/ #User Research 

The Notion Paradox: When People Love "Bloated" Products

Notion is a spectacular success story, a textbook rocket ship. Between 2019 and 2020 alone, its number of users grew from one million to over four million. When the pandemic filled the startup world with a freezing terror, Notion raised $50 million in 36 hours. A deluge of fabulous reviews keeps pouring. Passioned tweets, exalted Youtube videos, grassroots meetups. That’s the stuff of dreams, for countless entrepreneurs, product managers, and designers from San Francisco to Beijing.

The Notion paradox

The most interesting thing to me is this: the Notion dream was not supposed to materialize. It should have been a story of a sad, foreseeable failure. At least according to common product strategy knowledge. The standard advice is to focus on one thing and do it well. Be a scalpel, not a swiss army knife. Avoid bloat.

Image: Des Traynor, from Intercom, explaining the dangers of the swiss army knife approach.

It turns out, Notion looks a lot like a swiss army knife. Actually, it looks like the emperor of swiss army knives. You can take notes with it, create text documents, wikis, todo lists, spreadsheets, databases, kanban boards, calendars, galleries, websites, project management systems, CRMs, and much more! Frankly, if someone told me they were going to build this kind of Frankentool, I’d have said they were terminally insane.

But the really crazy thing is that Notion works, despite its monstrous scope. Ah, the audacious multi-purpose, universal tool: many teams died on that hill, Notion conquered it. People love it. People rave about it. Why?

Why people love Notion

A lot of us are working on or plan to work on ambitious projects in the future. Understanding why Notion works, why people love it could be a great insight into how we could succeed in our own dazzling ventures. So I put on my detective hat and set out to uncover the mystery behind Notion’s success.

Image: if he was living with us today, maybe Sherlock Holmes would want to be user researcher? 🙂

The Methodology

Finding why people love something is essentially a qualitative inquiry, that’s why I chose to collect and analyze positive reviews posted by Notion users on Youtube. I watched a lot of reviews, dodged a few tempting cat videos (the Youtube procrastination trap!), and finally selected 15 videos ranging from 4 minutes to over 1 hour long. The plan? Import them into Searchness, transcribe, annotate, and tag them to see what major themes would surface.

The Analysis

Here are the main tags that emerged from the process:

I then grouped those tags into the following categories:

So what are the main reasons people love Notion?

  1. The gigantic feature set
  2. The beautiful and smooth UI

First, it seems that, as hard as they are to pull off, people actually love swiss army knife products. They love being able to do many things and keep everything under one roof. No more context-switching, no more copy pasting or wasting time looking for something across dozens of tools.

Secondly, people do like swiss army knife products only IF those products work well. Meaning, if they have a highly usable UI. Of course, there lies the secret. How do you build a product with a humongous feature set while staying easy to use?

The Answer: The Magic Lamp Product

I think Notion is a magic lamp product.

Think about it. What’s more powerful than Aladdin’s magic lamp? Rub the lamp and a powerful genie appears before you, ready to fulfill any wishes you may have. Think about it again. What’s easier to use than Aladdin’s magic lamp? Just rub it, and voilà!

A magic lamp product combines enormous power with an incredibly easy-to-use UI. It doesn’t mean that magic lamp products have no learning curve. All products have some kind of learning curve. Magic lamp products are special because their power-to-complexity ratio is very high. Throughout history, very few products have been able to achieve this fantastic feat. It’s an exclusive club. The products that come quickly to mind are mostly Jobsian artifacts:

  1. The iPod. 1000 songs in your pocket. Just turn the wheel to scroll through your songs.
  2. The iPhone. A computer in your pocket (that happens to also be a phone). Just touch the screen with your fingers to unlock its powers.

When they each launched, compared to their competition, the iPod and the iPhone were quantum leaps in terms of features. They were doing more things than the competition, and often, doing most things better than the competition. However, they were still easy to use, thanks to the revolutionary UIs that made their massive feature set usable.

