Recently, I decided to take a deep dive into some of the larger productivity apps on the market. As a user, I’m interested in productivity, especially where it converges with psychology and mental health. Also, I’m always looking to develop my skills in UX, design, and product management. Someday, I may even launch a similar app of my own.
Last week, I downloaded ten productivity apps and spent some time with each one. These were Avocation, Fabulous, Focus To-Do, Forest, Google Tasks, Habio, MinimaList, Thought Diary, and Todoist. To tease out prevailing trends, I took detailed notes on each app, including a brief summary, my onboarding experience, an architectural overview, and a short list of pros and cons.
Eventually, I zeroed in on five prevailing trends in the industry. Before I discuss those, let’s discuss a couple of caveats:
- This review shouldn’t be seen as comprehensive. “Productivity” is a large category to start with, but to my annoyance, it’s also the Google Play Store’s default category for miscellaneous utilities, like QR code scanners, flashlights, and audio recorders. That means that tracking down “real” productivity apps meant scrolling through “best-of” lists, until I was satisfied. I’m sorry if I’ve omitted an app you developer or use yourself.
- This is just my opinion. While I’ll try to be objective and consider various types of users below, I’m coming from a UX background. You’ll have to decide for yourself what your priorities are in productivity tools.
Okay, let’s get started.
Trend One: No one gets the new user experience right.
I’ll begin with a brief definition. The “new user experience” does include the tutorial, if there is one, but it also refers to anything the user does while “ramping-up”. In other words, how does a user interact with the app while still exploring, before reaching a flow state?
Let me make this clear: every app I covered (with the possible exception of Google Tasks), could use a tutorial. Some apps, like MinimaList, either omit a tutorial entirely or hide it deep in a settings menu. MinimaList exclusively uses gesture controls. Without a tutorial, how many users would try a two-finger inward pinch to add a new list?
Some tutorials are maddening to navigate. Let’s take Fabulous, for example (I’ll be picking on Fabulous quite a bit.) Its tutorial consists of about a dozen questions, each on its own page. Unfortunately, if you change your mind, there’s no way to go back or review your answers at the end. Nope, you have to manually close the app and start over. Not a good first impression.
One more tip: let users repeat the tutorial! It’s trivial to add a “View Tutorial” link in your settings menu, so why not?
Remember how I said there’s more to the new user experience than the tutorial? My struggles continued.
- Avocation gets too many basics wrong. Simple activities like adding a habit, editing a habit, deleting a habit, and switching from “yesterday” back to “today” were difficult to track down or unintuitive.
- Forest’s clunky interface and nagging about the premium version make it too difficult to explore. When you navigate to a new tab, there’s a 50/50 chance that you’ll either find yourself on an external web page or get stopped in your tracks by a subscription banner.
- Fabulous continued to disappoint. Its dashboard views result in more clutter than convenience. Worst of all, their monetization completely cripples the experience. Despite having to wait two weeks before trying every feature, the user is forced to make a decision in the first week, unless they want to pay the $50-or-so annual fee.
Trend Two: Prepare to be limited to prevent overstimulation.
When forming habits, it’s best to focus on realistic goals to prevent burnout. Therefore, there’s a market for habit-oriented productivity apps that enforce this behavior. Before using Fabulous, I knew that I would be limited to the single task of drinking water for the first few days of my journey.
However, this was more common than I thought. Habio locks “chapters” (narrative content) until you fulfill certain tasks. The goal here is to create a linear journey while still telling users what’s coming next. Thought Diary prevents you from viewing your statistics until you’ve used the app for five days, probably to prevent users from self-evaluating too early.
This isn’t a strict negative. After all, the very action of seeking out a productivity app implies that help is needed. You could compare this to a content-blocking study helper, which locks potentially distracting content. Before choosing a productivity app, users should ask themselves how much hand-holding they’re looking for.
Trend Three: There is almost no originality in gamification.
Back in 2016, I tried Forest, a pomodoro timer app that rewards you for staying off your phone by adding trees to a personal forest. It captures the goal of self-improvement with an effective visual metaphor. After revisiting the app in 2021, despite its other flaws, the concept still seemed fresh.
