Cool product s**t: Muse for iPad

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I'm very excited about Muse, an app for iPad that markets itself as "a spatial canvas for your research notes, reading, sketches, screenshots, and bookmarks. Because deep thinking doesn’t happen in front of a computer.". This isn't an app review (my review is simple; I love it, you should try it). Instead, I've donned my Product Manager hat, and I'm gonna use this post to fanboy over a bunch of product and design decisions that really excite me.

The team at Muse have tried to solve a difficult problem; how do you do deep thinking in a digital space? In order to solve that problem, they've had to ask themselves a lot of difficult questions. Where should this digital space be (phone, tablet, desktop)? What is the nature of deep thinking, and what does that mean in a digital space? What kind of experience gets out of the way of the work but is still flexible enough to facilitate it?

Pre-Muse, we might solve for that problem with multiple, spread out tools. My toolkit, for example, comprised a whiteboard, Apple's Notes app, text documents, slide decks, PDFs, annotated screenshots, photos (of the aforementioned whiteboard) etc. The problem with that is that when I want to get down to exploring something, my attention is immediately conquered by logistics – I have to remember what I have, where it is, gather it up into multiple browser tabs and file windows, and grapple with somehow manipulating that in a way that allows my thinking to flow and evolve.

We were frustrated by the state of productivity tools, which tend to focus on logistics like note-taking, to-do lists, and document management. We wanted to see computing tools that support the creative process: deep thinking, ideation, and sense-making. And we saw incredible potential in the iPad Pro with the introduction of the Pencil.

If you think of the parts of the creative flow that involve divergent/exploratory thinking (lots of inputs, lots of sources, adding lots, removing lots, scribbling notes/annotations/ideas etc), then this is the kind of thought that Muse is aiming to help you with. For me, that would mean lots of notes/drawings in Notes, scribble on whiteboards, photos [of whiteboards] in my camera roll, PDFs saved to Google Drive etc. Muse is, IMHO, fundamentally solving two problems:

  • Getting everything I need to a digital place where I can readily use it.
  • Using and manipulating that content in a flexible way, acknowledging the messiness of deep thinking.

The focus on the problem and job they're trying to facilitate shines through in the product, and there's a few few features that I just love. The real cool s**t in Muse is the laser focus on the problem, which drives the solution/experience, and here are a few features that bring it to life.

Immersive onboarding

I've spent the last 18 months living and breathing app onboarding jobs. When we released Mobile Carousels recently, we were aiming to solve a small slither of onboarding problems and before we decided on what to focus on, there were months of research and exploration. Now, whenever I use a new product I can't help but look at their onboarding approach with critical eyes.

There are two things I love about what Muse is doing here. The first, the fact that it's an at-your-own-pace immersive onboarding. It's based around a 9 task checklist that gives you all the basics you need to learn the principles that underpin the app; boards/cards/ink, manipulating content, using gestures. The tasks are simple and direct, and take the form of cards that get added to your inbox (a little area to the left of the screen where content gets stacked up until you need it). Drag 'em onto your board, check out the content, and give it a go.

The cards they give you are well thought out.

  • There's a text card a few lines long, with straightforward instructions.
  • There's video, to expand on the point.
  • There's sometimes a link to web pages that will help out (eg. in the gif below, there's a link to Apple's documentation on how to use iPad multitasking.
Onboarding menu is always there, and immerses you in the concepts the app is built on

The fact that's always there (two taps away; tap once to show the menu, and again to open the onboarding card) is great. You're probably using 5 or 6 features regularly, so you gain the muscle memory. You know the rest exist, and sometimes need a quick reminder of how they work. Tap-tap to remind yourself.

The second thing I love is the trial. The Muse folks have spent time thinking about what a trial means in the context of the problem they're solving. Deep thinking isn't necessarily something you do every day, and exploring a problem might be a thing that you do over the course of weeks and months. For the value of Muse to come across, you need people to try to apply it to their work as it happens, build a habit or two. A time boxed trial just doesn't work for the kind of market Muse is going for.

