Evernote’s Strengths and its Fatal Flaw

I use Evernote heavily. It is an innovative product with a great design aesthetic from a company that seems to have a very good business model. All this has rightly earned Evernote an avid user base and a growing ecosystem. The problem with Evernote though, is that it was made for storing a specific type of information but in reality, it is used in less effective ways for storing much more than that.

First, let’s talk about the information that Evernote is really good at storing. I’d place this in two categories:

  1. Ephemera. Things like grocery lists, blog entry drafts, quick reminders. Anything that you will keep around for awhile, then be fine with it disappearing forever, either literally (being deleted) or practically (being replaced by other, newer information and only found by search.)
  2. Chronological data. Journal entries, receipts or bills come to mind. Anything that is primarily organized by the date it was created.

For these two categories, Evernote is practically perfect. Its native apps are nice and ubiquitous, its web app is amazing. None of the problems with Evernote stem from execution of its core functionality.

So that’s what it does well, what’s the problem? The problem is that for most things, people don’t think in lists and we don’t want to retrieve information that way.

Once something is saved in Evernote, really the only way to find it is by searching. If you’ve tagged your entries, you can browse by tag, but that is a seldom used feature. If you use notebooks, they can aid in finding notes, but after awhile, the lists become difficult to manage and it is hard to find and surface things you’ve stored further back than the recent past. Evernote has one other feature for premium users that surfaces related notes. This is getting much closer to solving the problem I’m talking about, but it relies completely on their AI (which is pretty good!) and is limited to just a few related notes.

What if you could take the is related notes concept and apply it much more predictably, more rigorously, to all your information? It would make notes easier to find, a feature that is hugely important. After all, why bother writing something down if you’re almost certain to never see it again. Still, as important as discoverability is, an even more important problem that a better connected way of storing notes would solve is enabling you to see patterns in the information that you care about. Patterns are at the root of creativity. Patterns are what enable us to take two or more different ideas and combine them in novel ways. This is where art and business are born.

This very type of pattern finding facilitated by good tools for information storage and retrieval is something I’m very interested in and something I’ll be writing about here more.