In January, I did something heretical for a productivity-app-obsessed tech writer: I threw away the “list” apps on my phone and went back to paper. As a queryable, bottomless, always-accessible database of my every passing thought, a Post-It stuck to my iPhone certainly falls short compared to Evernote or Clear. But here’s what I realized: for me, most of the time, I don’t need a database, nor do I want to spend time querying and managing one. I’m with Bret Victor: interacting with software mostly sucks on principle. For the job of “jotting” random stuff, paper’s form (physical, flexible, direct) just plain beat software’s function.
All of which made Google Keep quite interesting to me. Specifically, its aggressively simple, Post-It-like mobile UI. As an iOS user I’ll have to wait for a hands-on tryout, since Keep is only available for Android at the moment. But something about Keep makes it seem like its designers may have had a similar experience with their own “list” apps that I had. Keep obviously offers all of Google’s cloud-powered, database-like functionality under the hood. But for the first time, that functionality seems to be offered in a form that suggests someone was seriously thinking, “What if your phone were just a magic Post-It note?”
Not “what if there were a Post-It-like app in your phone” – but what if the phone was the Post-It? There’s a difference.
Physical: Because Keep and Android are made by the same company, Keep’s interface can be surfaced “up” almost literally to the level of the hardware itself. There’s a widget that lets you create a note without even having to unlock your phone. For most apps this is a mostly-pointless luxury (is checking Twitter really that important?), but for Keep, it’s essential. (Remember: The notepad isn’t supposed to be “in” the phone; it is the phone–or as close to that as possible.) Yes, there is still a button to push to access the “media surface” of the app, but that’s still just one step. (You could say that a sticky note has one step of “access”, too: picking up a pen.)
Flexible: Databases have brittle structure. “Jotting” something in Evernote takes at least five steps, most of which involve moving between fields and making sure input is structured in a way that Evernote can understand. Jotting something in Keep looks a lot more like actual jotting-on-paper because there are no fields. (Well, technically there are “title” and “body” fields, but according to The Verge’s hands-on video, you can ignore them.) If Google were to allow unstructured “scribbly” input (like from a stylus or your fingertip) in addition to text/voice/pictures, Keep’s flexibility would be very paperlike indeed.
Direct: After you jot something down, what happens to it? In most apps, it becomes a database object that must be queried for access. In other words, it “disappears” into the software behind an additional layer of abstraction. (This is especially true of Evernote, but also for simpler apps like Notes and Clear, which abstract “jotted” content into a meta-list of titled items that you search and “open” for access.) If querying software is your jam, Keep will let you do that, but (at least in the mobile version) the default behavior is simply to display jotted “notes” onscreen in full as color-coded directly visible objects… like sticky notes. The thing you see is the thing, not an abstracted token representing it. (Again: if you want to get technical, it is a representation. But if you just want to “access” or read it, it’s already directly there–just like a physical note stuck to the back of a phone, in my case.) If you find yourself making dozens or hundreds of notes without ever getting rid of them, Keep’s skeuomorphic interface could quickly become unwieldy–and you can switch to a more appropriately database-like mode of interacting with them. The point is, you don’t have to.
Computers and databases are amazing, but human beings still use paper lists and sticky notes for good reasons. Is Keep the best of both worlds? Like I said, I’ll have to wait until there’s an iOS version to know for sure. But by seriously questioning the “computery-ness” of mobile note-taking apps, Keep might be on the right track to becoming magic ink–or the next best thing.