Over the past ten months I’ve been using a variety of To Do management applications to solve my personal task management woes. This blog post is a recap of the four best contenders that I have found, where they succeed, where they fail, and what needs to be on the table for me to be happy.
Laying the Ground Rules
As the lead UI designer behind our group task solution Stacks I can be a pretty harsh critic on things that don’t feel or work right. Also along this same line, I understand the difficulty of developing a product and trying to meet feature requests. It’s impossible to keep everyone happy, not to mention build features with time and care. For some of these apps the features I want might be coming, for others they aren’t part of the ballgame and never will be. I get that, but let’s still “talk it out”.
Required vs. Nice to Have
- Well designed interface
- Quick task entry
- Repeating tasks
- Time based notifications/reminders
- Access to tasks at all times (ideally: mobile, desktop, ipad, and web)
- Cloud syncing
Nice to have:
- Categorization of tasks (long term, work, personal, etc.)
- Notes or sub-tasks
- File attachments
- An API
- Great keyboard shortcuts
Alright, let’s jump into the four selected contenders and see what they’ve brought to the table.
phenomenal cloud syncing, quick task entry, access to tasks at all times, notes/subtasks, an API
repeating tasks, reminders, categorization, great keybaord shortcuts
At first I felt a little bad including Simplenote as a task management app. The truth is that Simplenote was never meant to soley manage tasks. That said, it’s just too good at what it does to not have it on this list. First off, Simplenote is bar none the best cloud syncing application I’ve ever used. It’s never once lost my changes or updates and I’m using it on my computer, iPad, and iPhone. Also, in a pinch it has a web interface (that doesn’t suck) as well. On top of this it has an API (although it’s not fully public yet) which has allowed developers to tackle the interface in unique ways. For instance, Just Notes and Notational Velocity are independent apps that work great with the Simplenote API.
There are a few big hurdles you have to be willing to accept with Simplenote. First, it won’t be able to send you reminders in any way shape or form. This means you have to remember to check it to see what’s due. This became a deal breaker for me after a few months, but if you’re the type of person who’s disciplined, this may not be an issue. Second, Simplenote has no way to repeat tasks, so all those CC bills and monthly reminders need to be created every month.
If all you’re looking for a is a small To Do app that also has great note taking capabilities Simplenote is probably your best bet. Beautiful Helvtica type, a super clean and fast interface, and very proactive developers. If you need more than just a few lines of text, like me, then it’s onward to the next app.
quick task entry, categorization/tagging, nice interface, access on multiple devices
Repeating tasks are terrible, badge only notifications, no cloud syncing
Things is perhaps the most well known Mac and iPhone task management solution. Culture Code, the creator of Things, has been featured on Apple’s developer site and has done well in a number of reviews. From the surface Things looks like a winner. Beautiful icon and interface, multiple device support, plus tagging and categorization. Yes it is expensive, $50 desktop + $10 iPhone + $20 iPad, but that’s sometimes worth it for a great experience. The problem is that Things felt off the whole time I used it. It’s not that it doesn’t have a few great features (ie: quick task entry via hotkey on the desktop version) but rather that the deep features trail off. The features that should be most thought out don’t seem to be at all. For instance, let’s look at creating a scheduled repeating task:
First off, the entire due field is uneditable so why does it even allow typing? Second, the wording is just ridiculous, ‘copies are due’ could just be ‘this task is due’. Further, why at the bottom do I have to say each copy has a due date, didn’t I just specify that up above when I said the day it’s due? Granted, maybe there is someone out there who needs to randomly assign tasks every month, on a given date, and doesn’t actually have a date that task is due. But really?! Even so, Culture Code should spend some time wording this better, as it is now it’s just insanity. Check out some better solutions that other developers created:
Second, Things doesn’t have cloud syncing. For an application that is meant to exist on three different devices it is extremely weird that there is no cloud connection. Instead, you have to have each device’s wifi on and then let them sync over a home/business wifi network. This, in my opinion, is a recipe for disaster. Router and wifi questions aside, what if I add 7 tasks on my laptop but am connected via ethernet, then take just my phone out of town for the weekend? My data is completely inaccessible. For a $50+ dollar set of apps I expect cloud syncing, even for a yearly cost.
