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MacStories Interviews: Brett Kelly

In our ongoing series of interviews with developers and creators in the Apple community, I recently had the chance to talk with Brett Kelly, Evernote extraordinaire, founder of NerdGap, and creator of Evernote Essentials. When he’s not making things with words and computers, Brett tweets as @inkedmn.

The interview below was conducted between February 3 and July 3, 2012.

MacStories: Hey Brett! Could you introduce yourself to the readers who haven’t heard about you before?

Brett Kelly: Ahoy Federico! I sure can…

My name is Brett Kelly. I’m a writer, podcaster and software developer from Southern California. By day, I’m the Technical Communications Manager for Evernote where I write user documentation and build cool software tools. I write a blog at and I’m probably best known as the author of the popular getting started guide for Evernote, Evernote Essentials. I’m happily married to my first wife and we have two crazily wonderful children who are crazy.

MS: I’m a proud Evernote customer myself – I use the service every day – and I have read your Evernote Essentials guide. How did you get started with Evernote in the first place? Getting to work for the company you’re already passionate about sounds like a dream job.

BK: Always nice to meet a fellow Evernote user.

Back in early 2008, a friend of mine send me an invite to the private beta for this thing called “Evernote”. I gave it a brief spin and, as soon as I realized that I could stick stuff in there and it would sync between my work and home computers, I was hooked. Remember this was before the iPhone app, as well as the App Store!

I immediately started using the crap out of it; work stuff, personal stuff, it all ended up in Evernote. Almost four years and over 10,000 notes later, I’m a bigger fan of the product than I was last week and I’m both proud and humbled that I get to work with such a ridiculously smart group of people.

MS: So can you tell us a bit more about Evernote Essentials, and how it came to be after you started using Evernote?

BK: Certainly. As previously stated, it didn’t take long for me to become quite taken with Evernote and what it could do for my productivity (personal productivity has been something of an obsession of mine for several years now). After almost two years using and abusing Evernote in more ways than you can imagine, two things struck me:

  1. There wasn’t much in the way of a quality manual for Evernote out there (I’d looked, frequently).
  2. I was an experienced enough user that I could probably write one that didn’t suck too badly.

So, I did. In mid-January of 2010, I sat down at my computer during my lunch break and —in Evernote, of course— brainstormed all of the different topics and such that could possibly live in such a manual. Not long after that, I had an outline. Not long after that, I started writing.

Though Evernote Essentials didn’t ship until July of 2010, I did 95% of the writing in about 50 hours (spread across lunch breaks, evenings, weekends and a few strategically taken vacation days). I’d been using the product for so long that I just knew how to use it and a had a pretty damn good idea how to use it best.

And, like I said, I hung out my shingle on July 13, 2010 (the day before the launch of the Evernote Trunk). It’s safe to say that things have never been the same as they were on July 12.

MS: That’s great to hear, Brett. How did Evernote “notice” your project?

BK: I had sent them an email (to the general marketing inquiry address on their Web site, if memory serves) asking what sort of limitations I was going to be working within as far as using the name “Evernote”, the elephant logo, etc. I got an email back saying that the company was really excited about what I was doing and that they’d do everything they could to help promote it when it launched.

MS: If you were to rewrite the book from scratch, what would you do differently?

BK: Honestly, very little. I’m usually one of those annoyingly self-deprecating people, but I actually think the book is quite good.

I suppose the one thing I wish I’d done differently was making it easier to produce updates. As it stands right now, that process involves a designer (a good friend of mine who does fantastic work) and I’d love to be able to open the document myself, fix a typo or add a clarifying sentence and quickly publish the new version. But, if I went that route, it wouldn’t look anywhere near as nice as it does.

MS: Besides Evernote, what other apps do you use on your Mac to get work done? And how about iOS devices – are you one of those who, like me, have found immense pleasure (and convenience) in working from the iPhone and iPad?

BK: OmniFocus is indispensible for me. I use it on my Macs as well as on my iPhone and iPad. I have a very small handful of niggles with each version, but they’re so incredibly petty that I won’t mention them here for fear of looking even more like an Internet diva than I already do.

I do a lot of writing, most of which is done on my iPad. I’ve been pretty vocal about my unstoppable affection for the ZAGGfolio keyboard case for the iPad 2 (which, as I understand it, can also house the new iPad, albeit snugly), which is what I use with my iPad when writing. I do the vast majority of my writing in Markdown using Notesy. When I’m at my desk in front of an actual Mac, I’ll use something like Byword for short-ish things.

For email, I like I don’t love it, mind you, but it has it has deep hooks into the rest of OS X and it’s simple to send email messages to the Inbox in OmniFocus (something I do several times per day). I don’t use any of the cool plugins that are popular among productivity dorks.

As far as the iPhone/iPad question, I’d say that the iPad has settled nicely into a combination of “my writing laptop” and “the evening computer”. I spoke about the former case a second ago, but it bears repeating: I spend a great deal of time parked at my kitchen table, in my backyard or at a coffee shop writing on my iPad. It’s fantastic.

