Notion

Plenty of apps don’t appeal to me, but I can still see their value. I get what attracts other people to them. Sometimes I really have to search to understand the payoff, but they eventually come to light. Notion a collaborative note-taking app, is challenge in this regard, however. It breaks conventions in design, resulting in disorientation, confusion, and wasted time. It pushes templates and suggestions so hard that it can feel as if you have no autonomy within the app. Notion has a small and active following, however so clearly its approach to note-taking works for some. If you like Notion, I suggest you consider Quip by Salesforce, which is a similar but less confusing app. Other apps in this category include Evernote, which is our Editors’ Choice, Evernote for Business, and Microsoft OneNote.

Notion offers four tiers of service: Free, Personal ($5 per month), Team ($10 per person per month), and Enterprise ($25 per person per month).

A Free plan can be collaborative, and you can invite as many people as you like to join you. You can also share content with external collaborators via a link, but you cannot give those people permission to edit or further share the file, only read and comment. Across your account, you can create up to 1,000 portions of content called “blocks,” and you’re limited to uploading files that are no more than 5MB in size. You don’t get advanced permissions or version history, however.

The Personal plan costs $5 per month or $48 per year. This account is for one person only. With this service tier, you have no limits on file upload size or the number of blocks you can create. You also get version history, priority support, and advanced permissions for limiting what other people can do with your notes when you share them. For example, you can share a page with someone and give them a “can edit” permission level that lets them edit and comment, but not share the page with others.

The Team plan costs $10 per person per month or $96 per person per year. It offers everything in the Personal plan plus admin tools.

The Enterprise plan costs $25 per person per month or $240 per person per year. It offers everything that Team offers, plus the ability to bulk export PDFs; and you get a dedicated person at Notion to help you out, as long as you have a minimum of 20 team members.

How does Notion’s pricing compare with similar products? It’s pretty much middle of the road. Notion costs less than Quip, which charges $120 per person per year for an account level similar to Notion’s Team ($96). Compared with Evernote Premium ($69.99 per year), however, Notion costs more.

Getting Started With Notion

Notion takes an unusual approach to helping you set up an account. You can authenticate with Google or you can enter an email address. Sounds good so far, right? If you choose to create an account using an email address, however, you don’t get to set a password. Rather, each time you log in, Notion sends you a one-time password by email. It’s odd, though perhaps not the worst way to handle logins. Still, do you want your first impression with an app to be a departure from the norm when it comes to security?

Once inside the app, Notion presents tutorials, but it feels more like force-feeding. Do you want a template for your tasks? How about a place to track your goals? Check out this sample page showing how to use Notion to organize travel plans. Look! We added an airplane icon so you’ll get it! Here’s an animated gif showing you what to do!

The app is so eager to show you what you can do with it that it prevents you from getting acquainted on your own terms. As I result, I found it very hard to take my thoughts, ideas, notes, and plans and put them into Notion in a way that would make sense to me. I had to wrestle with the way Notion wanted me to do it. If your work style matches Notion’s, you might have a better experience than I did.

Purpose and Layout

What do you do with Notion or other note-taking apps? The answer is whatever you want. You can make notes or keep a diary, create and edit documents with colleagues, track simple projects, or clip and save articles you want to read. In fact, you could do all those things in the app if you wanted. Notion can accommodate them all.

To organize content in Notion, you have a left side rail where you can make new pages that are either private or part of your Workspace, which means they’re accessible to any contributors you invite. Any pages that you mark as favorites appear under their own heading in this rail.

In the same left rail, you also can access settings, templates, and an import tool for bringing in content from other apps, such as Trello and Asana.

If you want to start from a blank page, rather than use a template or imported content, you can hover over the Workspace or Private heading in the left rail and choose the plus sign that appears. Or, you can scroll to the very bottom of the rail and select + New Page. Neither is highly intuitive. My inclination was that I had to open something first, like a secondary rail to see a three-paneled layout, as is standard in many productivity apps these days. Think of how Slack, Asana, or Evernote look. As your eye moves from left to right across the screen, you move into another category subdivision to your left. In Slack, you choose a channel, see the contents of that channel, and then can dive one level deeper into a thread within that channel. At any time, you move your eyes left to back out of your current view.