Third, Things isn’t very good at reminding you about tasks. It shows you a badge of how many tasks you have but beyond that you have to go in and look at your tasks on a daily basis. Maybe some people do this but I don’t. Let me specify a time to be reminded and then show me an alert on my phone, simple enough?
End game, Things just doesn’t stack up for the price. If Culture Code works on usability and wording, allows cloud syncing, and gives a discount to users that own all the apps I’ll consider it again.
beautiful mobile interface, push reminders, categorization, task notes, price
web interface might as well not exist, no desktop version, no API
NotifyMe 2 is the most recent application that I’ve been using. While it lacks a desktop client (which is a huge downfall) the mobile client is extremely good. The biggest and strongest pitch for NotifyMe is exactly what it’s name says: notifications. NotifyMe syncs your tasks to the cloud and then sends a push reminder to your phone when the task needs to be done. At that point you can either snooze it and be reminded later (at an interval you set) or check it off. Additionally, repeating tasks on NotifyMe are better than any other interface I’ve seen – especially considering it’s a mobile interface. You set the date and time the task is due, then how often it should repeat, you can do alternate weekdays, weeks, months, or years. Or, something like remind me every 45th day. The best part about this is the ease with which it works. You can tell the crew at PoweryBase sat down and really went through the steps.
Among the other nice things in NotifyMe are task notes and task sharing. Task notes are placed nicely within each task, a small icon appears next to tasks that have notes letting you know additional information exists. This seems small but the ability to add a few notes into a task is huge. For instance, I add a task to set up a doctor appointment easily, but remembering to bring my new insurance card and the new office address could be just as important. The ability to have notes fixes this problem. Additionally the app also has a sharing and friends feature. I haven’t tried it enough to know how well it works, but if it works as advertised (and I assume it does based on the rest of the app) then it should be a hit for married couples or families. The ability to assign notifications to others on the fly could be extremely useful.
The biggest knock against NotifyMe has to be their application web interface, webapp.notifymecloud.com. In fact, let’s be honest, it doesn’t even deserve to be called a web interface. It’s more like a pile of trash sitting online that is meant to somehow duplicate functionality of the mobile app. And, while technically it has the functionality, the feel and care of the mobile app is 100% absent. The icons are gross, the corners of the containers are rough and thrown together. The task fields are unstyled and unorganized. It’s literally like someone went into Dreamweaver and inserted a bunch of default text fields, added some terrible icons, and said “that’s good, I’m done”. The fact this application is so bad makes me terrified that PoweryBase doesn’t take their design seriously. If they are willing to put out something this bad on the web who’s to say the app might some day slip into the same void. Terrifying.
In conclusion, NotifyMe 2, from a mobile perspective, is the best task manager I’ve seen. This is big because if there is any place to have a great app it’s on the device that’s always with you. Sadly, the web app is not worthy of discussion. It’s unusable and beyond in a pinch circumstances, worthless. Let’s hope this gets addressed so I can give NotifyMe 2 the clear victory in the To Do application space.
The Hit List
best desktop experience of any app I have ever used, great keyboard shortcuts, tagging/categorization, extremely fast task creation, repeating tasks
vaporware iPhone version, an API
I’ve never been as excited about a program as I was about The Hit List. It’s beautiful, fast, easy to learn, and incredibly well thought out. Sadly two years into the product life cycle the announced iPhone app has never been released and the desktop version has never come out of beta. The developer has dropped off the face of the earth. While the desktop version is truly a marvel to be seen (even in beta), the lack of syncing, API access, or a mobile version render this app a dinosaur. Some people have gotten it to work with the 2Do via calendar syncing, but I’m just not willing to use some hack method for important tasks in my life.
Because I’m such a fan of The Hit List I believe it belongs in this showdown. For someone that only needs a desktop application there is nothing better on the table. Just check out this quick video I whipped up:
If The Hit List gets an iPhone app I will jump on it no matter what the cost. Though I’m a realist and therefore betting this app, sadly, won’t see the light of day.
The Final Conclusion
Considering it’s mid 2010 I’m astonished that someone hasn’t solved the GTD personal task solution in a way that meets the few goals I provided above. There is a lot of potential in the market but no superstar. I’d love to hear other people’s solutions to the GTD problem, maybe something’s out there that I don’t know about. Until then I’ll keep hoping for a better desktop or web version of NotifyMe2. Or, even better, the mystical unicorn Hit List iPhone application from Andy Kim.