In a recent post, David Allen addresses the “Three Common Reasons Why People Flounder.” The three key variables are Consistent, Current, and Context Available. He writes of a recent coaching session with a senior executive which brought these to his attention. I’d like to focus on the first one, with special attention to mobile app design. David Allen says ‘consistency’ means:

“Information or reminder triggers of a specific type must be kept in the same place, the same way, all the time.” — David Allen

In the case of the senior executive, she had reminders all spread out—sticky notes on the phone, pieces of paper, etc. But in the same way that one needs to have “clean edges” across one’s entire inventory of projects and actions (e.g., projects with projects, actions with actions, non-actionable in archive or reference), one also needs to have “clean edges” across the channels by which this information gets captured, processed, and reviewed. This is why it’s better to have one inbox than two; it’s also why one must be consistent in treating that inbox as what it is and only put things there that have yet to be processed. The solution was to label some simple file folders with those clean edges and begin filing each item in the appropriate context for later review.


The same problem is compounded in our new mobile era. I need to capture a note to myself. How shall I do it? I click my iPhone on, tap on my “Writing” apps. I have four different ones to choose from. I now have another choice to make: Which writing app is best for capturing this thought? Well, it happens to be something that requires a bit more thought than a quick note. I’d rather write it up in the Notes or Pages app on the iPhone. And so I do. A bit later I have another thought I want to capture. It needs to be quick. I only have a sentence or two. Do I email the idea to myself, capture it in Evernote, TaskPaper, or one of the other apps? Later, I’m scanning through my Facebook and see a post I want to capture. Unfortunately the Facebook app on the iPhone doesn’t allow you to copy the text from the post. So I take a screenshot to capture it to my Camera app. With respect to capturing this information, none of this really matters. Regardless of what I’ve captured, each of these mobile apps have fulfilled the purpose of helping me capture the thought. Quick capture. Done. The problem arises when I need to find and process this information: It’s all spread out!

And what’s worse is—unlike the senior executive who has post-it notes and paper she can “see” piled around her office—these digital collections are out-of-sight-out-of-mind.

Furthermore, I now have the problem of needing to get all of those things into a central place I can process and organize. Where did I capture that again?! I know what some of you are thinking, “Well, just use Evernote or a Dropbox-enabled app like GoodReader, DocumentsToGo, QuickOffice, PlainText, ReaddleDocs, iAWriter, Index Card, etc.; or just remember to always put it into Omnifocus or some other productivity app.” But even if you are mostly consistent in pushing all of your stuff to the same place, there inevitably seems to be certain types of collection and writing that naturally gravitate to different apps. And, no surprise, this is a major problem!


But what may surprise some of you is that the problem is not just a behavioral one; it’s actually a symptom of the way mobile apps themselves are designed. Mobile apps have been conceived—from the ground up—to be individual programs that have been “sandboxed” for security and battery performance reasons. This means they can read and write things within their own application, but are severely limited in their ability to interact with documents made by other applications. This helps them conserve battery life and “play nice” on operating systems that are growing too large to police. Welcome to the “Berlin Wall” of mobile app design. The documents in Pages live separated from their brethren in Notes or Taskpaper or Omnifocus. I’ll let you decide which apps are on either side of the wall, but at some point, users—who used to have apps designed on platforms aimed at a “unified user experience”—begin to feel the cracks in the operating system and the apps written for them. To what shall we compare it? It’s like being the parent of multiple children who is only allowed to play with one of them at-a-time. Hold on Johnny, go sit on the bench while your sister June gets a turn. Double-tap. Tap June. “Hi June.” “Ok, June,” double-tap, tap Johnny, “go sit on the bench while I spend some time with Johnny again.” What’s worse—if you’re a power-user like myself—you have over 50 children to spend time with, remember the names of, and keep track of. It is symptomatic of technology that is capable of providing a level of portability people have dreamed about for decades, but hindered by the limitations of battery performance and memory allocation.

Currently users have to accept the convenience of the portability these devices provide without the unified user-experience they may be used to on their desktop or laptop computers.

