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GTD: Task Management With Android Software Apps

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As you might have already noticed, I was learning about Getting Things Done (GTD) for a while. An important part of this method is the handling of todo-items, action lists, or whatever you call them. And frequent readers of my blog found out that I am testing a smartphone with Android the last weeks.

This is about my results for the quest of an Android-based todo-application which is better as my beloved Palm T3 with DateBk6.

http://karl-voit.at/temp/suderei/2010-01-19_PIM_Android_1.png

What I expect

DateBk6 is not perfect at all! But is is the best PIM-app I've seen so far - even compared to desktop software products. (Note: I did not test Pimlical yet because I got no Windows system. But it's from the same author anyhow.) Before I switch to another application, I'd expect to see some features I do not already have with DateBk6. This is kinda hard requirement because DateBk6 offers me so many features current competitors do not offer at all.

As an example, let us assume we want to cook a chicken. Therefore we will have a simplified workflow as following:

Project: Cook Chicken

go shopping

prepare food

eat chicken

As you might assume, there are some tasks that require to be done in a certain order (go for shopping before eat chicken, get chicken in cart before going to checkout, ...) while others may be done in any order (get chicken or get rice in cart).

I want to be able to express those conditions that my PIM-app tells me what to do next. So let me fantasize about an ideal featureset of a todo-app:

**Input: easy and fast task input: this is a very crucial thing! Sometimes you just want to get things out of your head before you forget some of them.

**Contexts: one or more contexts can be associated to a task. For example I want a view of all office-related tasks or all tasks that require internet connection. In our chicken example above, potential contexts would be "store" and "at home".

**Projects: tasks can be related to one project which consists of several sub-tasks

**Sequence: tasks can be arranged in parallel or in a sequence: do not annoy me with displaying "prepare food" when "go shopping" is not marked as done

**Auto-next: when a task is done, mark the next one(s) as "next actions" and displey them. e.g. when all sub-tasks of "go shopping" are done, mark "go shopping" as done as well and define "prepare food" as next action item.

**interface: clear and clean user interface. I do not want to cope with interface issues when I want to cope with my tasks instead.

nice2have: Context-hierarchy: contexts can be arranged in a hierarchy: office → boss, colleagues, computer

nice2have: Sync: sync with web-app, local app, ... and provide an API for it

nice2have: Detect-context: show tasks concerning current context. Smartphones are able to detect, if I am at a store, hide all those office-tasks.

This list is certainly not complete nor fixed but those are basic things I'd expect for now. In my current setup, I do not have the features contexts, sequence, auto-next, context-hierarchy, and detect-context. But DateBk6 offers me a lot more nice features I do not want to discuss here. Some of them are mentioned later on anyhow.

Current Android apps for GTD

Android does not come with a suitable task management application at all.

In the Android Market I found several cost-free candidates for GTD todo-lists: Astrid, Shuffle, ActionComplete, myGTD, OpenLoopz For Android, NextAction, GOALS ToDo Free, and Doit.im. I could not find any commercial GTD-app.

Following sections describe my personal findings which are related to the basic features mentioned above. The rating numbers are following Austrian school grades where 1 means perfect and 5 means failure. Ratings are very subjective so the notes are more significant for you. Please consider that I did a quick test of the apps so it might be that I missed features or did not invest enough time to get behind the methodology to use the apps in the way the authors do.

Astrid v2.10.2

feature grade notes
input: 1 In the main screen, you can enter tasks very quickly.
contexts: 3 There is no special context field but you can add one or more tags to a task
projects: 5 no such thing
sequence: 5 no such thing
auto-next: 5 no such thing
interface: 2 although you have to click twice to get from the list to the details, the interface is quite OK.
context-hierarchy: 5 no such thing
sync: 2 Astrid synchronizes itself (optionally) with Remember The Milk (RTM). RTM offers some additional features like contexts but they are not visible in Astrid. Most of the features are the same. Thanks to various methods, you can send tasks to RTM using Email, Twitter, API, and much more.
detect-context: 5 no such thing

Astrid offers additional features such as logging the time spent on a task, various features concerning reminders, adding things to calendar, hide tasks until X, recurring tasks, alarm settings, ...