Notion instead uses collapsible dropdowns. In the image below, for example, you can see there’s a page called Reading List, a subsection called Media, and then subpages for Articles, Podcasts, Essay Resources, and so forth. Effectively, you could have three panels: Reading List > Media > Articles. I expected that clicking on Media would show a preview of all the subpages it contains. But no. You can’t even select Media. If you try, Notion automatically selects the subpage directly below it instead.

The result is a mismatch between the structure and the visualization of the structure. I find it disorienting, unintuitive, and frustrating.

Using the app is a series of such unintuitive interactions. For example, when you start a blank page, Notion still offers up templates. Back off already! Let’s say you’ve manage to create a blank page and resist Notion’s insistence that you use a template. You must choose what type of page it is, and your first two options are “empty” or “empty with icon.” It took me a day to understand out that empty means ordinary blank page. Empty with icon means ordinary blank page with a randomly selected icon on it.

Other options for your page are tables, boards (like kanban boards), lists, calendars, and galleries. Jeez Louise, those sound a whole lot like templates.

Next, you can populate your page with content. You choose to place text, add a page (which creates a subpage), a to-do list, headings, bullet list, numbered list, toggle list, quote, link to page, callout… It goes on and on until you get to options like GitHub Gist, embedded Google Map, and math equation. Be sure to carve out some time to read through all the options.

Maybe a quarter of the options shouldn’t be among all those choices at all. They should be text that you can format. Who scrolls through a list of content types to make a bullet list? That ought to be a format you can choose from a formatting bar. But that’s not how Notion does it.

Notion continues to be pushy as you create content. Select a table, for example, and you automatically get a three-by-three table with headers filled in. You can add more columns and rows, and you can change the headers, but it’s endlessly frustrating that you can’t do that from the get-go. You must first consider the table Notion thinks you should use. By the time I reached this point in making a note, I felt so distracted that I didn’t remember what I came to do.

Even More Disorganization

A critical aspect of note-taking apps is being able to customize your views. In Evernote, for example, you can choose to see a card view (helpful when you have images), expanded card view, snippet view, side view list, or top view list. The view you choose should match the way you look for and assess information. I work almost exclusively in sidelist view, for example, because it shows me more previews than another other option and lets me easily see the date on each note. The qualities of that particular view best meet my needs when I’m trying to find the notes that I need. Notion doesn’t have any options at all. You can’t change how your notes or pages appear in preview. You get a sidebar with text and optional icons, and that’s it. Through and through, Notion has no sense of giving the user agency.

I’ve made a lot of comparisons between Notion and Evernote. In fairness, Notion is more similar to Quip than it is Evernote. Quip is an app that I’ve used in professional settings for months at a time, and to be frank, I’ve never loved it, but I’ve always recognized its value. To me, it’s messy and disorganized. I can never find what I need given the structures it provides, and the search is incredibly slow. When you use Quip collaboratively, pages quickly get cluttered with images, highlights, a variety of typefaces, comment boxes, and it always looks like—for lack of a better term—glitter vomit. Still, I can see it’s value even though there’s much room for improvement. Notion is like a less-polished Quip.

Errors and Disappointments

If Notion were merely disorganized and not also prone to errors and disappointments, I might be able to see how it could work for some people better than others.

Problems abound, however. You can install a web clipper extension, for example, similar to the one for Evernote, OneNote, or Bear. This web clipper lets you save content from the web into your notes so that you can read or access them later.

Notion’s demo section for Articles shows you pretty cover images and a neatly displayed text inside, with fields for each note’s title, publication date, originating link, and so forth. I opened one of the sample articles, and the publication date on it was a date in the future. When I checked the original source, the article’s publish date was in fact several months earlier. I opened other sample articles, and all their dates were wrong, too.

So, I tried clipping a new article to see if it would collect information correctly. What a cascade of disappointments. First, the extension doesn’t give you any choices about how much of the page you want to clip, which other clipper extensions typically do (article, simplified article, page selection, and so on). Second, when I checked the final result in Notion, the publication date was missing entirely. So were the authors’ names and their bios.

Importing a CSV file wasn’t any better. When I uploaded a CSV file via the web app, it stalled and got stuck. I gave it a few minutes but eventually threw my hands up, refreshed the page, and finally got my data to load.

All Rights Reserved for Jill Duffy

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