Note Taking Process and Apps

Change is the toughest to track. Sometimes the change is rapid, but other times it can be subtle and barely noticed. Yet, it may have made a big difference in the experience of someone.

Sometimes these changes take place in our own area of work, but there are more likely changes in other areas that can make a tremendous impact in our sector.

Should you track changes? Yes. Reading about them and having diversified a portfolio of reading interests is one thing but making notes about something interesting is equally essential. Since my school years, I have had a habit of reading but didn’t make as many notes back then, and this habit has grown.

Sense-making, my work in customer experience and whatever term you prefer. There is a lot to read, look at, understand and make sense of the customer journey for clients. For example, if the client has a business that engages with customers in stores, clinics, and many other formats, then there is a lot of visual information by way of messaging, equipment, etc. It is helpful to know for example, how digital signage is being used by different customers in various locations. Work-related reading could involve sector-specific insights, market research documents, books and more.

A Power platform application serves as a visual and related repository for the teams’ notes in market visits. It links back to Sharepoint, and everyone has access to the information they need. Another application was a business news tracker on specific topics that each of us works on. These apps were developed quickly and have served us well over the years.

Work-related apps and insights are one thing, knowledge enhancement and keeping abreast of the critical changes have become very important for everyone. My own note-taking methods have evolved, and the tools that I use have also changed. The trusted pen and paper still remains right where it should be. At close range whenever I need it. I still use mind maps and journey maps when trying to understand things better. A combination of Onenote and Apple notes has kept me company when I needed to write down something or save a link. It’s been adequate but not necessarily stellar. Links to videos, interesting sites, notes and so on existed in this repository. Safe in the knowledge that I could find information if it was already in there. It was ok, but I have been on the lookout to improve this workflow. The last year allowed me to look at this closely and make the process more efficient.

The core tasks that I was striving to solve.

  • All the interesting links from the social stream or feeds were stored in the OneNote. These links were in sections for specific big topics, e.g. customer experience, sustainability and so on. PDFs also found their way in a dedicated pdf section. These note-taking apps have a good way of displaying the contents of these kinds of files. But still, one faced the problem of the endless scroll of multiple pdf files.
  • There were mini-databases of small information that I had collated over the year. A recent example is digital humans and the various brands working with them. In the older format, it was just an excel file in one of the folders called research!
  • All too often, a thought strikes you. It is maybe just a phrase or a paragraph, and you want to develop or research this. They are a kind of a eureka moment that strikes suddenly. Sometimes you end up writing about it, and at other times it just forms an empty doc file or page in your note-taking programme. Or maybe consolidated notes file with the title to write more on these! But if there is one thing I have realised, these things need to be visible given the exponentially high rate of change. If you can do the sense-making on a topic, you are empowered to work on the client requirements more accurately.
  • Frequently, there is a screenshot or a photograph that one takes. It may reside in the garden of a million snapshots, but if it is not categorised/tagged quickly enough. It is going to be lost.
  • Similarly, one may see an essential point in a video or a podcast. One could save the link to it, but it will not be viewed again for a while. At that point, how easy will it be to find such a video or, in recent times, an AR experience?
  • Realtime 3d or other digital-first experiences need a completely different documenting and sense-making metaphor.
  • It is not just information or format specific. Still, suppose you are tracking a sector or an interest like electric vehicles, learning experiences. In that case, you want to record the nuances of change as they happen, e.g. the transition of traditional learning management systems in the video first / remote learning time that we live in. There is the point of view of the learning practitioners, learners, platforms, and the physical spaces’ effectiveness.

These elements have been the focus of my workflow improvements. Of course, not all of these were done at once, but it will give you an idea of the process you might want to follow.

The improvements focused on the following three areas:

  • Documenting and Storing Changes
  • My own notes on multiple themes
  • Client work – Develop courseware, experience notes

The more I thought about the changes required and the focus of improvements, the limitations of the process and tools in the content of my workflow became apparent. The tools I was using are good, but I need a set of tools that fit my workflow more effectively and managed to store the data in the way I wanted.

Devonthink – To Document and Store Information

To keep it simple, after trying many platforms, I decided to experiment longer with Devonthink to go for iOS. Firstly, it is much cheaper on this platform, and I didn’t want to invest in an expensive solution if I did not find it helpful. Secondly, the iPad is my preferred platform when researching, writing, and creating connections between concepts and ideas.

No matter what you are reading or the app you are in, the share card makes it easy to send information to Devonthink. Somehow this feels like an improved flow than the web clipper ( on desktops) of conventional note-taking apps. Of course, to be fair, the share card option is available for the note-taking app too.

