Are your notes a graveyard full of dead knowledge?
There are a lot of note-taking apps out there. And, let’s be real, there’s a lot of hype too. In reality, most note apps are graveyards full of dead knowledge you’ll never go back to. Even if you’re a dedicated note-taker, recalling what you wrote later can be a challenge. This is because note apps bury information. Traditional notes are too long. They lack structure. They’re just unorganized. And the mess gets worse with every word you type. Instead of empowering you to work better and smarter, your notes become bloated and require a lot of busy work just to maintain and organize.
Search doesn’t help much either. You need to remember the exact search terms and even then you still have to sift through a ton of noisy results. Finding what you need when you need it can feel hopeless.
According to a Gartner study, it takes people around 18 minutes on average just to find something that they themselves wrote before. That translates to hours a week of lost productivity! And it’s even worse when you're working across multiple domains or platforms, or when you're collaborating with others.
Information Architecture of Note Apps
We can trace the root of the problem to the underlying information architecture. How a note app forces you to structure your information can have a huge impact on how you interact with that information later on. This is especially important for teams since if you want others on your team to benefit from what you write, you need to be really intentional about how you store your shared notes. There are three architectural anti-patterns we’ve observed in how current note-taking tools create structure in your notes: (1) structure through hierarchy, (2) structure through links, and (3) structure through tags. Each pattern has strengths and weaknesses, but all of them are anti-patterns when it comes to managing a lot of dynamic information.
The bottom line is that it takes a lot of busy work to keep your knowledge from dying in note apps, and most people just don’t have the time for all that maintenance.
Structure through Hierarchy: Folders All the Way Down
Examples: Google Docs, Dropbox, SharePoint, Evernote, OneNote
This is probably the most common pattern. We all know it well. Starting a note on a new project? Create a folder! Umm, wait, but where to put that folder? Make it a sub-folder under “Projects” of course! Hmm, but is it actually a “project?” Maybe it belongs in the “Ideas” folder instead? And then there’s the “Work” folder? And what if I want to share it with someone later? Gah!
Folders are helpful because they give you a lot of control in organizing and curating your information. But designing a folder structure is difficult. And maintaining it as you add more and more content quickly becomes a huge mess. It seems like you’re inevitably stuck between two bad strategies: either deeply nest your folders and then struggle with keeping a gnarly tree-shaped directory structure in your head all the time, or keep your folders flat and struggle wading through the noise in your root folder. Either way, it’s a huge chore to keep an organized folder system up to date for an active archive of notes.
Things get even worse when you share folders with your team. For teams, folders are a total mess. No one knows where anything is, let alone where they should put new notes. And when something changes, like when someone updates an existing note, no one on the team has any visibility to those changes. If someone on your team can't find something, they spread the pain around and ask others on the team for help on Slack.
Folders all the way down mean constant interruption all the way around.
Structure through Links: Veni, Vidi, Wiki
Examples: Confluence, Notion, Coda
Apps like Confluence, Notion, and Coda popularized wikis for personal and team knowledge management. Wikis offer several organizational benefits over folders full of notes. Just like in Wikipedia, the main objects of these systems are Pages. Pages combine knowledge creation through the authoring of content, with knowledge curation through the organization of hyperlinks to other Pages. This unification is great for notes because it allows for more contextual links among pieces of knowledge. Well-groomed hyperlinks that are embedded alongside your note content are much more informative than random file and folder names. Additionally, wikis allow for more flexibility in structuring your information. Page links can be used to model knowledge hierarchically, just like folders. But unlike folders, links can also model knowledge in more complicated graph structures, just like the web.
Despite this added flexibility, wikis are not immune from the dead knowledge problem. Wikipedia is one of the great accomplishments of humanity, but capturing, organizing, and maintaining all that knowledge takes a ton of work. Stuart Geiger and Aaron Halfaker estimated that between 2001 and 2012, it took 100 million labor-hours to produce Wikipedia. For reference, it took about 7 million labor-hours to build the Empire State Building. While personal and team wikis are not nearly as complicated as Wikipedia, it still takes dedicated effort to keep everything organized. For teams, this often falls on the team lead or product manager, who is probably already busy with 100 other more urgent things.
The bottom line is, wikis are a familiar format for documenting and organizing knowledge, but they create a lot of busy work that doesn't scale well to teams and often just doesn’t get done.
Structure through Tags: Your Mind is a Graph
Examples: Roam Research, Logseq, Obsidian
Connected note apps like Roam Research take the linked pages of wikis one step further. Loosely inspired by Vannevar Bush’s vision of a computer as a “second brain,” these tools are designed to help you capture connections and relations within your notes much like the free associations in your brain. In addition to creating explicit hyperlinks between pages like wikis, people can link pages semantically through the use of tags. Tagging can be a powerful way to organize information. For one, it helps solve the “where do I put this?” problem that plagues folder structures and wikis. If a page spans multiple topics, just add multiple tags.
However, using tags effectively requires planning and discipline. If you forget to tag something, you’re out of luck. It is also difficult to use tags successfully within a team. Different people on the team may have different information schema in their heads as to how they like to tag things. When people don’t tag things the exact same way, you end up with duplicate notes, each with a fragment of the information you’re trying to capture, and as time goes on fragmented knowledge becomes more dead knowledge. This is perhaps why these tools are more popular for personal knowledge management than they are for teams.
Complexity is also a huge problem. As a knowledge graph grows more complex, with more nodes and more links between them, it can quickly become unwieldy to manage. This is one reason why connected note apps offer graph visualizations to give users a bird’s-eye view of their connections. I’m as guilty as anyone at geeking out over force-directed graph plots. And, it's kind of a weird flex, but people also seem to like sharing visualizations of their own knowledge graphs on social media. Despite their charms, graph plots that look strikingly similar to bowls of spaghetti are horrible ways to manage information.
Maybe your mind really is a graph. That's no excuse for the spaghettification of your knowledge.
We Believe in a Better Way
We’re building Flowdex to solve these problems. Flowdex is a new kind of self-organizing note-taking app. Our vision is that important information in your notes should always be just a couple of clicks away. To advance this vision, Flowdex introduces two new patterns for organizing your notes that are extensions of Tags:
Structure through Entities: 🙋✨ The people, companies, projects, and places that your notes are about are powerful and visceral anchors for organizing your information. Flowdex detects these entities in your notes and uses them to create connections and surface information when you need it. The names of people, places, and things you type will automagically give you superpowers for filtering and linking information.
Structure through Annotations: 🔖✨ Annotations are essential metadata that can be helpful for making sense of text. With Flowdex, we invented a new kind of smart annotation that makes it super-easy to bookmark important things that you want to get back to later. These could be todos or action items that were brought up in a meeting, decisions that were made, or just something you don’t want to forget.
In the next post, I’ll tell you much more about these two new organizational patterns and how they re-imagine how teams capture and retrieve shared knowledge to be more productive.
Special thanks to Matt Welsh, Joel Chan, Philip Guo, Jeff Bigham, Andrés Monroy-Hernández, Emad Aghayi, Elizabeth Lee, and William Cheng for sharing helpful feedback on a draft of this post.