This is precisely what has led to apps that are trying to provide the “all-in-one” user experience that should exist on the platform or operating system itself. It’s also why power-users constantly find themselves bouncing back and forth between netbooks and their smartphones.


I don’t see the philosophy of mobile app design changing much in the near future. In fact, I see it getting worse as sandboxing becomes the norm, and files related to that app stay with that app and nowhere else. So what is the solution? One is to use cloud-based solutions like Dropbox or Evernote and modify them to provide more functionality for end-users. In some ways this is already happening, as apps are building pipelines to save data into Dropbox or Evernote. The same goes for Android apps and those designed for other platforms. The value is that users can then access this data from multiple types of devices regardless of hardware (e.g., they can use Windows, Mac OSX, iOS, Android, etc. to access their documents). But that’s where the value ends. What we are left with is simply a very convenient “file-bucket” we can access from anywhere. Nothing to complain about, for sure.

But what we don’t have is a native way to sync the information that reminds us of how we want to think about and use this data.

The best way to illustrate this would be something like the relationship between Omnifocus and the documents one needs related to the tasks it captures. Imagine Omnifocus on the Western side of the Berlin Wall. The documents are on the Eastern side, all spread out in various suburbs and ghettos. Dropbox (or iCloud? or Evernote?) is the secret tunnel that provides the access point between the two. The end-user has to make it back and forth through the tunnel, updating the intelligent connections between tasks and their related documents.

Every new level of complexity adds extra work for us. We have files and we have task-management apps. In order to get them to talk to each other, we have to “link” or “attach” them to each other as a separate act. So users of Omnifocus, for example, have to do two things: first, create a new task or project; second, link each relevant document to that task or project. The same goes for just about every other task-management app out there. Some of these apps require paying for a separate, desktop app that syncs with the app on their mobile device. That’s a lot of money for the extra work it requires for users to link their tasks and data. It also creates problems when the data moves around, the tasks get changed, or a sync goes really, really bad. The links get broken and the documents have to be re-found. Imagine how much time this wastes over time!

In some ways, the solution above would be like asking the senior executive to keep her paper and post-it notes where they are but open an Excel spreadsheet where she can duplicate the data in an orderly way, with notes describing where she can find each post-it note and piece of paper in her office. In the same way that this would be an inefficient solution for the senior executive, it’s equally an inefficient solution for those of us using mobile means to capture, process, organize, review, and do our stuff. We can learn something from the solution for the senior executive: She labeled simple file folders. Why not do the same for the cloud?

Instead of developing separate apps, one of which we use for task management and another we use for universal access to our files, why not completely change the way we think about file-based apps like Dropbox itself?

My constructive proposal—and I hope the developers of Dropbox, Evernote, GoodReader and others are listening—is to get cloud-based, file-system apps to provide the following:

#1: A way to organize files into folders with clean edges – They already do this. Check.

#2: A way to open, view, and edit the data of various document types
– Dropbox? No. Access/View only.
– Evernote? Only text-based changes (or audio recordings) with document attachments.

#3: A more intuitive way to display longer file names for folders and documents that doesn’t cut off their names on our smartphones

And now the clincher:

#4: A way to use, sync, and edit the metadata tags of files and folders as a way to get things done (e.g., Spotlight comments, tags, etc.)

This latter one is key. In the same way that this senior executive can slap on a post-it note to the front of a document that needs action and file it into her Actionable folder, or slap a Waiting For post-it note onto a document she’s waiting to hear back on and file into her Waiting For folder, metadata on files can be used the same way. What’s more, if cloud-based solutions like Dropbox automatically sync this metadata with their respective files, it eliminates the extra step of needing to “link” or “attach” tasks and their corresponding files. And if all I have to do is open up the file in Dropbox to make a change to the document or tap a window that flips over to edit its metadata tags, I’m in heaven. Now I can get things done without having to open up a separate task-management app. Everything syncs. And because it’s based on the file system itself, that sync works across all of my computers and portable devices, regardless of hardware or operating system. I can access, modify, and edit this information from any computer or device.

What do you think of this proposed solution? Do you have a better one or a modification of this one you’d like to suggest? Sound off in the comments: