Boon Yew Chew on Roam

“I use Roam for what it’s good at: note thinking.”

Boon Yew Chew is a strategic designer at Elsevier and a leader in IxDA, the Interaction Design Association. In this conversation, we delve into Roam Research, which Boon uses to take notes and tame “an ever-evolving multi-dimensional beast of knowledge.”

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Show notes

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Read the transcript

Jorge: Boon, welcome to the show.

Boon: Hi. Thanks for having me, Jorge.

Jorge: I’m very excited to have you here. For folks who might not know you, would you mind please, introducing yourself?

About Boon

Boon: Sure. So, I’m a principal-level strategist and designer. I currently work at a publishing and analytics company called Elsevier. And I work within the publishing part of the business where I try to help my colleagues and the company at large figure out how to improve our user experience across all our different platforms and products and services.

I’m also a part of a community of designers called the Interaction Design Association, or IxDA for short. Through that I’ve played a number of different roles: I’ve served on the board for a number of years, I’ve volunteered through a number of initiatives, but mostly I’ve been running our local chapter in London, IxDA London, for many, many years along with a number of really dedicated volunteers. There’s a small group of us. And we typically host events around topics of strategy and design here in London. But now I guess it’s all global because, you know, everyone’s kind of joined us from different parts of the world since we’ve gone fully remote.

Jorge: Well thank you for your work, particularly in IXDA. As a member myself and having participated in Interaction, The Global Conference, it’s an amazing community. And if anyone is a designer and not a member or unaware of both the organization and the events it puts on, I strongly encourage that you all check it out.

But the reason I reached out to you is not directly related to the work that we share in common in interaction design, but because you published a post in Medium called “Adding Life Back To My Notes: Roam After 4 Months.” And I was hoping that you would tell us a bit more about that. And for a bit of context, Roam in the title refers to the note-taking tool, Roam, right?

Roam Research

Boon: Yeah. So, for the listeners here if you want to check it out, it’s because the word Roam on Google might not… might get you a whole bunch of different things. So, to find it you need to use the full term. It’s called Roam Research. That’s the name of the tool. So, yeah. I mean, a lot of people have been talking about Roam for a while now, since its beginnings. I can’t even remember when they launched the tool.

And it’s surprising because, since its inception, it hasn’t really changed much in terms of its core functionality and its look and feel. It’s added a whole bunch of… I suppose, creature comforts? You know, luxury features that make it a lot more smooth, a lot more accessible as a core user. Things like the help tool, tips, things like that, you know? Just to kind of make it easier for you to go, “oh yeah, I have access to that tool. I have access to that top key” or what, you know, “what if I want to use that fancy feature, what do I do?” You know, it built-in little things like that to kind of maximize the benefits of what it offers.

And I suppose I think of it almost like Unix commands. I used to be a former developer, and if you’re a developer and you’re working away on your little console, you’re basically typing up commands, right? Issuing commands right into the computer, as opposed to using a graphical interface. A lot of these tools, these commands, were written by somebody else. They were written by other developers to do specific things. You know, where there’s concatenate strings, or go fetch this to the files.

It’s very similar to that in that, you know, you got a whole bunch of little functionality built into the tool, but what it does really well is kind of… it doesn’t force you to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of that functionality. It hides it quite nicely, through the use of keystroke commands or little kind of text-based features that can be accessed if you understand what the keys are, what the commands are. It almost feels very developer-friendly, so it lends itself to someone who loves to just be stuck to the keyboard all the time and everything is at the tip of your fingers.

It’s also an outlining tool. And so it’s not the first outlining tool that’s occurred in the market. There have been a number of really fantastic outlining tools that’ve been around for a while and have had huge numbers of users and fans using them. Things like OmniOutliner, which is a really fantastic one. I’m not a user of it, but I know that it’s a really popular tool. And basically, an outliner is a supercharged bullet list. Everything is structured as bullets. Every sentence, when you hit enter becomes a bullet, and then if you hit tab, it becomes a sub-bullet.

You know, it’s literally just bullets everywhere. If you don’t like using bullets, you won’t like using Roam. But the benefit of having everything structured in bullets is that there’s an implicit hierarchy, right? And so, you know whether something exists on one level or a sub-level or a sub, sub level… things have a natural kind of a Petrushka-doll hierarchy to them and it incentivizes you to organize your content that way. To think in terms of the hierarchy that’s structured.

There are, of course, limitations to this way of working, this way or kind of an outlining way of working, because there’s an overwhelming amount of hierarchy and lots of scrolling through lots and lots of bullets. And so, what Roam tries to do is to build in this feature it’s called bi-directional linking, to make it possible for you to connect things to each other, whether it’s words or terms or phrases just by making them into a link. And the moment you make it into a link, it creates a page for that term that you’ve just created into a link. It creates a page for it if it hasn’t already been created for you. And if it’s already been created for you, then it’s just the link. And the way it does that is that it creates the page and it also creates a link back to the original link that you created.

