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C.C. Hogan

Improving OneNote

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Important Rule - never dumb something down for the sake of consistency.

In the last year or so, Microsoft has stopped development on their desktop OneNote and has moved development to their Windows 10 version.  This version looks and works much like their mobile app and Web version, which I understand. But in doing that, they have emasculated it.

Following a Tweet I made, they have asked me to say what they can do to improve.  Well, they asked for it... 

A bit of background

Anyone who reads this blog knows I use OneNote for everything.  Shopping lists, quotes for work on my house, my car and tax details, and, most importantly, writing my daft books.

See here.

There is a very basic reason why I like it - it starts with a blank page. It doesn't offer you advice, doesn't chuck irelavent templates at you, and it doesn't tell you what to do next; it gives you a blank page.


But once you have written several blank pages, you need two things more. Firstly you need to organise your blank pages and you need to choose not to make them blank if you so wish.

The original desktop OneNote did exactly that, and over many years, it grew and became more and more functional. It had tons of tools, the ability to create templates, both of pages and of whole notebooks, and it was intuitive to use, even if it looked a little rudimentary at times.

I love it and I have used it since it very first came out.

But for all the layered complexities, and it has got rather a lot of those, it still offers up a blank page.  So, what has gone wrong?

The answer is that they have stopped development and replace it will something new, shiny and less useful.

Now, Microsoft uses something called Users Voice.  It is quite a good system for people to rant about issues, and if MS can do something about it, they might do.  The downside of User's Voice is that you get lots of little ideas all scattered around.  It can be hard to track down if your idea has been done already, or someone else has complained and so on. And because of the scatter-gun hit-and-miss approach, it is impossible to get a handle on what is happening or any sense of urgency.  So, having been asked the question, and NOT referred to User's Voice, here I go...

What can we do to improve?

This is a daft question really since the answer is to not abandon the original!  But I do understand the wish for consistency over platforms, even if that is not really necessary and it more of a techy's dream.  I suppose the following list is more about the power user rather than the odd shopping list.  But I suspect there are a lot of us out there. It is in no way exhaustive and I am sure plenty of people will have other things they miss from OneNote 2016. 


Navigation has always been a problem simply because if you have large notebooks and lots of them, you have a lot to wade through.  There is no way around that.  OneNote 2016 (the version being sunsetted) has not a bad system.  On my layout, I have notebooks on the left (seven or eight at any given moment) and I expand those to show Sections and Section groups.

Along the top, I have the sections and section groups relevant to the level and page I am currently viewing.

On the right, I have the pages.

If I want to grab something from my Dirt (book) Notebook about horses, and copy into my Unicorn (book) notebook, I expand the Dirt notebook on the left, go to the Additional Notes section, and open the relevant page.  Once I have copied the bit I want, I go back to the relevant section of Unicorn in one click in the left Navigation, then paste it into my Horsey page.  Done.

The navigation bars are nice and narrow (I keep them that way), and I can see my mad page contents at all times.

On the new version, all the navigation is on the left in up to three vertical windows.  If I am hopping from notebook to notebook, I have to fold these windows in and out till I find the bit I need, scroll up and down, and in the meantime, most of my page has just been shoved out of view.  It looks pretty, thumbs up there, but it is a nightmare.  It is much slower to navigate and you can't see relationships between notebooks.

"What can we do to improve?" For the new desktop app, make a system of navigation that is closer to or even identical to the old version.

Menu Bars

I suspect this will probably be sorted out over time, but I do have a problem with the new sleek menu bars. 

Some years ago, Microsoft brought out the Ribbon for Word.  Many people hated it.  Except, no they didn't.  A lot of people who hate everything hated it. I loved it. I didn't have to think my way through everything.

I use Word every day in conjunction with OneNote.  If I am writing a book as I am now, that means ten hours a day with those programs.  The ribbon is nice and logical with nothing hidden.  I always have it permanently expanded on all the apps so I don't have to open and close it.  I don't mind the amount of space it takes at the top because just having it open with all the tools ready to grab, reminds me the tools are there in the first place.

"What can we do to improve?"  Stop trying to make it pretty and make it functional like the original.


Now, I know this comes up everywhere which means there is an appetite for this.

I use two types of templates - page templates and whole notebook templates.