Then I tried Avocation. When you finish your work, you’re given water, which you can use to grow a potted plan. Oh. I switched to Focus To-Do. Like Forest, it’s a pomodoro app, but its interface is simpler, and its design felt unique enough to set it apart. Then I looked closer. Trees again! What is it with productivity apps and trees?
People copy what works. Forest has over ten million downloads on the Play Store alone, so why not rip off its central concept? There are two reasons.
- When the market is saturated with a concept, that concept is cheapened.
- When a concept is hastily applied, it distracts from other positives.
There are unique options out there but not on this list (check out Habitica for an example.) Developers, gamification is not a template or skin that you can slap onto an unrelated app to increase ROI. Respect your users.
Trend Four: You’re paying for three things: design, content, and customization.
At first, I was puzzled by the seemingly-random pricing of the productivity apps on this list. For instance, why does Avocation cost $20 for a lifetime premium membership, when its feature set is more like a $0–$5 app. I almost said that there’s no reason for any user to pay more than a few dollars for a productivity app. However, I realized that paid apps tend to do at least one of these things better than most of the competition.
- Design: If you’re looking for an app with beautiful animations, images, transitions, or sound effects, that doesn’t come free. Most productivity apps can be boiled down to basic CRUD features, so they can be developed and sold for cheap. The most expensive ones clearly have a solid design team, which can boost an app from convenient to actually…fun.
- Content: Again, it’s cheap to let users create and maintain lists, especially when they’re stored locally on the user’s device. These apps tend to be pretty hands-off, with few updates after their initial launch. On the other hand, running a platform with original content is expensive. It means retaining developers, designers, and writers to make sure that users have something new to read or watch every time they open the app. Content comes in many forms — user narratives and journeys, articles, blog posts, and motivational pictures, to name a few — but none of them come cheap. Expect to pay an ongoing subscription fee for these apps.
- Customization: Apps that charge the user for customization tend to have the best free versions. That’s because their business model relies on users appreciating the core features enough to pay for an upgrade. Like content, customization comes in many forms, including cloud storage, collaboration, labels and filters, icon and color packs, and other cosmetics.
Trend Five: Visual design comes at the expense of user experience.
This trend mirrors a common critique of the Dribbble community. Dribbble is a visual design social network, where designers can post their designs, discuss them, and develop a professional following. If a design is popular enough, it might even wind up on the front page. Dribbble is seen as a trend-setter in the visual design industry, any many designers use it as a resource to stay current.
There is a stereotype, however, that the Dribbble community rewards beautiful designs while discounting the importance of a good user experience. The goal of the artist is to provoke an emotional response in the user. Artists love to dazzle and surprise. However, UX designers love predictability. They care about topics like color contrast, font size, and keyboard navigation, which often put art-oriented designers to sleep.
In productivity apps, the artists are winning. As I mentioned earlier, the greatest offender is Fabulous. Although it’s won awards for its beautiful design and “scientific” system, I never made it that far. Navigating between pages gave me whiplash, a result of unskippable processes and cinematics, excitement that I wasn’t ready for while trying to get a high-level overview of Fabulous’ different views for my notes. When I tried to return later, the content was gone. Another time, I was invited to see “The Future Me”, but unfortunately, this feature was behind a paywall. I can only guess what “The Future Me” could mean. Fabulous wouldn’t tell unless I was willing to pay.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, MinimaList takes its minimalism far too seriously to be comfortably usable. Its icons and buttons are tiny and don’t scale with the font size. On average, I had to click on a button three or four times before I was successful. There were no click effects like drop shadows, which were probably deemed “too heavy”. I was surprised to find that, when it comes to design, stark and simple can harm UX just as much as big and beautiful.
Conclusion and Recommendations
While most of the apps discussed here have potential, some critical flaws mean that I can only recommend about four. Which you use will depend primarily on your particular use case.
Lightweight task list: Todoist or Google Tasks
Pomodoro: Focus To-Do
Guided journey, focus on mental health: Thought Diary
That’s all for now! If you enjoyed this article, follow me on twitter @iambenrussell. I write regularly about my journey in UX and web design.