My OmniFocus UX struggles


#1

I bought OmniFocus 1 as one of my first iPad Apps in July 2011 and continued with the iPhone and Mac Apps, updated all Platforms with V2 and now I’m also on V3 since it is out on all three of them + the Websubscription as I don’t have Apple Devices at work.

But during this time I often went away from OmniFocus when it was just in my way or things getting buried in the many possible projects. Or when the Things Apps were just not only prettier but also easier to handle during the day. I’ve also tried the web based Taskmanagers like RTM, Todoist or TickTick (the last with a huge potential with smart lists). There are steps in the whole UX of OmniFocus which leave me struggling and switching:

  1. There is the handling of subtasks which is not really solved as Action Groups don’t behave like Subtasks in Things or TickTick. To create action groups it needs a lot of single tasks which need to go below the main task via Drag & Drop - did you try this on an iPhone or iPad? Challenging even on the the Pro Models. And then giving the Main Task a due date the whole Action Group is cluttering the Forecast view without any structure.
    Why this wasn’t fixed during the years I can’t imagine - even Trello is there yet and it helps to Focus on the main goal aka Main Task.

  2. The UI looks really cluttered with all the arrows, icons and information - such a bi g difference to the Apple Design Award winner Things 3 where I’m just wondering if this no priority at OmniGroup? There are also differences between the Mac or Web Version and iOS like the circles on the right side and information not below the Task name - also Headlines like in Things would be helpful IMHO

  3. Reminders from OmniFocus show the due dates in bold letters but the task name below is not highlighted at all - wrong focus? Also a click on a reminder doesn’t open the task on iOS but the Forecast View so another click after maybe even scrolling is needed.

  4. Then there are notes: why can’t they be shown at a glance when opening a task instead of tapping another time top get to the note tab? If there is an URL it’s just extra tapping for nothing

  5. If a task on iOS is marked as done it doesn’t close to get you back to the last view - again another tap is needed to close it …

Overall this is not what I expect as a lean UX from such an expensive App Platform like OmniFocus to be honest. The main concept is great and powerful and after figuring out the right personal setup it helps a lot during busy days but still is often in my way when it should just work.

It would be great to see something about this on the Roadmap please!

And maybe there is also a thought about how to improve Due Dates - if there is yet a task due tomorrow at 0900am and I want to add a new one with a due date tomorrow as well please propose 0915 instead of 0900 again where I get 5 Reminders if I don’t adjust manually with some more taps.

Just my thoughts and view but curious what you think?


#2

How one feels about a user interface or the user experience of an app is so personal, it’s hard to really discuss these things objectively. For years I struggled to find a task managing tool that was congruent with the way my mind works. I used Ecco Pro, notes on a Palm Pilot, I went all in on Outlook, I used ToDoMatrix on my Blackberry, and later found Toodledo on iPad. Many of them did the job, but none of them did the job in a way that felt right in my mind.

We cherish machines and tools–actual physical tools like hammers or multimeters; bicycles or desktop computers–when they enable us to do a job gracefully and efficiently: the controls are in the right place such that we intuitively know where to reach, press, pull, slide, twist, swing, and the like; the tool is the right size for us to grasp and use to its fullest; and it feels like the designer read our minds. I frequently feel like the gang at the OmniGroup read my mind.

It may appear silly to say this about a task manager, but that was how I felt the moment I launched OmniFocus the first time almost five years ago. I stayed up until about 3:00 in the morning that first night reading the whole manual. I spent the whole next few days organizing all my projects, actions, and perspectives, and it was like finding a glass of water in blistering heat of the desert. The tool does all the important things I need it to do in a way that makes great sense to my way of thinking. Using OmniFocus has really enabled me to manage all the roles, high-level goals, projects, tasks, chores, and wishlists in my life with ease and peace of mind.

I like OF a lot and I do not mean to wax rhapsodic about it to try to sell you on it or convince you that you are wrong about the ux criticisms that you have. Your complaints are valid for the way you want a tool to work.

I do not know how Omni’s team decides what information to show up front and what information to conceal until a user really needs it. For the way I use the app, I’m pretty pleased with the decisions that they made.


#3

It’s true, UX expectations differ. That’s the reason I didn’t write about Perspectives or other ways of customization - there is indeed a lot available within OmniFocus.

After all it looks that during summer I’ve found a working setup for me with a Today perspective, sorted by the relevant Tags etc.

Nevertheless the handling of Action Groups and how they are displayed in the Forecast still bothers me as I can’t focus on the main task - don’t you use this feature or did you find a way how to display them in a better way?