The second use is common to many people, I imagine: sitting on the couch doing email and Twitter, reading stuff in Instapaper and the Kindle app, maybe knocking out some simple tasks in OmniFocus or watching the (very) occasional video. My super dork hack here is not being bummed that my iPad can’t do [thing that requires an actual Mac]. In other words, if I simply understand that my iPad is great at some things and not so great at others, I get a lot fewer headaches.

MS: So what’s the app you need, either for Mac and iOS, but that no one has made yet?

BK: This may be the Kool-Aid talking, but any complaints I have about my ability to do what I want using my Mac are generally because I don’t fully utilize the tools I have at my disposal. A few examples of apps that I don’t even come close to using effectively: LaunchBar, Keyboard Maestro and TextExpander. I use and love all of these apps, but some of the crazier people I know online have figured out how to make these tools cook their breakfast for them, but I’m not there yet.

As for iOS, my biggest complaint isn’t about the apps that are out there (because there are buttloads of them and I use lots of good ones), but with Springboard itself. In my opinion, this is one area where Android is trouncing iOS. This may be the biggest white whine of all time, but the fact that it takes me two taps and a 3–5 second wait to enter a new task in OmniFocus is annoying. I’d love to be able to unlock my phone and have a dashboard instead of a list of apps. Things like the current temperature, a summary list of the three newest emails in my inbox, the day’s appointments and a configurable group of “quick actions” (new task in OmniFocus, new note in Evernote, new appointment on the calendar, etc.) — that’s what I’d love to see. And I don’t think it’s foolhardy to assume that, with the sixth major revision of iOS rounding the bend, hopefully Springboard gets a thorough overhauling.

MS: And what else would you like to see in a future version of iOS, besides a reorganized Home screen?

BK: This might be some Jetsons-level thinking, but so much of what I need to do involves other people, particularly people with whom I regularly interact in meatspace. I’d love to see something like location awareness, but with other iPhone owners. For instance, if I could set a reminder like “next time I’m with my buddy Tom, remind me to give him the five bucks I owe him.” I’m sure the guts of such a capability would look completely different than the current, location-based features (maybe it would involve NFC or some other thing I don’t fully understand). How could would that be, though? I’d use the pudding out of that, for sure.

Being a guy who uses his iPad primarily as a writing tool (in conjunction with a hardware keyboard), I’d love to see better external keyboard integration. For example, having Cmd+Tab do essentially what the four-finger swipe gesture does—cycle between running apps in order starting with the most recently accessed—and having the Return key submit web forms, etc.

I know lots of folks are interested in Siri APIs, but I almost never use Siri except to play the occasional song when I’m driving with my kids. I can see why people would love to have third-party apps work more closely with Siri, but that idea doesn’t hold much allure for me.

MS: But what if the Siri API allowed Evernote to build something on top of it?

BK: I’ll never say never, but I can’t foresee myself using such functionality. There are plenty of workarounds available (like sending emails using Siri to various services), but the workflow has never felt comfortable to me.

OmniFocus has had Siri integration for awhile now, but despite my best efforts to adopt it, I just always felt more comfortable tapping things manually into the app. Maybe it’s just because I’m old and grouchy now. That’s probably it, actually.

MS: So you’re saying that, with time, you’ve come to prefer solutions that “just work”, or that you’re accustomed to, to new things/hacks that you’d have to learn again?

BK: Well, I guess a more accurate way to put it would be that, in recent years, I’ve become less prone to chasing “shiny things”. Whether it’s new apps, new hardware, whatever — if I’ve already got a certain problem solved, then a new/different solution is going to have to present a very compelling argument for why I should switch.

There’s also the cost (in terms of time) incurred when adopting new or replacement technologies or systems. I’ve been using the same text editor for about eight years now and I’m quite proficient with it. That time spent is something I weigh heavily when I feel persuaded to try another text editor.

Often times, the cost of making a fundamental change to how one works isn’t adequately offset by the benefit of the new thing. This isn’t universally true, of course, but I’ve found it to be accurate more often than not.

MS: What do you think of Apple’s recent announcements at WWDC?

BK: I think it’s all wonderful, frankly. Part of what makes being an Apple person so much fun is watching the company continually churn out great new products and features. When they ship and when I have a need for them, I have no doubt that they’ll be extremely impressive in person.

But, at the end of the day, they’re just tools to make living easier and creating and consuming more interesting. I’m a loyal Apple customer not just because (apparently) that’s a popular thing to be these days. Rather, I buy Apple products because they’re high-quality and made by a company that, in most cases, stands squarely behind what they produce and try like hell to create a fabulous customer experience. Not many tech companies—particularly hardware makers—can honestly make the same claim.

(Didn’t me to go off on a mini-rant there, sorry!)

MS: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Brett. Can you share anything of your future plans and projects?

BK: My pleasure, man. It was super cool of you to invite me to do this. Thanks.

As for what’s up next, I’m working on the next version of Evernote Essentials and a super-secret thingie that I hope people like. Other than that, I’m just going to keep on trying like crazy to be a decent husband and father.

Check out more MacStories Interviews here.

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