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Austin Govella on the IA of Note-taking

“If the only audience for your note-taking system is just you, even then, it’s not just you. It’s past you and future you as well.”

Austin Govella is a user experience design lead at Avanade, a global professional services company. He’s the author of Collaborative Product Design and co-author of the second edition of Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web. In this conversation, we focus on Austin’s note-taking system and its relation to his work in UX design and information architecture.

Show notes

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Transcript

Jorge: Austin, welcome to the show.

Austin: Yeah, I’m excited to be here. Looking forward to the conversation.

Jorge: We were just talking before we started recording, saying that we’ve known each other for a long time. But many folks listening in will not be familiar with you. How do you introduce yourself to folks who you’ve never met?

About Austin

Austin: Well, you know, it’s just about tax season right now. And every year I take great pride in putting information architect as my career on my tax form. But I work at a global consultancy called Avanade, and I lead kind of cross-functional teams and we design products and services and strategy for you know, big enterprises that kind of focus on Microsoft stuff. So, usually I just go with the easy user experience lead, as kind of how I introduce myself.

Jorge: When I hear “Microsoft stuff,” does that mean that it’s mostly for internal systems, for the internal systems of companies? Stuff like SharePoint?

Austin: That’s a common perception for sure, right? And that was definitely my perception when I started. At this point especially though, Microsoft is really just become just a big platform. So they have, servers and middleware and databases and front end frameworks. So you could be… from the design perspective, we are just on a platform. But, as with any design, the closer you are to the actual physical stuff that you’re molding, the better you are. The more things you can do, the more things you can see to do with it, that other people don’t necessarily see. So that really does make it more open. And then a lot of it is just digital marketing stuff that sits on top of something like Adobe Experience or just gorgeous websites or apps.

Jorge: Yeah, I’m fascinated by this phrase, “being closer to the stuff that you’re working with.” I think that’s how you phrased it. Does that mean like being closer to the implementation technologies?

Where the building hits the street

Austin: Yeah, I guess that’s being the proxy of the developers or technical architects you work with. But now, especially I’m really interested in the new emerging stuff that is coming out for workplace experiences, that’s where I’ve been focusing on the years. Being able to talk to an engineer or the Microsoft product team about how things are architected and the journey that that sets up for the platform or that particular product is… it’s amazing.

You can imagine, if you were like thousands of years ago and you’re talking to the first Roman engineer who’s designing a road, and you’re talking to him about, what do they see roads are going to be able to do and how difficult is it to make them? And how do you decide how wide they are? What type of grade do they go up and down? Being able to understand those questions means that you could then go and plot out highway systems, map them out for all of Europe, long before they’re able to build them. And so that kind of closeness with the Microsoft technology gives us the ability on the design side to do that.

Things that I could do that for example, when I work on like a Salesforce projects, I don’t have nearly as much familiarity with Salesforce. So I bump into a lot more… edges, right? You know, you bump your elbows a lot more. And that’s the same thing for any framework. I think any designer who works on any product or system somewhere, there is a platform they’re in and you get really just acclimated to which way the water flows, right? Where you can jump in and out and places where things are just immovable. It’s just a hard constraint.

Jorge: I love this analogy with the Roman roads. It really brings it to life. But the way that I’m understanding it is that the familiarity with the technology has to do with understanding its capabilities and constraints, which you do at the moment of trying to implement something with the technology. And in so doing, you can then understand how those capabilities and constraints might be brought to bear on other problems. So, understand it universally. Is that a fair take on that?

Austin: Yeah! No, I think that’s a fair take. And the only thing that I would add to that is, I’ve been reading a lot of architecture stuff lately and your background is in architecture, so I am… and I looked at Phillip Johnson, so I was reading something that Phillip Johnson said. But he talked about how his focus was not the materials per se, other than what the materials looked like. His focus was on how the building hits the street. Like that point at the ground where people are walking by and they walk in.

