What makes Notion so good?
Today, I'll walk you through Notion and try to explain why is it poised for user delight. The productivity app is increasingly gaining popularity, and its meteoric adoption deserves a product-centred analysis. As you finish reading this, you might get tempted to try out Notion yourself or end up learning how to use Notion better. So, be prepared!
I started using Notion back in October 2019. Initially, the templates seemed too intimidating for me to start using the app in any meaningful way. But seeing many YouTubers using it made me try it out again and discover my own workflow, and boy have I looked back ever since!
Fast forward to today, Notion takes care of all my blog drafts, meeting notes, tracking leads, to-do's, personal projects and more. The public beta release of Notion's API means that my usage should only increase as I build new, more delightful ways of doing important things.
I would go as far as saying that it's one of the finest products in its category, in terms of ease and efficiency of use and retrieval. Let me explain.
What is Notion?
For the uninitiated, Notion is primarily a database-management app with its own unique ways of handling information. It's very difficult to describe this tool in one sentence, as it means so many different things to different people. By that, I also mean its user base encompasses different kinds of people, in ways I have hardly seen any other application do. Engineers, authors, students, managers, doctors, designers — almost any and every knowledge worker would benefit from using an app like Notion. And mind you, it's no easy feat to be so versatile and yet so useful for each of your user segments.
This is primarily because Notion seems to find the thing common between all of its users and capitalizes on it — all its users have a brain. And they forget stuff. And they would want an easy retrieval of information and would like to share it with people.
The rise of note-taking tools
This is an interesting point to pause and think about how Notion and its counterparts have started this movement of keeping a "second brain" and to not forget any important thing in your life, ever. This culture of organizing flashbulb moments into neat folders started as soon as the internet was born, but a market for specialized tools began with the advent of note-taking apps like Evernote in the early 2010s, as a response to a sustained explosion of the content creation industry on the internet and their discovery through social media platforms. Techniques such as Zettlekasten are being increasingly adopted by knowledge workers all over the world.
We know how information overload thus produced, makes us more and more prone to forgetting things, and therefore such note-taking tools would only increase in popularity. Check out this positive feedback loop (right to the dotted line), the feeder function (left to the dotted line) to which is simply technological developments.
The feedback loop is now so strong that it can live upon itself. There's just too much content on the internet for anyone to consume, but the feeder function only accentuates and strengthens the loop by keeping the content fresh and relevant.
Using a notebook is also effective, but nowhere as extensible as an app with practically unlimited storage capacity and a seamless information retrieval system.
It's also a stupid practice to write down web links on a piece of paper. If you still do that...
What makes Notion special?
Often the problem with pre-existing office tools is that you need a set of tutorials to get started with them. Do you remember those
useless chapters in your IT textbooks telling you how to use MS Access? Notion on the other end is designed to intuitive on one hand and extensible on the other. A simple
/command allows you to open a compact drop-down menu from which you can embed literally anything relevant to your work — Miro boards, Typeforms, tables, galleries and even pages within pages.
The page-within-a-page is a powerful concept. It helps you create logical, iterative documents which can be used very well for official documentation. So is synced blocks — making it easy to update related information without circulating it again and again. Notion derives the fundamentals of a database and really takes it to the next level. It is one of the rare products which balances raw power with beautiful design and ease of use.
To achieve this feat, it beautifully implements something known as progressive disclosure. It's a simple way of saying: to show only what the user needs and then tell them more as they get hooked.
That's the reason why you might get attracted to Notion because of the fancy tables as on r/Notion but soon get intimidated. The idea is to take some time and use Notion only to 10% of its true power and learn new things everyday. Simple things such as making to-do's, writing down journals, making tables, etc. The design is meant to compound your pre-existing knowledge and make you better at using it as time progresses.
It might sound disappointing from a development POV, but users almost never use all features in a given app. They only use what gets the job done for them. And knowing what gets the job done for the user and pushing it forward is the difference between success and failure for any product.
Another example: the iPod Nano felt like a really stupid device to me when I was a kid — it didn't even have a screen! But it was successful because it had only what it needed to have — a tiny chassis and yet enough space to store MP3s of all your favourite songs. (And yes, a 3.5 mm headphone jack too! 🙄)
Design dictates a lot of how your user walks across your application. And Notion and this clean interface with a hint of emojis at all right places make the "walk" pleasant. (I'll also do a post on emojis and their relevance in a while). When you type into a page, everything but the page content disappears from sight. Spic and span!
