Jun 23, 2021
10 mins read
Start with why...
Early in my career I didn't really care for who I worked or what I did. A job was merely a means to an end. But as I grew older increasingly found it harder and harder to work with people and on products I don't believe in. So one day, I quit my soul-sucking day job, sat down in front of a blank piece of paper and wrote down all the words that is really important to me in an attempt to find me.
After filling the bin with crumpled pieces of discarded paper, I finally found (or rather invented) a word that best describes what I look for.
verb | fun-fi-shənt
To put back the fun into efficiency. To get shit done that matters, fast; without the need to redo it due to errors. Inspired action towards a personal goal.
So there you have it. More than anything else, I care about having fun and being productive. Product Management and UX Design thus fit me like a glove. After years of focusing mostly on the functional elements of products, finally, I found my ikigai helping to shape user experiences in subtle ways to build products that solve real problems, making the world just a little better one release at a time.
Working on a product I use is thus an obvious no-brainer. Wouldn't make much sense working on an insurance product when I don't believe in insurance. Or a financial institution so large that it's impossible to have an impact on the outcomes or product.
And then I stumbled upon Milanote in an unconventional and unexpected way. I was watching YouTube video's from a graphic designer I love and admire and he plugged Milanote, showing me how he used it in his creative workflow.
It was love at first sight.
I felt like Marlin must have felt when he finally found Nemo, lost in the majestic Great Barrier Reef. As I started looking at the product, it looked very similar to Mural - an online collaborative whiteboard. I was surprised, however, to see it is not so much a whiteboard as a place to manage creative work, and much closer to Notion (another favorite of mine) than Mural.
Delighted to find a tool for creatives that organizes their chaotic workflow, I had to look deeper. Is it really as good as all the creative influencers say? Or is it just more marketing jargon with empty promises?
So of course when I stumbled upon Milanote, I simply had to do a product teardown to see how they compare. And boy, was it hard to find how it could be better. I easily found the top three things I loved about it during each main phase but had to sit for long periods contemplating on what is missing or what annoys me. Usually, it's the other way around. But for once, I found a product so close to perfect that I did a happy dance as I did the teardown.
It makes it so easy to organize my creative ideas and make them look good without any effort at all! I particularly like how I can easily upload pictures from my mobile device with the use of the downloadable app, the color palettes that is automatically generated from the images, and the cards that allow me to color-code ideas while keeping everything neat and tidy in exactly the same sizes and dimensions to always fit together like lego's.
But before I jump into what I love and what could be better, let's focus on the center of this app's little universe - its intended target market and its unique value proposition.
Get organized. Stay creative.
Milanote has a very clear value proposition and target market. Get organized. Stay creative. Aptly described as the Evernote for creatives by a user on their landing page, it takes the best of Notion (flexible organization of work) and Mural (collaborative whiteboard) and creates a product focused on anyone working in a creative field who wants to be more productive.
Although any creative or right brain thinker is the target audience, I chose Product Manager as the primary role for the main persona as typically, they will naturally be more organized than many creatives. Where a graphic designer or movie creators or animators might not always see the need to be organized, a Product Manager is primarily concerned with productivity and the ability to manage a roadmap. Their core need is to organize things, whereas for most creatives organization comes secondary, after the act of creation itself.
Creatives want, above all else, a tool to help them focus on their creative project, without having to invest too much of their energy in figuring out how to use the tool to do it. It has to be useful, and it has to be super easy and intuitive to learn and use.
And of course, designers appreciate attention to detail when it comes to design, which in Milanote's case definitely doesn't go unnoticed.
But let's dive deeper...
Applying the Game Thinking framework to create a strong, engaging system, I defined the top-level user stories below as part of the tear-down process.
The core value proposition is that the tool must make it easier for the creative to get better. That means that often random thoughts and ideas must be accessible from one place, and different design tools must be supported. Everything revolves around the one question "How can I speed up my creative process so that I can focus on the productive stuff".
Creativity is all about seeing the same thing from a different perspective. Few designers start with a blank page, and even when they do, they always have a library of ideas as a reference. Thus, the easier it is for a creative to access these ideas and previous assets, the more time they can spend on the design itself, not searching for ideas.
