What is note taking software and how do I review it?

I would firstly like to point out that I have no connection whatsoever with any software company.

Many people keep bits of information that they think they might need in the future.  They usually use several different applications for storing this information.  This can become a mess if it is not well managed, it is easy for information to become misplaced (not lost, merely not easy to find).  Another problem with this approach is that because they use a variety of different programs to store their information they are constantly switching between applications in order to find what they want.  This is not the most efficient way of doing things.

They might use text editors or word processors to keep random thoughts or useful bits of information they might have cut and pasted from the internet.

If the information naturally has more structure like a plan for a piece of writing or planning some sort of event then they may well use an outliner or the outline function built into a word processor or even a mind mapping program.

They might keep references to scientific papers or other publications in a reference manager like Mendeley or EndNote.

It would be better to just use one program to consolidate all this information into one repository.  Something like a note taking program, but wait a minute … note taking programs already exist.  I always find it inexplicable that note taking programs have not become more mainstream than they are.  They seem to be a small niche market.

Note taking software is quite difficult to review, because there are so many different pieces of software with differing capabilities and different ways of doing the same things, but also there is a lot of variation in what people expect from this kind of software.

People have come up with various names for this type of software, but with each of these names comes a different set of expectations about what it will be able to do.  There are PIM’s (Personal Information Managers), Outliners, Wiki’s, Information databases and my favourite the Personal Knowledge Base.

Writing a book or a thesis?  A note taking program is just what you need, the meta data associated with each note makes it much easier to organise and find things in your creative writing.

Contact management?  CRM?  Nothing beats a blank page.

None of these programs reviewed here are perfect, each one is a compromise but some come closer than others.  Undoubtedly the most powerful program is ‘ConnectedText’, but it is not the easiest to use.  Probably the best all-rounder is ‘WhizFolders’.  The only program with a hierarchical keyword tree is ‘MyBase’ but it comes with other problems which detract from its usefulness.  The latest contestant is ‘Memo Master’ which looks quite promising.  Most of the programs reviewed here do something better than all the other programs but there isn’t one program which does it all.

I would suggest that most of the current note taking programs which classify notes in a tree structure have got it wrong!

There needs to be a hierarchical tree but it needs to be in the keywords.

If you have notes placed in a tree then a note can only appear in one place in that tree.  This works fine for small numbers of notes but starts to fall apart when the number of notes becomes larger than a few hundred.  The problem is that to find a place for your note in the tree you have to select the most significant single characteristic and this may exclude other equally valid characteristics.

Tagging of notes with keywords is the better solution.  You can tag a note with as many keywords as you like and so the note can be classified with as many characteristics as you think are useful.

But there is another problem.

When faced with a list of thousands of keywords it can be difficult to get to the one you want.  Therefore it would seem useful to put the keywords into a hierarchical tree structure.

On the face of it this would seem to be similar to placing the notes themselves in a tree but there is a significant difference.  The note can now be associated with keywords representing all of its significant characteristics.  In effect it appears wherever it is appropriate for it appear in the tree.

A scientific article may appear under the author’s name (or multiple authors names) but it should also appear under the subject of the research and under .DOC , .PDF or .PS and under the institution responsible for the research.

One refinement I would suggest is that of inheritance. For instance if you were to define the keyword ‘Animal’ with descendant keywords ‘Dog’ and ‘Cat’ then I would suggest that any note tagged with ‘Dog’ or ‘Cat’ should automatically be tagged with ‘Animal’ and if ‘Animal’ is itself a descendant of another keyword then the note should be tagged with that keyword as well, recursively right back to the ‘root’ keyword.

One further refinement I would suggest is that any notes without keywords should appear in the ‘root directory’ of the tree just to make them obvious.

The criteria by which the programs will be judged

When reviewing each program these are the questions I will be asking myself.

1. Connectivity is the main thing which separates a note taking program from a word processor.

How easy is it to connect things?  Does the program allow links to external files and websites?  Does it allow other programs to link in to the program and into one specific note in the data?  This is called a universal link.  How easy is it to link notes to other notes?  Can links be placed into the text?  Does the program allow transclusion?  Transclusion is the capability for one note to appear in more than one location, not as a copy but as separate instances of the same note.

2. Classification

How easy is it to classify and catalog notes?  Is there a tagging system?  If so then how useful is it?  How easy is it to find a specific note if you have forgotten its location?

3. Text layout and formatting

Can you format the text with various fonts, colours and sizes?  Can you put pictures into the text?  Can you put tables into the text?  How easy is it to edit text?  Is there a spell checker?

4. A sense of time

Does the program have a calendar?  Can you attach a date to a note?  Can the program remind you when that date comes around?

5. Ease of use

Is the program easy to use and intuitive?  Is the user interface obvious or confusing?

6. Visual Appeal

Is the program pretty to look at?  How much screen space is taken up by menu bars, tool bars and other things which are not your notes?  Is there much wasted space on the screen or is it all necessary?

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One thought on “What is note taking software and how do I review it?

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