And so, it does a number of these small little things, which seems really insignificant, but when you add it up to, you know, hundreds and thousands of notes, it’s quite powerful because you don’t have to manually link every single thing. Imagine trying to recreate the entire Wikipedia. It’s just going to be insane! So, you know, this cuts down the amount of effort very severely.

Jorge: I’m glad you brought up Wikipedia there because when you were describing it, I was thinking that it’s something of a cross between an outliner like you said, and a wiki, right? In this sense that you… you alluded to the fact that you can very easily create inline links that generate new outline nodes somehow. And I’ll also say that, for an episode-long explanation of Roam research, we had Rob Haisfield on the show in Episode 43 talking about it. And since we recorded that, I’ve become a Roam user myself, so I’m a little more versed in how it works.

Note thinking

Jorge: I wanted to quote back to you a couple of passages from the Medium post that stood out to me. You said that, and I’m quoting here, “I use Roam for what it’s good at: note thinking.” And I’m curious about this phrase, “note thinking.” What is note thinking?

Boon: So, remember what I mentioned earlier before where this kind of tool Roam and outliners lend itself really well for people who really get… like to stick to their keyboards. And that process means that you don’t have to worry too much about the tool… what you need to do to the tool, because you’re already familiar with using the keyboard. All you have to just be comfortable with are the commands to make use of the tool itself.

And so, there’s some memorization to familiarize yourself with, but basically, you’re just typing. And it just kind of lets you sink into that Zen space a little bit easier. And once you get used to that… actually you get to a point where you then consider or maybe reconsider what can I use this tool for? What are its strengths, right?

It advertises itself as a… what does it?… I have to go to the website to see it… a note-taking tool for connected thought, or something like that. And so, working backward from the original intent of the tool… I mean, it has been designed that way. I say, there must be some basic assumptions on how the founders or the people who create the tool, have intended for it to be used. And originally, when I started using Roam, I started using it very much at how I use Evernote at the moment. Which, you know, there are folders and categories and notebooks and things are in boxes, which are then in more boxes, and I actually tried using Roam like that.

I tried to create my own pages, which were like boxes, and put boxes in the boxes. And it was very natural for me to say, “let me try bringing over that setup to Roam!” And it didn’t work. It just… it just made it more complicated. And I said, there’s this thing in front of me, it’s called a daily page, a daily note page. It’s in front of me and I’m like, it must be telling me I need to just use this and not worry too much about what is all the rest of the stuff? There are no folders. There are no categories, no tags… You know, it’s literally like these things kept staring at me. And that’s where you put your notes into; it’s on this daily note page.

And gradually I found myself falling into that way of working, and I almost exclusively now capture all my notes on a daily note page. And the process of that doing is basically cutting away a lot of the extraneous stuff so that I can literally just focus on capturing notes. That’s kind of part of the note thinking thing I’m talking about. The outlining also helps because it gives me something very basic to work with. And I don’t have to think about the underlying structure that I need to set up. It’s automatic by default. It’s a hierarchy, basically. If I can’t work with a hierarchy, I have bi-directional links.

And so, between these three things, the daily notes, the outlining, and the hierarchies and the bi-directional linking, which then incentivizes certain type of information curation, which all just terms anyway. You’re reusing your own content as information notes, right? You’re not having to create a separate node and call it something… a formal thing, like a category label. You use your content as nodes. I guess I’m using a network metaphor here, nodes and links, right? Your notes are nodes in a network and that cuts away a lot of the extra stuff. And you’re just focusing on creating notes essentially.

Jorge: So I’m hearing two things there that go into this notion of “note thinking.” One is the lower friction, or perhaps the ability to get into a state… kind of like a state of flow, due to the fact these keyboard-driven commands that you can just start typing in and there’s… I’m reading now into it. You don’t have to be clicking around and pecking at a UI somehow. It’s like you’re thinking with your fingers somehow. And, the other aspect to this that I’m hearing you say there is that you are somehow liberated from the top-down hierarchical structure that is inherent in many… let’s call them traditional note-taking apps, which themselves are modeled on things like three-ring binders with their sections, right?

Boon: Metaphors, yeah. They’re like metaphors from the real world, I think. And they’ve been ported over to the digital space. Folders and categories are things that are instantly familiar to a lot of people. And so, they become a lot more accessible for most people. And I think that’s kind of the allure of these tools… that they become kind of a more general audience if that makes sense.

Whereas a tool like Roam has none of that. It is quite a flat tool. And you mentioned that word top-down, I’m not quite sure whether I would find a tool like Evernote, a top-down tool. I would say that it’s a tool with furniture in it, you know? You go into a room or a house, it’s got furniture in it. It affords certain use cases because these objects are familiar to you. A folder, a category, a tag, you know, these are familiar terms brought from the real world into the digital world. And so, people go, “oh, okay. I can kind of use it like that.”

