in Mac apps, organization, review

GTD Task Management Apps III: OmniFocus

This is the third post in a series comparing task management applications that are based to some degree on the ‘Getting Things Done‘ process. Today I’ll look at OmniGroup’s OmniFocus 1.0.

OmniFocus is the latest offering from OmniGroup, one of the most well-respected software developers for the Mac. As a long-time user of OmniWeb (my casual browser of choice), I’ve found OmniGroup to be quick to respond, helpful and friendly when contacted for support. This is a solid company, in other words, so I entered this evaluation full of optimism. I began using this app while it was still in Beta, and I’m now using the free 14-day trial of version 1.0 (which launched on Jan. 7). I did not opt to buy the program while it was still in Beta (for a limited time, Beta users could buy it for ). The program now cost , which is perhaps the most notable thing to say about OmniFocus. It’s expensive. Is it worth it? Before I get to that, let’s take a look at the program.

 

The Inbox

The OmniFocus Inbox is likely where you’ll start out, and where you’ll spend a lot of time (see Screenshot 1). Do yourself a favor: when you download the trial for this app, begin by viewing the available overview on their website to get a feel for it. I also found the tutorials in the Help files of the program to be simple and easy to follow, which I can’t say for many of the programs I use. Then jump in and start adding some actions. Actions, in GTD terms, are either single things that you need to do or steps you take to complete a given project (the Project is a pretty straight-forward concept, so I’m not going to focus on it here). Adding actions is easy: click, type, enter some text, then hit Return for the next action.

Once you enter some actions, you assign them to projects and contexts (easy to choose from a dropdown list). Once you make all of your choices, you hit the ‘Clean Up’ icon on the top menu bar, and your items magically file themselves away, disappearing from the inbox.

This is similar to the ‘Process/Review’ function in iGTD, but I like the OmniFocus method because it’s easier. In iGTD, processing and reviewing all happens from the same tool (‘Process/Review’). With iGTD, you use keyboard shortcuts to fly through your tasks (iGTD calls them tasks, OmniFocus calls the actions) to re-sort or verify your contexts or projects, change a task’s status, etc.

In OmniFocus, you assign each tasks as many or as few parameters you want, and then ‘Clean Up.’ At it’s most basic, you can just assign a project and/or a context. At it’s most complex, you can assign each action a wide variety of parameters, which I’ll cover when I talk about the Inspector (since that’s where you’ll find these choices). Unlike iGTD, the ‘reviewing’ part of OmniFocus is a distinct feature, separated from the initial ‘processing’ of your actions. I’ll cover this shortly as well.

This workflow — dump actions in, add some specific parameters or goalposts, then dispatch the actions off with ‘Clean Up’ — is easy for me to grasp, and I like to see my Inbox empty when I clean up. It’s a bit of nice user feedback that makes me feel, well, organized (or at least approaching organization).

In the screenshot [Note: screenshots removed], you’ll also see some simple built-in color coding that appears once you assign due dates to your actions. The red text indicates an action that is past due; orange means it is due today. Easy enough. So far, this doesn’t do anything that iGTD doesn’t do.

Where it differs is in design and workflow. It’s obvious that the team who designed OmniFocus were striving for clean lines and simplicity while maintaining industrial-strength power under the hood. In effect, the powerful sorting/viewing guts of the app are carefully arranged and hidden until called upon by the user, whereas iGTD presents so many options and choices up-front, it feels as if you’re looking at the guts.

 

Contexts

While the term may vary, all of the GTD-based Mac task managers have a way to deal with the idea of ‘context.’ OmniFocus calls this idea, aptly, Contexts. Simply stated, contexts allow you to organize your lists based on where you are (see Screenshot 2). I think OmniFocus performs about as well as any of the apps in this review series when it comes to managing by location. They get high scores for making their user interface work as you would expect. Indeed, the interface (the means to add or subtract an item, for instance) will be familiar to you from other Mac apps. That’s a good thing.

In the screenshot, you’ll see a list of actions that are due that I can only do when I am using my Mac. Note that only items in each project that can be accomplished while using the Mac are shown in this view. This is handy. The way that OmniFocus handles contexts, and the sorting and viewing of contexts, works for me. It’s intuitive and orderly.

