(2013-09-30) Jones Private Wiki Notebook Dialogue

Phil Jones "interviewed" me about the Hack Your Life With A Private Wiki Notebook, Getting Things Done And Other Systems writing I'm in the middle of...

Phil : So, you're writing a book about wiki and personal organization. Sounds good and, to me, very relevant. But why did you choose to do this now? In 2013? You've been thinking and writing about these things for several years.

Bill: Roughly 14 years, if you start from when I discovered wiki. :)

  • My (Private Wiki) notebook says I wrote down the idea for this thing Jul25. I wrote some macro notes in my notebook, then started a publicly-visible process Sept19. Now I'm going back to my notes to see if I can find a specific trigger.... ah, here it is. How embarrassing. I was generating ideas for making some income, following Ramit Sethi's "Find Your First Profitable Idea" program, which is oriented toward personal-service/freelance businesses, and I came up with the idea of "life coach for 25 year olds", based on the idea of recognizing you're spinning your wheels (after working a few years) and that it's time to take proactive control over your life. But I immediately recognized that such people would epicly fail the "Pay Certainty" test of wanting to give me any money. So I started to think in terms of writing something instead, but then put it aside since even that seems likely to generate minimal sales.
  • What later kicked me back into motion, in public, was starting to watch Pando Daily's interview with Phil Libin (founder of EverNote). To people who love any flavor of PIM software, EverNote is the heroic existence-proof of a going-concern of more than 1 person generating incomes from selling PIM software to lots of people. But on the other hand.... where's my Automatic Linking?
  • Some other things "coming to a head" this summer:
  • So I "concluded" (aka "rationalized") that refining my ideas and packaging them might help:
    • Make a case for using a NoteBook to Hack Your Life.
    • Make a case for using software for that NoteBook.
    • Make a case for using wiki software for that NoteBook. (Both from abstract explanation and with specific examples.)
    • Identify wiki software/services worth using by a normal human.
    • Maybe discover a spec for a change to a WikiEngine that would make it better for a Private Wiki, which I might build and run for money. Or maybe the info is the Customer Validation for such a business.
    • Maybe get Phil Libin to hire me to graft wiki features into EverNote. :)
    • Maybe get someone else to hire me to compete with EverNote. :)
  • I think that covers it!

Phil: OK. Very interesting. I had to watch the whole of that interview because I know very little about Evernote (never used it.)

  • Several very inspiring things. A couple I want to profoundly disagree with, particularly the assumption that good design can overcome the tension between simplicity and power. (Something to return to later.)

    • Bill: Yeah, I don't really buy that as a generalization, either. There may be some case where a process because much less complicated because of a design improvement. But I think he extrapolates way too far on that.
  • But I see what you're saying about them being the poster-child for the PIM crowd. I thought Libin's point about wanting to be the default interface for "work" was really interesting (and exciting). You, I, and everyone else who's been involved in these kinds of scenes (wiki, outlining etc.) knows that "Office" style mega-apps are broken. Particularly when you see people use them in actual work environments. You can probably measure the disfunction of an organization by the average number of copies of a Word or Excel document that's sitting on the various hard-disks and email systems.

    • Bill: Yes, I think he's recognizing that people don't do much "thinking" in MS-Word, even if they have to package their thinking in it. But what's interesting is that Evernote has been primarily a personal-productivity tool, rather than a collaboration or even just co-writing tool. Not that it isn't used for work, just that it's just for the personal/private support of work. It fills in some gaps between "big" apps like office suites and collaboration apps (ugh, ponder the poor users of SharePoint). (Of course, we wiki types don't think that Word should be used even for packaging information, at least not "internally". But I think that's outside the scope of this conversation.)
  • My first thought was that Evernote's big thing was really solving the cloud-syncing problem for people who wanted to manage their information on both desktop and mobile devices. That's how they seem to have appeared from nowhere and dominated the PIM market. Despite there being millions of "to-do" etc. apps. By working with mobile, and the app-store. And maybe the way people approach the web.

  • Is this right? Is syncing / working across multiple devices now one of the key features of this kind of software today? And what was your problem with SimpleNote that it failed to handle this correctly?

