Part 2 of an Interview with Mike & Jesse: WorkFlowy Features Present and Future


November 19, 2015


This is the 2nd of a 2-part interview with Jesse Patel and Mike Turitzin, WorkFlowy’s co-creators. Mike and Jesse talk about WorkFlowy features, the inspiration behind it all and big dreams for the future. Get the first part of the interview here.

FRANK: Is there anything you can tell us about your inspiration for or any epiphany concerning WorkFlowy’s zoom? Would it be an overstatement to say that the ability to zoom into lists is WorkFlowy’s superpower?

JESSE: Zooming is definitely Workflowy’s superpower.

I tried a bunch of outliners before starting to work on it, and they all had the same problem: If you start a huge project in it, that has many big sub projects, which have many significant sub sub projects of their own, you quickly get to a point where the page feels overwhelming. In most, you can’t zoom, so you can’t infinitely keep drilling down as something gets more complex, or as some small part of a bigger project explodes into a big project of its own. Those where you can zoom, it is usually clunky and unintuitive, so you don’t do much and it is a hassle.

And that is what I was after. I am a bit scatterbrained, so I like to write down every little step of what I’m doing. So my documents tend to get super big and unwieldy really quickly, and I just knew that I needed to be able to zoom in and treat any part of my bigger document like its own little document.

MIKE: I do think the particular way WorkFlowy handles zooming is a big part of why the product clicks for people. A number of the outliners of yesteryear support a feature called “hoisting”, but it doesn’t feel like a primary way of using them, and the way of interacting with it is clunky.

I was familiar with outliners before WorkFlowy, but I never used them. I think that in a way was an advantage in my work with WorkFlowy, because normal outliners (at least the ones in use circa 2010) were not compelling to me – I wanted to make a hierarchical list-making app that was a joy to use.


FRANK: Could you give us some insight into how difficult it actually is to roll out any new feature? Take, for instance, one of the relatively recent additions… the ability to select multiple, arbitrary lists (Alt+Click).

JESSE: Doing things in a really smooth and nice way is hard, and takes a lot of time. Multi-select is a great example. Mike did an amazing job with it and it feels simple and clean.

I just looked at the timestamps on that project and it looks like it took from mid/late May of 2014 until mid July. So, a month and a half at least for that feature that looks/feels simple, but has so many different things going on, so many different browser quirks to work around, etc., that getting it out the door was really time intensive.

MIKE: We (well, particularly I) are perfectionists about the product, and this makes new features take longer, but I think it has been worth it. When we add something new, we think how it can integrate with everything else in the product and how to do things in the most elegant way possible. I am quite averse to new features that feel like they are “tacked on” to the rest of the product. Everything should integrate seamlessly and in a way that makes sense.

FRANK: One gets the feeling that if you were to implement all reasonable requests on people’s wish lists, WorkFlowy might get a tad bloated. Any thoughts on that? Do you have any WorkFlowy philosophy that guides your decision making that’s not documented anywhere?

JESSE: I don’t think that most of the requests we get would bloat the software. Once in a while someone says something that seems incredibly specific or misaligned with our philosophy, but most of the time it makes sense.

Our philosophy so far has been that basically it is text lists with superpowers. So doing anything in WorkFlowy should just feel like typing, and the more familiar you get with it, the faster and more intuitive it gets.

As I said, I don’t think it’s the features that would bloat the software, but rather the way we implemented them and exposed them to the user. We aren’t geniuses, though, so we could definitely mess it up.

MIKE: Disagree that we aren’t geniuses. J/K.

This goes back to the general point that a big part of a product feeling bloated is not how much you can do with it but rather how well-integrated everything is. So, for example, Microsoft Word feels bloated because it shows you endless menus and rows of icons. If new functionality can be added in a way that feels natural (like allowing importing content simply by pasting it into an empty item, for example), then the product simply feels powerful and intuitive rather than bloated.

I think that most new features can be added in a way that increases power but not bloat or complexity. There are some features I struggle with, but it’s a fun challenge to try to do everything in the best way possible.

FRANK: The overwhelming majority of WorkFlowydom loves WorkFlowy’s minimalist feel and dynamic. Given that… and provided you had the development capabilities in place, how far does your vision stretch in terms of additional features? What features would you, yourselves, kill for?

JESSE: My imagination stretches very far, and there are a million features/improvements I’d like to make.

I think that minimalism and lots of features are not opposed to one another. It is instead the way of implementing new features that allows a product to stay minimal. We have added a ton of new features over the years, yet kept the product minimal.

If every feature is pushed into people’s faces through the interface, then you get what feels like feature bloat. If, instead, you are using a product and you think, “I wish it did X,” and then thirty seconds later you realize, “Oh, it does do X”, then you’ve got a minimalist product.