One feature that sticks out is the ability to nest contexts within other contexts. For example, I have ’email’ and ‘online’ as nested subcategories under ‘Mac.’ While this sounded good to me in theory, in practice it was more organization than I needed. It was enough for me to simply identify ‘Mac’ as a context. I don’t need or want additional sub-categories. However, I readily admit that this will be very handy for users with more ‘to do’ than me, namely business users (and those who like to be really, really organized).

Also note that some actions in the Context screenshot are purple. OmniFocus tries to be helpful by displaying certain colors for your actions. This can be useful, but it can also be confusing. Take the purple action: purple actions are the next items to do on your list. When you create a project, you can choose if the actions must be done one after the other (sequential) or in any order (parallel). A purple action means this is the next suggested action to do in your project (if order doesn’t matter) or it means that this is the next action you must to before you proceed to the next action (if order does matter). Personally, I think the purple text should only be used where order is important. If order is unimportant to me, I don’t need to have the first item on a parallel list to be highlighted. It’s not necessary.

Final word on the Context screenshot: you’ll note that I highlighted the ‘View’ bar, which I’ll discuss in brief next.

 

What’s in a View

The View Bar (screenshot 3) is a fairly ingenious tool. Thankfully, the designers thought to add a subtle hint in each of the view options to remind you what it’s supposed to do (‘Show Actions with Status:’ for instance is a nice clue that you’re about to sort your actions by ‘status’). The screenshot displays the dropdown menu for the Projects view. By way of example, you can change which projects are displayed by choosing from the following dropdown menu choices: remaining, active, stalled, pending, on hold, dropped, completed. Yikes. Is my project pending or is it on hold? Or maybe it’s stalled? My brain is starting to hurt. Several of the other ‘View’ groups have similarly vexing choices. All I can say is, ‘try them out. Play with it. See what it does.’ I’ll warn you though: it can start to get confusing when you mix and match view options. It’s easy to lose ‘where you are’ in your data. Here’s the good news: you don’t necessarily need to use these power sorting and viewing options. You can use just a couple, or none. I think the developers, in offering this plethora of viewing and sorting choice, are aiming at people who need to balance hundreds of tasks and dozens of projects. I can see how sorting and grouping and flagging and estimating time duration, etc. could be helpful for these people. But not for me.

 

Focus

Now here’s a feature I really like (screenshot 4): the Focus. This is a simple idea, and it’s a useful idea. When you highlight a project and click the ‘Focus’ button on the menu bar, you will only see that project and its associated actions. The ‘Focus’ button will then change to read ‘Show All’ … allowing you to quickly toggle back to the see all of your projects.

It’s so simple, I have nothing else to say about it.

Review

 

Now we’ll take a brief look at the OmniFocus review process (screenshot 5). The idea here is that you must periodically flip through all of your projects and actions to make sure they are still relevant, that they haven’t changed, and that they are filed correctly (in terms of due dates, status, etc.). OmniFocus tries to make this painless by automatically setting up a review process based on the time that you entered the data. This view (the ‘review view’) can be, um, viewed by selecting the choice from the ‘group projects by’ view drop-down list. What’s important here is that the program tells you what you should review by week and within the month, and you are presented with a right-menu option to mark each project as reviewed (once you do this, that project will automatically be rescheduled for review in a few weeks). This is a pretty good way to handle the review process, which is one of the GTD process steps to ensure you are staying on track with your actions and projects. If you’re like me, though, you may find this a little tedious. The ‘Review View’ is yet another example of just how many different ways a user can rearrange actions and projects via the View Bar. It’s truly amazing, truly powerful, and potentially truly confusing.

 

Inspector & Perspectives

These two items should probably not be lumped together because they are do different things. The one thing they have in common is that they both open up in separate floating panes. The Inspector pane is similar to many other Mac apps (Pages has a similar pane). Here, you can add even options for your projects, actions, contexts, and groups such as status, due dates, etc. Note that ‘group’ is one of the options here. I’m still not sure where these groups are, how I create one, and how I’m supposed to use the Inspector to further tag them. I stopped looking, to be honest, after mousing around for a few minutes. I have so many levels of organization in this program, do I really need to group items beyond placing them in projects?

