Using Remember the Milk as a Capture and Coding Tool

Todd Moy, Former Senior User Experience Designer

Article Category: #Design & Content

Posted on

Just a few months ago, I started using the to-do manager Remember the Milk to keep my life in check. While in some ways it's over-featured, it's earned a spot in my dock as an indispensable little app. So while reviewing another site recently, I was surprised to find myself using RTM to log and categorize observations. Reflecting on how I was using it, I realized this app could serve as a great little coding tool. (That's qualitative analysis-coding, not programming-coding.)

Though I'm still evolving this idea, here's how I'm using it today.

The Syntax

RTM uses a syntax that's inspired by David Allen's Getting Things Done method. The app uses a set of modifier characters that allow you to categorize entries in an intelligent way. The three I use are:

  • @ = Context
  • ! = Importance
  • # = Tag

On top of this, I've layered a few personal conventions that make it more useful for searching, aggregation and analysis. For example, I might add the entry:

Clicking back button erases form data #e !1 @signup-form

Translated to English, I'm saying "A critical error exists on the signup form. Clicking the back button erases the user's data."

Nice, quick and succinct. It's definitely opaque to the casual observer, but that's ok since I'm more focused on speedy data capture than readability. The conventions I've added are:

  • ! = Importance: 1 (critical), 2 (important, non-critical) and 3 (trivial).
  • # = Type: usually a loose set of both unstructured tags and structured hints like <e>rror, <i>dea and <n>ote. 
  • @ = Location: such as a page or view.

The vocabulary is simple--mostly to save my sanity. And since RTM makes it easy to categorize and re-categorize in bulk, I can refactor my coding scheme during analysis or as patterns emerge. RTM also has a great advanced search feature that allows you to search metadata pretty specifically. Searches can be saved as SmartLists, which are useful for quick reviews and trend spotting.

Gee, isn't that kind of fiddly?

In a word, yes. It requires a few commands to be memorized. And until you build muscle memory, it can feel cumbersome and slow. Finally, you might find that there's too much overhead when coding and note-taking concurrently.

Despite these limitations, the system does allow you to log ideas and notes anytime, anywhere. If you context switch a lot, you'll find that this system works across a number of RTM's input services: email, Twitter, the web, Quicksilver or its iPhone app. Eliminating input friction is a huge sell, especially when it's coupled with RTM's search and categorization features. To me, this is easier than a using spreadsheet or text file for capture and analysis.

Maybe I'm crazy though. How do you code your notes?

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