This app approaches information categorisation a bit differently, and that made all the difference in my workflow. When opened, the app feels like an email or feed reader. However, the information you have stored there is a big difference. You essentially create a database for each theme you wanted to classify. For example, it could be Retail or Cyber Security or ESG or any other topic. From that point, you can add anything that you come across. This could be a video, a quote or an essential paragraph in a particular article, bookmark the full article, tag information or even create sheets of helpful information that can be quickly accessed. What I want is to be able to quickly access this information or write into it. All the data I store is within my own iCloud account, and in my workflow, it is an important feature. I come across information while on the desktop computer, and that is easily copied (from the mac) and pasted to this application (iOS app) and thus haven’t yet felt the need to invest in the mac version of the application. But that may change as the requirements evolve.

I still need to find an elegant solution to migrate the content from Onenote and Apple notes. However, this content repository is growing rapidly, and I have learned to regularly make notes and gain insights from these links.

iAWriter and Obsidian – Sense-making notes and theme tracking
An intuitive way, for me, to connect ideas is to draw a sort of rough diagram or even a mindmap. This sets the stage either for more research or discussions and jotting down key points on a topic. Each of the issues can be built further. This process has largely remained the same. What’s changed firstly is that I recently came across a method called Zettelkasten. Understanding the technique provided a structure that I adapted to my process. Wish I had known about it a lot earlier. It’s an excellent method to improve one’s documenting and writing strategies. Next, after much exploration and testing, I finally settled on a note making tool. It is more of an add-on tool.

I have been using iAWriter since it was launched almost a decade ago. It’s minimalistic, quick to start, and the one feature I really appreciate, no distractions. The files are in text format, and over the years, they have added support for hashtags. Creating an outline for a client presentation, writing a lengthy report or blog post, and most other writing tasks are completed in this app. In this app, you focus on what matters in your writing task. I have had to do a bit of cleaning up to ensure the tags and folders are manageable.

However, there’s only one thing: when the idea is unfinished or just the starting point, there is no easy way to connect them within iAWriter. For example, I have been studying the emerging trend in passwordless access. Initially, it was just a paragraph of information, and over time I managed to document information about vendors, some statistics and even standards. I have an outline, but I am not ready to write a longer post or presentation deck. But there are also a lot of connecting ideas and experiences where passwordless makes sense. So I was looking for a tool that might better address this need and yet be lightweight. I literally searched for connected notes. This journey was fascinating as I discovered a new world of networked thinking, connected workspaces, and much more. Obsidian is similarly minimalistic but has an extensible architecture, and you can add more plugins, customise themes and so on. It uses markdown, though it has a different file naming convention and stores all your files in the iCloud drive. To put it this way, when an idea has come to mind or if the idea is to be built or an idea is to be connected to other ideas, Obsidian is the primary tool. But when detailing the nuances of it all and writing a final article or report, the preferred app continues to be iAWriter.

Craft – Developing workshop courseware and experience notes

An experience assignment will have journey maps. These could be eventually made on platforms like Smaply and others. I have used these journey maps to discuss workshop content and work on processes, navigation and UX, content and learning modules. In addition, there are links to demo modules, visual modules, and so much more. Presenting them via multiple PowerPoint or Keynote files is one way, but another recent one is Craft.

You can still write paragraphs, but the one thing I like about it is the ability to build ideas at their own pace. You start with a simple point amongst many. Then you pick that simple point and convert it into a page of its own with additional nested links. It is intuitive and indeed a new way to discuss, present or develop.

We have been using this for integrating different streams of the experience and content types into one unified whole. This is particularly useful when working on remote discussions and video first meetings. The content is shareable either as a link, word document or even a pdf file. It is a flexible new tool that has a variety of use cases.

In closing, every person has a different workflow and requirements. For some, Microsoft Onenote, Evernote, Apple Notes or Google Keep would be apt, while for others, newer products like Roam Research, Notion have a better fit for their requirements. Some prefer a single app, while others prefer a multiple app approach. Although there is never one perfect fit for all needs, listing down what you want to achieve from these applications is a good starting point.

References

Some channels I referred to-

https://www.youtube.com/c/CurtisMcHaleG
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC85D7ERwhke7wVqskV_DZUA

Applications

Devonthink To Go – https://www.devontechnologies.com/apps/devonthink
Craft https://www.craft.do/
Obsidian https://obsidian.md/
iAWriter https://ia.net/writer

Microsoft Onenote https://www.microsoft.com/en-in/microsoft-365/onenote/digital-note-taking-app
Google Keep https://www.google.com/keep/
Evernote https://evernote.com/
Apple Notes https://support.apple.com/en-in/guide/notes/not9474646a9/mac

Roam Research https://roamresearch.com/
Notion https://www.notion.so/

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