At any rate, the Inspector is one of those Mac-like ways to stick a ton of metadata in one place and get it away from your main application window, presumably because we Mac users like our main window to stay clean and lean. I like that the program is smart enough to interpret what I enter in the ‘date’ and ‘time’ fields of the Inspector: you can type any of the following: ‘2d,’ ‘3 mo,’ ’45m,’ ‘next wed 1pm’ … and OmniFocus will interpret the date and time correctly.

‘Perspectives’ (the other info pane in screenshot 6) is, as far as I know, an idea unique to OmniFocus. Essentially, a Perspective is a way to capture a certain view for later. This little organizational tool is like a super-bookmark: it reminds me of a similar OmniWeb feature which allows one to take snapshots of all open pages and current views on those pages to save for later. I love this feature. It’s a nice idea for OmniFocus — especially if, over time, you discover that you really like one particular view (or three or four) and would like to get back to that view quickly at a later time. Given the hundreds of viewing combinations one can choose from in this program, it’s a good idea to give the user a way to store it. The one potential pitfall of this is that you must remember you are storing a snapshot of all your data in one particular viewing state. If you forget this, you might choose to view a Perspective and incorrectly think that some of your data is missing! It’s not missing, of course, it’s just that your ‘Perspective’ only includes a subset of all of your data.

 

Quick Entry

I want to point out that OmniFocus offers what, for me, is essential: the ability to invoke a new action from anywhere at anytime on the Mac (screenshot 7). OmniFocus allows you to choose your own shortcut for this. It’s simple and straightforward. Since I love Services, I want to point out that the app also places a little OmniFocus shortcut in your Apple Services menu. This allows you to select some text in any application and quickly insert it into a new OmniFocus action (even when the program is not open). While not all apps require the ability to enter data on the fly, apps like OmniFocus really do. You’ll find yourself using it a lot more once you get used to quick system-wide data entry shortcuts.

 

The OmniFocus Right Click menu (Dock)

I thought I’d show you this final screenshot just as as indicator of the thought process that went into the application. I think it’s telling that the right-click menu focuses on Contexts. OmniFocus does seem to favor them — apparently iCal also synchs based on contexts. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: I frankly never organized my task lists based on location before trying out these types of programs. It’s a way of thinking that some will love and some will probably find abhorrent. Me? I tend to think in terms of projects, so I would rather see projects in a quick-access list. Better yet, I’d like the ability to toggle between projects and contexts.

The Verdict

1. Could I figure out how to use the application with minimal fuss (preferably without referring to documentation)?

No. I had to view the tutorial video and read the tutorial help files to really get going.

2. Was I still enthusiastic about using the application after a week of use?

Yes and no. I have a lot of respect for OmniGroup. I am impressed that they brought in productivity gurus to try to get this application done right. I can see that they tried hard to make it simple enough for basic use but powerful enough for serious business use. I think it’s a great start. I was still excited about the potential of this app a week later, but all of the sorting, viewing, and tagging options started to weigh on me. It’s too much work! I began to feel that I was spending too much time planning and not enough time doing. To get the most out of this complex app, I think the secret would be to stick with it for a long time — you would have to commit to it, get to know it inside and out, develop routines and workflows that work for you. Then, I imagine the curve would change: it will begin to feel more like a a powerful tool that helps you get more done instead of a powerful tool with too many options.

3. How well does the app integrate into the Mac OS?

Pretty good. Good integration for system-wide data entry (so you can easily enter new items, even when the program is hidden or closed). Not as many options for integration with other apps as iGTD (in fact, I think there is only iCal integration right now).

4. How well could I manage all of my tasks (work, home, play, etc.)

It did a good job of keeping track of the things I had to get done, but I found myself playing with the View options too often. I kept adding more metadata so I could use the various sort options to see how they worked. In other words, maybe there are too many options.

5. How did the program ‘feel?’ How ‘Mac-like’ is it?

I think the user experience is good, but not great. The application is very Mac-like, in that I immediately knew how to move data around. I like the clever way that OmniGroup embedded the Views and Perspectives — when you step back and look at all the sorting and viewing tools they squeezed in there and then ponder how clean the user interface still looks, it’s an impressive feat. The question is: are there simply too many viewing and tagging options? I felt bogged down in the end.

