Want productive software? Look for these 5 principles

Picture of happy colleagues working together

Following a huge surge of interest in David Allen’s description of what it would take to make “the ultimate GTD app,” he and I recently met to discuss my 5 principles for designing productivity software.

Seeing the success of the interview, I’ve summarized my 5 principles below. These are the principles I used when creating my award-winning GTD app. Here’s what I hope you’ll get out of this:

  • If you’re looking for the ultimate productivity app, use these principles to evaluate your options
  • If you’re a developer, I hope these principles guide your design

Why your productivity software is important

For better or worse, our tools shape our habits, even our thinking. You know: “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” That makes app selection incredibly important, because you will be shaped by the tools you use.

This made it paramount to design an app that encouraged good, lasting habits. Productivity had to be “baked in.” Over six years — with a lot of unsparing and invaluable feedback from David — we honed this tool into something to not only track tasks, but shape habits.

1) No leaks

We’ve all experienced leaks. You write something down, something important — maybe on paper, in a note on your phone, or in your task system — and it disappears. You don’t see it again until it’s too late.

For your brain to let go of things and stop bugging you, you have to trust your system. For you to trust your system, you must know there are no leaks.

Therefore, any truly productive software must do the following:

  • Highlight any leaks to the user
  • Alert user to unclassified or undecided items

This is part of what it takes for an app to be built for confidence.

2) Attract more than repel

We’ve all picked up a promising app, only find it’s just too much work to use. So we drop it.

This problem is reflected in a key finding from my Work Styles survey: 45% said “I spend too much time tracking work and not enough doing.” For a productivity app, this will not do.

Like I said in my recent post on my productive paper system, unconscious resistance is a term David Allen coined to describe “resistance to using one’s own systems.” This is also known as friction.

My goal was to maximize my users’ time — which meant minimizing their time thinking about the tool. After all, you use an app to track your work, not to think about the app!

  • Beware of creating unconscious resistance — keep personal in productivity
  • There’s a fine line between thinking about actions and thinking about the tool
  • Require as few steps as possible:
    • Reduce clicks
    • Anticipate or identify choices
  • Limit distractions
  • Reduce effort
  • User must perceive inherent value in product features
  • Key capabilities including quick capture, review, and find

3) Pass the 30-60-90 test

New ideas and features always seem amazing and shiny — but will they stand the test of time? Every feature must add lasting value.

  • Be watchful for shiny but unproductive or unused features
  • For every proposed new feature, are we still talking about it 30 days later?
  • Are a significant number of users still using it consistently 60 or 90 days later?

There were a number of features we thought were amazing at first — and then never used again. They were axed.

4) If you add, add value

In most software development (as in most projects), the constant temptation is to add more stuff. More is better, right? More options, more styles, more colors, more graphics… Professionally, this is known as “feature creep,” emphasis on creep.

As the old saying goes, “Less is more.” I’ve personally found that true in my reading and hobbies. I’m more satisfied with a very small number of quality options than with a plethora of choices.

Therefore, I look for the following in any app:

  • Don’t burden the user with noise, distractions, or decisions
  • Everything must be built with perceptible intention
  • Any feature that does not add consistent, reproducible value to users’ workflow should be removed (or at least disabled by default)

5) Would David or Eric use it?

Many tools claim to be designed for GTD®. Very few deliver. Instead, many leave users feel they’re working the system, instead of the system working for them.

In the design and testing process, I always asked:

  • How close does this adhere to GTD’s proven principles?
  • Before asking David to review a feature, can I first show that I’ve been using it consistently for an extended time?

How to look at your productivity software

Think about your tools. Do they work for you, or do you work for them? Do they make your work easier or harder? Do they attract or repel?

If you’re looking for a productivity app, I hope these principles help guide your choice. If you’re stuck with the tools you have (likely at work), consider how you can reshape them with these principles. After all, while your tools certainly shape you, you can also shape them.

For my full interview with David, click here.

What’s the most productive software you’ve found — and more importantly, what makes it so good?

Here’s to your calm and clarity!


Coming soon: answers and podcast on the ultimate GTD app

At the GTD Summit last month, David Allen announced that he would give away his plans for the ultimate “Getting Things Done” app.

An excerpt from David Allen's hand-drawn 1994 plans for the ultimate GTD app

David followed up in a newsletter with a link to his plans and a recommendation that people reach out to me for more information about building the ultimate GTD app. The response has been significant: many people have written to me with suggestions and questions, as well as requests for coaching for their own GTD systems or consulting to design the ultimate GTD app.

While I can’t personally respond to every inquiry, I will be blogging responses to popular questions here (make sure to subscribe).

In addition, David Allen and I plan to record a podcast in a few weeks (which I’ll post about here), in which we’ll talk about:

  • The subtle and powerful features and design that make an app “GTD enabled
  • The rigorous thought that goes into providing a truly seamless experience for the user
  • Our experience designing and developing the ultimate GTD app (how close we came, and why it hasn’t quite happened yet)
  • Answers to some of the many questions we’ve received since David’s announcement

If there’s a question you would like David and me to address, please post it in the comments below. We’ll review these as we plan the podcast.