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Stikkit

by Rob Friesel

Like Gruber, I recently took Stikkit for a beta period test drive. I’ve followed Rael Dornfest’s blog off and on for a couple years now and was curious about this whole new project that he was working on when he started values of n. Then when it was released to a public beta this past week, I thought: “Ooo… Now’s my chance!” I was intrigued by the concept and their description:

Stikkit takes its inspiration from the sticky note — that humble, malleable little bit of paper — because that’s often the first thing you grab when you need to remember something. Stikkit gives you a place to quickly jot down your thoughts and reminders, and then spares you the pain and tedium of having to shoehorn them into your organizing system so you can find them later.

Intriguing, eh?

So I decided to get my feet wet with Stikkit over the past couple of days. I tried to fit it into my normal workflow and after a couple days of that, well… Here goes:

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

My two first impressions were at complete opposite extremes. I instantly fell in love with the concept behind Stikkit. It seemed like a very well realized application of how I’ve worked for a few years now. One part personal wiki, one part GTD-ish “Magic Inbox”… And then I started to use it and found that it violates a lot of my UI expectations. Where was the separate box for tags? Where was my calendar selection tools for the dates? How did I mark things as “to dos”? How did I add peeps? The implicit nature of Stikkit was simultaneously its most attractive feature and its most stunningly confusing UI element. It’s almost like they should adopt their slogan should be: The Anti-UI

So while the whole time that I’m playing around with it and demoing it for myself, I keep having to remind myself to just think of each stikkit as … well … as a sticky note. “Just drop your note on it,” I told myself. “Don’t waste time trying to think about setting explicit dates and all that.” Conceptually, I felt very strongly, very positively about the idea behind content parsing. Gruber called this a “gimmick” in his article and I thought that this was a little unfair. In the right context and done the right way, I think that this kind of mechanism could be extremely powerful. Extremely. But I’m not sure that a web-based app like Stikkit is really the place for that. (More on that later.)

THE ANTI-UI

I really want to like Stikkit itself instead of just Stikkit’s concept. I really do. It causes me physical pain that I do not like Stikkit enough to want to adopt it and fully integrate it into my workflow. I shed tears, actually, when I wrote that sentence just now. But “implicit” is something that computers have not really done very well (historically speaking, in my experience) and so I’ve built my on-the-computer workflow around shortcuts, abbreviations, naming-conventions, case-sensitivity, and other behaviors and nomenclatures that have “explicit” in mind and in all capital letters. Like I said above, when I forced myself to “get it” and just treat each stikkit as a Sticky Note From Hell, I got pretty good results. (Good but not great.) But when I’m rockin’ the keyboard and mouse, I just don’t think that way. I look for checkboxes and drop-downs and required fields with specific labels and validated expectations re: what goes in ’em.

That said, once I got over my initial gut reactions to look for date selectors (&c.) there was still one more hurdle to get past: formatting. You’re just feeding text to each stikkit. OK, fair enough. Need something special? It takes line breaks easily enough and eats Markdown all day long…

SIDE NOTE: It isn’t that I don’t like Markdown. I like how easy to use it can be. I like that it doesn’t really require any special knowledge of codes. It’s easy to learn. It’s a good keyboard shorthand for tons of things. I just never got into it. I’d just as soon use the HTML codes themselves. Or a WYSIWYG editor. I’d like to think it’s a matter of taste…?

…Where was I? Ah yes: Stikkits eat Markdown all day long. So it isn’t a problem to get “styled” stikkits into your rotation of … er … stikkits. But it does weird things with the Markdown. The “* and – and +” formatting differences, I get. But Stikkit appears to expect VERY atomized data. It seemed like if I added more than 256-ish characters (OK, I admit that’s a little arbitrary) the stikkit would pick a random line of text to start over with, using that line as the title. This happened a lot with stikkits that had lists. But it did this on anything where (for example) I’d pasted in the contents of an email.

And that was just the tip of the iceberg as far as the anti-UI confusion went…

The problem with the stikkit titles I could learn to accept as a bug. It’s beta software. There are going to be some issues. And having worked in software for a while now, that seems like the kind of issue that you would see in a beta-period product. So that wasn’t a show-stopper for me. It was annoying. It was NOT heart-breaking. It was weird. It was NOT un-usable.

