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Activetuts+ Workshop #6: Checkvist vs Workflowy - Critique

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In a different approach to our series of critiques, this week Ashish Bogawat compares two similar apps for saving notes and keeping to-do lists: Checkvist and Workflowy. Vote in the poll to let us know which app's design you prefer.


I'm a big fan of information management techniques and anything that helps me organize my thoughts, notes, tasks and everything else. Although I've been using Remember the Milk for task management and mind mapping apps like Freemind for organizing information for a few years now, I recently stumbled across a way to combine the two. It was too good a prospect to let be, so I decided to dig into the two web-based applications that seem to the best way to do it - Checkvist and Workflowy.

At their cores, both applications are outline-based information management apps with varying degrees of task management layers thrown in for good measure. The idea is simple: you simply start typing and jot down anything and everything in hierarchical lists, establishing relationships and grouping common things on the way. Applied to task management, this means you simply note everything you want to do without having to in a multi-level list. Finish all sub-tasks and the parent task is obviously complete.

Now, both Checkvist and Workflowy provide the basic tools to do this, so I decided to give both apps some time and compare how they stack up against each other. Here are the results.

Quick and Dirty Knowledge Capture

Since the focus here is to enable quick and easy jotting down of thoughts, it is incredibly important for the apps to provide a distrction-free framework. And they do a pretty decent job with it - Workflowy more so with its sleek, clean and minimalistic interface. Once you on the canvas to start typing, pretty much everything is done through the keyboard: hit Enter to add a new item, Tab to create child elements, Shift-Tab to go back one step, and other keyboard shortcuts to move items up or down.

The basic difference as far as this core functionality goes is in how Checkvist lets you create multiple lists and then edit each one at a time while Workflowy gives you just one big list with the ability to zoom in and out of any part of it to focus on that section at a time. What's better entirely depends on your preferred workflow. Personally, I like the ability to segregate different contexts into lists with Checkvist for task management, but the ability to zoom into a third or fourth level in Workflowy makes a lot of sense when I'm simply jotting down my thoughts and need to focus.

Extra Features

As far as features beyond the outline creation go, Workflowy remains pretty barebones. You can add a note to an item, mark it as done and that's about it. You can share any part of the list with others and decide whether you want them to be able to only view the list or edit it. Changes made by other collaborators reflect in your list almost instantly, which is pretty nice. The one thing I love about Workflowy's collaboration is that it does not rely on getting people to sign up for the service. You simply share a link with everyone and they can simply open up the page and start editing. That's some serious non-intrusive collaboration workflow I wish more web apps provided.

Checkvist, on the other hand, crams in so many features into the simple looking package, it is a full-fledged GTD system in itself. For starters, every item you add is considered a task, irrespective of its position in the hierarchy. Mark all child elements complete and the parent gets struck off automatically. Now since everything is a todo, due dates can't be far behind. You can use natural language for due dates - like "tomorrow", "next Monday", "weekdays" - and Checkvist will figure out what you mean. You can add multiple notes to an item, add tags, or invalidate it so that it doesn't count as a task. The dashboard shows a list of all your tasks along with a visual representation of how many tasks you have completed - a simple but excellent progress indicator for each of your projects. And then there's search and the ability to share a list with others for collaborative editing.

Unfortunately, more features also mean a more cluttered interface and a higher learning curve. Thankfully, I like the way Checkvist's keyboard shortcuts work, making the interface pretty much invisible. You can do pretty much everything without ever touching the mouse. Unlike other apps with single key or Shift/Ctrl + key shortcuts, you use two key sequences in Checkvist: so it's 'hh' for the home page, 'dd' to add due dates, 'aa' for the actions menu on an item, and so forth. It feels weird at first, but once you get used to it, things begin to feel very natural.

Which Should You Choose?

Where Workflowy scores with its simplicity and clean interface, Checkvist caters really well to the power user who might find regular task managers too limiting and time consuming. Here's my take on who should choose what:

  • If your objective is to jot down things quick and easy, and you don't really care for task and project management features, Workflowy is for you. It is simple, clean and best suited for information management.
  • If you are looking for a different take on todo lists and getting things done, Checkvist probably has more than what you will need. It's feature set and overall focus on productivity makes it ideal for task management.

I'll reiterate that both apps bring a boatload of interaction design goodness and are worth a try at the very least. Go ahead, check them out and let us know your own personal take on them in the comments.

Your Turn

Based on this analysis, which app's approach do you prefer? Vote in the poll to let us know:

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've built.

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