Notion, the Swiss knife for your data

Three hand-drawn human characters sitting with their laptops
Illustration by Roman Muradov on the homepage of Notion.so
swiss army knife with the Notion logo on it

Let me be clear: A Swiss army knife is a tool that is made to do a lot of things, but it is not specialized in a specific field. I will talk here about what Notion is, how it was designed, its qualities in terms of UX and its flaws. There are interesting alternatives to Notion — Coda and ClickUp to name just two — each tool has its own advantages and disadvantages. But today we will only talk about Notion, its different blades, and the reasons that make it such a good tool.

What is Notion ?

Notion is defined as the all-in-one workspace. It is an application that can be used to take notes, organize knowledge and manage projects. It works on any desktop or mobile browser, as well as a standalone application for macOS/Windows and iOS/Android. The free version allows the creation of an unlimited number of contents. Over 5 collaborators you will have to pay $5 per month.

Take notes

female character tacking notes on a paper notebook
female character tacking notes on a paper notebook
Illustration : Roman Muradov

Notion claims to replace many other well-installed products such as Google Docs or Evernote.

And so Notion proposes:

  • a lightweight text editor
  • a spreadsheet software
  • layout features
  • the integration of images, videos, lines of code, websites bookmarks…

Everything can be “drag-dropped” anywhere. And it is much more than a simple editor: Each created content can be included in a database, labeled and shared with collaborators… Create as many pages as you want, everything will be accessible permanently on a sidebar that you can hide.

Finally, you can keep some private notes or share them with your team or the whole world. Mention a person to be notified. Check who can edit or comment on each page. You can also make content duplicable as a template and decide whether that content can be indexed by search engines.

Note Taking sample
A note can include a cover image, an emoji, a main title, subtitles, check boxes… Just type “/” to choose each item from the list of blocks.

animated demo
animated demo

Organize your knowledge

male character reading a book
male character reading a book
Illustration : Roman Muradov

Along with some knowledge management applications, such as Confluence or Wikipedia, Notion offers an elegant solution to organize all kinds of information.

Arranging texts, images or any other object is a breeze in Notion. Select what you want to reposition, simply drag it somewhere else on the same page or inside another page. The interweaving of content can be done infinitely.

Not sure how to store your information? There are thousands of ready-to-use templates to help you get started. Whether in a company, at home, at school or in an association, you will always find examples of content structured according to your needs.

Knowledge base sample
In this example, several contents were gathered in the same space of a fictitious company called “Acme”: News, missions, objectives, directory, manuals, policies, expenses… Notice that each content has its own solutions: list, image board, table…

animated demo
animated demo

Manage projects

female character ordering files in a box
female character ordering files in a box
Illustration : Roman Muradov

Finally, Notion considers competing with project management tools such as Jira, Asana or Trello.

And indeed, among the features offered by the application, there is a kanban concept that offers the possibility of creating removable content cards. But where the tool becomes original is in the variety of visualizations of these cards. You can transform a kanban into a list, a data table, an image gallery, a calendar or even a “timeline”.

Project management sample
Here you see a “board”, it is a kanban-like table, just like Trello. Each card in this board can be dragged-dropped. You can even choose what to display on each card. And all of it in a collaborative way.

animated demo
animated demo

There is also a contextual comment system. A user, here Cory, writes to Camille a comment after a title. Camille will answer live and Cory will just have to click on the comment icon to display the conversation associated with this specific topic.

animated demo
animated demo

The Swiss knife effect

The “Swiss knife” effect seems to be one of the most important arguments of Notion. It would be the equivalent of an Evernote + Trello + AirTable + Confluence + Jira… Even if many functions are missing, many users are seduced. Add to that centralisable, searchable and filterable data, and the game is over. Just read the comparisons to understand that Notion has become a key player in the productivity software market.

How is Notion designed?

Yellow LEGO box displaying rainbow colors array of blocks
LEGO Classic 1500 pieces

In May 2020, during a conference, Cory Etzkorn, designer at Notion, presents the mission of his product:

“Give everyone the ability to shape the tools that shape our lives”.

