DashPlus: A Fascinating, But Difficult Todo App

There’s a certain risk in taking on the review of a 1.0 todo list. Some of them are incredibly ambitious, but lack too many features to be ready for primetime. Others are simply too novel to really be understood yet, and require a lot of time to get used to and understand. Not to mention the fact that todo list reviews are terribly subjective. My personal favourite todo list on the iPhone, and the only one I’ve been using religiously apart from the built-in Reminders system, is Begin, and app that helps me focus on today’s needs and not tomorrow’s — but I know a lot of people don’t care for it.

That’s why I’m a little nervous about reviewing DashPlus, the latest geeky todo list to hit the App Store market. Based on popular blogger Patrick Rhone’s task management system, the app is something of an enigma right now — it offers a largely new method of organization that requires a little bit of retraining. In other words, there’s a learning curve. I really respect Mr. Rhone’s work and quite like his writing, so I thought I’d give it a shot to see how I’d adapt. Read on for some of my thoughts about DashPlus to find out.

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A Whole New System

First of all, I need to get this out of the way first: DashPlus is impressive work. This is an app that needs some introduction, but I’ll start by saying that it’s clearly made for iOS 7. It’s simple, but powerful. It relies on as little of an interface as possible, using gestures to get out of the way where it can. And it smartly treats every single todo on your list as actionable.

This is what you'll see when you first open the app. It's truly unlike any other list app available.

This is what you’ll see when you first open the app. It’s truly unlike any other list app available.

That’s correct, every single thing you need to do is actionable with just a swipe. This is a big difference from the way that we interact with our lists now. Everything takes a few too many swipes and taps to be truly efficient for many of us, and until I discovered Begin, even I (a sworn all-digital convert) was using a Moleskine to keep track of what I had to do every day.

DashPlus takes each actionable line and lets me change it the way I would on paper. You swipe to the left or right to change any item. You can delegate them via email (or add a note to it to suggest their delegations instead). You can mark them as “waiting,” which is like saying that you can’t complete the task while waiting for a colleague’s part to be complete.

There are some interactions that are just bizarre; they'll take a total retraining of everything you think you know about apps.

There are some interactions that are just bizarre; they’ll take a total retraining of everything you think you know about apps.

You can mark items as important, move them to Maybe lists with ease, and even have quick review modes to get a glance of what has to be done. Some of this is similar to what we’ve seen before from other apps, which makes sense — after all, a GTD (Getting Things Done) app is a GTD app. But they’re done in a completely new way that comes with both its perks and its flaws.

Embracing New Methodology

I was talking with a developer about todo apps earlier this year and mentioned the book that really kickstarted the whole GTD craze, David Allen’s Getting Things Done. The developer had never heard of the book, so I suggested reading it while he worked on his own app. I thought it might have some interesting things to reveal. It turns out it did.

DashPlus has a few baked-in settings that make the app  a little more manageable.

DashPlus has a few baked-in settings that make the app a little more manageable.

DashPlus is based entirely on the Getting Things Done methodology described in the book. If you haven’t read it (which I haven’t), you’ll have to trust me while I quote all the bloggers who talk ceaselessly about it. The book breaks up getting things done into a few different steps (these are taken straight from DashPlus’s description page, which does a better job explaining this than I could):

  • collect: add an item to your Inbox from anywhere within the app by simply shaking the iPhone (collection bucket)
  • process: action your items. Can be done in two minutes? Do it, and mark is as done (+). Will take longer? Delegate it or defer it (arrows actions). Not actionable? Move it to a “Maybe” list. Important? Mark it as such (triangle) and review it from the important items pane
  • organize: tag list, sort them, easily move items to another list (empty your inbox in seconds)
  • review: keep your system functional, pop-up one of the synthesis tables to have an overview of what is left, what is delayed, what is important and what needs a follow-up
  • do: the app and the device are really smart, but they cannot do your job for you, sorry.

In that sense, this app is trying to embrace everything you were ever taught about getting things done by professionals who are getting more done than you every day. I really do applaud this. It’s a great way to get work done, and if you think about it, it’s very similar to the way our own minds work and catalogue everything we need to do in our mentally-itemized lists.

The app even includes a landscape mode, and some geeky things like x-callback-url support.

The app even includes a landscape mode, and some geeky things like x-callback-url support.

For what it’s worth, the app works exactly as advertised — once you learn the system. The problem is, the system takes some serious time to learn.

The Learning Curve

While the app’s core philosophies are great (and it even comes with a landscape mode for those of us who believe in typing with two fingers across a larger keyboard), the problem is its gesture-based UI. I really like Mr. Rhone, so I hope he’ll forgive me for saying this, but in an attempt to provide his own brand of his constantly-praised minimalism, I don’t think he’s provided enough real simplicity.

It should not be this hard to learn how to use an app like this.

It should not be this hard to learn how to use an app like this.

Swiping an item on your list to the right allows you to place an action on it (I don’t know a better way to describe it than that). The problem is, there are no fewer than five different options as you slide your finger across the screen. Instead of using words to help make the system clearer, which would really have helped, Mr. Rhone’s philosophy uses icons instead.

So, a triangle marks an app as something you need to remember. A dash marks it undone, a plus sign marks it as finished (which is truly bizarre when the plus sign is also used to add an item to a list when you pull down on the screen), a right arrow marks the item as waiting, and a left arrow marks it as delegated. One word expresses my frustration with all this: GAH. It’s too much. There’s no part of me that recognizes “+” as the symbol for “That item on my todo list is completed.” It makes very little sense to me.

While it’s unfair of me to assume that it doesn’t make sense to everybody, I think it’s safe to assume that Rhone and developer David Mendels thought it would be difficult to understand. The app comes with several tutorial videos that help explain the core concepts of the app, all of which are useful, but none of which should be necessary.

Final Thoughts

The core concept of a GTD app should be to help you get things done as quickly and efficiently as possible. DashPlus is a mixed bag, in that regard. If you really believe in using the app to accomplish things, you’re going to have to “rewire” yourself to get a better understanding of all the icons and glyphs. The rest of us are going to get frustrated, because they stand in our way as barriers to entry.

Let me be clear: that’s a tremendous shame, because the rest of the app is arguably executed brilliantly. In fact, I’d imagine that it could be one of the best GTD app on the App Store once you get the hang of it. But the learning curve is more than a bit too high. The thing is, I don’t want to have to learn how to add items to a todo list. I just want a place to store a list of things I’m likely never to do anyway. In that regard, while DashPlus is nearly as fast as a pen and paper, it doesn’t fit into my requirements — and I’m unsure it will fit into yours as well.


Summary

DashPlus is a fascinating and intriguing approach to getting work done, but it's hampered by a learning curve that's simply too steep and by user input that's almost nonsensical.

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