Instead, your trial lasts as long as you need. You get 100 content cards (text, images, links, video, PDFs etc) before you need to upgrade. This is similar to the kind of thing that Notion does for people who want to trial a paid plan (1000 block limit).

100 cards gets you a long way. I did a lot of thinking ahead of this post to figure out what I'd write (and decide whether to write a post or record a video), started exploring a future blog post, gathered a bunch of ideas etc. I still have trial cards to spare, but am already sufficiently in love with the app that it's time to buy.

A handful of the boards and cards I added during the trial

Deep focus on my work

The absolute standout thing about Muse is that it really is all about what you're doing. The UI doesn't get in the way. In fact, it does everything it can to stay out of your way, in a few smart ways:

  • Chromelessness (is that a word?)- The assistive parts of the UI (eg. menu, toolbar) are only there when you ask for them to be, so you're not distracted. A tap on the screen shows a menu, a swipe from the edge of the screen with your stylus shows the pen toolbar (which is very small and purposeful). Other features can be used gesturally or with keyboard shortcuts as well.
  • Modelessness - Your stylus always acts as a pen, and you can temporarily modify its behaviour with touch gestures. That means you're never asking yourself what tool your stylus is currently supposed to be, because it's only ever temporarily performing a job that isn't to do with inking the screen.
  • Limited choice - By default, you only have three inking implements; a black pen, a purple marker, and a yellow highlighter. You can't change their colours and thickness. This feels like a silly limitation at first ("but I like green highlighters!"), but it is, in fact, a clever way to get you to focus on your work. How? You're no longer spending time trying to find the right combination of tool, thickness, and colour for each eventuality. The limitation of choice actually frees you up to just get on with things.

It sounds complicated, but in practice it isn't at all. It's a very elegant solution to free up your mind for deep thought, and it works. One of the reasons I love thinking something through in front of a whiteboard is the ability to just go wild with ideas on that empty canvas. Muse is the digital equivalent on steroids.

Refining a solution so that it's strongly aligned with your vision, principles, and problem you're solving is hard. Making that solution simple and engaging, that's cool product s**t.

Comparing Muse to Apple Notes
The pen toolbar

iPad for deep thought, iPhone for quick capture

In the first episode of the team's Metamuse podcast, they talk about the role they believe tablets play in the creative process. Desktops are for the most complex, sophisticated tasks. Phones are for when you're on the go, quick capture, saving etc. Tablets are an intermediate step, for reading and annotating, forming ideas, rearranging them etc.

Muse is an iPad app with an iPhone companion app. They don't do the same things.

The iPhone app gives you a way to add notes to Muse's iPad inbox, and provides a share sheet for use throughout iOS for getting other content to the app on iPad. That's 100% it. It's unapologetic; Muse is for deep thinking, and they don't think that's what your phone is for.

This is actually a very brave and principled product decision. If I could peek into the Muse inbox, I bet there's a tonne of feature requests for the iPhone app. Some will be enhancements to make the send-to-ipad job better, but there will undoubtedly be a lot of requests for iPad feature X to come to iPhone please. The opinionated perspective on the roles of phones and tablets for deep thought jobs probably means that the latter category of feature requests is unlikely to see the light of day, lest it compromise solution to the real problem. I admire that.

Sending a note from iPhone to iPad

Thoughtful support

I work at Intercom, so of course I tried out the support features of the app. There's a couple of lovely things here:

  • The in-app feedback feature is simple. It's just a text box, an option to share the board you're working on, and a submit button. When you use it, you get a reply by email from a real person. The reply I got was friendly, human, and frank - exactly the kind of support/feedback experience I respond best to.
  • The handbook, which is Muse's main support page, is really well done. Every feature of the app has a card. Every card has a simple description and a video of how to use it. The beauty of a simple app is that you can have a comprehensive and easy to understand support experience. They nailed it.
The Muse Handbook

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