Sunday, April 27, 2014

OmniFocus 2’s Low Information Density

OmniFocus 2 for Mac adds some cool features. The inspector sidebar and Quick Open seem especially nice. But it also includes a new layout that I think is a regression. I’ve been worried since last winter that OmniFocus 2 would ship with an iPad-style two-line design. It seems cluttered with icons and context names that get in the way when I’m scanning, while showing much less actual information in the same amount of space. (OmniOutliner 4 also reduced its data density, but it included options in the Pro version to tighten up the spacing.) The current OmniFocus beta, which is quite a shock to an OmniFocus 1 user, is actually the new and improved design:

In today’s most recent build (r207056), we’ve significantly reduced the amount of vertical whitespace in the main outline for actions and projects. OmniFocus 2 can now displays 65 rows in the same amount of space as it would previously use to display 48 rows—an increase of over 35%.

Ken Case says that Omni is listening, but the layout’s been this way since the first public screenshots—and presumably long before that internally. This is obviously not a high priority. The user interface is now frozen for the June release.

The new design also has the checkboxes on the right, like in iOS, but I don’t think this works as well with a wider window. The left sidebar with the project and context has a minimum width that’s about twice what it should be, wasting further space. They’ve also removed the features for customizing the fonts and styles and reduced the filtering and sorting options.

I consider OmniFocus 1.x to be one the best Mac apps ever, so it pains me to see it seemingly ruined by iOSification. It looks nice, but I don’t think it works well. Obviously, the developers are no dummies. Maybe they are right and this is what most people want.

Nevertheless, it puts fans of the old version in a bad position. Soon 1.x will no longer be supported. Someday it will stop syncing with the current iPhone version, or break in some other way. There’s no telling when or even if 2.x will match it. There are lots of competing apps, but I haven’t found any of them compelling.

Update (2014-05-20): Ken Case announces a work in progress:

If you’d prefer to see all of your task information laid out in one line (so it’s more vertically compact) and would prefer your status circles on the left, you can start experimenting with this now by opening this URL[…]

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Sad to see this is still a problem. My tweet on the subject to Ken Case a few months ago went unanswered, my bug report was acknowledged so I don't know what else to do (aside from not upgrading, which for safety's sake I've stuck with 1.x on iOS as well).

I seem to be in the tiny minority of people who actually like to have things like my to-do list visible at the same time as other work. Right now, for example, on a moderate-resolution screen (1680×1050), I’ve got OmniFocus in the bottom right, EagleFiler in the top right and Safari using the rest of the screen.

I get the whitespace when it's useful for providing an adequately sized tap target, and to a certain extent for clarity. But to me, the point of using a computer instead of an iPad is to be able to see multiple applications at once; this low information density makes this usage really difficult. Apple still ships quite a few laptops with even lower (logical) resolutions than this, after all.

I've said the same in the Omni forums, but my biggest gripe is that the iPhone version is so unnecessarily limit without the Mac version. I think it's ridiculous that they expect people to purchase at least the Mac version to do any of the "more powerful" things like perspective creation/modification. (I have been led to believe the iPad version might be more usable than the iPhone version, but I'm not a tech-hoarder, and I have no use for an iPad.) And OF2 for iPhone, although quicker still suffers from tons of usability quirks (like the date entry).

Although I fully admit I use OmniFocus daily and it is quite powerful, it is missing many easy features which would make it great and still suffers from something many of the less powerful competitors don't: the tool gets in your way. In other words, so much effort is -required- to create and use actions and projects and contexts, when it should be more effortless (about the only thing that is quick and painless is throwing things in the inbox).

I've sketched up a competitor that I feel alleviates most of its weaknesses, but I have another app that is much higher priority.

Easy to blame the designers' natural exuberance for visual experimentation, but that is only to be expected.

You put it well:
> it looks nice, but I don't think it works well.

Beneath the surface, the balance between decoration and ergonomics is actually a balance of conflicting interests – the imperatives of excited young designers who understandably want room to experiment, versus the interests of customers who need a streamlined working tool that will serve productively for thousands of working hours.

The job of management is to make that balance productive.

The pattern of the last few products, however, has consistently shown an oddly accident-prone tendency to shoe-horn ergonomics into decorative schemes, and then have to back-track (expensively) when customers complain of annexed desktop space, too much distracting widget clutter, intrusive branding colors, low data density, new frictions and glitches in workflow, etc etc

If management can't see these problems coming, and can't engineer a productive balance between decorative exuberance and a professional focus on ergonomic quality, then there may be some kind of skills gap (or management capacity gap) at work there.

"Beneath the surface, the balance between decoration and ergonomics is actually a balance of conflicting interests – the imperatives of excited young designers who understandably want room to experiment, versus the interests of customers who need a streamlined working tool that will serve productively for thousands of working hours. The job of management is to make that balance productive."

Huh. I'd think the job of management (for a long-term business like OmniGroup) would be to focus solely on the interests of customers by delivering the best possible UX. To me, that would seem to utterly trump the interests of "excited young designers" who don't have the interests of customers at the top of their minds.

But then again, I'm one of those folks like Michael and Nicholas who think OmniFocus 2 is an immense regression over the best of breed and quite indispensable OmniFocus 1.

(In reality, I think management's failing is different than your diagnosis. Ken Case made a somewhat famous statement that he was 'betting the company on the iPad', and this kind of regression seems a natural result of that attitude. Time will tell, but IMHO, abandoning OS X customers' interests of having an optimal UX in pursuit of that statement is bad for OmniGroup long-term, but we shall see.)

I, personally, am a big fan of the new look. I don't really understand how the extreme information density is _actually_ useful. True, you can see 50 tasks on a screen in the old version, and maybe 35 on the new one, but what's the value in actually seeing 50 tasks at a time? It's distracting, given you're not going to be doing 50 tasks at one time.

The old OF UI was tired, and it was ugly. And it was very complex. The new one is still powerful, but with less density. I agree that the check-circles on the right is a bit wacky, and the fact that they're circles, but the "information density" I just don't get. Having fewer lines on the screen than the old one isn't necessarily a regression in functionality.

Much more important is proper use of perspectives, and honestly the new command-O to go straight to a project makes a really big difference in my workflow and is worth the upgrade on its own!

"Much more important is proper use of perspectives"

Most definitely!

But I'm not sure that's really a point in favor of v2 over v1...

@John Seeing a lot at once is useful for planning. It’s not that I want to see 50 at a time, usually. Actually, I only see about 20 in my main view in OF 1. The difference is that I can have a small window in the corner of my screen that I can refer to while working in other apps. This just wouldn’t be possible with OF 2.

"The old OF UI was tired, and it was ugly."

This mentality just doesn't make sense. Who cares if the interface is "tired" or old or "ugly". The only questions that matter are: Does it work? Does it get out of my way? Does it enable me, the user, to do what I need it to do? This is where the new interface, as many have noted, falls flat. It is a regression in usability in -most- (not all) cases. Yup, it sure looks... white (not sure what else you think is different about it), but it sacrificed some usability just to put a fresh coat of paint on.

"And it was very complex."

The new interface saves a few steps here and there, but otherwise it's a fresh coat of paint on the same underlying mechanics (which just so happens to have accidentally (purposefully?) painted over some of the features in its rush to be NEW.

[...] beta’s problems with low information density remain, though you can somewhat mitigate them by clicking this link to enable the experimental [...]

[…] 2.1 makes essentially no progress on the data density regressions from version 1.x. Everything still takes up a lot more space. The window can […]

[…] Fluid layout was terrible for data density. An esoteric preference was added to put everything back on one line, but there was still too much […]

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