Warning: a “First Flight” is an ongoing log of my impressions and experiences during my first and VERY first launch of a new app. You are reading exactly what I’m thinking when I’m thinking it, during my first ten or twenty minutes of hands-on experience with the thing.
I do think it’s valuable to document these things. True, true: you can’t possibly reach any conclusions about the nature of an app in the first fifteen minutes. But the joys and frustrations you experience right off the bat can be illustrative.
So: DO NOT refer to this as a review; DO NOT lambaste me for judging an app based on a quick launch; DO NOT point out that if I’d bothered to check the Help menu I’d have discovered that I could have fixed everything with a Command-Option-Shift-G.
Because the proper response to such a complaint can only me my pinching your nose tightly between my index and ring fingers and then slapping my other fist down my forearm so hard that the sound effects guy dubs an old-timey car horn sound onto the soundtrack.
You Have Been Warned.
Time to play with OmniGroup’s new OmniFocus task-management app. I’ve seen this in beta and was v.impressed with its approach and its goals. And I use OmniOutliner to run a fairish percentage of my life, so my expectations are high.
Macworld Expo also gave me the chance to get a 45-minute personal runthrough from the app’s designer, who was nice enough to work through all of my questions. I was certainly left thinking that this is could be a terrific product. I’ve never used a personal organizer or a project manager; they all seem to want me to run my life the way that programmers run theirs.
To this I respond: have you seen the way most programmers run their lives? Case closed.
The other problem is that acolytes of the “Getting Things Done” model of organization have been becoming increasingly PeTA-ish in how obsessively and annoyingly they pursue their Missions. Dine out with a GTD’er and you’ll have to walk to his side of the table and get your own damned salt. Because if you ask him to pass it to you, he’ll be lost in thought as he tries to work out how to contextualize that into an actionable result.
So that was my main worry as I read the product page; “GTD” is indeed spotted here and there. But they don’t seem to be all “blow up a research lab in the interests of protecting living things”-ish about it, so it’s all good.
Launches with some helpful action items already in there. “Getting Started With OmniFocus” and (uh-oh) “Learn More about Getting Things Done” are my existing projects, evidently.
Merlin Mann gets a free bookmark? Why isn’t OmniGroup sending free traffic my way? Sure, I have nothing to do with this product or its goals, but still.
A summons for jury duty arrived while I was away. I need to fill out the little card and mail it in.
Tap command-N to create a new action item…it creates a new window, not a new item or a new project. Bad call. Am I going to spend more time in this app creating windows, or creating to-dos and goals? Exactly.
Ugh, it isn’t even command-SHIFT-N…that’s for creating new projects. It’s command-CONTROL. This is going to be a hassle. I remember from the demo that there are many ways to add actions; hopefully there’s something better in there.
Okay: command-CONTROL-N. Wait…that creates a new item in “Learn About Getting Things Done.” Well, that makes sense; I had that item open.
Err…okay, how about I drag it into the Inbox? Yup, that worked.
Hmm. I wish this window had column headers. I can get by context that the first field is the description, the next are Project and Context and other icons. But glancing to the top of the window and seeing it explicitly spelled out is reassuring.
“Mail in card for jury duty.” Tab.
Er…is this really a project?
Here’s where I usually fail at these apps. I like OmniOutliner because I can just build lists and check them off, free-form. But I appreciate that an app like OmniFocus can help me handle things that are much more complex.
Still, I’d love to have one single “dashboard” for everything I’d like to do, large and small. Let’s make this project “Snail Mail.” Type. Enter. It disappears.
Type, hit tab? Disappears.
Okay, I know this is a bit of a ringer. As I type, a little cue drops down from the field: “New Project: Command-Return.” No mistaking that. Still, I wish I knew why the keys that seem to work in every other app aren’t the ones I can use here. The Omni guys build great stuff and there’s prolly a reason. One that makes sense to them, anyway.
Now there’s a field for “Context.” Deep breath. This is the heavy-voodoo bit of this. I admit that “context” just makes no readily-apparent sense. You really do need someone to explain a philosophy behind it.