In my experience, designers waste a lot of time searching for assets or where they wrote down that idea or comment that they can't find when they need it. Milanote, graciously solves this problem in their digital workspace. With a card-based design, all the elements are easily dragged onto the canvas and are as easily moved around, always perfectly snapped to fit.
I particularly like how even *.svg file formats are supported and how easy it is to neatly keep things together and in the right place. Whether it's a to-do list, a note, or an embedded board, or a picture, everything fits perfectly to really deliver on the promise of staying organized.
So what stood out as the top three elements of Milanote that make them stand out?
High trust with word-of-mouth marketing strategy
Unlike the majority of tools out there today, I love how Milanote takes influencer marketing to the next level. I discovered them accidentally viewing an influencer I follow on YouTube, and when I searched for more video's, there were a number of different influencers all featuring the product.
What makes this a powerful way of marketing is that it is basically free, with maybe the cost of a subscription per influencer as cost. The reach, however, is much more focused, and much broader than what is possible in most other forms of marketing. The benefit over more tradional social media marketing is that people are actually interested in the influencer and choose to watch the video. On social media often paid ad campaigns are unwelcome and ignored by most people.
Hearing first-hand experiences from actual users whom I already trust, means that I am more likely to try the product compared to a random ad posted on my social media screen.
Focused target market and value proposition
It's often hard to find the right tools to solve the right problem, because there are so many different options available, and many (may I say most?) fill their bucket list of promises with wishful thinking features rather than reality-based features. Searching for productivity tools, for example, return anything from a timer to a complicated Gantt Chart project management system.
At a glance, with text that can easily fit into a tweet, I can immediately see what the core value proposition is and who the intended audience is.
From a Game Thinking perspective, this is ideal for a young startup as it is more likely to succeed if you have what Amy Jo Kim, author of the book Game Thinking, calls super fans than attempting to create a tool for everyone.
Start small. Start focused. You will never get to everyone if you don't first get past your super fans or early adopters.
Focusing on helping creatives stay organized allows Milanote to create a useful product that can more easily be expanded to include other users later.
One access point for all content
By far my favorite feature, and the problem I wanted to solve at my previous company, was how to allow users to access everything from a single page, without being overwhelmed.
With their embedded boards and easy to organize whole sections, simply by dragging and dropping the board to a different status. In the board below you can see the entry screen, with each colored item a separate board that you can easily navigate from the top breadcrumb trail.
The clean design and equal-sized cards as basic building blocks for the entire app, make it flexible while remaining visual and organized.
While it was really hard to find improvement areas that are not already listed on the future planned features list, the one thing missing (from a Game Thinking perspective) is the ability to see progress over time to support the primary need of any creative listed in the persona, namely saving time to deliver creative projects faster as a result of being more organized.
The difference between a part and a whole system is that different parts work together in a cycle that is repeatable to form a system. It only becomes a system thus when you can maximize your assets, which implies that the more you can re-use something, the more valuable it becomes over time. This stacking of value to compound return on investment is the very reason why systems exist. To create a strong system, it is thus important to include something that can measure and show how the value increased over time.
Rarely, however, do I find systems that include the final stage to form a strong habit loop, as games are so good at, to get people to come back for more and even addicted to a game. Milanote is no different, and the core learning loop lacks the progress indicator over time built into the system to show the compounding of value or how it benefited the creative workflow.
A core learning loop, as used in Game Thinking, is a repeatable, pleasurable activity that someone does. It starts with a trigger that leads you to the pleasurable activity, gives you immediate feedback, and finally, a positive reinforcement showing progress over time.
The key question to ask when identifying what progress should look like, is "How might we show users the value they get from repeatedly using the system?"
Although there are definitely indicators on Milanote's roadmap to look into this, at the time of doing the product teardown, there was no built-in method to show how repeatedly using the system improved the creative's life, or how it is beneficial to them.
There are also a few small annoyances while using the system, such as that there's no infinite canvas, and sometimes it's not intuitive how to use the different elements without seeing someone else doing it, but overall I think Milanote is a pioneer in agile productivity tools and something worth trying at least once.