For the last couple of weeks I’ve been playing with a new web service and mobile app called Springpad. LifeHacker describes it as a “super advanced personal assistant”. And I can see particular applications for journalists and editors. Here’s how it works:
Investigating on the move, and online
In Springpad you create a ‘notebook’ for each of your projects. You can then place Tasks, Notes, bookmarks and other objects in those notebooks.
For a journalist, the notebook format lends itself well to projects or investigations that you’re working on, especially as ideas occur to you on the move. As new tasks occur to you (‘I must interview that guy’, or ‘follow up that lead’) you add them to the relevant notebook (i.e. project or investigation) from the mobile app – or the website.
If you’re browsing the web and find a useful resource, you can use the Springpad bookmarklet to bookmark it, tag it, and add it to the relevant notebook(s).
And any emails or documents you receive that relate to the project you can forward to your Springpad account.
What’s particularly useful is the way you can choose to make public entire notebooks or individual items within them. So if you want others to be able to access your work, you can do so easily.
There are also a range of other features – such as events, contacts, barcode recognition, search, and a Chrome bookmarklet – some of which are covered in this video:
How I use it
Springpad seems to me a particularly individually-oriented tool rather than something that could be used for coordinating large groups (where Basecamp, for example, is better). None of its constituent elements – tagging, to-do lists, notes, etc. – are unusual, but it’s the combination, and the mobile application, that works particularly well.
If you have a number of projects on the go at any one time you tend to have to a) constantly remember what needs to be done on each of them; b) when; c) with whom; and d) keep track of documents relating to it. The management of these is often spread across To Do lists, a calendar, contacts book, and filing or bookmarks.
What Springpad effectively does is bring those together to one place on your mobile: the app (although at the moment there’s no real reason to use it for contacts). This means you can make notes when they occur to you, and in one place. The fact that this is both synced with the website and available on the app when offline gives it certain advantages over other approaches.
That said, I’ve adopted a few strategies that make it more useful:
- Assign a date to every Task – even if it’s in 3 months’ time. This turns it into a calendar, and you can see how many things you need to get done on any given day, and shuffle accordingly.
- Tasks should be disaggregated – i.e. producing an investigation will involve interviews, research, follow ups, and so on. Each of these is a separate task.
- Start the day by looking at your tasks for that day – complete a couple of small ones and then focus on a bigger one.
- If new ideas related to a Task occur to you, add them to that task as a note (these are different to standalone Notes). This is particularly useful for tasks that are weeks in the future: by the time they come around you can have a number of useful notes attached to it.
- Use tags to differentiate between sub-projects within a notebook.
- Install the bookmarklet on your phone’s browser so you can bookmark project-related webpages on the go.
- Add the email address to your contacts so you can email key documents and correspondence to your account (sadly at the moment you still need to then open the app or website to tag and file them, but I’m told they are working on you being able to email-and-file at once).
Not a replacement for Delicious
You can import all of your Delicious bookmarks into Springpad, but I’ve chosen not to, partly because the site lacks much of the functionality that I’m looking for in a Delicious replacement, but also because I see it as performing a different task: I use Delicious as a catch-all, public filing system for anything that is or might be relevant to what I do and have done. Springpad is about managing what I’m doing right now, which means being more selective about the bookmarks that I save in it. Flooding it with almost 10,000 bookmarks would probably reduce its usefulness.
For the same reason I don’t see it as particularly comparable to Evernote. Dan Gold has an extensive guide explaining why he switched from Evernote to Springpad, and simplicity again plays a large role. It’s also worth reading to see how Dan uses the tool.
Perhaps the best description of the tool is as a powerful To Do list – allowing you to split projects apart while also keeping those parts linked to other items through notes, tags and categories.
Early days – room for improvement
The tool is a bit rough around the edges at the moment. Navigation of the app could be a lot quicker: to get from a list of all Tasks to those within one notebook takes 3 clicks at the moment – that’s too many.
Privacy could be more granular, allowing password-protection for instance. And the options to add contacts and events seem to be hidden away under ‘Add by type’ (in fact, the only way to add an event at the moment appears to be to sync with your Google account and then use a calendar app to add a new event through your Google calendar, or to go to an existing event in your app and create a new one from there).
The bookmarklet is slow to work, and alerts only come via RSS feed (you could use Feedburner to turn these into email alerts by the way).
That said, this is the first project management that I’ve actually found effective in getting stuff out of my head and onto virtual paper. Long may that continue.