And that really blew my mind! That his focus was where essentially, where the building hits the road, right? And less so about the building. And he said as long as it’s feasible, he didn’t care. Like that he wasn’t concerned about any of that stuff. And it made me think back to back when I really did more kind of pure information architecture work, where I really was more concerned with where kind of the IA hit the user and less concerned about technology, like what the constraints were. I was really focused on that point. But since I’m doing broader design work over the years, I’ve become more and more concerned about the materials. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing per se, but it was just… I don’t know, it’s just interesting difference in approach that just struck me.

Jorge: Yeah, I share that concern. I’ve long said that information architects — and designers in general — need to understand the materials that we’re working with and the technologies that allow us to mold those materials, use them in different ways. But the reason why we are talking today is that we have a shared interest in note-taking systems. And I have gotten the sense just from the stuff that you write about on Twitter that you have, or are in the process of building for yourself — I think we’re all kind of in the ongoing process of building for ourselves — some kind of note-taking system. And I’m very curious, about what role notes play in all of this. You know, the work that you’ve been describing; what do notes do for you?

Reducing friction

Austin: They perform a couple of important functions. So, I think my focus recently on really understanding a system that works, that can remove some friction points is because my home life is… my home life is crazy. My wife has a chronic condition. I have a four-year-old right now. He’s no longer a toddler, so he’s less maintenance, but he was really premature. So, anytime he has a weird cough, we’re off to go see another specialist, you know, just in case. And then I have my day job. And my day job as a consultant being a more senior resource, I have probably more than one project that I’m working on. I have a couple of sales things I’m working on. I have capabilities, things that are coming like early opportunities maybe. We are discussing things and internal trainings that I do. So, there is a ton of stuff for me to forget, essentially.

So, at home, you have this thing where I have… I don’t have time for friction at home. If I want to sit down and I’m working on stuff for a website or working on a book, I just need to get to work. Jump right in. I’ve got 15 minutes, 30 minutes, maybe I have an hour, hour and a half. I don’t have time for friction. And at work, it’s the same thing. If I need to figure out when the last time was I met somebody or what we talked about or what the decision was or what the next action for some initiative is, the faster I can do that, the better able I am to do my job.

So, my interest is really been honed to a really fine point recently because it’s become critical in order to free me to function the way that I want to function. And maybe better than I functioned in the past, perhaps. And I’m getting older. I bet my memory isn’t as good. So, time constraints, my memory is kind of fading. So I’ve noticed a need… or I guess I’m hoping, I’m aspiring to assist in that will help me fill these gaps that I’ve been coming across.

Jorge: I would imagine that this challenge of switching contexts has only gotten worse during the pandemic when we’ve, for the most part, been working from home. Folks who do consulting work like we do, right?

Austin: Oh, no, absolutely. And to tie it back to notes, that’s actually the part… the biggest place of friction I’ve found with my notes in that we take different types of notes. Or, we note different types of things. Tasks. You note things in your calendar that are timed events. But I’ve always taken notes and scribbled in notebooks about design stuff. I’m a writer and I like to write longer form things. So, I’m always doing that. But for work, I’ve come across… I’ve always taken kind of like these daily fleeting notes, right? There’s a note about the project, notes about the meeting and notes about what I did that day. Because I have to record the time that I’m doing.

But I’ve noticed there is a massive switching costs going from being in the, “I’m taking these fleeting, reference type notes,” to switching over to wrestling with and swimming through the atomic-like thinking type notes, where you’re exploring new concepts or learning new things or making new connections.

Whenever I do my weekly reviews — and I don’t quite do them weekly — but I’m going through essentially my inbox and I use Obsidian and all my new notes get stored in that inbox folder. And when I’m going through there, I have to take two passes. The first pass is to go through and identify the fleeting reference type notes: notes for people I met or notes for meetings or notes were projects or things like that. I do a pass to file those away properly.

And then I have to do a second pass to go through and find the concept stuff because the decision logic I use to understand, to keep, or file, or delete one of those fleeting reference type notes is a totally different way of thinking than thinking about those idea information notes. Like it’s just totally separate brains. So found that to be… like that switching cost, just a different set of thinking there, is a huge, huge friction point.

