Paul McAleer

Switching Apps

Paul McAleer

Recently I switched task management apps, moving from The Hit List to Things. I also gave Alfred a go even though I’m a hardcore QuickSilver fan. Last year, I switched from Microsoft Word to Apple Pages. Why switch apps? This isn’t an easy thing to do so there has to be a big dollop of motivation to make a switch and deal with an unknown learning curve.

Word to Pages

Let’s start with the easiest case. I don’t use word processors too often anymore but I use text editors all the time: TextWrangler, Mail.app, OmniOutliner, HTML textareas, etc. Part of what bothered me with Word was feature-itis: it felt like this hulking, ridiculously overblown app for simple tasks such as writing a letter or putting ideas together. That feeling came from Word’s myriad toolbars and gee-whiz interface: Microsoft was trying to be too cute with OS X’s once-novel features (look! an entire inspector panel can pour out of a toolbar button!) and yet, I couldn’t just turn them off altogether without sacrificing some degree of functionality. Too much for the job.

In contrast, Pages does have a substantial feature set but uses standard system toolbars to minimize their visual impact. To me, the amount of visual clutter in Pages’ default view is a stark contrast to Word’s. It lets me focus on its core use - working with text - so well that I use it for general purpose writing.

Things to The Hit List to Things

I’ve been hemming and hawing over GTD/to do apps for years. I initially settled on Things and became very comfortable with it.

Until The Hit List came along, that is. It was what I really wanted: a magical legal pad whose line items could be sliced and diced in lots of ways. All tasks grouped by feature? Yep. By due date? Yep. By priority? Got it. Never mind that Things had almost all of these same features; for me, it felt more natural in The Hit List. The workflow to enter a bunch of tasks at once is perfect for me: hit Enter, type, and hit Enter to move on to the next task. To me this is very stream of consciousness and quite beautiful.

I had been using a beta version of The Hit List for what seemed like forever, so I visited the Potion Factory site to check on the app’s development and… well, there’s really nothing doing. At all. The last code update just extended the beta timeout to this autumn. What a disappointment! I’d rather use The Hit List but it’s difficult not to look at the incredible work happening at Cultured Code, the people behind Things, and realize that only one of these apps has a viable future.

So I switched back to Things and it’s better than I remember. I wasn’t able to directly import (drag and drop) my The Hit List tasks but starting anew was painless. If I hadn’t used Things prior to The Hit List, I suspect my discomfort level would be a tad higher but, at its core, the functionality is substantially similar.

The Curious Case of Alfred

Like The Hit List, QuickSilver - a task launcher and all-purpose utility - isn’t under active development. But it’s wedged into my daily workflow and is indispensable for me. I use it for my web shortcuts, files and folders, apps, and controlling iTunes. That said, QuickSilver just doesn’t cooperate with my work Mac. It seems to have a problem with network drives; whenever my machine wakes up, QuickSilver hangs for minutes (minutes!) before responding. In other words it’s useless for me at work.

I decided to give Alfred a go. But after using it for a short amount of time I decided to just not use a launcher on my work Mac and revert to Spotlight when needed.

Aside: Active Development as a Feature

QuickSilver isn’t under active development and I’m happy to use it; with The Hit List, though, I saw this as a disadvantage. I haven’t yet sussed out why this is - but I’m noting it here as a personal quirk.

The Noun, The Verb, and The Comfort Zone

The first app I used in the task launcher realm was QuickSilver. It was new and unlike anything else so, for me, QuickSilver defines how a launcher should look and how a launcher should work. Alfred might be superior in other ways (like, say, still being actively developed - zing!) but since it doesn’t have a core metaphor similar to QuickSilver, I’m not currently interested.

Consequently QuickSilver’s language fits well with my workflow because it uses a noun and verb for most tasks. I use QuickSilver’s two-pane display to support this flow. To use QuickSilver, you tell it the thing you’d like to manipulate, and then you describe how you’d like to manipulate it. QuickSilver learns from your previous interactions and tries to predict what you mean as you’re typing. This works extremely well. If QuickSilver biffs a guess I can correct it.

Alfred’s default behavior is to accept a noun and then present multiple verbs to the user via keyboard shortcuts. If I enter “jQuery documentation,” Alfred will try to determine the best verb options based on what’s on my computer as well as what web searches I might want to do. It then assigns Command-1…Command-n to the top options.

For me this makes communicating the verb feel more laborious than it actually is. The amount of work required to get to my goal isn’t substantially different than it is with QuickSilver and may even be less in some cases. But it’s different, and to my mind the difference is significant enough to discourage me from continuing to use it. For now. Once it’s a little more mature I may give it another go.

The Model

Zooming out a bit, though, there’s a big difference between the apps I successfully switched to (Pages, Things) and the one I didn’t switch to (Alfred.)

Pages and Things are both working on established analog models; Alfred isn’t. Pages and Word are, at their cores, word processors. This means that when I use the app, I’m expecting to interact with a big big textarea that looks like a piece of paper even if I’m writing for a non-paper environment. This is an assumption built on years of use: even the oldest word processor programs I can remember had margin and tab rulers at the tops of their screens to evoke physical word processors and typewriters.

Things and The Hit List are task management tools. If you’re not using an app for this purpose then you’re likely using a checklist made with pen and paper. It’s no coincidence that both of these apps use checklists as a starting point for their interfaces and enhance them with computer-y goodness. I can enter a task with notes, and when I’m done I can check it off. Very straightforward.

QuickSilver and Alfred are task launchers, albeit ones with versatile, expanded feature sets. But task launchers don’t really have an offline counterpart so I’m forced to fall back to my first experience with this type of tool. In this case that’s QuickSilver. The mental model has been set by that app and until I see something superior - the unfortunate “I’ll know it when I see it” syndrome - QuickSilver is the best representation of that tool.

Thus, in order for me to willingly move away from QuickSilver I’ll need an app whose interface evokes QuickSilver without explicitly copying it, and offers a degree of enhancement - large or small.

It would be a total bonus round for the people behind such an app to evaluate offline models and determine if there’s one out there that would make sense for such a tool. This isn’t an easy problem to solve, but such an app would have a potentially huge reach beyond people who love task launchers and keyboards like me.