Workplace

How Evernote built its to-do list feature — and why it took a decade

After several tries and a total reinvention of the product, it works.

Evernote on a laptop and phone

The company is finally ready to roll out an early version of Evernote Tasks.

Photo: Evernote

Evernote has tried to build a to-do list feature before. A couple of times, actually. In 2011, then-CEO Phil Libin said "to-do lists are coming," and that what he actually wanted to build was an app that helped people do stuff, not just keep a list of stuff needing to get done. When Chris O'Neill took over, he carried on the vision. "If you have to search, that's a failure," he said in 2017. "We should just surface information just at the right time for you."

The point is, the big idea for Evernote Tasks hasn't changed in more than a decade. For users who put all their information, all their notes, their whole lives into the app, Evernote should be able to give them the context and information they need not to just know what has to get done, but to actually get it done. Users wanted it; Evernote wanted to build it.

And yet, Evernote never managed to ship the thing. Not until this month, anyway, when the company finally rolled out an early version of Evernote Tasks. That it finally happened, said CEO Ian Small, is proof that the massive overhaul he and his team started almost two years ago was actually worth it. "We spent two years rebuilding the clients, rebuilding the infrastructure, redesigning how Evernote worked on the inside, so that we could for the first time ship Tasks."

That process has been neither short nor simple. Soon after he joined the company in 2018, Small and Evernote shifted their entire focus to consolidating the app. Instead of five teams building five apps for five platforms, Evernote became a single thing, accessible everywhere. The codebase got smaller, the tech debt started to disappear and after two years of not shipping much, the company started to be able to ship much faster.

When Evernote launched the first version of its new system in late 2020, it felt like something of a rebirth. Some users were furious. They'd come to rely on some of those platform-specific features, didn't understand why Evernote would take away some of the most basic features it had offered for a decade and saw only the downside of upgrading to the new product. Consistency and feature parity are well and good, Small said, but "at the end of the day, none of that matters to an individual user who's like, 'I'm missing my widget, whatever my widget is.'" Plus, the new apps came with a litany of first-version bugs and issues that felt like a step back. Evernote took the unusual route of continuing to offer its old app, even months after shipping the new one.

Small said he understood the feedback, good and bad. "While we have made considerable progress in our new apps, rebuilding them from the ground up, the releases have not gone as smoothly as any of us would have liked," he wrote in a blog post in December. And he acknowledged that the trade-offs would be painful, but that Evernote was working quickly on two things: bringing New Evernote up to feature parity with Old Evernote, and building new features that made clear why New Evernote was worth all the hassle.

Tasks pulls to-do items out of all of a user's notes, which Evernote has never been able to do before.Image: Evernote

Tasks is pure New Evernote. Rather than build a separate app or consign to-do lists to its own corner of Evernote, it's a compilation of every task inside every note a user has, sorted by due date or the note they're in. That sounds simple enough — and again, has been the vision all along — but Small said it just wasn't possible before. "It's really the first demonstration of the kind of thing we can do with the new infrastructure," he said, "because you've never been able to take a slice of content that cuts across all your notes, touch the content inside the note and change inside the note."

That, in a nutshell, is what Evernote spent the last two years working on: turning its platform from a digital filing cabinet into a system that can smartly surface information at the right time and place, and actually help users do the things inside their notes. Evernote's big idea was always that notes were a powerful way to build a store of personal knowledge and information, and now it's finally getting around to figuring out what to do with it all. Over time, that will also mean modernizing Evernote's API to work better with other tools and improving its search and processing capabilities, all of which Small said is on the roadmap as well.

In that way, Evernote is right in line with the productivity industry, which as a whole is looking for ways to use machine learning and user data to more proactively help people get stuff done. "The sector is hot again," Small said, but he said he's not concerned about the uptick in competition from companies like Notion, Roam and Monday. "There's nobody out there that has an idea that is, like, so revolutionary that it would take us off the path that we're on," he said. One thing that's different about Evernote? It's still focused on a single-player experience, rather than trying to sell to enterprise teams. But that could change, Small said. "Over time, Evernote will become richer for collaborative work," he said. "But it's not yet our No. 1 focus."

Small said there's much more to come on that front. "There's a tiny demonstration of that" in Evernote's new Suggested Notes panel, he said, "and you'll see more and more of those little bits creeping in over time." Those are the things he's hoping will win over the holdouts, the users who left or have clung to their old version of the apps. Maybe they'll make New Evernote worth switching to, even if it's missing a few Old Evernote features that a few power-users loved.

After two years of quietly revamping the company and product, the Evernote team is back to shipping fast and often. For Small, the most important job is prioritizing, especially as Evernote continues on some fronts to try to catch up to where it was two years ago. One example: Many of Evernote's Windows users loved a feature called Import Folder, where you could drag a file into a desktop folder and have it automatically sync to Evernote. That feature has been missing for months, and users have been furious. But on Tuesday, Evernote announced the feature is coming back, and coming to all platforms."I've got it on my desktop now," Small said. New Evernote is in many ways now almost (though still not quite) as good as Old Evernote, and is starting to be drastically better in other ways, too.

Same goes for Tasks, which Small described as "a pretty good V-1," but a version one nonetheless. Beta testers have already made Evernote a long list of ways to improve the feature. "There's years of work to be done with Tasks, and we will do it right," Small said. There are no excuses left for Evernote, and a long list of stuff to do. But for the first time in a long time, Small said, it feels like there's nothing in the way.

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