Off the top of your head, what’s the “context” of mailing a jury-duty form? Is it a piece of mail? Is it something you do because you don’t want to get arrested?
Context? I suppose I’ll be sitting at my kitchen table while I do this. Should I write “Just after lunchtime, when I’m not quite ready to go back to work and am looking for an excuse to get out of the house?
Here’s why my Macworld demo was valuable. I asked for a real bonehead explanation of what I’d use this for and Captain OmniFocus said that his own personal definition is “the one thing, person, environment, whatever that I absolutely need in order to make this this happen.”
I think about it for a few moments. “Post Office,” I guess. “Mailbox” seems stupid and pedantic, as does “stamps.” I’m trying to think of this as something that would be useful to me later. If “Post Office” is the context, then it can also be applied to things like buying stamps, picking up mail on hold, paying the annual rent on my PO box, that sort of stuff.
Hey, maybe Snail Mail is indeed a good Project. Just remembered that I need to mail off two copies of my new book to some contest winners.
Command-N…NO! Control-Shift-N. (I hope I get used to this)
Hmm…nothing happened. The title of “Inbox” highlighted but that’s it.
Wait…Control-Shift-N is now simply selecting Actions every time I hit it?
Ohhh…according to the File menu, it’s Control-Command-N. My fault. But dammit, these things happen when you make me learn a new command instead of allowing to use the old command that seems like the best, most obvious choice.
(Sigh.) Nope, still does nothing. Wait, now it does. Did I screw it up again, or is it context-sensitive? I bet I screwed it up. But (hate to keep harping on this, but I must) if it were Command-N as it should have been, I wouldn’t keep messing up.
Cool. Auto-complete on both Project and Context.
Still feels a little weird to refer to post-office stuff as a Project. Seems a bit like referring to American Pie 5 as Cinema.
Need to finish up a list of products I’ll be including in a Consumers Digest feature. That one has a deadline…and it’s a very natural project-ish sort of thing.
“Finish product universe,” project is “Consumer Digest,” context is…
I suppose I’ll need my Mac for this? “Mac.”
Open Inspector, add “today” as due date. Item immediately turns red. Crap, I’ve only been using this app for ten minutes and already deadlines are turning red on me.
Date and time appear as a popup calendar and time bar. I wonder if there are shortcuts for “Today” and “Tomorrow”? Seems like those would be handy. One ongoing annoyance of these kinds of apps is that something isn’t necessarily due at a certain time or even a certain day. I wish this app would let me say “Next week” and understand this as “Doesn’t really matter when, but if it isn’t finished by Friday morning, it’ll become urgent.”
I also feel weird tapping in “Midnight” when (again) the actual time doesn’t really matter.
Let’s try something with Attachments, which impressed me in last week’s briefing. I’m planning on a blog post about the ModBook and Paul Lee, a comic artist I met at the booth.
“ModBook blog post”; Project: okay, “CWOB”; Context? Umm…”Blog,” I guess. Can’t blog without the blog though I can’t help but think I’m making an error by choosing a Project and a Context that are damned near identical.
Again confusion about Contexts. “Where” is this action item? “What” do I need to do it? It could be almost anything, which in one sense gives me a lot of power to organize my world as I see fit, but in another sense gives me a slight blip of confusion every time I create something. Worst-case is that I simply leave this blank for most things.
Writing this blog post will involve pasting up a bunch of questions that Paul answered via email, and some digital art that he’ll be sending me when he has a chance.
Click on the “Attachments” icon, drag in a drawing he sent me over the weekend. Cool; shows up right under the action, indented slightly. Wish it were a thumbnail instead of a generic JPG icon. But good news: it supports QuickLook so I can check it out without opening it in Preview. Cool.
Drag in an email message. It appears as a link to the original message in Mail (good) but it appears on the same line as the JPEG icon (not good). Drag in the remaining two…same deal. If I want each one on a different line, I have to insert the line breaks myself. Seems like “put each attachment on a new line” (or some other thing that makes it easy to separate multiple attachments) would make sense.