    • Bill: What's doubly funny is that EverNote isn't even that good a To-Do List app, and was even weaker before just this past year. So it really seems to be about notes.
    • It seems like the combination of synching from anywhere, plus being able to dump anything into it (web clippings, scanned biz cards and receipts, etc.) is the big win. Maybe part of this is the marketing win of having a "one stop shop" vs doing your note-taking in one app, your web clipping (at least short-term saving-to-read) in InstaPaper, etc. I'm curious about what % of users scan stuff, it seems like a niche thing (travelling salesman).
    • And I'm not sure why synching is better than just being online. I guess, again for heavy travellers, airplanes are someplace you're stuck Off-Line for hours. But part of this might be that, esp when it started, Web UI wasn't nearly as pretty, so apps gave a cleaner experience. Plus I think some people only use a few apps, so being able to have an icon on the desktop or home-screen feels much handier than having a bookmark in your browser.

Phil: BTW, as you mentioned paper based systems, you saw Evernote just launched a bunch of integrated physical objects? : http://techcrunch.com/2013/09/26/evernote-market/

  • Bill: Yes I was browsing that stuff. I can see the big market-growth win as it brings a whole aspirational-culture thing to it, but I can't help but feel it's rather a distraction. On the other hand, I don't have an IPhone, so maybe I just have a tin ear in this area.

Phil: I think paper is still very important. I've been back to using my Filofax in the last couple of years. And find it a great place to capture todo lists. I very much want to tie it to my electronic systems, though. I did some playing earlier this year, where I have MTC exporting in todo.txt format. And I wrote a script to turn todo.txt into La Te X for printing. Problem was that my printer won't actually print Filofax blank paper. (It claims they're too small.) And printing multiple pages on one piece of paper and cutting it up by hand is too much trouble.

  • Bill: I'm really anti-paper. Maybe because my handwriting is so bad. I went through a whole Franklin Planner class many years back, and liked the formats and process, but at this point any of that stuff (like the Bullet Journal) just seems like trying to compensate for the fact that you can't cut-and-paste.
  • Actually, I should back-pedal on that a bit. While I really like Balsamiq Mockups, when I was designing a personal-finance app last year I found it more convenient to sketch on paper. In some cases I refined layouts in Balsamiq afterwards, in other cases I didn't bother. And sometimes I'd rather sketch a mindmap on paper than type it in FreeMind, even though I don't do any pretty stuff. I'm not sure why. And if I care about the result, I end up typing up notes in a wiki page anyway! And sometimes it's easier to write down a couple quick notes on paper than to type them in my phone, esp if I'm trying to keep up with someone speaking to me. But if it's worth keeping, it has to end up in a computer file, and no OCR will ever succeed with my handwriting!

Phil: OK. So the next topic here is the Lean Startup / business development side of this. I understand that a small book is a tractable kind of project / product. Are you following some kind of customer-development process in deciding what to write / who to address it to? Is it for Evernote users? Or people who are never going to be Evernote users for some reason? Are you thinking of it as mainly a practical guide to choosing which software. Or which wiki-engine? Or is it going to cover a range of different technical solutions and talk more about how to use them?

  • Bill: No, I'm not doing Customer Development to write this stuff. If anything, the writing is intended to be Customer Development and Customer Validation for doing other stuff like making software. I think my target reader is someone who doesn't keep a NoteBook at all yet, or does a few different scattered things but doesn't pull it all together. Every time I hire someone, or consult for a team, I try to spread the religion of Writing Stuff Down, whether it's strategic thinking or progress notes on a customer service ticket. Further, I'm suggesting that, esp. in periods of change/uncertainty, you need to spend time periodically adjusting your life-direction, and writing is a crucial tool for that. And, the fact that you're going to do that multiple times, and that each iteration is messy on its own (not something where you sit down 3 times for 30min and come out with an "answer"), means that the hypertextiness of the Wiki is the only sane way to "garden" those thoughts.
  • I don't think I'm going to get info fine details of different wiki offerings. I've already concluded that a local app fails the be-available-anywhere test, and for the normal human a wiki service makes more sense than trying to host your own wiki-engine. So I suspect (hope!) I'll find a couple alternatives that pass my most-important-criteria, and not get into the little distinctions among them.
  • I think more will be about the up-front why-do-this bits and then later the how-to-get-started in a daily habit, based around Getting Things Done, because it dodges any deep thinking about your life direction, etc. I've added some general references to other self-improvement programs, but not done much to cover them in detail. I'm not sure whether I'm going to do that at all. Still chewing on it - seeking feedback!

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