I also have to highlight that I use OmniFocus 80% on iPhones, 15% on iPad Pro and only 5% on a Mac - maybe this is a reason for being annoyed about the extra tap to get to the notes section and the extra tap to close a tasks view after completing it?


#4

Yes.

Not entirely.

That is only true of the decor.

There is another level – the ratio of signal to noise (useable visibility of data divided by the number of visual edges which the eye and brain have to decode to get there) which is simply a function of neural systems which we all share.

It’s no accident that the designs which do win awards are less noisy, cluttered and overdecorated than those which don’t.

This, for example, is simply a poor ratio of signal to noise.

26

(It also imposes decoding of two different visual languages – one pictorial, one symbolic – within the space of a single centimetre, and adds further cognitive load with shared coloring, which primes (an immediately disappointed) expectation of a single and coherent visual idiom)


#5

Let me share my thoughts on the action groups issue.

Like you, I do a great deal of work on OmniFocus on the iPad. With action groups, you do not have to drag-and-drop individual tasks to create the action group if you don’t want to. At the bottom of the inspector window on the far right hand side of the screen, there is a diagonal arrow pointing right and up. If you press that button, it will allow make the selected task a subtask (i.e. action group) of another. If you want to do a group of tasks, you can press the edit button and select several tasks and then drag them.

As for how these are displayed in forecast, I’m not sure I have a good sense of any other way to present the information. If you have an action group with five subtasks and that group is due today, then the each of the elements of that group is due. You have to do them all. I suppose, you could have forecast only display the main action and not the subtasks. But what happens if you click the main action as being completed? You are now indicating that the entire group has been completed. I could see a scenario when someone actually checks the group as done without having completed one or more subtasks. I would not want that risk. (On the other hand, the app could just give you an alert that you are about to mark more than one action as done, but I’m glad not to have to click okay or cancel on an alert dialog box.)


#6

Reading your post, it seems you are substantially more knowledgable than I about the art/science of UI/UX design. I can’t intelligently comment on the technical aspects of your post about cognitive loads and decoding visual languages, but I believe my point still stands.

I was not suggesting that UI/UX choices defy objective standards or that they are solely in the province of personal preference. On the contrary, I wrote that “how one feels” about these things “is so personal.”

OmniFocus is an information dense app, but the design strives to present that information efficiently. The screenshot you showed is a perfect example, to me, of how the app can provide a great deal of information unobtrusively. Knowing a project is sequential, parallel, or single action is very helpful to me when I do my weekly reviews. I don’t feel any kind of mental friction when I see that. Maybe others do perceive friction there, which gets back to my original point.

If the design of an app creates too much friction for a user, that may be a signal to explore another app that is designed more in line with the way that user thinks the data should be modeled on screen. Successful apps evolve and one aspect of that evolution is improving UI and UX to meet user-needs. Some of these things you and @jeg pointed out may be perfect candidates to consider. All I was stating was that, as designed, I like the look, feel, and usability of OmniFocus.

I have my own idea of some ways I think the iOS app could be improved. For example, I wish Omni would add a feature to allow me to change the date a task was completed. I often mark tasks completed at the end of the week when I do my review but would still like the task to show completed on the date it was actually done. I can do that on Mac, but not iOS.


#7

Thank you for the hint about creating action groups - I’ve found a Shortcut which can do this now straight forward. Still I think just putting a kind of a checklist into the main task - like a note - could do the job a lot easier (that’s how it works in Things and TickTick).
And there is still the unstructured appearance in the Forecast - the action group is no longer shown in its structure with main tasks and subtasks - they are all there on the same Level and I need to remember in which order I wanted to work on them.
That’s maybe the difference - I only use parallel projects and with subtasks I can order how I work on the stuff - and I tick them off immediately after doing them to a) get them out of my view and b) for the happy feeling 😎
I’m no longer doing Project Management with sequential tasks, that’s why I use Action Groups or just single tasks inside.
That’s also where the power of OmniFocus comes in for me with customized perspectives which allow focused view on different topics from Biz and private life


#8

Great examples, exactly what I tried to express but without the underlying knowledge - its just a lot of distraction on the first glance when getting a reminder from OmniFocus or when opening a perspective. Also I don’t get why the circle to tick off a task is on iOS at the end of the line and on Mac and Web right before the task which gives an easy visual hint where the task description starts - it just feels inconsistent and somehow not clean and easy or even stress less to get to the point - at least for me.