This app is not promoted as a GTD tool but I wanted it here because of its good sync-feature to the popular RTM-service.

Shuffle v1.4.0

feature grade notes
input: 2 In the main screen, you can enter tasks quickly. Some things should be not displayed while entering tasks - they mask the save-button below the keyboard.
contexts: 2 There are categories.
projects: 1 You can define a list of projects.
sequence: 5 no such thing
auto-next: 5 no such thing
interface: 2 pretty good interface.
context-hierarchy: 5 no such thing
sync: untested since v1.4.0 you should be able to sync with Tracks website.
detect-context: 5 no such thing

ActionComplete v4.1.0

feature grade notes
input: 1 Pretty good input dialog: you can enter tasks, save-button always visible and more details below.
contexts: 1 Tags, People, Places ... everything here.
projects: 1 one optional project per task.
sequence: 5 no such thing
auto-next: 5 no such thing
interface: 2 Good interface which visualizes only important things.
context-hierarchy: 5 no such thing
sync: 5 no such thing
detect-context: 5 no such thing

You can define "Waits"-tasks that are on hold for some reason. And pending tasks are also possible.

myGTD

v1.0.1

feature grade notes
input: 3 Keyboard hides save-button, my keyboard does not show word-completion, no context-field in input form.
contexts: 2 Topics and contexts are available.
projects: 3 Basic support given.
sequence: 5 no such thing
auto-next: 5 no such thing
interface: 3 Some issues with the interface caused a not so happy user experience. Please change or remove this background image!
context-hierarchy: 5 no such thing
sync: 5 no such thing
detect-context: 5 no such thing

There are also some bugs in my version. The app seems to be a beta version rather than a version higher than v1.

OpenLoopz for Android

v1.4.1

feature grade notes
input: 2 Good input dialog but save-button is hidden below keyboard. There are even shortcuts for Android desktop to create tasks.
contexts: 1 Multiple contexts can be added to a task.
projects: 1 Tasks can contain sub-tasks at any level.
sequence: 5 no such thing
auto-next: 5 Manual choice of next task possible.
interface: 3 I think the interface is not good because you might get lost in the hierarchy and not all things are clear all the time.
context-hierarchy: 5 no such thing
sync: 5 no such thing
detect-context: available but untested There are locations you can define.

The app does have quite cool features (backup to SD, ...) but it fails in several issued concerning the user interface. There is pretty good help and a walkthrough which is also available online.

Only tasks which are (manually) marked as "next" are visible in main screen and they have to meet certain other criteria: at least one associated location context has to be within one mile, associated time context is within time range (defined by you), or you can pin down one or more contexts.

Stale actions are actions that has not been reviewed a period of time. You can get reminders for stale actions.

A basket icon in the statusbar sows number of items in the in-basket.

NextAction v0.9.2

feature grade notes
input: 3 You have to press menu to get to the input screen and you have to scroll to get to the save-button
contexts: 2 You have a list of contexts you can define.
projects: 1 Any task with sub-tasks is a project.
sequence: 5 no such thing
auto-next: 5 no such thing
interface: 3 The user interface is pretty clean in terms of reduced. Browsing through project tasks and sub-tasks is not that good because you can get lost pretty soon.
context-hierarchy: 5 The webpage says that it got sub-contexts but I was not able to find them.
sync: 5 no such thing
detect-context: 5 no such thing

GOALS ToDo Free v1.3.1

feature grade notes
input: 3 Input dialog starts with cursor in notes-field (instead in title) aka "Action Name"). Keyboard hides save-button.
contexts: 1 Multiple contexts cam be associated to a task.
projects: 2 One project can be associated to a task.
sequence: 5 no such thing
auto-next: 5 no such thing
interface: 2 Quite good but sometimes the screen is just crowded.
context-hierarchy: 5 no such thing
sync: 5 no such thing
detect-context: 3 It can display your tasks ordered by distance from your current location.

