Linking related notes together

I'll get into this subject by way of a great OneNote experience I had today. All of us on the team are using shared notebooks quite a bit these days (Chris blogged about shared notebooks last week). It's an incredibly exciting time. Despite having designed the user experience and talked about the theory of sharing in OneNote for literally years now, you never completely know how a bit of software is going to feel until, finally, you sit down to do some work with it. With your mind on something else. And while I've been using shared notebooks for a while, today I had one of my first experiences where my mind was really on something else.

It started with a piece of mail in my inbox - number 24 or something as I powered through my morning messages. This piece of mail said "please review & send feedback by tomorrow" with a link - a type of mail I get quite often. I clicked on the link, and only dully noticed that it opened up a notebook in OneNote. I started reading, getting my brain into it, and finally started having useful thoughts. Instinctively I reached for an e-mail to send the comments… then sort of woke up and realized that I was looking at a shared notebook. Which I could edit directly. Or simply add comments to. So I started doing that, directly correcting some things and simply adding comments & questions in other places. And then I had that moment you normally have where you think "having reviewed this doc, I need to forward it back to the person who sent it to me, with comments. Let's see, save as, attach, etc…" And realized that I was already done. I could just move on to the next mail.

Few key points about this:

  1. Instead of this being a document, this was a collection of pages, ideas, and collected reference information which, collectively, made up the plan. It was exactly the 90% of context around a document - the rest of the iceberg, of which the document is only the tip - that you normally never get to see. It was as though Michelle (one of our testers, who sent me the mail) took the part of her brain which contained the plan and said, "here you go". If all of this information were in a single Word doc, it would be chaos, but OneNote's sections/pages approach makes the structure & logic apparent at a glance, so it was easy to read and understand. A OneNote notebook is flexible enough to be the place that an individual person puts down their thoughts & plans in rough form, but structured enough to allow others to make sense of it. (It was, by the way, a plan for a set of OneNote customer personas that we're going to role-play over the next few months - lawyers, students, consultants, salespeople, etc).
  2. When I added comments or made revisions, the plan (i.e., Michelle's brain 🙂 was instantly updated. And while I haven't confirmed this with her, I know from our experience to date that when we have the team meeting about this tomorrow, she'll be projecting this notebook up on the wall. So I don't have the anxiety of wondering whether my plan updates made it to her. It's similar to updating a document on a server, except that with a shared notebook I don't have to worry about getting in Michelle's way as I work on it or vice versa. I can leave it sitting open on my machine all night and all of tomorrow, and she won't be frantically trying to find me to close it so she can make the last chances before the meeting.
  3. The notebook saved multiple rounds of e-mail. This really struck me. Using a shared notebook for this cut down on the amount of e-mail I was generating (and going to receive). This is because e-mail, for all its wondrous virtues, is lousy for developing a plan. OneNote turns the concept of e-mail on its head - instead of having a conversation, buried within which is the plan, rough out the plan, and have the conversations inline. Again, if you tried this with a normal document, you'd run constantly afoul of locking out or being locked out by other people - which is normally why people resort to e-mail & attachments.
  4. This is the hardest to convey - there's a strong experiential aspect. OneNote is low-tech in a wonderful way. Want to add a comment? Just click next to the thing you want to comment on and type it. Want to update something? Just click and update it. Want to send the changes back to the other person? Wait - you don't have to. It already happened. Want to know the latest status? Just browse around - if anyone else has made updates, they'll already be there. When you're producing the company's annual report, this obviously isn't what you want - but today, you have to collaborate on everything as though it were the annual report. Vive la alternative.

Hmm. Perhaps I'll end this post here, since haven't gotten to the topic yet, and try again.

Comments (147)

  1. Roussain says:

    I like the shared notebook idea and the its potential as a time-saver for engineers, product managers, and others who need to gather input and review plans over and over again with their workgroup community.

    I’ve not heard about what kind of backbone infrastructure is needed to enable this. We use the small business server 2003; what is required to share notebooks and this level of collaboration?

  2. Jay says:

    Personas? Cool. Be sure to make the student realistic. Make it demanding.

    By this, I mean pretend to be someone who is taking some serious courses that require extensive diagraming. Stuff you could never do by using a keyboard. I’m thinking engineering, biochemistry, molecular biology, etc. As a pre-med, and now as a medical student, one of the biggest challenges for me is taking notes that make sense when they are highly dependent on visual information. Without making things stand out, reactions, pathways, anatomy, etc. just becomes information "Where’s Waldo." For me, COLOR is the key. And judging by the packs of 12, 24, 36, etc. colored pens that people sitting around me use, I’m not alone in my need for chromatic variation.

    In OneNote, I made a custom toolbar just for pen color selection. The goal: color change in an instant. I needed them out and easy to change in the middle of a fast-paced lecture. I had to give up different widths of pens to maximize number of colors.

    I have always hated that I am limited to colors defined in the application and I can’t add my own custom colors. Another gripe: I am limited to 8 pen colors! My daughter’s crayola marker set has 24!

    I understand that not all people who use OneNote would need so many colors, and not all students use Tablets and OneNote. Not yet, anyway. As such, I can see why you might not think that a huge color palette would matter. But think of the potential! I conviced 3 of my classmates that they couldn’t live without a Tablet and OneNote. They aren’t as inclined to come to internet forums and give input. My point is that I am speaking for 3 other people. They all have the same complaint as me. Too hard to change pens, not enough colors!

    So, in sum, when you are trying on the student persona, make sure it is demanding enough that you have to use lots of colors to make sense of everything, so that you can take note of what is useful and what is frustrating, and then make it better! I’m sure your local medical school wouldn’t mind you sitting in on a lecture – how about the compliment cascade in immunity, the intrinsic and extrinsic clotting pathways, or even the function of tumor supressor genes 😉

  3. Lindy says:

    Hi Owen

    Sounds like OneNote is the desktop/network version of a simple Wiki…what you described is exactly what many wiki users do and why they use a wiki to do it.


  4. SteveN says:

    As I said in another section, before I read this one 😉 , I see the shared notebook thing (we use Sharepoint) as huge in our business where we work with clients in realtime on marketing flyers, web pages, etc..  Just do a screen capture or insert a file and invite your client to the workspace to start marking it up.  

    You really need to add threading to the notes, a few standard markup tools to OneNote, and the ability to know who is saying what, and when they said it, but this product is already (pre v12) so close to perfect its hard to complain.

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