Notion has been able to join this legendary club as well. How? By building upon one unifying metaphor: the block.

In Notion, everything is a block and blocks can contain other blocks or references to other blocks. A piece of text is a block. A title is a block. A list is a block. A database is a block. Rows in a database are also blocks. Pages are a special kind of block. Like with a set of Lego, you can start by creating basic walls and end up over time, with a big badass castle, just using the same building block. Notion is the Minecraft of productivity software.

This metaphor helps users start with features for which they already are have a mental model: pages, different levels of text, lists, images etc. As they get more comfortable, they can use the same UI to add more powerful blocks like embeds, file uploads, databases etc. With no additional cognitive load.

The other benefit of this unifying metaphor is that it adds a lot of flexibility to the visual side of the interface. Since all components are blocks, it’s possible to customize their visual appearance without having to modify the underlying architecture. That’s why almost any block can be displayed as its own page, be inside another block, and why databases can be presented using different views like table, gallery, kanban, and calendar.

The unifying metaphor of the block, understood at a visceral level by the Notion creators, is the reason why Notion is a great software and why people crave it.

To understand why the block metaphor, as implemented by Notion is pure genius, let’s quote Evan Miller about the concept of the feature matrix:

What makes for great software? Software should have useful features, yes, while remaining usable, ideally. That much is trite. But how big should an app be? How many features should it have, exactly? When does the raw number of features start to hinder the user’s productivity?

When I design a piece of software, I start out by doing the obvious thing: sitting down and making a list of features I think it should have.

But in my mind, great software is not defined by its feature list so much as its feature matrix.

Software starts to become really useful not just when it hits a certain number of features, but when there gets to be a dense web of connections between features, that is, when each feature complements other features in the program.

I like to think of features being arranged as a matrix, with a row for each feature, as well as a column for each feature. Conceptually the matrix is like a distance matrix found in the back of old road atlases.

If two features interact, you put a check in the cell that links them. If two features don’t interact, you leave that cell empty. Each check essentially represents a use-case for the software, for example, “Import from Format 1 and export to Format 2,” or “Create X and run it through Z.”

A great piece of software will have a dense feature matrix; that is, most features will interact somehow with most other features, and you’ll see a lot of check marks in the matrix. A dense feature matrix looks like this:

Bad software has a sparse feature matrix; that is, most features are dead-ends, and you’ll see a lot of white space. A sparse feature matrix looks like this:

With everything being a block that can contain or reference other blocks, we see how Notion created one of the densest feature matrices of all times.

The Takeaway

In an age where a bad understanding of the lean methodology and the swankiness of the benefits over features mantra reign supreme, the Notion case teaches us that features sell, when done well. On paper Notion is a nightmarish example of bloatware, in practice mountains of users swear by it.

In his Strategy Letter IV, Joel Spolsky wrote:

A lot of software developers are seduced by the old “80/20” rule. It seems to make a lot of sense: 80% of the people use 20% of the features. So you convince yourself that you only need to implement 20% of the features, and you can still sell 80% as many copies.

Unfortunately, it’s never the same 20%. Everybody uses a different set of features.

He expanded on that subject in a later essay called Simplicity:

I think it is a misattribution to say, for example, that the iPod is successful because it lacks features. If you start to believe that, you’ll believe, among other things, that you should take out features to increase your product’s success. With six years of experience running my own software company, I can tell you that nothing we have ever done at Fog Creek has increased our revenue more than releasing a new version with more features. Nothing. The flow to our bottom line from new versions with new features is absolutely undeniable. It’s like gravity.

The problem with features is that adding a lot of them tends to make our software harder to use. The most precious lesson we can learn from Notion is the following: if we can find the right metaphors, they will tie our features together into a dense, usable feature matrix. If we can’t find them, then we have an ill-defined problem, or we need more thinking and more research.

Bonus Resources

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