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Finding the Best Note Taking App: Structured Vs. Unstructured Designs


Many of us leverage the power of note taking applications but few of us optimize the experience. Given the high volume of note takers out there to choose from, you shouldn’t have to adapt your habits to the system you use. Your note taker should complement your organizational style, not impinge upon it.

Applications such as DEVONthink, OneNote, Evernote, Notebook, Simplenote and Springpad all present their unique strengths and weaknesses, with a community of devotees claiming each one’s efficacy. But what factors separate these note takers? And how do you know which one is optimal for you?

Some applications like DEVONthink have highly structured frameworks, whereas others like OneNote give the user more freedom in terms of how they store and interface with their data. And of course there are many still that fall somewhere between these two on the spectrum. Are structured note takers better than unstructured ones? Or is it simply a matter of preference? Let’s have a look at the aforementioned OneNote and DEVONthink to help shed some light on these questions.

Microsoft’s OneNote surely sets the standard when it comes to unstructured information gathering applications. Since each page of each notebook is virtually unbounded, the user can funnel various forms of media into one place without the files being force-separated into different folders.

This format inspires users to save target media in more creative ways—which leads to an enhanced memory of your file content. In cognitive psychology, this is called elaborative encoding. The more you interact with your content and relate it to other information you’re familiar with, the better your remember it. And OneNote allows you to do just that.

King of Collaboration

What really separates unstructured note takers like OneNote from their structured competitors is their capacity for team collaboration. Creative ideas rarely develop to their full potential without exposure to multiple minds. So when working together on programs like OneNote, projects amount to much more than the sum of their parts.

Say you need to deliver a presentation on a new mobile application you developed with your coworkers. By using a shared notebook in OneNote, you and your team can pool your resources, creatively represent it on the pages of the notebook and cultivate ideas by interacting with the content each person contributes. Whether this content comes in the form of website clippings, images, audio or video recordings, tables or the many other media formats birthed or supported by OneNote, ideas can be represented in their optimal form without being forced into a box—or rather a folder—by the program’s sorting system.

Another great feature of systems like OneNote is that you can choose your degree of organization. If you prefer separate pages for video links, web clippings, images, audio, and group comments related to your project, you are free to set it up this way. If you’d rather organize media around central concepts and ideas, you can insert all these media types together on one page for more of a meta-perspective on the project. Structured note takers provide much less freedom in this domain.

I like to think of unstructured note taking applications as the work table around which you and your team members sit. All the project materials are presented in one space giving everyone a holistic perspective of the information available and what can be made of it. And unlike searching for a document on a table scattered with materials, programs like OneNote allow you to efficiently search for media anywhere within your notebook. It’s group work, but with the addition of superpowers.

With the benefits of unstructured information gathering systems exposed, let’s switch our focus to the other end of the spectrum to see what advantages reside there.

Optimized for the Individual

Structured information gathering systems are geared a little differently. Although you’re a little more restricted in the way you collect and interact with your material, the sacrifices on these fronts lead to benefits in others.

DEVONthink, for example, uses artificial intelligence that crutches on the structured format of the application’s folder system. The program will gather similar file types into “Smart Folders” thereby taking the first step in organization for you. As you continue to use the software, DEVONthink will get a feel for your organizational style and begin auto-classifying the media you funnel into the application. And beyond these sorting capacities, the AI in DEVONthink can also cross reference material, drawing connections between content in your database you have yet to discover. Journalists and students should find this feature particularly relevant.

Artificial intelligence is a feature that should not be overlooked when shopping around for note taking or personal information management applications. If you’re like me, at times you find yourself leaking time and energy by getting overly neurotic about organization. It becomes a phantom procrastination tool when you’re apprehensive about the tasks on your to-do list.

By using a program that maintains some capacity of order for you, you waste much less time creating folders and dragging files around. Pair this with the intelligent cross-referencing feature apart of DEVONthink, and you’re able to tackle more substantial projects with more efficiency.

Ultimately, artificial intelligence turns a static information gathering system into a clever digital secretary.

AI and Unstructured Note Takers

When attempting to situate current AI capacities within the context of unstructured applications like OneNote, you begin to reveal some problems and raise some questions regarding these systems. Although the creative opportunity OneNote offers can be liberating for users, it may also serve as a barrier for potential AI integration. Can AI develop the capacity to emulate your unique organizational habits, without sparing your creative approach? Although the AI in structured programs like DEVONthink succeeds at this to some extent, it seems difficult to envision advanced AI within the context of unstructured designs. Although I can only speculate, this may be something to think about as note taking applications advance.

It’s a Matter of Context

In light of all this, it’s probably not productive to ask which style of note taker is “best.” Depending on your organizational style and how often you seek to collaborate with others, some systems may be more useful than others. Unstructured note takers like OneNote can be tremendously effective in group contexts whereas structured systems can boost productivity to new heights using artificial intelligence. Ultimately, it’s probably not a question of one format or the other. Rather, it’s likely worth choosing one app from each end of the spectrum and leveraging them for their individual strengths. OneNote and DEVONthink are surely worth your consideration.

Contributed exclusively to the Daily Mac View

By: Dylan Smart

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