Wednesday, October 07, 2009

All under control?

One thing I've been trying to work out for a good long time, is how to track all the little tasks I have at work. User Interface is a huge issue for me (maybe I should have made that my line of work), so bear with me.

I find computers painfully slow to use - there's generally just too much clutter between you and what you're trying to do, and (for me) anything that slows down the process just makes it frustrating, which generally ends up in poorer results. So one thing I've been looking for is a kind of task-organiser.

The problem is, I want to have my cake and eat it - effectively, I want several things. I want to be able to have a sort of top-level overview of the tasks I have on, where everything is very clean and very simple. And I want to be able to change and reorder the tasks at will, without 'editing' the tasks in a computer, changing a value field, or anything. Effectively, I want to be able to physically change the order they appear in, just by dragging and dropping.

If that was all it was, and I was less worried about interface, then my ideal thing to use would be the old-school air traffic control strips system - an actual physical 'to do' list. These strips seem to me like the ultimate quick and dirty, always-visible, immediately-resortable list system, and whatever bright ideas I have, I keep coming back to thinking about some physical variant on this system.

However, it would be great if I could somehow harness the power of the computer (seeing as I have to use the infernal things all day anyway), and make it a bit more powerful and flexible. In other words, could I have a top-level list in a flight-strip format, that was draggable and droppable in any order I wanted, but also let me 'explode' a task, to show a much more complex table of tasks beneath?

One program that I am perpetually in love with, is Filemaker Pro. Not being technically a database programmer, this is probably the greatest software aid to everything that I do at work. I keep customer lists on it, personal contact lists, a stock database system for spare parts (that shows stuff like monthly run rates, estimated time in weeks to part number depletion at current rates of consumption), all sorts of stuff. FMP is really databases for dummies, and anyone with the slightest computer competence can learn the basics on it really fast. Plus, it's extremely visual, and extraordinarily fast to use, two of my big bugbears. The problem with it is, despite the fact it's visual, I can't just drag and drop records around the screen willy-nilly (as you could with physical flight progress strips). I still need to predetermine the layout, and then stick with that when I'm using it. I can change the layout whenever I want, but I don't want to have to redesign the layout, just to drag some tasks around the screen - so it's missing that final top-level near-freeform physical interaction that I'm looking for - in the version that I currently have, at least.

So I went on a search about a month ago, to see if anyone else has solved this problem. I found a few things.

Firstly, I found RIPT. This is basically a digital scrapbook, and it really does answer the very top-level of my problem - being able to engage in freeform dragging around of notes, and organising things in that way. Unfortunately, it's not cut out for the other end of my organisational problems - that is, expanding much beyond a 'heading' on the scrap of paper, and there's no way to link records, because all you're collecting is scraps of text or pictures. So good on the top-level UI, but no guts underneath it all - effectively, RIPT is the 'missing piece' for me in Filemaker, but there's no way to marry them together.

So... next - a little app called Goal Enforcer. I wasn't so keen on the name - it sounds a little bit domineering for my liking, but I tried it anyway. Goal Enforcer is more of a "linked bubbles" type of task manager, and while it is visual (you put your tasks in bubbles), it's a bit to rigid for my liking. Plus, you have to have links between bubbles (what if I just want to have a free floating bubble I drag around some place?), and even worse - it's very much deadline-oriented. I don't need my deadlines enforced, I just need to be able to see what is going on thanks.

So, on to the last of my current search - the Brain. (You wouldn't be the first to suggest that this is the software I've always needed). The Brain is more of a kind of loose relationship-based idea management software, where you generate bubbles of sorts (like goal-enforcer), that are then linked to other bubbles. The nice thing about the Brain is that the links can be in multiple directions, there's no obligation to have deadlines (woohoo!), and even nicer, there's a kind of visual 'radar' function which allows you to see only on the next couple of levels up and down from where you are. This means as you click on bubbles to take you further into a task as it's broken up, the stuff back up at the top level disappears from the screen. So you only see the stuff around the level you are on - either top level tasks when you're up at the top, or stuff 'inside' a task when you delve in. It's a neat way of doing it, and it looks very much like it is based on the old Visual Thesaurus, which had an even nicer UI.

Overall, the Brain is the best top-level "task manager" program I've come by so far. However it's got drawbacks too. For one thing, despite the really friendly UI, you lose all that power that you get from a database engine like Filemaker when you want to really get inside a task. Secondly, you can't have free-floating ideas, like the air traffic control strips. What if I just want to rip out a bubble and put it to the side for a day - in sight, but not in a list? What if I want a bubble that's not linked to anything, but just hanging around?

In other words, I've yet to find the solution for organising that I need. But someone out there, surely, has done something which marries powerful organised database functions to a chaotic, freeform drag-and-drop UI. That's possible. Isn't it?


Anonymous said...

Interesting tools.
Regarding GoalEnforcer (I've been using it for a while):
- You CAN have floating bubbles. I usually have floating bubbles in either the central map area or the clipboard area. If you approach it too closely to the central goal, it will connect automatically though (but you are free to detach it and move it anywhere else).
- It DOESN'T force you to enter dates. You can leave all date fields blank if you want.

Martin said...

Dave I salute your search for the holy grail of organisation. I didn't even realise I shared your concern til I read this. But now I can't wait to find out if you ever find this desktop nirvana. Do let me know if you do :)

divot said...

Of course I will let you know, likewise for you. Of course if I had discovered the holy grail of organisation, I might have remembered I'd switched the blog from "require verification of unreadable image" for comments, to "muggins must approve them manually", and I've seen your comment much earlier.

Still, at least this way I get to personally read all the Japanese porn spam comments. Which seem to strangely favour the U2 article for some reason...