In conclusion: this will likely be one of the top three GTD-based task managers. It’s a solid program — and it’s only at version 1.0. However, it costs too much for most Mac users. Those who are willing to plunk down for this will likely be serious business users who are serious about task management. The rest of us? I for one am still still seeking something a little easier to grasp, an even simpler user interface, perhaps a few less options, and a lower price point.

Once again, I want to point out that ‘GTD’ and ‘Getting Things Done’ are registered trademarks of David Allen & Co. I still don’t want to get sued.

12 Comments

  1. Using nested contexts is not ideal… in most cases it’s actually impractical. For instance, let’s say I have a master “Shopping” context and then sub-contexts as individual store names. What if an item I want to buy is in two of those stores specifically? It would be natural to tag the item with the two store contexts directly… but as it stands you either have to pick a single store or pick *all* stores. And that’s really the simplest case. Nested contexts don’t really solve anything. I suspect I know why they put in nested contexts: they needed something akin to multiple contexts and it was too late in the game to change their database structure and various assumptions that went into context view, which all assumed one context per item. It just shows that OmniFocus wasn’t properly thought-out from the beginning. Rather than treating Kinkless as a prototype that just had to be made into a Cocoa app, they should have spent a lot more time at the design stage.

    I’m not even really convinced most of the GTD baggage is worthwhile. I own David Allen’s book, and it’s clear that he was using a Palm Pilot at the time he wrote it, which basically didn’t support his contexts concept (on the Pilot, at most you could assign a single “category” to todos, essentially the project name in Allen’s framework) and he seems to have gotten along fine. So I question the utility of developers chasing a specific idea of how contexts should work as gospel. The OmniFocus developers seem to have absorbed a one context per item assumption, which I feel does not seriously reflect the real world.

    Similarly, OmniFocus adopts a whole bundle of complexity (parallel, and sequential projects, but oddly leaving out dependencies and including weird singletons) in order to provide for “next actions.” David Allen does talk about next actions in his book, but it sounds like it was a lightweight concept–basically the next item on a list–rather than a rigid, heavyweight concept like OmniFocus presents it.

    I think the reason OmniFocus sold so well at first was because of support from some high-profile bloggers, because it was a good deal at pre-release prices (particularly if you owned OmniOutliner), and because at the time the competition was so bad. I agree with your assessments of both Midnight Inbox (ridiculously rigid) and iGTD (basically an app design that would be at home on Linux). And there wasn’t really anything else good out there that did hierarchical tasks and had a recurrence engine. Now that Things is out, the calculus changes.

    BTW, I hope OmniGroup refocuses some of their effort back on OmniOutliner… I love that app and I’d like to see it get some new features.

  2. Nice review. I’ve been using OF for a while now (basically since they started taking people in their beta program) and I use it all the time.

    I agree there are too many options, and some of them are quite confusing. For the moment I stick to the simple stuff, because I don’t want to spend too much time playing with the program (instead of _doing_ things) and because when it was in beta several things changed quite a bit, but the core functionality was fairly stable. I was lucky to pay much less than $80 for it (purchased during beta, Omni Outliner Pro owner, and academic pricing), and I agree it’s quite a steep price tag if one has to pay it in full.

    By the way, and completely unrelated: what do you use for editing your screenshots? They look really nice. Is it done using a graphical tablet?

  3. Many thanks. I really think OF is full of potential — I think it’s especially worth trying out if you were already an OmniOutliner user. It seems like some of the entry/navigation ideas stem from OO. It’s interesting how my opinions of these apps are shifting as I move forward in this review. I’m really looking forward to writing the final wrap-up. Although I said in the first post I had already formed an opinion about which one I most liked, I’m not so certain anymore.

    I create my screenshot thumbnails in Photoshop CS3. I take the screenshots with both http://plasq.com/skitch“ rel=”nofollow”>Plasq Skitch and http://www.yellowmug.com/snapndrag/“ rel=”nofollow”>Yellow Mug’s SnapNDrag. Skitch is my primary – it is just amazing and so useful, but I find I still use both apps depending on the situation. I use a WACOM graphics tablet to write on the screenshots, and I exclusively do this in Skitch.

