Software, Slowly, Gets Better

Is it just me, or are software developers beginning to get their users? For a long time I’ve felt the only real innovation in software has been in online applications, Web 2.0 non-apps—simple services that exist in your browser—but now it seems that ordinary apps are getting better too.

Evernote, I feel, is one that’s really leading the charge. They’ve taken the feedback that us users have been giving them and have added, incremental release by incremental release, some really cool features. For example: now you can save searches in the Windows version. Reminds me of the old Enfish Tracker Pro, whose departure I still mourn. In fact, Evernote isn’t far off becoming a real database instead of a dumping ground for things you’ll read one day. Maybe.

Skype, too, have pulled their socks up. I hated 4.0  beta, not least for its big bumbling footprint. But the new version is better—a lot better. The main improvement is the option to make it look like your old Skype. But it has some nice new touches, including a chronology scroller that might interest Evernote’s legal department (Skype on the left, Evernote on the right):

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Move the bar on the right and you can move easily through old chats. Legal niceties aside, I think this kind of innovation is great to see, and almost restores my faith in designers realising that we don’t just use software in the here and now, but also as repositories of past heres and nows, if you know what I mean.

In short, our decision to commit to software is largely based on how much we will be able to get out of it. Not just in terms of hours saved in what we do now, but in what past information we’ll be able to get out of it. We have been using computers long enough now to have built up a huge repository of interactions and memos, and we want, nay we insist, to be able to get that stuff back. Quickly and easily. And, increasingly, to be able to move it to other places should we wish.

Google understands this relatively well. A chat in GTalk, for example, can be readily accessed via Gmail. And, now, we can also see and search our other data held within Google’s silos, right within Gmail, via some widgets from Google’s Gmail Labs. Here are two widgets that let you view your calendar:

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and here’s one to see your documents within Google Docs:

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Note the window at the top for searching through your document titles. This means one less step to access your data.

All these things have some basic concepts in common:

As I’ve mentioned, it’s about being able to get what you’ve put in out. Skype have listened to their customers and realised it’s less about the interface and more about the information the interface gives access to. If they were smart they’d find an easy way to send old chats to your email account or at least make it easy to search all your chats from one box. (I’m told that, or something like it, is coming in the ‘Gold’ version of  Skype 4.0 next year. Until now only group chats—three or more people can be saved to your contact list.)

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Secondly, software should, where possible, work with other people’s software. Emusic’s new download manager (above), for example, does something that has been missing ever since the service launched. Previously, if you wanted to include MP3 files you’d bought from the service in iTunes, you’d need to either drag them across into iTunes or re-introduce the folder into iTunes. The new version of the downloader tool now synchronizes automatically with iTunes, meaning you don’t need to do anything. Thank God for that.

There are tons of other things that software needs to do that it presently doesn’t. I could start listing them but I need to go to bed. But maybe in this downturn developers could take a note from some of these examples, and use the time to look more carefully at what users need, at how they use your software, and explore new and better ways for them to use it for what they do, not what you think they should do.

10. November 2008 by jeremy
Categories: Productivity, Rants, Software, apps | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 comments

Comments (4)

  1. It is nice to see these developments. I hope that the desktop guys can become a bit more agile like Evernote. We just did an integration with them and they were great. They have their base web application and their API drives the other desktop applications. I guess they are a web company at heart and probably “get it” more than a pure-play desktop software company.

    Troy Malone
    Pelotonics

  2. Evernote already did those things a long while ago.

    Then they decided to change focus to add a web interface and synchronization, and re-did the windows version – which is now going through a very long “beta” phase still missing many of the features of the previous Evernote.

    Such as, for example, this ability to save searches (and some advanced variations, like the ability to define automatic keywords for “categories” and have new items you put in automatically tagged accordingly, or giving an interface to quickly and easily do various intersections between such categories and searches).

    When a company has an amazing product, then loses most of the features and is slowly brining them back again because a lot of previously happy customers are complaining, that’s not quite the example I would use for listening to the users or for “leading the charge”.

  3. Fair point, Yaron, I don’t remember the saved searches feature in Evernote. But I do recall the ‘categories’ thing, and while I do miss the automatic assigning based on content, I do remember that manually adding a category required way too many steps for it to be useful. Adding tags now is much simpler.

  4. You could have dragged a search into the “keyword categories” section to automatically create a category based on that search. Which would then of course automatically add to itself any new note that would match that search.

    I agree that manually adding a category in the older Evernote was a little more work, and a little less intuitive. But just a little, I think. That work is a single mouse-click (or hotkey) to open the categories window, after which you could type them manually in a way similar to the line of tags in the new version.

    Maybe it was added at a later version than the last Evernote 2 you tested, I really don’t remember. But I have been using the 2.1 and 2.2 versions for a long while now, and when I tried the new v3 I was very much put off by how much functionality and convenience it lost.