I think a lot of people haven't use page templates, especially creating their own, because they don't realise they are there to use.  This is the best bit of starting with a blank page - you don't have to.

In my novel notebooks, I have templates I have created for particular sections.  So, in my chapters section, when I "Make New Page" it comes ready for me to write up my notes in the way I want.  It has a date (book time date), a box for a rough breakdown, a box for a longer breakdown, a bit for listing characters in the chapter, and so on.  This is not a template I downloaded, this is one I created.  It works perfectly for how I work - it would do, I created it.

And other sections have the same.  

The template system has always been a bit clunky and it needs refining and expanding, allowing for section templates and even section group templates. As well as a neater way of creating, saving, and moving templates around to associate them with specific sections in the notebook or many notebooks.  Most of the functionality is there, it just needs sorting out.

So, what has happened on the new version?  Templates have vanished! Oh.

The other kind of template I use is a Notebook template, just like the novel one linked to at the top of this article. This is a bit more fiddly. You create a notebook with all your bits in it but no notes, then you save it as a package file. To create a new notebook based on the template, you click on the package file and save it as a new name and so on.

However, this only works with OneNote 2016. It doesn't work with the new version.  Once you have created the new notebook you can open it in the new version, but you can’t create a package file that way.

Again, I think this is an underused function of OneNote only because most people didn't know it was there.

"What can we do to improve?" Bring it back.  It is incredibly powerful! And while you are at it, why not, create Notebook galleries and improve the system so people can download whole notebook templates and upload them either as personal use ones or public ones.  

Missing Tools

This is my weakest argument simply because I haven't manage to list what is missing.  But going by how small the menus seem to be on the new version, quite a few must have vanished.

At least some of this will because some of the tools are desktop only, like email tools and so on, and those won't work on the iPad version, because the associated apps aren't there.  But just because they are no good on the iPad, doesn't mean you remove them from everything.

The desktop version should always be the gold standard that the other versions have to live up to. Just because a tool isn't used much doesn't mean it is not used at all.

I use all the various bullet markers and the todo marker, I use flags, I use... oh, I don't know.  I have kind of lost track.  But the tools in OneNote 2016 are really good.  They should all be on the desktop version of the new OneNote.

"What can we do to improve?"  Stop dumbing down the desktop version for the sake of the others.

What can we do overall?

When the mobile App market opened up a few years back, there was a rush to replicate desktop software onto mobile devices.  But there were problems.  The screens were smaller, the interfaces clunky, the memory tiny, and the processors slow.

In consequence, everybody built cut-down versions.  Not just so they worked easily with big thumbs and fingers, but so they worked at all!

But times are changing, and perhaps Microsoft hasn't noticed.

I noticed it with a graphics program called Affinity Photo.  It came out a handful of years ago as a direct non-subscription challenger to Photoshop.  And it is good - really good.  It is a fully professional solution as powerful as Photoshop but more modern.  Great.

Then they brought out an iPad version. But unlike Photoshop where the iPad version is a joke, Affinity Photo on the iPad is identical to the desktop version.  Slightly different interface, obviously, but all the tools are there. I love it and use it loads.

And what is now happening? Adobe has announced that they will release a full version of Photoshop for the iPad Pro.

Microsoft needs to follow suit, and quickly before someone like Affinity comes along and steals their users.  They need to create a full version of Word for 365 subscribers for iPad, Android, and Web.  And they need to make the App version of OneNote as powerful and useful as OneNote 2016.

What they should not be doing is creating cut down versions for mobile, then porting them to the desktop.  That is not only unnecessary, but it is also idiotic.

So, there is my basic set of answers.  There are many more problems I reckon going by the number of complaints.  I really do understand the wish for consitency, but many companies have got this wrong. People understand that they use different devices in different ways.  They understand that currently Laptops and Desktops are still more powerful and with big monitors a lot more is possible.  You don't have to simplify one just because some design policymaker thinks it must be identical everywhere.  That takes the notion of branding far to far.

And with some mobile environments, like the iPad, becoming much more powerful, that changes the game completely.

So, please, Microsoft, bring back development of OneNote 2016 or import all the functionality into the W10 version.

And don't hide behind "we have plans, just keep watching" type statements. Come out with a list so people can see what you are planning to do and can say Yay! or Nay! as required.

So, does that help?




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