The features I personally want most? I’d like a better native mobile app, I’d like a left bar so it was easier to navigate to dramatically different parts, I’d like image support, I’d like a ton of stuff related to collaboration and communication so that I could draw people’s attention to things, see updates when people change things, just have that whole flow be easy for communicating with people inside of it. I’d like some concept of dates, but for me I’d probably be more interested in recurring stuff, so I could use it more effectively to build a regular schedule for myself. I’d like to have something around tags and templates, so I could quickly type something in and pop in a structure that I’ll then fill in. I’d really like to have a way for people to share such templates with one another, and I’d also like to have a way for people to easily create interactive how-to’s and tutorials for workflowy, that provide a person with a WorkFlowy structure for a given person and then guide them through using that structure, so that we could have a community of best practice that evolves over time to discover and share different ways of using the tool. I’d like to make it easy to link from one place in WorkFlowy to another, so that you could represent graphs easily instead of just trees. I’d like to have an API that let you both control the interface and build new interfaces for WorkFlowy (as well as more normal stuff). I’d like to make a nice way to publish WorkFlowies, including more presentation type display (which really just means making everything bigger). I’d like to let you sort your sub lists in different ways. I’d like to let you view multiple sublists at once, side by side or maybe in a grid of sorts. I’d like to have much faster collaboration, so there’s no lag when editing. There is an endless list, honestly. Most of the stuff people want, I’d really like to do.

FRANK: Does the current set of features we have stem predominantly from your very own use of WorkFlowy or do you also anticipate features you think others might need even though you don’t?

JESSE: It comes primarily from our own use cases, plus that avalanche of feedback we get from our users. This actually frustrates me a bit, because our jobs aren’t that typical and I really would like to have a design process that focuses more on our users than on ourselves. It is super important for us to use the product, but I’d really like to design with more empathy, and actually do things like date support, which a lot of people with real jobs that involve meetings and deadlines need.

MIKE: I do have a very empathetic relationship with myself, but I agree with Jesse that we have some blind spots that are due to our own use cases for the product. We tend to weigh things that we will use a lot more heavily, which is human nature, but also can lead to important things being pushed off into the future.

FRANK: Do you have any secret WorkFlowy features that you reserve for yourselves (and which you would never ever admit)?

JESSE: Not really. We have a few administrative things we can do, but those aren’t really features, just things that help us with customer support.

MIKE: The closest thing to this is probably the “hidden search operators,” but we have blogged about them which makes them not-so-hidden 🙂

We of course have been planning to make these less hidden, particularly in terms of viewing what has changed recently.

In general, we try not to use anything that isn’t clearly documented and intuitive for other people, because that creates blind spots where we don’t realize that important functionality is missing for others.

FRANK: Any thoughts about an open API (to let others go wild)?

JESSE: Would love to do it. We haven’t yet because it feels like a big project that we have no idea how to really approach.

FRANK: Over the last couple of years, has your job of convincing people to onboard gotten any easier? Why do you think it is that so many people don’t click at first… and in many cases only get their Eureka moment months or years later?

JESSE: You know, this is what kills me. We still stink at onboarding I think, and it is one of the things that if we nailed it, we would be growing a lot more quickly and just be in a totally different place as a product and a company.

I am thinking about this all the time, but here are a few thoughts.

  1. One of the benefits of WorkFlowy is the familiar document-like interface. However, because most documents don’t zoom, many people don’t get it and find the zooming jarring. They haven’t shifted their thinking, and we haven’t helped them shift their thinking, so they miss on one of the main benefits of the program.
  2. We only provide one document, because zooming means every item in your document is also a document. However, a lot of people don’t quite get this, and they just start their main document as if it is a normal list, say, of contacts, or todos, or whatever. So they do not create higher level categories and miss out on the whole point of workflowy. Moreover, they get frustrated that they can’t figure out how to “create another list”. This is mostly an interface issue, and I think our plans for a left bar to make navigating easier is a good step toward giving people a sense of how to use the product.
  3. We start people with a blank slate. We provide a few help videos, but I don’t think those are very helpful for really getting people started. We need to do a much better job helping people figure out how to structure their WorkFlowy, what to put in it, and how to get started in general, seeing examples of how other people use WorkFlowy. I’ve spent a lot of time on our onboarding and it feels to me like this is an area that is still incredibly weak, and that the average person doesn’t quickly get to a place of excitement and insight about how the product can help them. Enough of them do that we have a lot of users, and those who do get excited enough that they preach the WorkFlowy gospel, but we’re still doing a poor job on this.

MIKE: User onboarding is a difficult problem in general, and the open-ended nature of WF makes it all the more difficult.

As Jesse said, we are still bad in the onboarding department. We have been lucky to have spread mostly through word-of-mouth, which means that people can tell their friends what’s cool about WF and how they use it – which is basically the first stage of onboarding. That means that even if we do a bad job at onboarding, people may still “get it” because they were introduced by a trusted friend.

We know for a fact that we lose a lot of people due to confusion about how (or why) to use the product. And given how excited people are once it clicks, that is certainly a loss for us, and something we continue to try and improve.

