Roam and the ergonomics of thought
Have you used Roam yet? It seems to be everywhere these days, people declaring their undying love for it all over twitter. Well I’d love to play the contrarian, but I can’t — it really is awesome. I’m paying fully £11 a month for it — and this is a digital product that doesn’t even have a mobile app yet — and I’m more than happy paying it; in fact I would pay more.
What’s so great? Roam has become like my second brain (no wonder I’d pay more for it!). It has quietly come into my life and within a few short months established itself as one of the most important, irreplaceable products I use.
There are lots of explanations around, but the gist is that its like a kind of digital notebook, where the core ‘grain’ is a bullet point. You type in whatever you like — a thought, a link to something interesting, and then you can ‘tag’ it with any number of tags. These tags for the basis of a ‘graph’ over time, which keeps some organisation of everything in there.
The canonical ‘feature’ though is the homepage, arguably — the essence of the product. It makes no demands of you at all, you can just write and it will catch everything. The beauty of this — the real beauty — is how frictionless it is. You don’t even have to tag anything if you don’t want to. You can just type. You can ‘breadcrumb’ later, or not at all, as much or as little as you like.
The magic of this is that it mirrors how your mind works — your thoughts do not arrive neatly compartmentalised and organised. The problem with a normal notebook (like Evernote, or the one I did use, Bear), is that the first thing they demand of you is to classify what you’re about to write — should this go in an existing note? Where? Or is this a new note, and if so what’s the title? It needs one title exactly. You have always been able to do tagging and linking in Bear but it is not the primitive, its an add-on. In Roam it is the primitive, which makes it feel like such an ergonomic fit for though itself.
Friction is always bad but it is actually much worse than it seems in traditional notebooks — because it assumes that your thoughts can be organised into some kind of MECE-like structure. The world is messy and chaotic and complex, and the demand that you organise things in a clean logical format is actually incredibly taxing — you don’t know the taxonomy of your thoughts, or the world, and it is completely absurd when you see it like that for a product to ask that of your upfront, every time.
Just imagine if when John Lennon jumped up in the night with the tune to a new song suddenly in his mind (what would become Imagine), if he had to tell his piano what the song was called before he could start playing it. Or tell the piano what other instruments were going to be included, or what album it was going to be on. This friction is a ludicrous insult to the player, when seen like this. The primary thing is the music (or in Roam’s case the thought), everything else is secondary.
So Roam is magic because it is there day and night to catch everything, any thought, however inchoate, whatever form, its there just ready and waiting to log it. Its real innovation arguably is a kind just-enough organisational paradigm. It asks, gently, you whether you would like to add any contextual markers that will help to organise the content and make it more easily retrieval in future. But it is graceful, and nearly-effortless and this is in no small part because it is graph-based, rather than MECE-style.
Roam know this. That is why the only thing the mobile web app does (and I have so much awe for the clarity of vision of the founders that I can write this) is it lets you add a bullet point (a ‘block’ its called) and that’s it. Nothing more. It will catch your thought, because that is job number one.
The concept I think Roam has uncovered here is something like ‘ambient logging’, the idea of logging your own thoughts at any time, in any place, with minimal friction. It is like a trail of your mind, filtered for the things you think worth recording. It will be interesting to see how far Roam can push this concept and extend out the ‘surface’ for capturing thoughts. One obvious example would be email capture, where you could email your Roam account with some way of providing tags. Or more intriguingly could be an Alexa plug-in, where you can just ramble your thoughts to Alexa in the moment and it will log it all and pass through to Roam (transcribed, presumably).
The ambient logging works because it is supported by the ‘just-enough’ tagging to aid retrieval, which you need to get value from the thoughts at a later point. But going beyond Roam, another twist would be products that contain the context at the point of capture. A very simple example would be having two phone numbers that you can text, say, where one of the numbers is called ‘Gives energy’ and the other is ’Takes energy’, and whenever you find yourself with a lot of energy, or a little, and you can point to why (e.g. buzzing from doing a great pitch at work today, or something), you can simply blurt your thoughts into a text to this number. As often as little as you like, that’s the point — it is ‘when inspiration strikes’ type thoughts and that is why the logging has to be ambient, so it’s always there ready to record. After a few months you would have a nice set of logs about the things in life that give you energy, and all those that sap energy, and you could review all this to get some really powerful insights into yourself.
The key is striking this ever-so nuanced balance between frictionless recording, with just-enough context for future retrieval. Traditional note-taking apps are way over-optimised for retrieval, and Roam’s genius has been to correct this, starting over with a new primitive that mirror how humans are, not how computers are. There is something very powerful in a product that accommodates the chaos of human thought gracefully, what else could lie down this road they’ve opened up?