I think it’s only when you start to struggle with scale and certain types of very advanced use cases in the software and digital space where information is so… I don’t know, it’s loose. It’s messy. It’s emergent. It’s kind of, you know, it’s all of that, right? Where they’re not objects, they’re not physical, tangible things. You can put them into real boxes or real folders. They’re just abstract constructs. You make it up. Somebody invented these things and they exist on this screen, you know? And people just decided to call them folders and then suddenly people think they’re folders. “Oh no, it’s not really a folder!”

Jorge: I used OneNote for a long time and OneNote doesn’t use the concept of folders, but it uses a concept of notebooks that have sections in them, kind of like in a binder. But it’s the same idea. And I love this idea of these things being a tool with furniture in them. Things that we find familiar, like familiar affordances from the real world. And I’m guessing that that is in contrast with something like Roam which in many ways, kind of lacks that kind of furniture. So, maybe it’s a little harder for folks to get into. But to your point, it gives you the ability to work on different types of problems.

“An ever-evolving multi-dimensional beast of knowledge”

Jorge: And here I’m going to quote again something from the Medium post that stood out to me. You said, ‘”forcing structure down an ever-evolving multi-dimensional beast of knowledge to make sense of it, is an act of futility.” And this notion of an ever-evolving multi-dimensional beast of knowledge seems to me to be a different type of problem than the sort of notes that somebody would take casually with a tool like Evernote or OneNote. Could you speak more to what that beast looks like, at least for you?

Boon: Yeah. So, I think that that beast actually resonates a lot more with the thing you said about top-down. That knowledge has a certain structure, a preconceived shape. Because people talk about it, they reference it. They say, “it’s this, it’s that — it has a definition.” And so, there’s a kind of formality associated with that knowledge where I suppose people will start with if they ever need to think about a piece of knowledge or a topic, or what have you. I suppose if you really wanted to go deeper and enter the scholarly world there are, you know, tons of scholars building up bodies and bodies upon bodies of knowledge, which also form a kind of top-down type of structure, almost telling people, “this is what it is.” Right? There’s no argument about it.

Maybe it’s not quite to that extent, but there’s a kind of “known known” about knowledge. I can’t remember where I’ve heard it, but I’ve heard it multiple times and I’ve definitely heard it from the information architecture community, this thing where information doesn’t exist on things, they exist in people’s heads. And knowledge comes from that. It comes from people’s heads. And so, if it comes from people’s heads and people’s heads are always thinking about things in different ways all the time, then it can’t be that top-down hierarchy all the time. It has to live in this space where it’s always changing depending on the context or the situation or the perspective or whatever it is, right?

That’s what I mean by the beast. It’s always dynamic in people’s minds and that’s actually what happens when you’re writing notes. You know, you’ve got all these thoughts that are flying in your head because of the way our brains work. There are associative, and then there are all kinds of signals and materials that are in front of you. And either you are thinking about or whatever. It’s recent or they’re serendipitous. They come from all sorts of places. It’s hard to control that. And I think that’s what the beast is; there’s this sense that it exists on its own and you can’t really control it, even though it’s a part of you.

Finding associations

Jorge: The distinction that comes to my mind is between something like a linear stream of thought where one idea leads logically to the next, and there’s a clear, sequential connection between them, and something more perhaps freeform, where a thought might spawn several other possible lines of thinking. And there is no particular shape upfront. I think the phrase you used is, “preconceived shape” when talking about top-down knowledge versus something that sounds more like emergent knowledge, as you start making sense of a problem domain, by discovering connections that perhaps may not have been obvious in the get-go. Is that a fair take?

Boon: Yeah, there’s the stuff that you capture and that has a structure because you’ve chosen to capture it in a certain way. And actually, that structure itself doesn’t really matter. Or you can decide to capture it however way you want, but I think that what Roam allows you to do really well is find the associations quite easily. And regardless of how you have chosen to document your content based on the structure that you’ve used, right? Whether it’s kind of… so I’ll give you an example, right? Recently over the few months that I’ve been using Roam, I’ve developed a certain habit of capturing notes a certain way.

I come across a lot of different things. They are websites or articles, quotes, videos, podcasts. And so whenever I come across a thing like that, I will just literally go… you know, I’ll type out article double colon, which turns into an attribute — it’s a Roam feature. And I’ll type out the title of that thing, whether it’s a podcast or an article. And then I’ll literally write out a whole bunch of supplementary stuff, like referential stuff. Like, “podcast something, something, something, Jorge Arango, you know, This Informed Life,” and then I will not start to create a sub-bullet just yet. I’ll literally continue writing and then copy and paste the URL there.