Jorge: It sounds like the first of those steps has to do with some kind of triage, right? It sounds like it’s determining whether it is a fleeting note or a note that deserves greater attention or further processing. Is that right?

Austin: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right.

Jorge: And And then the second step, it sounds to me like it has to do with, perhaps making connections with other things — maybe categorizing it, maybe deciding where it goes into the system.

Connecting notes

Austin: I think that’s fair, and it’s probably the different levels. Like, if it’s a person and it’s a note that I’m going to keep then I know exactly where it goes. It’s just a reference that goes to my people folder, no big deal. But if it’s a note that requires more thought, then I have a default place for that, right. Just the default standard notes place.

But then there are places where I don’t like moving stuff there until it’s a little more formed, right? I don’t believe notes are ever final, other than references. But you know, if you’re kind of your thinking-type, atomic, or zettelkasten-type notes, I think those are always evolving, right? And they should be.

If it was one of those types of notes though I do want to have it be just a little bit more formed, I want to make sure that the title is making some type of claim so the title sums up to note, so at a glance, I know what it is. And then, it should connect to one of the other concepts somewhere that I have. They don’t always, but I mean, I’ve been doing this for a year now in Obsidian, so it’s very, very rare now that it doesn’t connect to something that I’ve been interested in before. So, figuring out how that works.

And a lot of times the connection is a missing link, right? So it’s a note that doesn’t — or concept — that I haven’t captured before, so I have to make… you know, in Obsidian you just make a reference to a note that doesn’t exist and it stays and it just continues not to exist. But it says, “hey, you know, you’ve got a link to this idea.” So, I do that. But that takes some thinking, right? That’s not just like, “oh, Hey! I talked to Jorge today. So I have a note about Jorge. I’m gonna put that my people folder, right?” That’s super easy. Requires no thought. And it shouldn’t require any thought. But those thinking ones are harder. Like that’s… there’s a lot of wrestling there.

Jorge: Sounds like those steps might require a different mindset. Like the triage step, I can imagine, can be done almost… not automatically, but like it’s a sort of thing that where I would put on… maybe one way to distinguish it is like, what kind of music do you put on in the background? Like for the first step, I can put distracting music on and I can still do it, if it’s just triage. But for the second step, I would need ambient music or something really calm. Like I need to be in a different mind space, right? So, I’m wondering if it’s something that if you do both steps at the same time or if you make time to do one and then time to do the other. You said you have a weekly review. Do you do both?

Austin: Yeah. I do them in sequence, though. I do a pass to do the triage of the fleeting stuff. And then I go back through and pick out a few kind of interesting idea notes. They take longer, so I don’t get through as many of them at all. But it’s fulfilling work. It’s the type of work I think a lot of people talk about notes as stuff they want to do, right? You’re trying to think about ideas and what they mean, their implications. So, that’s good.

Jorge: So, in that second step, you talked about making connections with other notes and you referenced linking, which in Obsidian… and I’m an Obsidian user as well. In Obsidian you can create what are called wiki-style links, where you’re basically typing and inline you create this link to this other note, whether it exists or not, like you said. You can also, when using Obsidian, use tags for categorization, and I’m wondering if you are using tags at all, and if so, how?

Tags, principles, and process

Austin: I use tags in three ways. Which is funny when I try in CMSes, it’s usually two types of tags for metadata on something. I don’t know if that’s a coincidence or not. But the first one like a status thing, and it’s really just binary. It’s, ” do I need to go back and touch it?” And the tag is “touch.” This thing hashtag touch. And that I can do a quick look at those. And those are typically ones that are left in the inbox, or maybe there’s someplace else where I need to go and add a topic tag or there’s something I need to go do, but it’s something straightforward and simple. I look at the note and get a sense that it just needs a little bit of cleanup.

The other type of tag is topic tags. But they’re very broad. So, things like… I don’t think I have “design” as a tag. It’d be too broad for the stuff that I capture. But, “behavior” is one, and I have one for psychology and some notes have psychology and behavior because those are… the behaviors are really a subset. But broad, broad swaths of stuff. And a lot of times those I use just to give stuff a shape, right? And so you can look at the graph, and you can turn tags on it and I can see… I’ve seen some times where, and this happened with psychology, actually. The psychology tag got really, really big on the graph.

