A discussion I had today reminded me of a design conundrum we went through with OneNote when we were preparing it for first release. A guy I was talking to today said that he thought (for his web site storage product) it would be lame to put example folders on the site to try to show how to use it, since nearly everyone would actually want something different and unique to themselves. So he wanted to go with a generic, empty space and help text right there to explain that you can make folders as needed to suit your organizational needs.

Funnily enough, we had the same discussion for OneNote back in early 2003 - what should appear when you first start the application? In one camp were the purists who said that the simplest starter set of sections that nearly every user would need would be the best. To support this, they pointed to lots of anecdotes from users complaining that pre-populated spaces really bothered them, since they had to delete what was there. This wasn't just a hassle - some people had even said that they felt "their" space was violated - that a brand new product should not look like it had been used by someone else. The other camp said that if we just put a reasonable generic sample out there it would do more good than harm. We decided to test the theories.

Some data supporting the purists came when we experimented with instructional or example content for the proposed sample sections. For example, not only were we going to have a sample section called "Meeting", the sample "Meeting" section was going to have a first page that showed how you could take meeting notes in OneNote. We had the same for several other samples. In tests, people said this really bothered them since their notes seemed "polluted' by someone else's stuff - even if they knew it was instructions meant for them. Personally I had been a big fan of using the pages of the starting notebook to try to explain the product, but somehow we couldn’t get the instructions in there in a way that didn't freak out a significant fraction of users.

So we shipped the first release, with just two sample sections: General, and Meetings. We felt nearly everyone would need or at least accept "General". There were some who wanted to delete "Meetings", since some people (maybe students especially) don’t go to things called "meetings". But the rest of us felt that having two was important to show that you could have more than one (duh).

One of the top pieces of feedback we got from the initial release was people asking "How to I organize my notes with this?". Since we had provided no guidance, people started out all sorts of ways. Some people just added pages one after another in a single section and relied on subpages to get some structure. Others just added sections with only one maybe two pages, since each section was an event for them such as an interview. A handful started going nuts with folders. Still others decided to make a section for each week of the year, since they were used to daytimers. (aside: although organizing by time is familiar to paper users since it is more or less forced on you by the medium, it is actually one of the weakest ways to organize since as the amount of notes grow your ability to remember when you wrote something relative to something else goes way down. A calendar underneath helps but on a computer it is better to organize by topic or person or some other category - you can always view your notes by time using View/Page list if you need to find something that way and search is not working for you)

For our SP1 release we decided to be more bold. We couldn't do anything terribly slick such as let people choose from a set of notebooks due to limited development budget, but we resolved to be more aggressive with the sample notebook. Now when you start OneNote you get a set of sections with folders to show how you can organize projects, courses, your home stuff, as well as a place to store old things you don't want to see but don't want to delete. It is still generic, but at least it indicates how we intended you to use the product - what sort of thing sections should be used for and so on. etc. We also jammed in a "helpful tips" section (I insisted) because it seemed like we kept getting the same questions over and over again, and maybe providing these tips in the application itself would supplement our help web site. The sample notebook has really helped reduce confusion, although we can still get a lot better in this area. Sometimes too much flexibility can be a problem and people can use some guidance.

Another common topic related to this is the concept of "piler" vs. "filer". These are two poles of note management. A "piler" is someone who just puts everything they get into a big stack. They rely on memory of roughly how far down the stack something probably is when they go to find it. Finding things this way is not particularly efficient particularly as your stack gets big, but the upfront cost is nil which is appealing to many (including me). A "filer" is someone who puts notes away by category until everything is in its proper place. Assigning categories to everything is a chore and hard to remember to do consistently, but it pays off when you need to find things since it is easier to pull them out of a filed set of notes. We actually did some research on this to see where the general population is on this topic. As with most things concerning personal organization, things are spread: about 15% pile, 15% file, and a whopping 70% pile first and file later when they get a chance.

We wondered if this behaviour would change if notes were electronic and things like searching were super-quick. Result: not really. Search is rarely used among our users. 85% of people put things where they would go look for them later so they don’t report any trouble finding them, and no need for search. A few others (the heavy note taking pilers) do rely on search, but the nature of people is not changing (yet). Will it? Hard to say, since even with instant search it is faster to click a topic title (section) and then a page title than it is to type a search term, then wade through what might be several hits to get the one you want if your term was not unique to the page. Things are different when you are talking about your own notes vs. say, the entire internet.

So, how about some example ways to organize your notebook? I was going to write a lot on this topic, but I saw that our web site has beaten me to the punch. There is actually a whole set of example notebooks up there, organized by profession. Check it out. If you don't fit any category, just pick one that looks like it might be similar - the structure is probably a good match. You have to drill through a bit to get to the actual samples. Here's one for students for example.

For reference, I've discussed before how I use OneNote, and a lot of you responded with your own strategies: How do you use OneNote?

Ok, as usual - feedback shamelessly solicited.