He then compares Notion to a LEGO box and explains that the objective of Notion is to democratize the power often reserved to developers. He also states that a good product must have a good visual identity. Notion is mainly reflected by the Russian illustrator Roman Muradov and his lovable black and white characters.

puppets lying on chairs or sofa
puppets lying on chairs or sofa
Ernie, Cookie Monster et Elmo

In Notion headquarters in San Francisco, dolls of Sesame Street are always among the company’s teams. These toys represent the users of Notion. They try to always keep in mind that they work for their users first.

When comments or suggestions are escalated to the team, they always include this information in a dedicated database to track the most popular requests.

During the search phase, the problems identified are listed in a document (made with Notion!), the “Problem Scope”. Then series of user interviews are conducted, also documented in a “User Feedback” template.

The mockups are initially made by the founder Ivan Zhao and the product designer Sergey Surganov. After a series of iterations, the UX designer Ryo Lu refines the proposals. During this process, feedback is sought from all employees. And since everything is systematically archived in Notion, everyone can easily comment on the tool itself.

Then comes the turn of Slim Lim, software engineer, for the development of features for about 2 months in general.

Finally, Camille Ricketts and Cory Etzkorn take care of marketing, website updates, support pages and news. I invite you to listen to the full process here: https://youtu.be/EDRRwnwxMwU

Why is Notion’s UX so good?

user interface of both iAWriter and Notion
iA Writer and Notion, very similar

At first glance, Notion looks a lot like “iA Writer”, a minimalist writing app. It is also often compared to Evernote. Few or no apparent controls, very few customizable styles, no colors. In reality the interface has many hidden functions. Type “/” or click “+” to bring up the list of “blocks”. A block can be a text, a title, an image… or an entire table. Once you understand the modular side of it, you start to see the possibilities. Notion is therefore a clever mixture between pureness and power.

Interface

  • Multiplatform: Notion is available on almost any platform, which makes it immediately accessible for everyone.
  • Minimalism: The usual controls in any text editor are hidden here, the same for the navigation elements, the blocks features, everything is reduced to offer a zen experience and conducive to creativity. And if you are a fan of keyboard shortcuts, here you will be served. 🤓
  • Customization: Despite this minimalism, each page can be dressed with a cover image and an icon. These very simple elements bring a user-friendly touch to any document. Icons are a real plus when they are visible on lists of pages, they allow to better distinguish each topic.
Notion page with cover image showing a desk from above, a magic glass ball emoji, a big title “What is iA Writer” and a paragraph text.
Notion page with cover image showing a desk from above, a magic glass ball emoji, a big title “What is iA Writer” and a paragraph text.
Much prettier with a cover and emoji. For info, Unsplash is integrated to quickly find beautiful pictures.

👁

Dark mode: Another feature that also reinforces the perception of a tool taking care of the user and their eyes.

👍🏻

Affordance: Almost the entire product benefits from highlights on interactive elements. These feedback effects enhances the use.

🧱

Removable and transformable blocks: One of Notion’s breakthroughs is undoubtedly the idea of moving, turning and embedding any element (text, image, video embed or other) in any other location.

Infinite Interweaving: Being able to create as many levels as you want is also a strong advantage of Notion.

Uses

  • The more you learn how to create content on Notion, the more you realize how complex it is with any other tool. Whether it is the quick layout, the creation of a database or a kanban board, obtaining and aggregating several of these objects requires to cumulate several products. Here everything is done with a single product.
  • “Autotelic” effect: When you have understood how to create content you are surprised to create others just for fun. The creation of books or recipes databases is a good example.
Recipe box page showing a cover image of a dinning table, and a 5 columns board with recipes in thumbnails.
Recipe box page showing a cover image of a dinning table, and a 5 columns board with recipes in thumbnails.
Recipe Box, one template among the thousands you can find
  • New experience in how to publish content: This is a fact that will not please many CMS but Notion is probably at this moment one of the fastest and most effective ways to publish websites. A single button is enough to get a URL ready to be shared. The contents are totally responsive and therefore adapted to any mobile screen.
  • Integration of many products and services: More and more actors offer templates for Notion but also tools and advice to improve its activities. A market has even been developed to sell the richest contents.
  • Constantly evolving templates: The models created by Notion are more and more numerous, proof that a real research approach is conducted by the company with its users.
Design System template page showing a board with artworks images, fonts, colors
Design System template page showing a board with artworks images, fonts, colors
The default templates already allow you to do a lot of things. Here, for example, a design system.
  • Chat support: Accessible throughout the app, the help button allows you to start a conversation with Notion employees, and an answer is always provided after a few hours.
  • Communities and complementary solutions: In France as elsewhere, “notioneers” are gathering, exchanging more and more and giving the tool an interesting dimension.