But then after toying with it some more, I noticed that there was something else going on. Something that was a little hard to put my finger on — but Gruber nailed it. Just as Stikkit looks for Markdown for any “style” you might want your note to have, each stikkit is looking for specific keywords as it parses its way through your notes. It has a syntax which you can learn quickly (it is English, after all) and is forgiving (it took “07 Nov” just as quick as “11/12”) and while that syntax is not totally opaque, it does have its own little quirks.

Stikkit will take “tomorrow” as a keyword for scheduling an event but not “next week”. Multi-day events are out of the question. Putting multiple URLs in a single stikkit are going to confuse it a little. “10a” and “1:30 pm” are OK but “Tuesday at 2p” is going to go into Stikkit as an event for today at two o’clock. Another example, a lot of my “real world” note pads and stickies follow formats like this: “13 Nov: f/u w/ ML + RG re: example thing…” Stikkit didn’t really know what to do with this. It didn’t identify it as a to-do. It didn’t know that “ML” and/or “RG” should be tagged as peeps. It definitely didn’t know that it was event for 13 Nov, either.

I didn’t really have too many complaints about the tagging system though. “Tag with car.” “File under writing.” “@work.” Gruber points out that doing the tagging system inline like this (instead of in a separate, tagging specific field) presents some problems (i.e., “makes auto-suggest impossible” and the inevitable “photo” vs. “photography” question) … but this is a key criticism of any folksonomy system. Poorly developed synonymy systems are pretty ubiquitous in the tagging arena to date. And that is a whole separate article all together.

SOME MAGIC LOCUS

Despite all of the above, there is something very special about Stikkit’s concept. There is something very intriguing about it that has gotten lodged in my brain and is running wild in my imagination. Just like it has the anti-UI, it feels like it is the anti-wiki. The information isn’t organized. You just put it in there and it organizes itself, sorts itself out. You don’t worry about where to put things or how to link them. Things “just connect”. (Very Mac-like?) And that’s something that I like out of my other applications. And that’s one of the reasons why I use VoodooPad for so much. Gruber points out:

Stikkit doesn’t have an API or support for desktop integration, so it’s not going to be of much interest as a primary calendar or address book store to Mac users who want to use apps like iCal and Address Book. That’s not criticism, though — Stikkit clearly doesn’t aim to be a richly-featured calendaring or address book application. The utter simplicity of Stikkit’s calendaring and address bookkeeping are by design.

An interesting point, a good point. And while this is Stikkit By Design, this is also Stikkit’s weakness, Stikkit missing out on its opportunity to tie some things together. The way I work in VoodooPad (for example) I keep a running log, a narrative of the day. The keywords cross-link everything together and it all starts to make sense in a weird way. And the hard-work and heavy lifting is done for you by the application. I don’t need to worry about whether “daily log” is a link or not. And around we go.

Throw something like Stikkit into the mix and we can add a new dimension to it. Instead of a running daily narrative, you can start to just throw your notes into some space. The stikkits pile up over the course of the day (maybe the space starts fresh at the start of the next day…?) and then start to cross link with each other and the other information that’s in your Address Book and iCal and OmniOutliner and Mail.app &c.

Could it be some kind of magical locus…?

One thing that I think would be really successful here would be if guys like Rael Dornfest and Gus Mueller just totally barnstormed the OmniGroup and then used that as a spearhead into taking over the Dashboard development group in Cupertino… Wouldn’t that be beautiful? Instead of a couple of dumb widgets (that are all done much better through Quicksilver anyway) we F12 our way into a place where we just drop notes — into a place where their content is automatically parsed and cross-linked into the contents of your ~ and the peeps in your Address Book and everything else… Ah beautiful, eh? It would seem that some might agree with me…:

Of course, you can’t really take a notebook computer everywhere. But that’s what literal notebooks are for. For jotting down ephemeral notes and reminders, nothing can beat paper and pen. And for the non-ephemeral, for anything I want archived for future reference, and for anything confidential, I want it stored locally, on my own computer. Call me old-fashioned.

Stikkit’s lack of structure mimics the ad hoc layout and content of my own (paper) notebook pages. A single page in my notebook is likely contain some mixture of notes, ideas, reminders, and tasks. It’s an ambitious idea to try to bring this sort of unstructured structure to software, and I think Stikkit has done a pretty good job at it.

Yes, a good job of it. But yes, keep it local.

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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