27 April 2022

This is an archive of the writing and research surrounding the Colophon Cards project.

The initial work on Colophon Cards was funded by The Icelandic Centre for Research’s Technology Development Fund. I had originally hoped to get a grant to further develop the project from that fund, but that fell through. I’m still hoping to restart work on the project, but in the absence of funding the scope will inevitably be much more limited and is likely to look very different from the vision presented in this archive.

The Curious Case of the Colophon Cards Survey Results

(I published these results a while back to the Colophon Cards mailing list but neglected to post it publicly. So, here it is, for completeness’ sake.)

Surveys are a curious phenomenon in software and product development. Mine was no exception.

It’s easy to mess these things up, read too much into them, and even easier to design a survey to ensure that the outcome is ‘correct’.

The risk is that you end up collecting a nice pool of data sludge that you can use to justify whatever decision you were going to make anyway.

The advice I got from George Walkley, who has been helping me out as an advisor on the project, was to keep it simple. In my case, the response rate and the tester recruitment rate would be just as important as the responses themselves. The conversion rate from the mailing list, to opening the survey, to finishing the survey, and finally to signing up to be testers, was an important data point in and of itself.

After posting the survey announcement on my blog, newsletter, Twitter, LinkedIn, and getting friends and acquaintances to boost it, I ended up getting 65 responses.

Which is roughly three times what I expected!

And 59 of those 65 indicated that they would be open to testing the software.

I only expected to end up with five to six potential testers so the response rate there is, roughly, ten times what I expected.

Which is, quite frankly, amazing.

This isn’t to say that the survey results themselves weren’t interesting. They very much were.

The most interesting findings, in no particular order:

1. Paper is still huge

A lot of note-taking is still done using paper. Over 70%, 47 out of the 65 responses, used notebooks for their note-taking in some way.

It looks like the biggest competition for note-taking software is still paper.

To be quite honest, these are my people. I’m the same: almost all my notes are in physical notebooks. I have a collection of fountain pens. I’m a snob about paper quality.

I keep trying digital note-taking apps. I keep returning to paper.

Why? Because it’s faster, more reliable, easier to use, and—most importantly—it’s much more pleasing. It’s never because these apps aren’t powerful enough or don’t have enough features.

I’m never going to beat the usability of a pencil, but I can aim to make the app as usable and as pleasing to use as I can.

One of the shortcuts I’ve been taking in designing the app has been to design it for myself. The hope is that I’m representative of the core user. At the very least, the survey doesn’t disprove that theory.

2. People try a lot of apps and give up on a lot of apps

The worst of these was Evernote. 41 out of 65 had tried it but are no longer using it.

People are clearly curious about note-taking apps but those apps aren’t working for them.

Other apps with abandonment issues:

The sample size in this survey isn’t nearly big enough to draw any conclusions but it makes sense. A crowd that is curious enough about a new note-taking app to finish a survey like this is likely to have been curious about other note-taking apps in the past. And it’s clear from the survey that they aren’t trying these apps because an employer told them to. Over 95% of the responses indicaded that they decide what app to use, not their boss.

There seems to be a crowd out there that is relatively open to trying new note-taking apps and switching. So open to it that they seem to switch regularly.

3. The Desktop is still very very important

I expected to see a lot of phone users in the responses. And I did: 56 out of 65 responses (86%) indicated that they use their phone in some way, for either making or managing their notes.

But 63 out of 65, a whopping 97%, indicated that they use a desktop or laptop for some part of their note-taking process.

That’s pretty much everybody.

Tablets don’t fare as well. Only 23 of 65 (35%) use tablets for notes in some way.

What now?

It’s risky to draw any major conclusions from a survey like this but it has left me quite hopeful. People do try new apps. They like desktops and phones. Tablets, not so much. Nothing in the results scares me off. And the high response rate makes me just a little bit optimistic.

(What happened next was that I did a series of user interviews and user testing of static prototypes. The lessons of which will be the subject of my next post.)