What was once only possible with code, sees the light of day via Graphical User Interface (GUI) — the buttons, layouts & user flows your applications present you to interact with it.
If you're into productivity and getting organized, there seems to be a slippery slope toward becoming a programmer.
What I'll discuss in this post:
How Notion brought concepts of data structures to the surface for general users & less-technical creatives by providing a GUI & user experience worth emulating
How creative entrepreneurs were ushered into becoming technologists
Concepts of computer science & programming that applies to being a Creative, Organized & Productive Artist
Other apps that emerged to compete with Notion & push the needle forward
The reasons why I'll stick with Notion, Pros & Cons of the platform
Welll... Platforms like Notion marked a meaningful paradigm shift in note-taking applications as they entered the marketplace. Their block-builder interface combined a minimalist aesthetic with modularity & customizable structure. They synthesized many features that were once floating around in their own silos, into one app — now ushering general productivity buffs & project managers alike into a new realm with their motto, "To make software tool making ubiquitous".
I personally went from just wanting a nice app to store my music lyrics, into a bonafide programmatic thinker, systems thinker & systems designer simply from getting immersed as a user of the platform (shoutout to August Bradley, Thomas Frank, Marie Poulin, Ben Borowski & Red Gregory for their many lessons). Notion provided a 'domain' for which I could 'expand' in ways I would never have been able to anticipate; not off of first appearances at least (and now a shoutout to the Jujutsu Kaisen fans who caught that easter egg, haha).
As Creative Entrepreneurs, often, our focus is relegated primarily on our creative endeavors & the skill sets needed to bring such artistry to life.
Many of us had to accept the required blessing of being a technologist in order to accomplish our goals. Music Artists learning how to record in a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), Producers learning the same while managing VSTs (Virtual Studio Technology; plug-in software) & other plugin tools. Photographers & graphic designers learning Photoshop, Lightroom or other pixel pushing software. Models & Marketers alike having to learn the complexities of social media marketing & scheduling tools.
Yet & still, concepts like "Relational Databases" might have remained outside of my purview as a music artist, had I not been given the opportunity to directly configure my own systems with the functionality it enabled. It was only after using Notion did I realize that this was a concept long utilized in backend coding languages like SQL (Structured Query Language) & others. The concept might have been known to those in the corporate sector if they worked with Salesforce, Hubspot, or anything of the sort... yet it was a scaffolding provided by computer scientists who wielded its power long before the user-friendly interfaces emerged.
Companies like Notion, Airtable, Coda, Monday & others started to open up the valves that bridged backend logistical control to end user experiences. While many had the initial impression that Notion was just another note-taking platform, the more I used it, the more I realized it was in fact a no-code development tool for backend systems. Really, we also have to thank the "No-Code" platforms that emerged before, around the same time or shortly after; expounding upon concepts Notion managed to bring forth for many who might not have been expecting it.
Their platform brought to the forefront impactful database & programming concepts, right into the world of habit-tracking-bullet-journalists, who were looking for a better means; that'd be me (and maybe, you too).
Still, leaping beyond those concepts and into their evolved forms, new programs began to hit the scene with zeal. Platforms like Tana, Capacities, anytype, etc. came to explore the more advanced applications & flexibilities of newer data structure types.
They have started to introduce the general user to these advanced concepts of node / graph based data structures & furthered applications of "object-oriented programming". Powerful, transformative functionalities to now have a no-code development environment with mostly approachable GUIs.
Were it not for these new, cost-effective tools popping up on the scene to leapfrog one another, many of these very useful, technological functions might have remained out-of-reach by many due to the (self-imposed) knowledge gap that separates less-technical citizens from the programmers & developers — or behind exponentially more expensive paywalls.
I certainly would not have found myself trying to learn about data structures, object-oriented programming, coding formulas, relational databases & metadata without the impetus provided by these platforms. I've always been primarily an artist, however, my curiosity & interests have certainly shifted me towards that slippery slope of technology.
With that, I am excited to be alive in such a time of fervent, competitive innovation. While these tools overlap significantly with their offerings, the unique features that they introduce or the philosophies they adopt to model their approach can radically change the end-user's experience & inform their decision making on which ones will ultimately end up in their tech stack. That competitive nature of platform wars are not without its challenges though for sure, a topic I will come back to in a later post.
So, that's the gist of what I wanted to discuss. However, if you'd like to hear my thoughts on Notion & why I still have it as my top platform of choice in the midst of worthy competitors, along with my critiques of the tool and the conversation I had with ChatGPT to help me understand some of the advanced concepts I mentioned, keep reading...
Deeper Thoughts on Notion
While there are these other, new shiny tools that provide a wealth of alternative value over Notion, they don't come without their trade-offs, and by & large, Notion has managed to check off more boxes for me than any of the others. For the time being I'm choosing to double-down on Notion as my platform of choice. I have a few reasons for this, which I'll explain in 6 points. Pardon my biases & promo, but it's all said in earnest with scrutiny & good intention, (listed without any priority order):
Notion has not yet fully matured as a company — they still have a lot of room for growth.
Notion's UI is mostly quite appealing, minimalist & capable of being stylized in a pleasant way for users to engage with their data.
Notion has over 80+ million daily site visitors, ~30 million of which are users, ~4 million of which are paid users. That's a sturdy presence if there ever was one, and one thing that helps me determine whether a tool remains in my stack or not, is how resilient its user base is & its ability to maintain its presence in the face of competition. Plus, I know how fervent the community is that supports them. (I too just so happen to be one of them & a proud ambassador, though I tend to not think of myself as a maximalist of any one platform/company/chain overall; I know change is the only constant & Notion is my Mrs. Right-for-now).