But looks like that currently custom perspectives and Web were still so important for me to focus that I’m back with OmniFocus since a couple of months, even missing the Things UI and looking into TickTick (which in the end is somewhere in the middle of both) …


#9

I keep bringing this up whenever I can hoping that Omni will change how this works. But I still believe that action groups should show “in context”. That is a huge issue for me and causes me to have to do dumb things like meta tasks, or labeling a sub-action with the overarching task. If they just respected the nesting in all views, it’d be ideal for me. 🤷🏻‍♂️ In perspectives it works ok because I can use Projects view to see the nesting, but that doesn’t work in the Forecast.


#10

Now that you put it this way, I can see what you are getting at. But in mine the action group does show up in the proper sequence. It lists all the sub-tasks going from top to bottom in the same sequence as my action group, with the top-level action as the last action in the sequence and it’s in a darker font. I could see how, perhaps wanting the sub tasks set off a little more might be a nice visual cue.

Examining this issue has made me think of one particularly important area where the UI could stand some improvement. On iPhone, navigating away from one project to another project or to a tag view, or the inbox, or the forecast can be exhausting because you have to un-nest yourself and re-nest yourself, depending on what information you are looking for. Yes, you can press and hold the home button to go all the way home in one step, but there is no convenient way that I’m aware of to move back and forth between two deeply nested views if you need to do that. Maybe a book mark or history feature could address that.


#11

As you noted this is possible on the Mac but it’s also in the current test of OmniFocus for iOS and iPadOS: https://www.omnigroup.com/test/


#12

I’m on this beta and didn’t even notice that because of how my inspector is set up. Oh, man! This is literally the only feature that “made” me wait to do certain things until I got to my Mac. Thank you for pointing this out.


#13

I think this is exactly where we all have different opinions. It depends which device you use OF on the most and what you do on each.

I used to be 80% Mac, 15% iPhone, 5% iPad, and OF was perfect.

I only used the iPhone for looking at tasks and marking them as done. The iPad was only used for review and very occasionally for checking off tasks.

However, life circumstances changed and I now use the iPad 80% of the time. It’s effectively replaced my Mac for almost everything. That’s when I bumped into a huge wall with OF for iPad. I’ve written extensively and in detail in another thread here about this. I agree with you, on iOS the UX is too cluttered and almost everything takes too many taps. I just can’t manage my tasks without getting annoyed at the app.

I’m now sadly using a hybrid of OF for what’s already there, the new Reminders app for new stuff (which is pretty cool), and an analog notebook.

My workflow is changing dramatically and I’m liking it. I haven’t added anything new to OF in a couple of weeks and everything is a bit of a mess, but it’s making me rethink the way I organise projects and tasks, the way I capture and review, etc. I do miss OF a lot, but I just can’t work with the iPad app.


#14

This hybrid thing is really a hassle, was also thinking about new iOS 13 Reminders combined with OF but that’s breaking the setup - then it’s easier for me, to setup custom lists aka perspectives in TickTick.com 😳


#15

It is. Although I’ve been making more progress the last few weeks than ever before.

I don’t want to add too many things to Reminders, so I’ve been very selective in just adding things I do, in fact, need to be reminded about. I have a lot of lists, but they’re more like contexts than projects (although not exactly).

The projects I need to focus on are on my notebook, and tasks that I need to do, but I don’t need to be reminded of (if that makes sense) are on the notebook. And I’ve just been crossing them off as I go.

It’s too early to tell, but so far it feels like the right approach.

There’s nothing to “manage”. And I’m more realistic about what can be done in the time I have.


#16

Thanks for this. Like you, I find the current UX on iPad to be abysmal compared to when I mostly used OF for Mac to detail tasks in almost every aspect of my life. In fact, I’ve found OF3 for iPad to be so difficult to use that I’m not currently really using it, which has significantly impacted my productivity for the worse. While I don’t like the idea of a hybrid solution, you are making me wonder whether it would be an improvement over my current situation.


#17

I’m actually loving the hybrid approach. And Reminders is pretty cool. While reading an email, I can just invoke Type to Siri and say “remind me about this next Monday at 9am” and it’ll create a reminder with the link to the email and the notification. I can even tell it which list to put it into. You could say it instead of typing, but I prefer typing.

So my Reminders only has tasks I really need to do and I’m always conscious of not using it as a dumping ground. I now have groups for work and personal and a few lists in each.

Someday/Maybe type things go into a note in Apple Notes. I had a ton of stuff in OF under this that I rarely got to.

And I’m carrying a nice notebook everywhere for notes. I jot down tasks I need to finish today there and they just never make it to Reminders. If it’s something I need to do later, then I will put it into Reminders.

So far, so good.


#18

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