The one thing that is very dominant from the first second you are using GOALS is, that you can get as much help as you want. Context sensitive help informations, introductions for features in 30sec or one minute, guided tour, ... wow. The authors did a very good job on this.

Tasks can be associated to any number of contexts, contacts, you can add duration, information about "not started", "started", and "finished", due date, and much more.

Doit.im v1.0.5

Doit.im seems to be an Android client that syncs with an Adobe Air based software available online for free.

I did not want to install Adobe Air on my system and the Android app does not seem to do anything without an account since the only thing, what it does is asking for a username and a password. I found no online account so I did not test this software.

The featureset of the screenshots online is not wider as in the other products mentioned above. The announcement for the next versions looks promising. And they seems to have invested much time in a cool user interface.

So what about my requirements?

**Input: well, most of the apps offers the user a quick method to collect tasks. But not all of them allow "task-name-only" kind of input, where the details such as context, categories, notes, an so forth are added as a second step afterwards. This is an annoying fact when those detail fields are hiding the save-button for quick input. So you have to enter the task name, hide the keyboard afterwards, probably scroll down to the save-button, and then you can save your new task. Not convincing for entering several tasks quickly to get them out of your head.

For typing in new tasks Astrid and ActionComplete were my favourite candidates.

**Contexts: some apps are offering context as a single tag, some allow multiple entries, some nail them down to locations only, some are quite flexible. Contexts that can be associated to a geographical location and a range are a pretty good idea on devices like Android smartphones that know their location. This context-detection can be used to show only those tasks that are related to the current location (or no location at all). Only OpenLoopz seems to get this concept. GOALS offer at least a list of tasks ordered by distance to here.

It is also notable that only few apps allow multiple contexts per task. So from this point of view at least a context-hierarchy would be cool to have. Probably only available in NextAction.

**Projects: the concept of projects can be implemented explicitly as in Shuffle, ActionComplete, myGTD, or GOALS. Other apps like NextAction or OpenLoopz define projects as any task at any level that contains sub-tasks. The latter one seems to be the more general way.

**Sequence and auto-next were available in not a single app. Well, this kind of project management feature might be difficult to visualize on such a small screen. But at least predecessors of tasks would be fine: I do have many tasks that can only start after a certain other task is finished. In these cases, the "blocked" tasks are not shown (removes a lot of clutter!) and the next action item is easily selected. All apps that offer such next action tasks let the user do this manually between the tasks.

**Interfaces are pretty different. Some are fancy, some are neat. But not a single one caught my eye or offered that many cool usability things that I'd say 'wow'. But a good user interface design can prevent the user from being lost like I felt in OpenLoopz or NextAction.

**Synchronisation: although I would prefer sync with a local app on my computer, the current situation seems to tend to use the "always online" feature of Android phones and sync with some kind of online service. And there goes your privacy. But what the hell, on my phone you can read 'Google' - so what's the deal with privacy :-(.

OK, so there should be some kind of sync with an online server. Astrid does this almost perfectly with RTM. Shuffle should sync with Tracks but I was not able to test it. Doit.im is able to sync with an local app - or at least I assume. But that's it. All other apps are using local storage only. But some of the apps are offering a backup to (and hopefully restore from) SD card. This is at least something.

But I'd still prefer some kind of sync-feature to web or local app because when I am working infront of a computer, the limiting user interface of my phone is a barrier between me and quick usage of GTD tasks. I want to use my big screen, my big keyboard, and all related advantages if I am sitting infront of them.

What I also find very cool is that I am able to email me tasks to Astrid (using RTM). Very handy for lots of situations like forwarding email as an action item to my todo-list.