Speaking of which, as an Ambassador, I may or may not be aware of some of the things on the horizon for Notion that really excite me. Plus, I get the opportunity to really see how intentional their team is when it comes to servicing the platform to improve performance, squashing bugs, introducing meaningful features & listening to a lot of what the community says. They may not get to everything, and they may not always prioritize what you want to see, but they certainly have shown they take all suggestions into deep consideration.
I have had the privilege of hosting the first Notion Atlanta Community Event, and have also helped 6+ teams to onboard to Notion. I've proposed the idea to far more. Not everyone remained with the tool, some stayed. I bring these things up to say, I have witnessed first-hand that Notion requires a learning curve, and much of it has to do with the fact that many small businesses, creative entrepreneurs or otherwise, more often than expected, are a lot less technologically equipped to fabricate systems & operational solutions for themselves than we might assume. Despite its more structured approach to data than some of the other platforms aforementioned, Notion is a modular tool with a lot of customization. That can often scare people away if they're not ready to do the groundwork of thinking through & designing their own systems. So many want out-of-the-box solutions, which I suppose is understandable given the history of software & the usual subscriptions. However, it is becoming more apparent for many that bespoke operating systems tailored to their particular business endeavors can serve as the keys to their ability to scale & optimize for growth. Knowing all of that is what makes me double down for now, because even though Notion has a learning curve, I believe it is by far the most approachable & teachable tool on the market in its category & breadth of features. It even has the robust, eclectic community & abundant educational resources to support that adoption.
Indeed, so too is there a robust Creator Economy around the Notion community which empowers those of us who create meaningful systems, to help others maximize on their experience with the platform so they don't have to build from scratch. I myself have created the Music OS*, which is a Notion system for Songwriters, Performing Music Artists, Producers, Music Managers & those seeking sync licensing opportunities. (I have plans to release a new & improved version in the near future too!. I'll be sharing some overviews of my templates along with other educational content on my Wildenfree Tech YouTube channel — but I will also do my due diligence to put a lot of it in article format here on Paragraph as welll).
Now, is Notion the right tool for everyone? Certainly not. Naturally, great acclaim also comes with vehement reproach, for reasons others might express that juxtapose the optimism I only just relayed. I strongly encourage every individual to find the right tool for them, and I will go on to say that more tech-savvy users might quickly identify their deal-breaker features quicker than most when it comes to platform explorations, because they might have greater understanding of what it is they need.
As for cons I can appreciate:
One of the criticisms I've heard is that Notion relies heavily on Databases & therefore is limiting in comparison to the node / object / graph based platforms. Because of its reliance on Databases, structure is often prescribed as a forethought that should come before the capturing of data, rather than the flexibility that comes from 'schema-less' data models which can quickly create structure around queries of freely captured data. These limits are typically only met though, when one has a really profound depth of understanding of the systems they hope to define. Still, Notion is far more composable of a tool than many realize.
Notion can do quite welll with retroactively applying structure to data captured — like how we can turn a regular text line into a database-page with properties, back into a regular page, then into a callout, then back into a database all while the pre-configured properties & their values remain from when it was first a database-page. It just doesn’t have the full capability of being able to “see” or compute on ALL of the metadata that continues to remain with it at all times.
Another of note is the lack of an offline mode & locally stored data. Obsidian & Anytype win in that category all day. Both of these tools also highlight important considerations for productivity tools, which are composability & decentralization respectively.
Fortunately at least, you can export all your data from Notion as markdown, csv or html for backup.
When you compare the criticism of reliance on structure vs the unstructured data approach from the perspective of creative entrepreneurs & small business owners who may not come from a technical background, I think the consideration of structure going into capturing data can be really beneficial for highlighting the merits of structure, especially if it has never really been fleshed out before. It forces us to consider the relationships between the information we capture, which can help to reinforce our understanding of “where” it exists within the broader picture of what we’re documenting. It seems like a reasonable starting point, and makes me think of that concept, “you have to first know the rules before you can bend them.”
I'm sure there's more critiques, yet even with the varied criticisms, I'm comfortable with the choice to continue my 'domain expansion' within the Notion platform for now. I am grateful in knowing that the many concepts I learn from utilizing the tool will persist far beyond it. Using Notion has not only got me thinking like a programmer, but has proactively got me seeking to learn more about coding, in part due to all the fun that can be had with their Formulas property in databases (my mind was blown when I learned of what Regular Expressions [RegEx] can do).
Okay I'll also give credit where credit is due... Webflow, the no-code site builder has also played a part in me wanting to learn code, but that's front-end related. Notion inspired my desire to learn about back-end!
This article was written by me, however I did have a conversation with ChatGPT about some of the concepts I expounded upon here. You can checkout my full thread using this link:
There's actually quite a bit of great insights in there if you're also new to some of these concepts, much of which I didn't get the chance to discuss here in this post, so it's worth checking out!
If you've enjoyed the value provided in this post, I will be sharing other creations, concepts, ideas and resources on: Music, Notion (Productivity), Web3 (Tech), Anime (+ Pin Collecting) & then some. If you want to hear more of what you can expect from me within these areas, check out this post.
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All the best,
Mr. Wildenfree 🐺🍵🎵
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