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Critique

Activetuts+ Workshop #4: Remember The Milk - Critique

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Continuing our new series of critiques, this week Ashish Bogawat gives us a detailed rundown of a great web-based todo list app: Remember The Milk.


Introduction

There is no dearth of todo list apps on the web - or any computing platform for that matter. Being the most basic of productivity methods, todo lists have been the muse of many application developers, each bringing their own twist to the tale with some feature you've never seen before.

Personally, I've tried dozens of these task management apps in search for the one that does everything I need the way I need it to. Unfortunately, that's still just a dream. So in absence of the perfect app, I've settled on the one that comes closest in my opinion - Remember The Milk. As one of the very first apps of its kind on the web, Remember The Milk has done a splendid job of standing tall amongst the competition that gets fiercer by the day.

For a task management app, Remember The Milk (RTM) has pretty much all the features you could ask for - lists, tags, due dates, priorities, notes, even collaboration and location awareness. It is available on the web as well as on the iOS and Android platforms as native apps. What I would like to cover in the next few hundred words though, is how it stacks up in terms of user experience. Let's get started.


Simple, Quick, Powerful...

The RTM web interface is pretty clean and neat with a huge emphasis on giving as much space to your tasks list as possible. No jazzy graphics or unnecessary emphasis on gradients makes the app blazingly quick to load and interact with. All your lists are available as tabs at the top of the screen and you can choose from the settings which one should be open by default when you launch the app. A Boolean search is available with very aptly placed hints on how to make the most of it, and you can easily convert a list of search results into a Smart List which stays up-to-date with all tasks that meet the criteria.

The one feature that RTM nails better than any other task manager I've ever tried is the entirely text-based "Smart Add". Unlike most todo apps where you click somewhere to type a task, then select a date from a calendar, then assign tags, etc., RTM lets you add a task and all its metadata in a single text field all in one go. Here's an example, typing "Pick up the laundry on the way home #Personal #chores ^4pm *every friday !2" adds a repeating task that is due every Friday (*every friday) at 4 in the afternoon (^4 pm) with a priority level of 2 (!2) and filed under the 'Personal' list with the 'chores' tag (#Personal #chores). Sure, the meta identifiers take a bit of getting used to, but from then on it's pure bliss being able to add complex tasks without the need to ever touch your mouse. And yes, of course there is a keyboard shortcut ('t') to add a new task, as there is one for pretty much anything you need to do in the app.

For an app that relies very heavily on a user's ability to remember and use all of its features, RTM does a stellar job of providing subtle hints wherever necessary. The 'Smart Add' input field has a ? icon at the end that brings up a list of shortcuts and thankfully keeps it open while you type your task and details. The search box, which is fully capable of handling Boolean queries in natural language, expands into a form if you are not too sure about the syntax. Rollover tooltips on the metadata of a task shows the keyboard shortcuts you can use to edit the details. Every time you perform a task, an alert appears at the top of the page telling you what just happened, with the option of pressing 'z' to undo the action if you suddenly realize that was not what you wanted to do.

Checking the box next to a task typically strikes that task off in most similar apps. In RTM, though, it merely selects the task letting you use keyboard shortcuts or your mouse to change its state or edit details. This works wonderfully well because there's much more that you can do to one or more selected tasks - complete, postpone, edit details or view and add notes. Everything is again easily done via keyboard shortcuts. So to complete a task, you can navigate through the list with 'j' and 'k', select a task with 'x' and mark it complete with 'c' or postpone it by a day with 'p'.


Design and Experience Shortfalls

In spite of all its minimalism, the overall user interface in RTM does show its age when compared with the likes of Wunderlist and Flow, both of which are direct competitors. The crazy popularity of Wunderlist in the last year or so has proved than sexy sells and my worry is that the lack of that finesse is probably one of the biggest hurdle for new users trying to check out RTM.

Other than the user interface, there are minor niggles here and there that mar the overall experience. Things like the use of the '#' symbol for both lists and tags in 'Smart Add' can be confusing, while the need to need to go through each list tab to see all tasks can be irritating. The latter is a problem that can be fixed by creating a Smart List for 'all overdue, due today and in the next week' tasks and setting it as default, but I doubt that new users are going to bother jumping through the hoops to get this view going. That you have to add a location manually before being able to associate tasks is annoying; why can't I just select my current location as a new marker when creating a new task?

The default behavior of "check to select" (as opposed to "check to strike off") can also be a bit off-putting to new users, at least until you learn to appreciate the true power behind the feature. These are all minor niggles, though, and easy to ignore once you have given the app a solid try and a considerable amount of time.


Wrap-Up

So, RTM is not perfect by any stretch of imagination. But it does have that one trick that is so insanely addictive once a user gets used to it, it's hard to let go. A bit of a UI overhaul to bring it up to the task with the competition won't hurt, but other than that there is very little to complain once you have climbed the initial learning curve. For fans of keyboard-driven interfaces, especially, RTM is quite a treat to use on a regular basis.


Your Turn

What do you think of Remember The Milk? Share your constructive criticism in the comments below!

And if you've got a browser app or game that you'd like the Activetuts+ community to do a critique on, submit it here. We're looking forward to seeing what you're working on.

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