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Rather than getting ready for tomorrow’s trip to Atlanta, or working my Finance case study, I spent some time playing around with Microsoft’s new OneNote product. (I am currently in day three of a 60-day trial.) OneNote is (as the name suggests) a note-taking application, which promises to improve a critical process for students and researchers.

OneNote’s main competitor is the pen and paper, and I have to wonder if I will be able to wean myself from the yellow pad. The old-fashioned approach is so simple, intuitive, and versatile that I have some concern that I would be giving up functionality.

Why do I take notes?
• To help me stay awake during a lecture. In all honesty, I very rarely review my notes, but I still take notes because it helps keep me focused on the lecture. I have a pretty good memory, and often the writing of a note is enough to cement it. (Notes are memory-triggers, especially when one has to take notes quickly.)
• To use later on while writing a report on the event. (See my first bullet, though.) Sometimes, I need to communicate what happened at a lecture, and notes are a useful way of itemizing all of events.
• To record my progress through research. I might be scanning though books or webpages, learning about a topic. Notes are a way of capturing some of this knowledge (and their origins). This is different than the above bullets, as it is not quite as time-critical.

What is good about my current process?
• My notes are private. Other people can see that I am writing on a piece of paper, but they really can’t see to much. This is a concern with taking notes on a laptop… The other people can read what I am writing. One writes what one believes is important, and that might give information away. This is probably just an annoyance in a lecture class, but may be very important in a multi-company meeting. (Maybe I would have less concerns if my laptop screen wasn’t so big, or if I had a tablet PC.)
• I have a set of annotations (written in the margin) that I use to designate different thoughts. For example, I use an triangular arrow to designate an action item, a question mark to write a question about the material, and an exclamation mark to write an interesting thought or application.
• I can easily switch between drawing graphs and writing text. I try to use graphs or figures whenever possible.

What do I wish was better about my note-taking?
• Notes get lost or forgotten.
• They are rarely useful out-of-context. (Lecture notes in particular.) I sometimes take notes that are only understandable given the lecture. They almost seem to have a half-life, in which the memories that they trigger slowly decay.
• Notes are rarely complete. I suppose that this is related to the above.

I think that an electronic note-taking application could be helpful. My notes would not be lost or forgotten (assuming that my hard drive does not crash). I might be able to take more relevant notes, and maybe organize them on-the-fly. To be really useful, OneNote will have to minimize the downside of the electronic format (less versatility, less freedom in form), while maximizing the potential upside (searchability, links, readability, automation of rote tasks). I have noticed that it does have a “note flag” feature, which is similar to my notation. (And one can view all of your note-flags at a glance…. Very good!)

My MBA professors generally make the PowerPoint lecture slides available ahead of class. The people in my class that take notes on their computers seem to write directly in the notes section of the PowerPoint. This is useful because it puts the text directly with the relevant slide. It would seem as though I can do the same type of thing, as I can copy/paste a slide straight out of PowerPoint, into my current note page. Then, I can write or draw next to it or below it. (Good!) But it would be nice to import all of the slides into a note page at once, so I wouldn’t have to copy them one-by-one. (OneNote current does not have Automation or VBA. Several people have suggested that this would be useful for adding blogging functionality. It would certainly enable me to quickly add the functionality that I want.)

A couple of product reviews can be found here and here. and A FAQ can be found here.

Some more useful writeups about experiences with OneNote can be found here and here.

I should note that I used OneNote to keep track of links and such while researching this entry!



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