And that told me that I needed to have… there was something there to go look at. And so I ended up making a… kind of a map of context, psychology, index-type note that kind of organized my psychology stuff. And so, then I had that note there. I’d have a note about psychology. I don’t typically have notes about topics like that. But those topics can also identify when something isn’t nuanced enough.

So, I had a really big “workshops and design thinking” became a really, really big note because I’m really interested in like collaboration and how design works there. And that actually… instead of signifying that I needed like a map of content, it signified that my thinking wasn’t nuanced enough. And so, I was able to go in and kind of identify… kind of pull it apart so it was cleaner, right? So I use tags — topic tags — in that way to help me get a sense of the shape of the information I’m working on.

And then the last way is I actually use… oh, I can’t remember his name. I use tags to identify the type of information. And this is a taxonomy that is… it’s well established. But whether it’s a fact, a concept, a principle, it’s a process or procedure, right? So it’s just a simple taxonomy. And the way I use those as a lot of the stuff that we read, or that I read at least is, it talks about concepts, right? So, for example, like you might, if you’re reading about food, maybe it’s that protein enhances the brain’s ability to focus.

For example, that’s just a concept. But in order for me to apply that, or make an argument, I have to turn that into a principle. I have to derive a principle from that. And so, the principle might be, “start your day with protein so you can improve your productivity and focus.” That’s a principle is something you should be doing. And you derive it from a concept though, and then if I’m really good, I can turn that into a process. So, I have a process for breakfast. You prepare food, you eat and clean up.

And then if you’re really, really good… if it’s something that I do all the time, like make personas or plan workshops or something, I create procedures, right? That I take and break down that process into steps 1, 2, 3. So, in this example, maybe that might be steps one to three for cooking an egg, to make a scrambled egg for breakfast. So… and you can come in any way, like you can pick up a process off a Medium article, “How to cook an egg.” and you can deconstruct that all the way back to the concept, or even to an underlying fact behind the concept.

I use this a lot when I explore a new area. I have all these concepts, but no principles. And I can derive principles… the principles helped me understand more about why the concepts are important. In the same way with a lot of stuff that I read about design, it’s more principles, right? So, psychology is probably more concepts, and then for design, it’s more principles, right? Because that’s just where we are.

But I can work on driving the concepts and that’s something I’ve been doing with design thinking, which has been really valuable because that’s, what’s allowed to be totally reframe my point of view on some of these topics to where that now I think design thinking isn’t about design at all. I think it’s about decision-making. And that design isn’t about interfaces in any sense, it’s just a scientific process for making decisions about fuzzy topics. That’s totally like antithetical to how I saw design thinking, design two years ago. But it comes from deriving concepts from the principles. And that’s been very valuable kind of approach for me.

Jorge: Am I understanding correctly that this process of going from a concept to a principle to a process to procedures is something that you document in your note-taking system? Or is it more kind of internal something that you’re doing, that you’ve internalized and haven’t expressed in your notes?

Austin: Oh, no, I definitely wrote that down. Yeah. And I try and write a lot of process down. I think… that’s something you see in the PKM communities, people will show the processes. In the beginning I thought that was just procrastination around, you know… you’re thinking more about the notes you could take than actually taking notes. However, given my time constraints, if I have a new set of tags that I come up with for some reason, having those written down somewhere — like, I have an index notes that is a list of my tags. — being able to come back two weeks later and just glance at that and refresh myself about where I was, is really important because, like I said, I have huge time pressures and I’m probably… my memory is probably starting to slide. I’m not that old, but I definitely feel like I forget more things than I used to .

Jorge: The reason I asked that is that I make a distinction between what I call work and meta-work. And work is, you know, the work of thinking or researching or getting things done. And then meta-work is working on the systems that allow you to do the work. And one of the risks that is inherent in all of this stuff is that we can end up spending more time — or a lot of time — doing meta-work relative to the work that’s getting done. And the phrase that people use for this is “productivity porn,” this notion that we’re fiddling around with tools rather than actually getting stuff done. And I’m wondering if that… and I say that because you also mentioned the PKM community and PKM I think means ” personal knowledge management,” yeah?

