Sunday, 26 February 2012

Applications where paper beats software, and where software beats paper.

A few years ago, I wrote a short article for Moleskinerie, noting the backlash against  the trend to do everything on electronic platforms. At the time, I was making a move back to paper, too. I hadn't made my way back to Filofax by then, but it wouldn't be long. Here's what I had to say then:

Here are six applications we all undertake every day that work better with the traditional paper and pen solutions than with electronic tools. 

1. The task list. Web Worker Daily has an inspirational post on this subject. I have found that the paper task list is simply a more effective way to organise my work. I use a form of Bill Westerman’s great GSD system. My GSD book is portable, works anywhere, has never crashed and doesn’t need a help file.
2. The daily schedule. I use a Moleskine pocket diary, in which I use a pencil to note my various appointments, meetings and plans. I can quickly skip to any date and make changes easily whenever I like. When people in the corporate world invite me to meetings in Outlook, I write them in my paper diary when I accept the invitation. Other than that, the only syncing I need to do is to pick up my diary and put it in my pocket when I go out.
3. Meeting notes. For a while, I used Microsoft OneNote but despite the wonderful flexibility of the application, the truth is it still isn’t anywhere near as flexible as writing my own notes in a book or on paper. When I use paper, I can draw pictures, and highlight relationships between ideas without even thinking about it. Yes, OneNote can do that too, but while I’m thinking about the key and mouse actions to make that happen, I’m not concentrating on what’s happening in the meeting.
4. Mind maps. There are lots of PC mind mapping applications. I quite like MindManager. But after you’ve created a few mind maps on a computer, you start to notice they all look the same. They’re nice and shiny and professional looking, of course, but they aren’t memorable in the way a hand-drawn one is. When you draw a bad picture of a factory on your paper mind map, it’s more memorable that the perfect clipart one on screen. When your map ends up asymmetrical because you overestimated how far a topic would take you, it’s more memorable. The imperfections of the paper design create memory hooks that the perfect computer versions just don’t.
5. Your journal. I’ve written about the value I get from keeping a daily record of my life before, and I just can’t imagine doing this in any way other than in a book with a fountain pen. I write more slowly than I can type, and this allows me to record rather more fully-formed ideas that those my keyboard produces. The journal can accompany me anywhere and I can access it quickly in situations in which I’d hesitate to open a laptop. It’s lighter, too.
6. Personal letters and greeting cards. Compare the experience of receiving a hand-written note or card in the mail with that of receiving an e-mail or an e-card. Someone took the trouble not just to click a few keys, but to write you a personal message, put it in an envelope which they then addressed, stamped and posted. Is that not a more valuable affirmation of your relationship than a few on-screen dancing bunnies?
Although I didn't write about this at the time, there is another side to this coin. In the interests of balance, here are my six applications where software beats paper:


1. Contacts. The smartphone era has spelled for me the death of paper address books. My contacts are available to me anywhere, easy to keep updated and easy to use - to cut and paste into a document, for instance, or just to make a call - without any danger of dialling a wrong number. In fact, when was the last time you got a wrong number call? The phenomenon has all but disappeared. I keep a couple of blank address pages in my Filofax just to capture new details. Then I can key them into Outlook when I'm home rather than use the fiddly iPhone data entry system.

2. Financial planning. Excel, Money, Quickbooks or one of half a dozen other applications give everyone the freedom to rise above simple arithmetic and do instead the kind of financial planning that actually matters. Budgeting and keeping track of everything on paper is hard enough in itself, of course, but the type of planning the software does for you would take hours to do manually. Manual ledgers are now historical documents.


3. Reading. This might be a controversial one. I certainly never believed that I would prefer reading on the Kindle to reading a real book. I believed I would miss the tactile dimension, the smell of the paper, the turn of real pages. I believed all of that quite strongly, right up until I first read on a Kindle and found that despite all my fears it was a better experience than reading a real book. I can read every book with the font size and spacing that works best for me. I no longer have to carry a spare book around; an entire library sits in my pocket. And pretty much any book I don't have I can get and be reading inside a minute, wherever I am.

4. Maps. With a paper map, you have to do all the work. There's no 'where am I?' function, no way to zoom in and if you want to venture off the page, you need to be near somewhere you can buy another map. Electronic maps, whether online or device-resident are an enormous leap forward. When they are linked to GPS functionality, they are in a whole different league. And who can be doing with all that unfolding and refolding?

5. Transport timetables. Train and bus companies used to produce (and perhaps still do) enormous books detailing the running times of their vast fleets of vehicles. For most people, 99% of this book was superfluous, but for each person it was a different 99%. And of course, the information was static; it couldn't tell you about an unplanned change in service, about delays, and certainly not about what platform you needed to go to in order to catch the train leaving in five minutes' time. Now there's an app for that and life is so much simpler.

6. Phone directories. I'm talking here about the massive white- and yellow-paged slabs of paper that the phone companies still leave on my doorstep periodically. These list the address and phone number everyone in my close geographical area that hasn't opted out. In the Yellow Pages, business numbers are listed and companies can pay for advertisements and more prominent listings. Again, 99% of these are useless to me, but I don't know ahead of time which is the 1% I'll actually need. And even then, if I need to contact someone outside my area the books let me down. Online search can find the information more quickly, wherever I am (let's face it, those books aren't portable.) I can search the whole world, not just a 10-mile-wide area, and I can access the details of people who have opted out of phone company listing and thus don't appear in the directory.
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