Additionally, there is not a single API available. So I am not able to write my own interface or adapter.

And the winner is ...

Well, there is no winner. Not a single app was able to provide me enough features that are able to leave my current system for a new one. Not a single app was able to offer me the basic requirements listed above. Not to mention the missing nice to have features.

But there are promising apps out there like OpenLoopz with its cool help features and flexible things like multiple contexts per task or sub-tasks at any level. GOALS has also very nice ideas too.

So the winner is my current system if you like: Palm T3 and DateBk6 with JPilot on my desktop. I used the Jppy-API to read and create data sets in JPilot. With this API, I was able to write a tool that searches for a keyword in my calendar and adds reminder alarms in my Google calendar (using Google API). Unfortunately Jppy is not well documented, there is no active community (any more?), and it got issues so that not all items can be retrieved. Besides that, I was thinking about programming a sync-tool from JPilot-CSV-export files of contacts to Google GMail contacts using Python and Google API.

So this is still my setup. I have to carry a PDA and my HTC Magic but I got good usability. Managing tasks is very handy on my Palm device. There I got a template system, string-substitutions, shortcuts, ...

On finger gesture devices

I do believe that there won't be an app like DateBk6 on any finger gesture device like Android, WebOS, or iPhone OS - with comparable display size.

Devices that are used with a stylus do have a big advantage: the stylus can target smaller portions of the screen. A lot of small screen elements provide cool features on my PalmOS device. To port those interface to a finger gesture device, you have to reduce functionality or hide a large portion of features behind optional screen elements (like additional menus).

If this assumption is true, then you can not expect an advanced PIM software like DateBk6 on any finger gesture smartphone ever.

In the user forum of DateBk6 and Pimlical (the Windows desktop Java version of DateBk6) there are lots of comments about "please port it to (iPhone|Android|...)". But none of them was answered positively yet. I doubt there will ever be a port to those platforms just because of the usability differences of stylus and finger gestures.

What about the smartphone producers?

PIM does not seem to be a major issue for Google (Android), Apple (iPhoneOS), or Palm (WebOS). So far they offer only very rudimental features concerning calendar, tasks, and contact management. And unfortunately from version to version there does not seem to be an advancement.

To me it looks like they got the basic things suitable for a certain percentage of customers and that's it. There is a calendar, there is a contact list with some fields. But advanced features like a better time selection dialog ("now"-button, event duration instead of end-time, ...), links between calendar events and contacts, a template system and icons for tasks and events, more complex ways of defining recurring things (irregular ones, each 3rd Wednesday, ...), automatically shifting tasks that are not done on their due date to the next day, much more views, a daily log with tasks accomplished on this day, fast rescheduling of tasks ("move to next Monday", ...), automatically add notes of an event to a contact, and so on, those features does not seem to be focus of any app programmer at all on nowadays mobile devices.

So?

Well I plan to observe the next versions of Astrid, OpenLoopz, and GOALS. My data stays on my current system as mentioned above. I hope this short summary can help you with your decision.

I am very happy if you leave a comment on your opinion! Probably you got another app which I did not find yet, probably you can share your experience, ... any feedback is welcome!

http://karl-voit.at/temp/suderei/2010-01-19_PIM_Android_2.png

Note: this blog entry was originally authored using Serendipity and converted to Org-mode format for publicvoit via a dumb script. This may result in bad format or even lost content. Please write a comment if you want to get in touch with me so that I can try to fix things.

Comments

Following comment reached me via email on 2016-03-29:

Thanks for your article, I thought that I must be the only person looking for a cross platform, multi-user, multi-project, task sequencer that allows different people scattered around the globe to know when their work is needed on each projects task(s).
Looks like a bit of a no-brainer given most large companies have distributed workforce, but no joy. If I had time to learn Android programming, it would exist by now :( Anyone know someone with the skills looking for a project? Surely Im not the only person to feel this way.
Hugh.McNeill0@gmail.com

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