Austin: Yeah.

Jorge: And one of the things that I’ve always been a little wary of is that in working with systems like Obsidian or Roam Research, or some folks are using Notion, I sometimes go on YouTube to learn how to use these tools better and I see these folks who are spending like an inordinate amount of time creating these incredibly baroque systems, right?

Austin: Yeah.

Jorge: And then taking notes about how they’re taking notes. At which point I’m like, “well, you know, but is it really…” you know? Like I can put myself in their shoes and think, “well, would I be actually doing work here or would I be working on the tools?” And that’s a line that I’m always very careful to not stumble over. Has that been an issue for you or is it something that you feel like you have under control?

Structure as scaffolding

Austin: I feel like I have it under control, but I think it’s critically important — the meta-work is. And if we turn it back to information architecture, if you think about that information architecture is essentially kind of… it’s a cultural agreement among all the players in the system that you’re going to just follow these concepts. And you don’t have to design in information architecture for a big kind of enterprise internet, right? You don’t have to. Like, people just start putting stuff up there and giving things names and tagging stuff and searching for stuff. And it works okay, right? Not really well, but it works all right. But taking the time to do the information architecture piece, just get some agreement, right? 60 to 80% or whatever you get. So that more people know how things are supposed to happen.

But I noticed with note taking is there’s kind of two pieces, right? The first is that each of the different… when people will pick a note taking system, right? Whether they’re doing daily fleeting notes or they’re kind of doing something more atomic kind of evergreen note taking, they’re not really looking for a tool. They’re looking for a way, right? Because a lot of people are new to this. They don’t have a way already.

If you’ve been doing this for a while, then you already have kind of your way of doing things. You look for tool that they’ll let you work in that way. But a lot of people pick up a new tool like Obsidian and they don’t know where to start because Obsidian is just… it’s an IDE for thinking, right? It’s like a development environment for thinking. If you think about VS Code or back in the day we used Homesite …you open it up, and it’s just empty. But you would then go and build all kinds of sites and applications using this tool, and it’s empty.

Whereas a lot of other tools, like Roam Research and Logseq, and there’s another one called Reflect. They have a way. They start with the daily note and that’s kind of like your entry point, your spine. And so, if you can follow that way, that gives you an entry point into the tool. But that’s like a cultural kind of agreement you have. And I think that’s the exciting thing about something like Obsidian is you can make it fit your way. That’s also the downside though, right? Is that if you don’t have the way you have to find one and that that’s where the meta work comes in.

But I think the other piece is that if you don’t have the habit or you’re exploring new stuff, then you need some kind of structure and process. And it’s better if you have that documented. I don’t think it has to be All fancy, but just documented. I keep an index list that has most… it doesn’t have all my tags, but it has most of them. I documented like this… the information taxonomy that I use between from concept to principle to process… key things that I use all the time, I document so I can go back and remind myself if I need to.

But one of the things I’ve noticed with my templates, for example, that I use in my note-taking system is at the beginning, they were very much more baroque and ornate, had all these headers and sections in them, and I had a lot more plugins that I use to help automate different things. But as my habits set in, I realized I didn’t need that stuff. That stuff was really there to help me form the habit. And either it provided guidelines that kind of made sure that I kept pointed in the right direction, it was kind of in keeping with my goals and objectives. Or it created safety rails, to make sure I didn’t mess something up or forget something.

And as I’ve continued to optimize my system, my daily note template now is just the date at the top of the page. There’s nothing in the page at all. I used to have all the settings. And my template for like an automic type of evergreen thinking type of note is… I used to have all this stuff in comments about, “remember this metadata, and this metadata,” and now it just has three placeholder tags and a place for the title. Because I’ve internalized all that stuff.