Another thing that Notion nails is its community effects. Being such a versatile product, Notion makes it frictionless for the user to make and share templates and information-based pages rapidly. You might have seen a lot of job boards being hosted on Notion (like this one). You can also see blogs built on Notion, Notion templates sold on Gumroad and interesting add-ons such as Fruition, Super, Notionlytics, Chilipepper Forms and more.
Apart from "technical contributions," you'll see a lot of YouTube influencers making videos like this, this, this, this and this building and sharing templates and workflows. The current level of popularity that Notion enjoys is primarily because of these content creators and the hoard of GenZ users. Interestingly, a huge chunk of its GenZ users uses the product for free, as the Student Premium Plan is completely free of cost. Here's what Notion has to say about it:
Why is Notion free for students and educators? Notion is the perfect tool for school. And it couldn’t be more core to our mission to support the next generation of thinkers, dreamers, and leaders.
What happens when I graduate? You can continue using your free student account as long as it’s associated with a university email address. You’ll have the opportunity to change your email address and switch to a paid plan upon graduation. We hope you’ll stick with us 🤞
This is an indicator of the fact that Notion will certainly grow in paying customers as students who're used to organizing their life on Notion graduate from school, justifying its multi-billion-dollar valuation.
The (few) competitors it needs to worry about at the moment are Roam Research, Airtable, Obsdian, Coda and others. Some imperfect competitors are Jira, Asana, Trello, ClickUp, Google Suite, Evernote, OneNote, Joplin etc., but in the number of features and ease of use, Notion beats many of them by a mile. But of all these are great tools are what they advertise themselves to be. That's why having a set of free users who will use Notion before they join the workforce is one of the best ways Notion can acquire customers in such a competitive landscape. Hence, the free pricing plan.
The new API was dealt with a great zeal not only from Notion's users over Twitter (they have an excellent to-and-fro communication channel on Twitter) but also from companies such as IFTTT, Zapier, Integromat and more.
But like every other good product, it's not perfect and is not meant for all users. But there's something Notion can do for its current set of users to make their user experience better.
First is an improved phone/tablet experience, which Notion is actively working on. It requires more speed improvements, a lot of which can be brought about with stripped off design so that putting information on Notion from the phone is as easy as using your native Notes app. For now, even a third-party companion app could be made via the Notion API that lets you put all your quick notes into one page, can be used offline and can store simple media (images, text, voice notes, videos) quickly. The Quick-Notes app should sync as soon as internet connection is available, but shouldn't be dependent on its presence for its function.
Solving the mobile problem is definitely the hardest thing to do and it's more of a design problem than an engineering problem. At the same time, this is a very high ROI problem that will reap bumper benefits for Notion.
There's also room to put in a native touch-based block that can capture handwritten notes. Imagine the ease of organization of Notion with the flexibility of having handwritten notes. There must be some integration for this but it's not very straightforward for the general user. If that happens, Notion can compete directly with the likes of OneNote and others, and can prove very helpful for its existing student user base.
Speaking of native experience, I find that there's a difference in value added if you install Notion or use it on your web browser. There's a much needed "offline mode" which could save your progress and push it when you're back online. If Google Docs could do it, there should also be a way with Notion.
There's was an infamous outage that happened back in 2020 when many people were locked out of their notes and important files. That could quickly make users scared about using the product, which can be hazardous for an app that thrives on user trust.
Also, everyone on r/Notion agrees that recurrent reminders would be a cool and useful addition to the calendar block. Some better integrations with the Google Suite could prove to be a godsend for many.
The fundamentals of Notion are solid and that's why it's not a huge pain for developers to build cool things on top of it. But surely, this app could prove even more noteworthy for its existing set of wide users if some features could be refined and the concepts of modularity and engineering brilliance (they say they're fans of Douglas Englebart, Alan Kay, Ada Lovelace and more) could be more widely implemented. 😄
Douglas Englebart reminds me of: how's the state of specialized note-taking hardware? 🤔 I'll cover some hardware soon! Stay tuned.
Do let me know how do you like this product breakdown post. In this series, I break down popular apps and use concepts of engineering, design and user behaviour to explain their success (or failure). I was a bit too bullish about Notion since I use it everyday and I love doing so, but do expect critical posts too. I have more such posts in store, but if you have any other product suggestions (hardware/software), I'd love to take a deep dive.
I'll only know it's helpful if you toast this post down here or reach out to me in person. Have a nice day! :)