Another situation where I wish I could deadline this as “This week, sometime.” Instead I lie and say that it has an actual deadline of midnight on Friday.
Recurring actions. I want to remind myself to spend at least half an hour cleaning my office every day. Action: “Clean office”; Project: “Maintenance”; Context: …
“Office”? Okay, nobody’s watching: “Office.”
Inspector: Repeat Every (1) Days. Bang.
Good. From my briefing last week I know that OmniFocus will create a brand-new Action with this information every single day. I should also create one for my Sun-Times deadline; he explained that every repeating action is in fact its own thing, which means that I can add individual details for each specific column.
Dangit, I need to select “Inbox.” I accidentally created it as an item in the project that was already open. I don’t know if I like that; instinctively I think “create a new action” should but a push-and-go thing; I shouldn’t have to think about where I am in the app, or navigate to a different place.
“Sun-Times Column”; Project: “Sun-Times”; Context…
“Mac,” I guess. Sigh. It’ll take me a while to get used to this. I don’t know if I can rightly blame OmniFocus, though. I’ve never used this style of app before.
Add data for the recurring action. Simple. But I made the mistake of clicking on some of the other tabs in the Inspector:
Now I’m confused. Look at all those…things. I think I remember some of those from the demo.
I’m starting to wonder if I’m not being presented with way too many options here. Okay, so this “every week” thing isn’t limited to just actions; it can also be a whole project. So it might make sense to make “Write a Sun-Times column” a weekly project, with a batch of action items for each column (“Talk to Steve about where he got the idea for MacBook Air”, “Doctor up some phony pictures of the ‘Mac Air Nano'”…that sort of thing).
But would I really want that application sidebar to contain fifty-two Sun-Times projects every year?
No, what happens is that it disappears when completed. So only columns-in-progress would be there.
Okay…but when I add a new Action, would it be more complicated to figure out which week’s column it should apply to?
Overthinking things, Andy. Let’s just make a recurring Project.
(But will the new Projects be created on a weekly basis, or as I need them?)
I’ll return to this line of thought later. For now, I have plenty of actions and the window is now full of Projects in that sidebar. So now if I want to see all of the CWOB-related actions, I just click “CWOB” and…
Wait…where the hell are my actions? I only see one of them:
That’s the one that’s “due” by the end of the week. Where’s the other idea I had? The one with no deadline?
Click on “Snail Mail”…no actions.
Click on “Maintenance”…no actions.
What the hell?
Let’s do a search. Search for “universe” — I know that one of the actions was about a “project universe”…
Click on “Inbox.” Okay, I have one item for “Finish Project Universe.” But why (the hell) didn’t it show up in a search? Why didn’t it show up when I clicked on the project title?
UGH. Okay, here’s what happened: it’s not a global search. It only searches the one thing you’ve selected. Which has a two-pronged bad effect: it doesn’t immediately understand a “find every action that matches this” request unless you think to somehow select your whole universe first, and secondly, if you forget that the search box has the word “universe” in it, when you click on other projects they’ll all appear to be empty.
Is that why I didn’t see any of my other actions?
Nope. All projects are still empty. Again I ask: what the hell?
Okay, I see most of these things when I click on the Inbox. And more clicking reveals that if I click on “no target in particular” in the sidebar, it seems to mean “show me everything”:
…But there are still empty projects which I know contain actions.
Do I have to manually drag actions out of the Inbox and into their related projects? I just assumed that defining a project when creating the Action would cause OmniFocus to do that sort of thing automatically.
Maybe I’ve made a poor assumption. I just assumed that the point of defining Projects and Contexts meant that I could do a one-click swivel search. “Show me everything in the ‘CWOB’ project” “Show me everything to do with the post office.”
Dangit. It looked so bloody simple in the live demo. It looks like I’m just going to have to sit down with the manual and read it. I did understand it when someone with lots of experience was showing the app off.