And so all that stuff goes away. But if you internalize something and then you know… there’s something you’re doing, but you don’t remember why you did it this way, and so you try it a different way? And you’re like, “oh!” Something messes up, and you’re like, “oh, that’s, that’s why we did it this other way.” if that structure falls away and you forget it, it’s out of sight. So you just forget what it was or someone else comes into your system, they don’t know why you did things a certain way then you’ve lost. The information architecture is faded, right? If it’s not visible and referenceable, it’ll fade, or it’s more likely to fade maybe? Maybe that’s what we’re saying.

Jorge: I’m tempted to try to derive a principle here based on what you’ve been saying. And what I’m hearing is that — and I’m going to generalize — structure, as manifested in things like the templates, right? That’s like adding structure. Or you talked about Roam Research having this daily note construct, which is their structural nudge. Structure works well as a kind of scaffolding at the beginning before you have built the habits that make that structure unnecessary somehow. And going by habits might… would it be fair to say that it’s desirable to move on from the structure? Is that what you’re suggesting with that principle?

Meta-work for future you

Austin: Well, I’m definitely at the point now where, I thought so, right? It was optimized in that direction, but I’m not certain. And part of that is because one of the reasons that personal knowledge management so interesting to me is I work on knowledge management for enterprises all the time. Like these big enterprise systems. And, it’s always considered as part of like, how does the enterprise manage its knowledge? But if you really think about it from the human-centered perspective, the enterprise is just all these people and all these people are managing their knowledge independently and it all gets dumped into like a big morass. And you hope for some kind of common cultural conventions so you can all find stuff the same way. Or I can find your stuff the way that I would find my stuff.

If the only audience for your note-taking system is just you, even then, it’s not just you. It’s past you and future you as well. If future you won’t remember what tag you used for behavior then they’re going to use a different tag and then they’ll just make your system a little more janky, then it’s worth having the tags written down. So you can just remind future you about what it was. If that’s not as important, right? Then, you know, now your mileage varies for sure.

I think the meta work is really important and I definitely do spend some time on meta-work. Go around and trim the weeds and clip the hedges, right? I find that I delete more notes now than I make, which I think is very interesting. I delete lots of notes. I think that type of meta-work is important for maintaining the system, because it makes a system usable. And maybe that helps. I’m just kinda rambling now, but maybe that makes sure that you can retrieve stuff better? Or when you hit the system, you can actually just work without things being in your way. Kind of like mise en place in cooking, right? Your counter is just clean. I definitely don’t think it goes into like the productivity porn side though. Like, I’m not filming anything it!

Jorge: Well, I would expect that at the very least it would improve the signal-to-noise ratio, right? Because a lot of the things that we kept… and this is something that I suffer from myself. I try to capture everything and have it all flow into my system. And that means that there’s a lot of stuff there that is not as important or as interesting as some other stuff. And then when I get to that second step, which has to do with making connections, all of a sudden there’s too much information there somehow, right?

Backlinking

Austin: Yeah. That is a horrible, horrible, horrible, terrible problem to have. And I do something similar with my daily notes. I just kind of throw everything in there. And there are two things that I found that were really interesting. Like, I never understood backlinks. But, as I mentioned, my wife has this condition. So, on my daily note, I can just kind of type her name and link it. And then I put a tag for, you know, the doctor’s appointment or we picked up this medicine or… you know, she has seizures, so I’ll put like “seizure” on her notes and the backlinks I can search.

In Obsidian, you can search the backlinks to filter them. I can search for seizure and I can see a list of all the days where she’s had seizures. It required no effort on my part, other than typing the daily note that she had it. And I didn’t know I would need that later in the future. I mean I have a tag now, but in the past I would just type it as texts, right? And I could still search through the texts. But there’s a new kind of app called Subconscious. And they talked about how in the beginning, a lot of these backlink pages are really kind of just algorithmic. They’re just canned searches that let you see where something was referenced. And that is super valuable if you’re capturing everything.

I have another one that’s like a collection of user research books to read. I just tag it. I can go to that page. It’s just all these random books that I will never, ever read. I’ll probably buy more than I should. But it’s just captured. And maybe, maybe I’ll remember a book. Like, “what was that book called?” and I’ll have a good place that’s smaller to go look for it. I think that’s pretty useful.

