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Back to May 2013 ITS Newsletter

Meeting Notes, Research Notes, Mobile Devices and "Getting Your Stuff Together"

By Nikki Reynolds

Do you have this problem: Between meetings, email conversations, shared documents, news, newsletters, web-based research, physical world research (the 3D experience, you know?) and random ideas, my desktops (physical and electronic), tablet, smartphone, refrigerator, whiteboard and sometimes office door are littered with notes, links, photos, recordings, lists and reminders of all kinds. How does one bring order to this chaos? As always, it depends ...

... and what it depends upon is largely you. Or in my case, me. It all depends on the way you think, what "looks" or "feels" organized to you, what you find easy to use, what seems to best fit the way you work and the way your activities flow. You know this already. It is why you have at least a half dozen different apps on your smartphone or tablet that you haven't used in ages, even though they seemed really cool when you first discovered them.

So I'm not really going to answer the question on how to tame the information glut in which we all work, but I am going to share my explorations of a couple of different tools, and how they work (or not ) in my experience. I'm also going to give you a few links, so you can pursue your own research in the area.

Mobile Devices

I was an early adopter of the initial attempts at "smartphones" (you'd expect that, right?) because having all of my contacts on my phone, along with my calendar and lists of things to do was going to really get me organized and make me efficient. The advent of the iPad was clearly the greatest thing since the Dewey Decimal System, since I could now keep all of my notes electronically, and in one place. I wish. It seems I'm really great at being inconsistent. The built-in notes function was cool, but I couldn't keep it organized. Worse, sometimes I'd remember my tablet, sometimes not and sometimes I really just prefer the sensation of writing on paper with my favorite fountain pen. So, still a mess.

Enter "Notes Plus" http://notesplusapp.com/

A great little app that allows the creation of actual notebooks, not just notes. It even supports handwriting, with finger or stylus, although it still doesn't feel like a fountain pen on paper. In theory, it can even translate my handwriting into typed text. (That feature as rather mixed reviews. To paraphrase Prof. Pfitsch, if your third grade teacher couldn't make your handwriting legible, an electronic device is not likely to solve the problem.) Aside from that little "human factor", Notes Plus is a very capable program, allowing the importation and annotation of photos, graphics, texts, web sites and all manner of other information. It will even record audio, so you can have a record of the full meeting, not just the notes you take - very cool. Certainly it is powerful and flexible enough to handle most of the forms and formats in which my information exists. Regrettably, it still doesn't work for me. Some basic pros and cons:

  • It only exists on my iPad.

I work on various devices at various times, as needed and convenient, including 3 different Macs, one Windows system, the iPad and my phone. I can export stuff and email it to myself or put it into Google Drive, but I have to remember to do it (big issue there), and I have to do it on all of the systems all of the time - not happening.

Furthermore, I have a little bias against apps that only exist for iOS. Yes, I own and use on a lot of Macs. The Apple interface is usually my preference. But I support a lot of different people, and I want to know that I can refer them to software that works in their preferred interface and environment. Note Plus doesn't apply.

  • The interface feels clumsy to me.

That is completely personal, and I have no explanation for that reaction. Try it yourself, it might be perfect for you. Everybody's different.

An alternative: Evernote http://evernote.com/evernote/

Full disclosure: I'm new to this app/service, and have only a limited idea of whether I will be better able to organize myself with this app. I can tell you why I'm giving it a try.

  1. It is a combination of "app" and "web service" with an autosync feature.
    1. It is potentially possible to solve the multidevice problem - fingers crossed.
  2. It has apps for both iOS and Android, as well as Mac OS X and Windows.
    1. I feel I can recommend it with integrity.
  3. It includes special plugins for Chrome, Safari and Firefox,
    1. I can "clip" and save anything in any web browser from any of my devices and get it all into one location.
  4. I can share my notes or notebooks with colleagues.
  5. I can clip anything I want from my computer desktop.
    1. There are five different ways to do this, and I haven't tried them all. If you try them, let me know what works best for you.
  6. It supports audio recordings as well as "clippings" or direct notes.
  7. The interface for typewritten notes looks an awful lot like the format bar found in most word processors and text editors.
    1. You have all said this at one time or another: "It may not be the fanciest interface, but it is the one I know and can use quickly without thinking about it."

Some possible stumbling blocks:

  1. It still relies on me taking the time to create sensible notebooks and assign notes and clippings to the right places.
    1. I can do this; I do do this; I don't like to take the time to do this.
    2. Unfortunately, finding software that really organizes my stuff for me is rather like finding software that will read handwriting that is not generally considered "human readable" - probably not happening.
  2. The "handwriting" interface is a separate application: Penultimate @ http://evernote.com/penultimate/
    1. Notes Plus provides a more integrated experience in this sense.
    2. I haven't tried it yet, so no comment on the comparison between the interfaces in the two applications.
    3. If you like "Notes Plus", you can email those documents to Evernote, if that will help you get organized and share things.

Update: I'm at a conference with a MacBook Air, and taking notes directly in Evernote. I find the interface lets me see all of the organizing options at once, although I could reduce the amount on the screen if I wished. However, this arrangement allows me to jump from one notebook to another or from one note to another without having to wait for the screen to reload. The note window itself includes a fairly complete range of formatting tools - bullets, block indentation, headings - the tools most often used to organize notes. I'm a touch typist, and visually oriented, so this overall organization, navigation and tool set really support my note taking style much better than Notes Plus does.

Once again, interface is critical to effective use, and the interface one chooses needs to match the way one thinks about the information being manipulated. Evernote is working much better for me, but Notes Plus will be better for other people.

What are you using?

Those are my comments on two approaches to rounding up the bits and bytes of information cluttering our world. I would love to hear from you about your approaches. Someone out there must have something that will actually fit my interrupt driven workflow. I know I'm not the only person with this problem!