity. It’s in the same position on my Dock. I tend to keep the open Notational Velocity window to the left side of my desktop, where it does tend to peek out from behind other apps. Couldn’t I have just learned to click the open window rather than looking for the icon? Couldn’t I have used Exposé?

Sure, there were plenty of options available, but changing the way I switch apps might actually have been an even greater change for me to deal with. Consider this: I’ve switched applications the same way on Mac OS X since 2002. I’ve used applications with pads-of-paper for icons to jot down notes since Windows 3.1. Perhaps four months with Notational Velocity and its new icon was simply not long enough for me to learn a new mode of behavior.

My experience here has demonstrated something I think we should all take to heart when designing interfaces: a change to established practices can be really, really hard for users to accept, even if they agree the change makes complete sense.

  1. Tch, your MOM has synesthesia. []
  2. And purpose-designed! Sorry, Colin Cody! []

3 Responses to “Notational Velocity and Simplenote Part Two: Making a good thing better”

  1. Toenails

    It sounds like your criticisms stem from the behavior of the Mac OS X app-switcher. While you mentioned that you don’t want to change the way you switch applications, doing so will be the only true way to overcome these problems. Which is to say, you should probably be using Notational Velocity’s activation keystroke (found in Preferences) to bring it forward in a single “gesture”.

    Even with your preferred, most recognizable icon, you’ll still have to press Command-Tab an unknown number of times to activate the app, which is what Raskin actually meant by “habituation”.

  2. Tod M.

    I LOVE Simplenote as well. Have the iPad/iPhone app. Such a simple, but fantastic idea.

    I use Justnotes rather than NV. I found NV to be too plain looking; Justnotes has a nicer UI, at least imho.

    Also, Justnotes operates as a menubar app. I’m pretty sure NV is a dock icon. I really don’t like dock icons for tiny apps that do small things in which you NEVER click on the app icon in the doc. Like Quicksilver — it really shouldn’t have a doc app.

  3. xsa

    you can add a shortcut in notational velocity that wil instantly reveal and hide the window. You don’t need to go through all the complicated maneuvers you’re describing. You don’t ever need to see the icon. Justnhighlight the text you want to copy, press the shortcut keys–I use command– shift-backslash– drop off the text, press the shortcut keys again, and you’re back in your workflow. I really hope NV doesn’t implement the changes you suggest–it would ruin a lean, mean, elegant machine.