The other piece that’s that’s useful about catching everything is the signal to noise. And this is just in Obsidian. You use DEVONthink also, so you probably are pretty up on the thinking. I used to get a lot of noise when I ran searches. And now, I just exclude all of my reference and daily note folders. So if I’m searching for something about design thinking or say I’m searching for personas — I make personas for a living — i f I search my hard drive or Obsidian for “personas,” I get so many results back it’s useless. I might as well be researching for “B” or something. But if I tell it, “do not search my daily notes folder and don’t search my references folder,” then it only searches all of my atomic evergreen notes. And that’s a very high signal.

I think a lot of tools didn’t let you do that before. And I’m pretty sure that some of the other tools give you that flexibility, but that is… that’s pretty amazing that you can target your search to specific places to help you tune your signal to noise. Because in other times, maybe I want to know when I talked about personas with a client. In which case, I would exclude everything except my daily notes and just search only those, right? To see the last time that that happened.

So, I think that is really… I don’t know figuring that out has really kind of opened up… I’m comfortable now capturing more stuff. I’m confident that it has a place where it will go. So, if I don’t need it, I can just totally slice it out. But it’s not gone, right? Or I can search it all if I want. It wasn’t like that 20 years ago. It wasn’t like that at all.

Jorge: Yeah, that’s the trick. And, I think that what you’re pointing out here and, this is probably a good way to summarize things because we are getting near the end of our conversation, unfortunately… is that as the tools to capture and organize and store our notes have gotten better and more sophisticated, we can bring to bear onto them these techniques, tools, frameworks, practices from disciplines like information architecture. Because what you’re describing there is changing the scope of search, right? That’s something that information architects have known about for a while and it’s really interesting to have this recognition that many of the same principles and tools and ways of doing things that we’ve employed for these large scale enterprise information management challenges can also be of use to us in our personal lives.

Austin: Yeah, I think that information architecture is focused on… making places inside of information spaces is really relevant, right? The different tools, they all have a different feel. It’s not just the entry point. Like, some places start with daily notes, some places are open; there is a sense of space there. And you fill that with your stuff, like when you move into a house, right? So, your living room feels different from my living room.

But it also affects the type of work you can do. If you’re using this to support work… I can’t write an Obsidian, it’s just a text editor. I go write in Pages, which is just a text editor. But there’s something about the space in Obsidian, even if I adjust the workspace that is not conducive to how I have grown up to all these years of writing, it’s just doesn’t work. So that space… the space that you’re creating, it really does have a sense of place. And that does have a huge impact on how effective that tool helps you be, right? Some people put everything in their vault. Everything, everything, everything. All in one space, all in one place. And I don’t know how those people function. I’m in awe of how they do that.

Closing

Jorge: Well, I hope that our conversation today can help them perhaps think more mindfully about where the stuff goes. Thank you for sharing with us how you’re doing it, Austin.

Austin: Yeah.

Jorge: For folks who might want to follow up with you, what’s the best place for them to go to?

Austin: The best place to chat is on Twitter @austingovella. All one word. And then, I also have a website agux.co, with a blog where I kind of ramble about stuff around UX, IA, and, some personal knowledge management a bit. But I love talking about this stuff. Or design thinking collaboration… you catch me on Twitter on any of those things, and I am more than happy to have a nice long conversation about any of those topics.

Jorge: Fantastic. I’m going to include links to all of those in the show notes. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to talk about this with you. It’s a subject that I’m deeply passionate about. And I think that, you are equally passionate about it just from hearing you talk about it. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Austin: Yeah, thank you. Thanks for having me. I really, really appreciate it. And you’re going to have to interview yourself one day on your previous OneNote workflow that always amazed me, that you had for like 20 years, I think, right?

Jorge: I’ve been experimenting with things for a long time. And as you were describing the evolution of your own system, I was thinking my system has evolved as well — a lot! And I consider the stewarding of a personal knowledge management system to be a lifelong project. I don’t think it’s ever going to be done.

Austin: Yeah. The meta-work!

Jorge: It’s the meta-work. Thank you, Austin.