Reinventing the wheel?
I first became aware of Notion because I watch a lot of productivity, creativity and various other tivity videos on YouTube. Several people spoke very highly of this application. They could not run their businesses or, indeed, their lives without it. Blimey, I thought, that must be some app. Then I saw Craft, which is also receiving a lot of attention. Craft looks similar to Notion. Turns out it is similar. Very similar. With some considerable FOMO and more than a little WTF, I thought I’d better take a closer look.
I don’t know about you, but I’d be wary of putting my whole life into anything, especially something I don’t really have any control over
Notion is an odd beast. It’s a cross-platform web app that’s got databases and pages and tables, nested things and blocks! Oh, the blocks. I could see a lot of potential uses for Notion. It’s clearly a very capable application. But even with all those YouTube people singing Notion’s praises, I was cautious from the get-go.
This was largely due to the discovery that all data in Notion is stored online. Sure, there are apps for Mac and iOS, but these are just interfaces. If my understanding is correct — and feel free to set me straight if it isn’t — none of the actual information you put into the app is held locally. It wasn’t the inability to access data offline that bothered me: that’s a very rare situation. What did bother me was the possibility that I invest a lot of time in this platform, only for the service to fold or change or revert to a subscription model I don’t want, and that in such circumstances I can’t get my stuff out. This has happened to me before. It’s a pain in the arse.
Some people on the internet put their “whole life” in Notion; I don’t know about you, but I’d be wary of putting my whole life into anything, especially something I don’t really have any control over. So while I eventually gave Notion a go, I decided I wouldn’t put anything in there that I’d be devastated to lose. I planned to use it for a particular purpose that would be very useful, but if for some reason I lost everything, my life wouldn’t disappear in a puff of smoke.
When I first started on Medium, I found it really challenging to keep track of my articles: what I’d written, what stage each post was at, where I eventually published it, and so on. There were a lot of variables to track, especially given my tendency to overthink, over-compartmentalise, and generally over-egg pretty much every pudding. Notion looked like a good fit for creating some kind of status tracker.
It was fairly easy to create a table with various columns and rows and drop-down lists. First in were basics such as each post’s title and theme. I added a “notes” column, where I put comments, for example if I’d changed the title. At one point I even kept a record of the image source if it wasn’t one I’d created myself.
Right from the start I felt that I was tracking much of this information just because I could: the YouTube people kept a lot of information in their Notions, so I was of the notion I should do the same with my Notion. And there, in the just because, lies one of the problems. And for every new entry in the first column of this table, Notion created a page. I guess that could be useful for some people, but to me it felt like just another push to add more information. At this rate I was going to be doing more admin and data input than actual creative work!
I know you can use or ignore such tools as you wish, but just the fact that they were there bugged me a bit. I like things fast and light and streamlined, and Notion seemed anything but. I was pleased with my creation, though, and it did function very well. I noted that it looked just like an Excel spreadsheet – because that’s pretty much what it was. You can view your databases in a variety of ways an they can be linked or embedded or something, but this served my purposes.
There are templates built into Notion you can use off the peg, but it’s really part of the app’s appeal that you can create your own. In fact some people are in the business of selling the Notion templates they create. Buying a turn-key template might appeal to people who don’t have the skills or time to make their own, but this would seem to remove the opportunity to create something they understand inside and out, and which has only the elements they need. Knowing what to leave out — and actually having the discipline to leave things out — is as important as having the skill to include something. Especially if you’re doing so just because you can.
I used the blog tracking table for a few weeks, recording my posts and making notes. I also created a weekly planner, and found both very useful. The latter provided a great overview of the week, and it was easy to drag tasks from one day to another as things changed. It’s a detail, but I liked that completed task were checked off and stuck through, whereas an alternative such as Apple Notes fills in the circle (nice), adds a tick (nice), and moves the item to the bottom of the list (nice), but doesn’t strike through the text! This is a bit like Ryder Carroll’s bullet journal method of putting a cross through the dot next to a task to indicate that task is complete — just strike through the text.
With a little work and time for familiarisation, I could see that Notion was a relatively easy to use and effective tool with lots of potential. But there was just something unnecessary about it all. It felt a bit slow and bloated, and I much prefer fast and light and lean. And with all those emojis and wallpapers and what not, it honestly felt a bit kitsch. But I still needed something to track my blog posts. Having noticed my Notion creation was really just a spreadsheet, I produced something that does exactly the same job using Numbers.
Numbers is a native, baked-in Apple app. It’s on my Mac and phone, and its files are stored in iCloud. Having decided I didn’t need much of the information I’d recorded in Notion just because, particularly the notes and image sources, I trimmed the blog post tracker down to bare minimum. I also moved my weekly planner to Apple Notes. There’s not as much white space as in Notion, and you’re limited to a vertical layout, but do you know what? It works just fine.
It was easy to set up and does all I need, in an app I’m already familiar with. It’s got headings, checklists, subheadings, body text, and I can send notes to the Reminders app. Like Numbers, it’s a baked-in, native Apple app with iCloud support. Apps with bells and whistles can seem to offer more, but they can also cost time in having to learn new ways of working, even for something as minor as keyboard shortcuts.
Having decided Notion wasn’t for me, I became aware of Craft – a relatively new app from developers in Hungary. Craft is, apparently:
A fresh take on documents
Built for digital devices from the ground up, Craft brings back the joy to writing.
