Evernote’s slogan is “Remember everything.” It’s right there in big letters at the top of their home page. Evernote is an everything bucket, designed to be the place where all of your miscellaneous information gets stored, so you can search it out later. They are dedicated to cross platform capture and retrieval, with clients for Macs, PCs, the big three browsers, iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone 7, and even WebOS. With these apps, you can create notes, upload images (Evernote will even recognize text in pictures), search, and tag to your heart’s content. With more than 20 million users, things are going well. So why make an app dedicated to recording meals?
“We’re trying to make this transition from having Evernote be this unstructured repository of all your thoughts and memories,” says Phil Libin, CEO. “We want to go from that to having some structure and intelligence around important things.” This evolution is being directed in large part by the way mobile has changed software.
Evernote Food is one of a series of apps aimed at offering a more specialized experience. The idea is that while Evernote as a whole draws its strength from being robustly multi-purpose, there is an opportunity for making thematically dedicated applications that focus in on some smaller aspect of the whole. Evernote wants you to remember everything, but applications like Food (or Hello or Skitch) can make remembering a particular kind of thing easier.
Libin says that the drive to create these more specialized applications came from their experience in mobile. “On mobile, the ideal app is one where the icon and the name of the app tells you everything you need to know about how to use it,” he says. “The market really rewards simplicity and elegance.”
Both Food and Hello were chosen for Evernote’s early forays into more specialized apps because they were two areas where Libin himself felt he needed the most help remembering things (Evernote Hello is for helping you remember people).
Food is built around capturing the experience of meals. You create a new meal, and then attach images and notes. The combined images and text are bundled together and synced to Evernote’s servers. You can go back and view the meal later and, optionally, share it with friends.
Even within this fairly narrow usage scenario, there is a lot of variation in how people are making use of the app. Some people are using it to remember the dishes they like, or to create reviews, while others are using it as a food diary to track their meals. Meals can be pictures of the people you’re with as you hang out together in a restaurant, or you might prefer to create a record of a recipe and cooking process. Some users are going even further afield.
“We get a lot of comments now where people might say, ‘I’m using Evernote Food, but I’m not using it for food, I’m using it for general experiences.'” says Libin. Because the final result is a nicely packaged bundle of images and notes, some people are using it to record concerts or parties or other events. Libin says they are experimenting with the right granularity of experience and functionality. Do you make a separate Evernote Party, Evernote Concert, and Evernote Diary? “We don’t want to go overboard making 50 different apps, but it’s a non-trivial question.”
Evernote Food also marks an evolution in design processes for Evernote. They had a hard deadline of December 7 for an announcement at Le Web in Paris. Unlike other Evernote products where the feature set was fixed and the dates were negotiable, the driving requirement was that Evernote Food should do something simply and beautifully in time for the launch.
By launching something new and specialized, Evernote freed its design team to try new things and be more playful. Because of their large installed base on the main product, Evernote has to be very careful with making changes. “The day we release something new, 5 million people download it. We wanted to be able to innovate in a way that only tens or hundreds of thousands of people would use in the first month or so,” says Libin. “It was actually quite liberating doing something smaller.”
By starting with a simple core and a smaller user base, Libin says it’s enabled what he half-jokingly calls “Just In Time Development.” For example, Evernote Food launched without search in the app. When you are just starting to fill up the app with records, you don’t have enough stuff in there to search through. You don’t need search. Because Food is a mobile app, users are already used to a regular schedule of painless updates. This means that developers can add features as they become useful instead of trying to get it all right the first time.
It also means that developers don’t need to design in a vacuum. They can wait until they learn what the needs of their users are on the ground, which means they can probably build a much stronger design. “That’s an approach that was completely unthinkable five years ago when you were doing shrink-wrapped software,” says Libin, “but it’s becoming second nature for mobile apps.”
Spending less time on features that won’t become useful until later also means more time for the experience that you have right away. Libin says that for Food and Hello, they spent a lot of time on the first 60 seconds of a new user’s experience. Each app is an experiment in different ways of structuring that experience. In Hello, they use a lot of hand-drawn graphics in a tutorial that launches right away. For Food, there is a photorealistic tutorial that happens a little later in the process.
One question that required a great deal of thought was when to ask for permission to access your geolocation information. The default has been to ask the first time the app is launched. “When you start to focus on the first 60 seconds, you realize: That ruins it,” says Libin. “You get this really nice splash screen with some nice information that just starts to pull you in …” And then you get hit with this dialog box. So they found a way to move it later, without moving it too late because you also want to have that information so that it’s seamlessly available before you take your first picture.
All of this marks a big departure from what Libin calls the shrink-wrapped software world. “When you install software, it’s always a crappy experience until you start running it.” He ticks off the inscrutable warnings, error messages, and Terms of Service that form the first experience of pretty much every desktop application we’ve ever used. “On mobile, if it’s a free app, it needs to be a pleasant experience right away or the retention becomes much, much lower.”
Ultimately, many of the lessons that they learn from creating these specialized apps will find their way back to the main Evernote development. Libin says that as an engineer the discipline of thinking through these small experience issues is a little unnatural but extremely important. “Programming is not what’s king here. It really has to be the design.”