is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
Like a lot of people, I’m reluctantly coming to the conclusion that how I manage to-do items is more of a perpetual journey than an achievable goal. I have yet to come across the perfect task manager, and despite some intermittent progress, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that I ever will. So, periodically, I find myself possessed with an urge to overhaul my system — because of inherent shortcomings in my existing methods that have scaled to intolerable inconveniences, because of changes in my working style or my life, or because newly introduced productivity tools promise to make the ongoing search more interesting.
So in this spirit, I’ve been playing with a few new task managers lately. I’ve had mixed success, but one thing I can say: this new round of candidates has definitely confirmed my previously stated opinion that most thinking in the “Getting Things Done” school of productivity is far too elaborate for me.
For over a year, my daily to-do list has more or less been managed in an entirely manual fashion; every morning I create a new list and copy over incomplete items from the previous day’s list. It’s an approach that’s not completely at odds with GTD, but neither does it adhere particularly closely to David Allen’s principles. But one of the to-do applications I’ve flirted with (currently in pre-release state, so I won’t talk about it in too much depth) is so thoroughly committed to the GTD way that it’s more of a hindrance than a help for me. After the initial delight of getting my hands on a fairly powerful task management machine, I’ve become weary of its apparent and frequently unavoidable complexity.
Designing for Beginnermediates
On the other hand, I’m enjoying Todoist quite a bit. As a relatively new product it’s far from perfect and it’s missing a few key features, to be sure. At the same time though, it’s a sparingly designed, lightweight online application that takes literally moments to understand and master. And its interface is not only pleasingly minimal but the design also smartly eschews the ‘Web 2.0 look.’
Actually, though you might be tempted to describe Todoist as simple you’d be wrong, because it only takes a little bit of digging to uncover a fairly complex set of keyboard shortcuts and a fairly arcane data query syntax tucked neatly away — but brought forward very easily. This, actually, is what makes it so enjoyable; as I grow more and more comfortable with Todoist, its more robust capabilities are easily uncovered and learned. Rather than forcing me into its way of working, it allows me to grow into it naturally.
Todoist’s designers didn’t lose sight of a fundamental truth about forging the application’s user interface: most features are built for experts, but most users are intermediates. They didn’t make the mistake of penalizing the initial, formative experience for beginners by confronting those newcomers with unintuitive power-user options. That’s a strategy that allows beginners to quickly become intermediates with a minimum of pain. By my count, it’s also a very good example of what makes for elegant interaction design, and it’s the reason why I’m still using it and having fun with it — while I’ve relegated the other, more capable but less comprehensible program to the dustbin.+