    SnapNDrag excels for quick and simple screenshots; it also handles timed screenshots better in my opinion (Skitch sometimes fails to capture dropdown menus or side Inspectors, and it ignores my http://www.johnhaney.com/backdrop/“ rel=”nofollow”>Backdrop, which is not what I want). I paid the small additional fee for SnapNDrag Pro (the regular version is free) because it offers a quick way to easily scale shots down (handy for taking shots at 1920×1200) and I use it a lot.

    I’d be happy to send you a Skitch invite if you’d like – let me know.

  4. Thanks a lot, but Skitch now has a public beta. I’ve just downloaded it and will give it a try, but it does look very nice.

  5. I don’t feel that OmniFocus is as polished as you suggest. I followed it all the way through the beta to the final product, but I opted not to buy because I felt it just didn’t converge into a usable product.

    For instance, if you enable the display of start and end dates (two necessary features for me), the main view becomes extremely cluttered — it basically looks like a hierarchical spreadsheet. Difficult to look at, difficult to understand, difficult to parse. In general, there are too many oddball concepts that seem mixed together… they seemed to concentrate on adding a mishmash of features rather than making what’s there work well. For instance, the repeating tasks don’t support items like “pay rent on the last day of every month”. The best you can do is set a monthly repeat on the 28th of the month, even though most months are longer. Likewise, you can have hierarchical contexts, but a much more urgent need, assigning multiple contexts to an item, was left out entirely! Perspectives is a nice idea, but it should have been implemented as tabbed views or as a drawer, not as a separate floating window… it makes the perspectives feature tedious to access on laptop screens unless you’re into keyboard shortcuts (there is a way to add toolbar icons to perspectives but it’s not at all obvious).

    I like the concept, but the execution is poor in my opinion. Not worth the money.

  6. AlanYx, You raise some excellent points. I fully agree that they may have gone overboard with the array of options and features. Perhaps the scalability is not as good as I thought given your experience with end/start dates on a large number of tasks. I admit I only really used end dates, and relatively sparingly. You clearly gave it a thorough run – OmniGroup should take heed of the points you’ve made here. You make a great point about the floating panes — it’s something I didn’t notice on my 24″ iMac, but I can see how that would be tedious on a laptop. One thing I regret saying in the review is that this app is for those ‘serious about task management.’ Clearly, all of the GTD-based task managers aim to serve people who are serious about task management. I of course agree about the price: it’s too high. I was floored when I read how much money they made in the first five days of their pre-order ($100,000). Makes me wonder why so many people jumped on board so quickly with the $40 pre-release offer. Was it because of clever marketing (save $40! Act now!), was it because of the buzz generated by the big names in life management joining forces to help develop it, or was it because people objectively thought it was that good? I don’t know. It’ll be interesting to see how it fares long-term. Perhaps they’ll match the competition with a lower price down the road. By the way, I thought you could assign multiple contexts to tasks through nested contexts?

  7. Lots of food for thought here – I see what you mean about nested contexts. I’d be curious to hear what you think of Things. It’s seems like a lot of people are having a strong positive reaction to the Things pre-release. Perhaps it’s because they dropped a lot of that GTD baggage. I’m also wondering if you’ve ever tried the (very pricey) http://www.eastgate.com/Tinderbox/“ title=”Eastgate Tinderbox” rel=”nofollow”>Eastgate Tinderbox. I bought that a few years back and haven’t upgraded since version 2.5 – I still find this version to meet my needs. I haven’t done much with OmniOutliner, but I know that many people swear by the Pro version.

  8. I also think the use of purple for orderless tasks is confusing. It would make more sense if it at least took due date into account. However, you can make it go away entirely by setting both start and due date.

  9. OmniFocus adopts a whole bundle of complexity (parallel, and sequential projects, but oddly leaving out dependencies and including weird singletons) in order to provide for “next actions.” David Allen does talk about next actions in his book, but it sounds like it was a lightweight concept–basically the next item on a list–rather than a rigid, heavyweight concept like OmniFocus presents it.

  10. Just a quick thanks for the review and for the mini-review & comments on screen capture. — Cheers!

  11. Thanks, a really useful review. Remember that a context could be many different things, in my case I use time as a context and this idea fit very well with iCal.

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