Having conducted my own tests in my surroundings, I can today affirm that the true potential of Notion rarely appears during the first uses. If one appreciates very quickly the clean interface and the simplicity of writing, the principles of databases, templates and information architecture are not obvious. You actually have to think of Notion as a LEGO box. But without instructions for the first objects, it is not easy to find interest. And the meagre onboarding at the first visit does not help to understand the value of the main functions. BUT, as was my case, when you are guided by an initiated friend, then the field of possibilities finally appears!

Notion actually fulfills the mission mentioned above. It is one of the first products to allow mixing between basic notes, kanban, data tables and many other objects. And without ever having to code. Formulas can be entered for some tables, but other than that, no programming skills are required.

Is Notion the perfect tool?

No, far from it. But for me, it has become a companion who has made hitself essential. So much that the rare down periods ¹ of Notion become frustrating, making me addicted to the tool. I also listed a few points to improve:

  • Mobile app: The iOS version is much less intuitive than the desktop. The widgets recently launched with iOS 14 certainly offer faster access to content. But impossible to select several blocks at a time, difficult to navigate among the different levels. So much so that a product designer, Dul Zorigoo, proposed some solutions in a very good article entitled “Notion app redesign, a small product design case study
  • Internet dependency and performance problems: Without connection, Notion is almost useless. It is still possible to work offline but as soon as you want to change the page, a message asks you to log in to be able to work on it without connection. And regarding the databases, if they are of significant size the loading can sometimes be a bit long, and again, without connection they are difficult to exploit.
  • Onboarding needs to be improved, especially when registering: The account creation process is based on the belief that you are satisfied with a password sent automatically by email with each new connection. And you don’t have to create your own password. Some may like it, but others may not. Peter Ramsey tells us in a nice case study on how to improve this process. And Claire Kim gives us her vision of the redesign of Notion, showing examples of boarding screens that facilitate the first steps.

To go further with Notion

With more than 15M users including about 4M active ² , Notion is becoming an essential tool. More and more resources sites are dedicated to it, such as notioneverything.com or notionexpert.com. And if you want to learn more I recommend you to read the “Help & Support” documentation in English or many other languages.

Communities are being created across many countries around the world, especially in Japan, where the documentation has already been fully translated! I recommend that you start by taking a look at all the organizations listed on the official “Notion Community” page. And local communities mainly gather on Discord, Facebook and Reddit.

The future of Notion is set for a bright future, thanks in particular to a $2 billion valuation following a $50 million fundraiser in April 2020. The event that everyone is now waiting for is the release of the Notion API, an important brick that will connect Notion to all the other best known services on the market, automate a lot of data flows, and therefore “modestly” trigger the beginning of a new era…

Thank you for reading this article. Feel free to comment it, write to me at adrikoss@gmail.com and share it. I’m already teasing my next article, it will be a special “Notion for UX designers”. See you soon. 👋

Thanks to Anup Sathya for his article, How well-designed is Notion?
Thanks to Colbys Dovi for being this initiated friend.

Adrian Koss

Notes

1: Notion has a page to accurately track the status of their services: https://status.notion.so/

2: 15M users (April 2021), including more than 4M active users (November 2020). Source: Notion

🇫🇷 Version française

French UX designer, geek and trying my best to improve the World…

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