Roam Research is a phenomenon that took the tools for thought space by storm.
Let’s appreciate the seven things it did right and how amazingly simple some of it are.
Seven things Roam did right
- The UX is smooth as hot knife on butter. It allows people to seamlessly create hypertext just by typing. Without the hassle of creating and hosting webpages or extra steps of cmd+K and copy pasting preexisting links. It also takes care of creating the destination entity on the fly. Roam allows you to transform a random piece of text into a thing that you can link to (Roam calls it block refs). Some tools in the past would solve this partially, allowing you to create and link to some object limited by hierarchy. E.g. pages but not individual bullets. Even Workflowy, the pioneer in bullet-centric thinking tool still doesn’t allow this depth of linking till now (I’m guessing it was not designed that way so it’s more difficult to implement now).
- It has the “daily notes” as the entrypoint. It provides that space for us to channel our the stream of consciousness, our default mode of thinking: mental chatter, where everything starts branching out. The morning pages. It comes natural to the way we perceive and chunk our lives.
- Mindmapping / outlining comes naturally to people. Unlike mindmapping, this works for both bottom up and top down approach. You can dump and organise, or you can start high level and branch infinitely. Bi-directional linking is also natural to grasp.
- Timing is good for people to “get” it. It’s a mashup of smaller lego blocks of compounding ideas that has slowly caught on in the hivemind. Mindmapping, Workflowy / BuJo, morning pages, hypertext, wiki-style links, Zettelkasten, Memex. Vannevar Bush, Doug Englebart, Ted Nelson, Marshall Mcluhan. Nothing’s new here and nothing is wasted.
- Roam is “digital”, not “digitised”. We’ve been trapped in existing paper-centric paradigm and design patterns for too long — copying features and iterating on the existing blueprints, best practices, and design patterns. That spot between standing on the shoulders of giants and keeping the beginner’s mind is a tricky line to navigate. Roam is right on the money here.
- It prioritises right — in terms of product development. It’s fugly, glitchy, desktop only. But the core features are there. Interoperability, exports, highlighting, nice-to-look-at graphs. It comes with battery included without being clunky. It’s closer to a library and not bloated framework in programming sense. People can build and weave their own quirky workflows on top of it.
- Connor’s visionary, brash, and opinionated personality is the icing on the cake. There’s a reason
#roamcultis a hashtag that caught on.
- Obviously the next step after externalising the content of your own brain with into concrete interlinked thoughts is to seek how to interlink them with other brains. Plug into the GSCITC (Global Social Computer in the Cloud), hivemind, collective brain, whatever you want to call it. But language is messy. Exciting area to watch.
- Pivot tables. Capture and represent the many dimensions of a thought. Not just what is related to (the current graph view), but the different angles and relationships.
- Better clipping, resurfacing, reading experience.
Is Roam just a fad, a shiny new tool?
I can’t speak about Roam itself, but seamless hypertexting and
]] are finally embraced and are here to stay.
There perhaps will be a point in the future where it’s unimaginable there was an era where you can’t seamlessly link to a random piece of text in a paragraph when thinking in text. It can’t be unseen.
All the small things
Roam essentially plays with UX and data structure. It fills the simple gap in what we need and what we have in our digital workflow.
It’s akin to that popular story of NASA purchasing expensive and sophisticatedly designed pen to use in space when someone suggested why not just use pencil. Urban legend or not, you get the idea.
This also means the barrier to entry is lower given how simple it is. IF the competitors has the context and vision to see why Roam’s approach work and what’s next, this space could get very interesting.
- An Android app called Idea Note immediately became my go-to note taking app because of one simple “feature”: it adds one simple context menu on browsers called “Send to IdeaNote”. It’s just 1 tap away instead of the extra tap or two from Share > select the app > tap Share.
- Why don’t desktop OS-es come with text expanders software built in? Windows is still a big market for example.
Autocomplete for desktops
— Theresia Tanzil (@theresiatanzil) June 6, 2020
The trifecta: getting things into, out of, and across heads
Thinking = taking [jumbled thought] -> into [something outside of your head that you can point at, link to, and move around]
I find it useful to think of tools (digital or analog) in these three broad dimensions of functions:
- provides structure
- reduces friction
- increases bandwidth
Roam is a massive lever in the “getting things out” leg of the trifecta and covers the biggest chunk of the “reduces friction” dimension.
There are many exciting unsolved problems in this space with many more obvious-if-framed-right solutions each.
To the makers and creators: The untapped opportunities are infinite. See water.
- Draft of this post can be found at: http://proses.id:5417/s/QibRd1oKU
Also published on Medium.