Trello: Spectacularly Unspectacular

This piece is my submission to the KPCB Product Fellows Program, in response to the following prompt:

Describe, in a blog post or video, the last product you used that took your breath away. Please explain what the product is, why you loved it, and any broader analysis or information you think is relevant. This can not be an Apple product. You can provide your submission as a link to your blog post or video.

“We’re using Trello now,” they said. Really, another interface switch? My conference team was on its third to-do platform, and I was getting fed up. “What’s so bad about the last two? Shouldn’t we be focusing on making the conference happen, rather than how we store our task list?”

I begrudgingly type “trello.com” in the search bar, and clicked the “Sign Up” button in the top right corner. Skim the information, sign up with Google, and I’m on. Welcome Board. Click. A bunch of cards pop up. Click, drag. Oh, that’s what that does. Hover, edit pen in the top right. Edit labels, change members, move, copy, change due date? Change due date. I poke around for a few minutes, add myself to some cards, comment on other tasks, archive some things I’ve completed. A few minutes later I log off.

That was unspectacular.

… unspectacular. It was like that moment in “Holes.” There’s this couple — Stanley’s mother and father — and they’ve been trying cleaning formula after cleaning formula on a pair of smelly shoes. Her husband presents the sneakers for the umpteenth time, subject to their latest treatment. “I don’t smell anything,” she says, cavalierly brushing them aside. Then, a double take. “… I don’t smell anything. I DON’T SMELL ANYTHING!”

That is the essence of a breath-taking product. It’s not one that looks exciting and covered in widgets. Not one titled with buttons and accompanied by a hefty instruction manual. It’s one that is so natural you don’t notice the interface. One with user experience design so good you don’t recognize there’s user experience design at all. A cleaning product so powerful you forget the shoes once had a scent.

A good to-do interface is like… going to really good restaurant. (Bear with me here.) Think of one of your favorite eating-out experiences. What do you remember?

If you’re anything like me, you’ll recall great conversation and delicious food, but can’t say the first thing about who the waiter was or the color of the table cloth. The best restaurants know what makes the experience good — the conversation, the food — and that you couldn’t care less about your waiter or the tablecloth. I bet you didn’t feel thirsty, need to request salt and pepper, or shuffle dirty dishes on the table. You could find your way to the bathroom without hunting around or crawling over other diners. You drifted out of the restaurant, having forgotten the process of paying.

An easy dining experience is, according to my waiter friends, a mad-dash serving one. For every potential thirst there’s a pitcher of cold water to be filled and run. For every spice desired a frequent visual sweep of the tables. For every dirty dish a handful of wait staff and a well-timed grab. Someone had to sit in different locations around the restaurant before it was put together to determine if there’d always be a bathroom sign visible, and an easy way to get out of your seat. The best restaurants either obscure their scrambling or hire excessively or both, hiring a SWAT team of experiential engineers to discretely facilitate your perfect evening. It is only upon reflection that you understand why you had such a good time: they know it is about you, not them, and bend over backwards to make it that way.

That, as I am sure any software engineer will tell you, is a really hard thing to accomplish with new apps. I’ve spent hours looking for the optimal getting things done (GTD) system, and everything felt like a compromise on the slip-into-the-background axis. Todoist was good but has poor sorting and few parent-child levels. Workflowy is famous for its tags and infinite nesting, but no calendar integration. MyLifeOrganized boasts a calendar (and a million other features), but an insane onboarding process as a result. Omnifocus is far more intuitive without compromising functionality, but lacks a phone interface. Google Inbox is ace with on-the-go reminders, but becomes a laundry-list without reminder bundling. I could go on. I’m sure it’s not for lack of trying, but they’re all not there yet.

While I may verbalize the lacking functionality, the functionality is secondary in importance to the fact that I notice the lack, derailing me from the to-do list synthesis that brought me there in the first place. “If the writer doesn’t sweat, the reader will.”

Trello, like the other platforms, isn’t perfect. It’s limited by the platforms on which it operates, the speed at which it can add new features, and the trade-off between function and ease of use. But on slip-into-the-background design it tops the list. It’s selective in the number of features it includes, enough to accomplish what I want but few enough to avoid clutter. It places menus where you’d expect them to be placed. Names features after physical systems to match prior intuitions. Provides colors, headers, and filters that allow for context-dependent skimming. Allows for deadlines that flag your attention as they approach. Integrates with other systems I already use. And if it’s missing the snooze feature? Post about it on Reddit and the founder will personally reply to your complaint and add it to the team’s priorities.

I’ve quickly come to love Trello because it became an easy extension of me. Paul Graham talks about the power of a startup solving a deep problem for a few people, rather than a broad one for a lot of people. Something that, say, a handful of conference organizers are so desperate to have that they would switch to-do platforms multiple times mid-process to have. Needless to say, Trello has found that thing: a GTD interface that is spectacularly… unspectacular.

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