Okay. A fresh take, I like. Built for digital devices from the ground up, I also like (although I’m not sure what computer software this doesn’t apply to…). Bringing back the joy to writing? Now then, let’s get something straight here: if you’re doing it right, writing is hard work, and stays hard work. I’m not sure “joy” is a word any writer I know would use to describe the activity. But let’s move on…
Craft seems to be a more modern alternative to Notion, while also offering some elements of Ulysses. It’s certainly slicker and snappier than Notion, and the interface is less cutesy, but it doesn’t feel like a serious writing app. I like it, but at the moment I can’t see what Craft offers, or why I’d pay for it, when so many other apps offer similar functionality at no cost (Notes, Numbers), or are more specific in their usage scenarios (Ulysses, Things).
I contacted Craft to ask why they felt compelled to develop the app in an already crowded marketplace
While Craft is newer and shinier than Notion, the latter is entirely free for personal use; free use of Craft is limited to 1,000 “blocks”. I appreciate that Craft’s developers wouldn’t make any money if everyone used the app for free, but the point is there isn’t much here that would make me want to pay for Craft when I could use Notion for free. In terms of writing, Ulysses, iA Writer, Scrivener, or many other options are a much more logical choices, and at highly competitive prices.
I contacted Craft to ask why they felt compelled to develop the app in an already crowded marketplace of productivity, collaboration and writing. In response, I was pointed towards a Techcrunch article. This article points out several things. First is that Craft was built from the ground up as an iOS app for collaborative documents (a clearer meaning than “digital first”). It also indicates a possible point of divergence between Craft and me. Several apps offer tools for easy collaboration, but I don’t collaborate in the sense that seems to be increasingly commonplace, with multiple people being able to access a given document at any one time.
The article also says Craft is perceived as a competitor to Notion (no kidding), which is based on “the ability to create notes within notes, so with every chunk of text you add content and navigate style [and] that is a feature which not many products have”. If few apps have such a feature, is it a feature people want or need?
Craft’s main advantages over Notion are said to be its user interface, data storage and privacy. Here I’d agree. Craft is “offline first”, with real-time sync and collaboration, and the ability to use third-party services such as iCloud and integrations with other tools. But are these real differentiators? My concerns about online data storage could be born of previous bad experiences that are no longer relevant. I just had a gut feeling about Notion, and we should trust our gut instinct because that feeling is based on everything that’s gone before: I’ve lost hours of work because a document didn’t save; I’ve invested a lot of time in an online platform only for that platform to fold. But I’m not sure most people care about where there data is stored, as long as the app does the job. Most people are quite happy with what they’re offered.
“…it’s just easier for […] big labels who own the kind of music that people listen to when they’re really not that into music. Which of course is most people.”
Craft looks prettier than Notion, but that’s not enough to make me pay for it. It’s not even enough to make me want to learn it, familiarise myself with it and use it. Why do we get so hung up on trying to find the perfect app? Something that probably does’t exist and probably never will. (A: Because it’s easier than doing the actual work.)
The Techcrunch article quotes Roberto Bonanzinga, who is apparently the co-founder of InReach Ventures. Bonanzinga comments on “the clarity and the boldness of [Craft’s founder and CEO Balint Grosz’s] vision – to reinvent how millions of people can structure their thoughts and write them down in the most effective and beautiful way.” This is the dictionary definition of “reinvent”:
Change something so much it appears to be entirely new? Well, maybe. But look a little further and you’ll also note the entry in the phrases section. And therein lies my point.
To borrow a term from David MacSparky Sparks, are these apps just ways for us to crank more widgets?
Prettiness and emojis aren’t going to reinvent the things that are the real meat of writing: creative thinking, personal expression, just years of bloody hard work learning the, um, craft. Everything both Craft and Notion offer are already available, whether in existing apps or, y’know, good ol’ pen and paper. To borrow a term from David MacSparky Sparks, are these apps just ways for us to crank more widgets? Are they solutions to problems created by a society obsessed with “productivity”, which in this case would be defined as cramming as much into as little time as possible?
I like the look of Craft. I like the fact that when I check a task in a todo list the text is greyed out and struck-through. Like Notion, I see that Craft could be useful for planning my days and weeks, linking documents and creating todo lists, but do I really need yet another app for things I can (mostly) do in Notes?
I once tried to to hammer a nail into some wood with a saw; it didn’t end well
And if you want to write an email, why would you do this in Craft rather than an email app? I’ll admit that sometimes I’ll write something in Drafts then copy and paste, but mostly I use the tool designed for the job. I once tried to hammer a nail into some wood with a saw; it didn’t end well.
I like that it’s possible to link documents within Craft – something I wish I could do in Ulysses – and I like that Craft responds to swiping gestures, unlike Notion. I’m just don’t feel Craft offers me enough I don’t already have to justify the price. The free option includes 1,000 blocks — but that’s going to get used up pretty quick. I could reuse the same blocks for something like a weekly planner, but again I come back to why use another app for that? And while Craft isn’t kitsch in the way as Notion, what’s with all the emojis? Is that really the way writing is going? 🤔 Were the Egyptians way ahead of the game? Then there are the cards – I didn’t dig too deep, but they seem to offer a level-up in the prettiness stakes.
Craft is quick and responsive, macOS/iOS native alternative to Notion, and I can see how it’s likely to appeal to a lot of people. I’m just not sure whether it’s a todo app or a writing app, a project manager or a “note-taking” app, or what. Meanwhile, a lot of people like Notion, and it’s integral to their everyday work – possibly to the extent that they’re kind of stuck with it. Both apps are in active development and may have a lot of swanky new features on the way, but I’m just not sure either are really essential – certainly not for me.
Could it be that Craft and Notion are jacks of all trades, but Masters of none?
How do you use Notion or Craft? Tell me in the comments.
Addendum: Craft 2.o will be released on 12 November.
Things Ditched article
The full Techcrunch article
Iggy Pop’s John Peel Lecture
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I’m a writer, Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow and Advisory Fellow, workshop lead and creative coach. Subscribe to updates, unique content, and a look behind the scenes.