Just because I want to contain that whole thing in that block. That’s a Roam… every bullet is a block in Roam. They call it a block. And the reason why they call it a block is that there’s a lot of really cool features they build into what that bullet does. So it’s not just a bullet and a bunch of text. It actually does a lot of cool little things. So that’s the reason why they’ve called it a block. But what that allows me to do is number one? It helps me worry less about the structure of it.

Because what Roam allows you to do is allow you to search for blocks and pages. And when it returns a result, it returns a result of pages and blocks. And when you scroll down a list of blocks, the search results give you a list of the visibility of the parents of the block. So, you know what it’s being referenced from, and an easy way to kind of open up the substructure of that block, if there are more sub-bullets and more sub-blocks, which then makes it easy for you to kind of move from one part of your notes to another part in your notes, just for a simple search result. That means you don’t have to worry too much about how you structure your notes. And in this case, it has incentivized me to kind of create these sort of single-line references that if I wanted to, I could add a sub-bullet and say, “actually, I want to write a note underneath this one podcast because I thought it was really interesting.”

You know, Kourosh Dini, who was talking about DevonThink, I wanted to write a few notes on that. Oh, you referenced a bunch of tools. I’ll add that underneath the bullet. You know, I might do that, and sometimes I might do it in a way that’s inconsistent with the way I capture other notes. But I prefer working like that because then I don’t have to worry too much about the structure because I can’t memorize too many things.

Changes to workflow

Jorge: You published this in April of 2021 and in the title of the post, you mentioned that you had been using Roam at that point for four months. We’re recording this at the end of November. So, I’m guessing by that timeline that you’re coming up on a year of working this way, or so. And I’m wondering how this way of working if any, has changed how you approach your work and take notes in general?

Boon: I have some real-life examples or case studies, little stories that I’ve… I should write it down. But, they’ve just happened in the last week or so where people have asked me permission, “Hey, can I share the notes that you captured during that meeting? It contained a whole bunch of really good material that we were discussing on that call. I want to share it with the stakeholders,” right? Over the years, I’ve developed the skill of being able to capture notes live, in a session, through another hobby or activity that I do, which is sketchnoting. And sketch noting for me is the art of capturing notes in real-time. Fundamentally to me, that’s the core skill that I’ve gained from that habit.

And I’ve applied that… a lot of the kind of real-time capturing, paying attention, and synthesis of notes in real-time to Roam as well. And I think it’s a natural tool for people who capture notes live because it gives you the basic components to capture just enough of the right information and not have it too messy, but not worry too much about some of the extra stuff like formatting, which tends to eat into your time when you’re time-pressed on a Zoom call and you’ve got tall stakeholders all talking to each other! Yeah, so I’ve been capturing a lot of meeting notes, all exclusively using Roam. Anyone and everyone, and I’ll have a tag for “meeting” basically, and if I wanted to, I could look for a meeting very quickly.

And that’s changed, I think a lot of the ways we have worked, it’s not just me, but we across the business have been working because we have an information challenge. I work with stakeholders who work across multiple departments in the business. And each unit has certain ownership over certain platforms, and they all run various projects within their own domains. There’s a lot of cross-functional collaboration. And so the information that I capture on these meeting notes and beyond is really, really important because I will never know, like when a piece of information will start to surface again, and I also need a way to find it really quickly just through an associative search. This person said this. When? About this project, you know? Or something associated with it. Is it somebody that they’d been working with? You know, it’s something associative that I’ll try to capture in my notes so that when I refer back to it, it’s easy for me to find. And Roam’s search capability is pretty fast. It’s able to kind of fetch back a huge volume of these notes. So it kind of lends itself to those use cases.


Jorge: I want to encourage you to write them up and publish them because I do think that it would be valuable for folks to see how other people are using this stuff. If, and when you do, where is the best place for folks to find that? Like, where can folks follow up with you?

Boon: I usually interact with people on LinkedIn. It’s a bit old school, but it’s linked to my professional profile and I’m relatively active there. I used to use Twitter a lot, but I don’t use Twitter so much now but if you want to, you can find me. Search for @BoonYCH. So it’s basically my name with the letters, Y C H behind. That’s my Twitter call sign. Or you can search for me on LinkedIn. Use my full name Boon Yew Chew. Or I run monthly events through IXDA London. We have a meetup page, And yeah! If you join our events, just ping me and say, “Hey, you know, I came across the podcast you did with it Jorge.” yeah, we’re a pretty informal and friendly group. It’s always up for meeting new people. And obviously, I try to publish on Medium. I don’t… I’m not as good at getting a large amount of stuff up there, but I’m trying to build up that habit.

Jorge: Well, fantastic. I’m going to include links to all of those in the show notes. And I look forward to hearing more from you and how it’s going, you know, with using these tools to tame the beast. Thank you so much Boon for being on the show with us.

Boon: Thanks, Jorge. Pleasure!