The “Best Productivity App” (defined)

If you came here looking for a list of the five best productivity apps, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. There are a thousands articles like that online and you don’t need another one. Instead, this article is about how to choose the best app.

Kenny Miracle, a friend and fellow editor, recently asked me if I had found any good productivity apps. As the manager of a small editing team, I’ve looked into my fair share of project management apps, so I started thinking of some suggestions. The longer I thought about it, though, the more I realized that as I rejected certain apps and liked others I was actually following an unstated set of criteria. By defining that criteria, I was able to specify what I wanted and didn’t want in an app—and thus didn’t have to rely on the ambiguous “it just feels right.” Once you determine your wants and needs for an app, you can be more deliberate in choosing in the tools you use.

First, a disclaimer: “productivity apps” is a huge field. It could be to-do apps, note apps, finance, word processing—anything that helps you get things done. Most of my thoughts revolve around to-do apps, I think.

There are two categories of apps at which I’ve looked: ones for personal productivity and ones for managing projects in the edit suites. I have different requirements for both.

Personal Apps

After looking at many to-do apps, here are the things I found myself looking for every time I launched something new:

  1. Good design. I don’t want a lot of clutter getting in the way. I want to clearly see what I need to do and be able to navigate the app in a simple and intuitive way that lets the content be the main focus—not trying to figure out how work the thing. (What good design means will differ from person to person.)
  2. Multiple lists. I like to organize things based on projects. Rather than have one giant list where everything from “fold laundry” to “archive latest freelance project” is jumbled together, it’s helpful to have separate lists for separate areas of life.
  3. The option of a due date. Sometimes things need to be done by a certain time, but often they don’t. I just want to remember to write a check for rent at some point tonight. Because of that reason, using, for example, the calendar app on an iPhone doesn’t work because a calendar is all based around dates and times. Sure, I could just put in a random time, but then a few more clicks are required and I’m having to work around the app rather than it help me.
  4. Reminders. On my old phone (I recently got an iPhone. Woo-hoo!) whenever I had things on my calendar (which I used more as a to-do list than a date/time scheduler) a little calendar icon showed up on the screen. Things like that would bug me because it was cluttering up my screen, so I used that as a reminder to look at the calendar. So if I’m going to use an app, it needs to give a visual reminder that catches my eye whenever I look at it.

Personal apps that I’ve found helpful are:

  • I’ve only had an iPhone for a few days and so far I’ve only tried out Reminders as a to-do list. It meets most my criteria except a badge for a reminder badge. Others worth mentioned are Wunderlist (you can make different lists and the design is great); TeuxDeux is an app that my brain just gets with fantastic design, but you can’t have multiple lists or due dates; Due isn’t specifically a to-do app, but it’s an app  I’m seriously considering because it has reminder badges and great design. Lastly, Any.Do is fantastic in just about all aspects: it has fantastic design, optional due dates, and multiple folders. There are of course the big ones like Things and Omnifocus, but for me they seem too robust and thus would take too much energy to navigate.
  • For note-taking (as a writer I jot down a lot of things) I really like Simplenote. The design is great, it’s easy to sort notes by tagging, and I can access it online in a fantastically designed editor. The only other one I’ve tried is Evernote but the design has always slowed me down, so I stick with Simplenote because it’s, well, simple. Other apps I’ve heard good things about but haven’t used are iA Writer, Byword, and Drafts.
  • Other apps I use are Pocket and Instapaper for saving articles to read later, and SugarSync and Dropbox (SugarSync I use to sync personal documents between home desktop and laptop, and Dropbox is my terribly organized bucket for anything random that I need between work and home).

Project Management

For project managing apps, I tried a few different ones and realized there was again a list of criteria—but slightly different based on the context—that an app needed to meet for it to help our editing team.

  1. Good design. Again, we have things to do. We want something that doesn’t take brain power away from getting things done. What this means will change for everyone, but I think it’s important to use something that makes sense to you. Your brain gets it and you can move beyond spending energy on using the app to actually getting things done.
  2. Due dates. With projects, you need to be able to assign deadlines, and those deadlines need to be visible and obvious. Reminders are helpful.
  3. Ability to assign projects and have those projects show up in an organized manner for the worker.
  4. Track time for specific tasks.
  5. Give description and notes about a project.
  6. See an overview of all projects (for manager).
  7. Printable project report with current status, hours, and due dates.

Earlier this year I tried several different ones. First was Wunderkit, a more robust to-do app from the makers of Wunderlist. However, at the time I used it I couldn’t assign projects (you could assign individual tasks but not whole to-do lists). There also wasn’t a space I could go to and easily the projects to which I was assigned. Lastly, there wasn’t a way to print out project reports, which I really need for meetings with my supervisors.

A few web apps that I looked at were Huddle, Freedcamp, and Asana (which I actually quite liked, but wasn’t robust enough for our team environment. The big names are Basecamp and Salesforce, but both were so big I didn’t know where to begin and they felt like overkill for our small team. All the apps I looked at didn’t fit one or more of my criteria (I was still building the list while I was looking). Eventually I found an app called TeamLab, which our team is now using. The design is decent and it’s easy to find your way to the list of current projects and to what you’re assigned. You can track time, set due dates, and assign projects as well as tasks. It doesn’t give the best printable project report, so we using Google Docs to keep our media director and projet manager up to date. With its expansion into Google Drive, it’s looking like we’re going to take more advantage of that platform.

Clarify what you need

Here’s what I’ve learned out of all this: figure out what you need and want an app to do, and then look for something that does that. It’s important to have a list because it clarifies what you’re trying to find. If you don’t have a clear idea of what you need, you’ll look and look until you find something “that feels right”. Asking yourself why certain apps feel right and why others don’t will help clarify what you like and dislike, and will then help you be more intentional as you look.

The main thing is to find tools that work well with how you think. When I go to meetings, I now carry a thin Moleskine journal and jot down notes, because it’s portable, simple in its design, and writing is second-nature to me and I can think instead about what’s being said.

That’s what a good productivity tool should be all about: something that manages the details so you can spend your limited energy on what you need to do.

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