FRANK: I’ve seen this exact same concern far and wide from organizational tool users across the board – here’s a snippet from a certain forum: “My greatest fear is that WorkFlowy disappears one day… because it would be tough to manage without it now.” Any authoritative words of assurance from the horse’s mouth?

JESSE: WorkFlowy is a strong and stable small business, so it isn’t going to die because we can’t pay the bills.

We’ve already been approached about selling a number of times, and we haven’t done it yet.

Lastly, if we did sell, we’d be very inclined to sell to a company that would actually want to invest in the product.

FRANK: I’d love to see any real-life list/ hierarchy of yours – something you can give us an inside look at – whether semi-top secret or mundane. For one, we know that you plan WorkFlowy in WorkFlowy…

JESSE: Here’s a high level view of our master list:

Well, I recently did an experiment to try to increase the number of people in shared documents who start using WorkFlowy elsewhere in their lives. It was a massive failure. Here’s the list I used to manage that project:

I did this outside of the actual WorkFlowy shared list because I’ve been experimenting with a GTD flow in my own private WorkFlowy. If Mike and I had been working on this together, however, it would have been in the WorkFlowy section, and it probably should have been in there anyway.

FRANK: Do you reckon you (the creators of WorkFlowy) might have some rather unique/ uncommon way(s) of using your document that you haven’t seen before on the web?

JESSE: You know, I’m not sure we do. I/we use it for everything, and in a lot of different way, but a lot of users do too. Don’t think this is particularly novel, but I often structure projects in the following way:

I drag stuff between the lists as I work on them. I’m not sure that’s particularly novel or interesting, but it is what came to mind.

MIKE: I also wouldn’t say we really use particular tricks that we haven’t seen other people use. I think the way a person uses WorkFlowy is very much the same as the way that person thinks and gets things done in general. WF lets you organize things however you like, so it lets people do whatever they want (which is both what makes it great, and what makes it hard to explain to people).

My style of working on a project is to first write copious notes in a “brain dump” style where I just unload everything I’m thinking about in a somewhat disorganized manner. I will then organize it a bit and move things around.

Once that is done, I’ll create an “Implementation plan” section where I specifically outline each of the steps I’m going to take to finish the project or task at hand. These steps are precisely ordered based on dependencies and also generally trying to do the simple things first and the more complicated things later.

I’ll then further break down each step in the implementation plan, often going multiple levels deeper for each one.

I’ve been using this process (in WorkFlowy) for years now, and it really works well for me.

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Tim Beyers
5 years ago

Thanks for working on the API. My hope is that it’ll soon be live so that we’ll have the ability to create an Alfred app workflow integration.

5 years ago

“Moreover, they get frustrated that they can’t figure out how to “create another list.””

A simple solution may be to implement a “New Home List” button that takes the current home list and makes it a child of a newly created home list.

Experienced users can obviously do this in seconds, but to brand new users this could make all the difference in converting them.

5 years ago

So glad to read this interview! It confirms that the guys behind WorkFlowy have what I believe is EXACTLY the right perspective on app development. I 100% agree with the comments about “bloated” or not being a matter of how well things are integrated. You can have TONS of features that feel seamless and an app will still feel minimalist and be a joy to use. I so appreciate that you guys GET this! I’ve also appreciated the “bulletproof” nature of any updates that do arrive in WorkFlowy. Keep up the awesome work team!

Excited to see that many of the “wish list” features mentioned here are also exactly in line with my own wish list. Gives me great trust that WorkFlowy is a safe place to keep my life, and it isn’t going to suddenly go off the deep end and change radically enough that my systems break. (I’ve frustrating had that experience with other apps!)

Add me to the list of folks who would now be LOST without WorkFlowy.

Roman Walther
Roman Walther
6 years ago

Hi Frank,
thanks for your initiative to start the communication with us WF customers on a regular basis. It is very much appreciated since silence and uncertainty is the worst to keep up a trusty business relationship. I really do enjoy reading what is going on behind the scene and I am much more confident to even extend my usage of WF. As a pro user I’d also like to support you Jesse and Mike in advocating your. If you need any support for the german speaking world, just let me know, I’d love to help you out here.

Keep up your awesome work
All the best from Austria

6 years ago

A way to share workflowy templates and make guides would really help the “onboarding” I think. It was mainly the examples in Frank’s book that has led me to develop a way to make workflowy work for my life. Prior I was mainly just using it for basic lists and journaling. In fact I am working on a project that I haven’t seen anyone use workflowy for yet, at least not in this specific way, but I think will be extremely helpful and I’d like to share it at some point, if it turns out to be has helpful as I think.

Nice to read some of the behind the scenes stories in these last 2 blog posts. And that list of your own desired features is making me drool.

6 years ago
Reply to  NS

@NS, I’d love to take a look at your project in WF. It’s always great to see new use cases, particularly the dynamics involved 😉

6 years ago
Reply to  frank.dg

Will do! It’s still a work in progress but I’ll try and get something presentable to you show you at some point soon.

6 years ago
Reply to  NS

I second the recommendation to have a public/shared collection of templates. Some of my big breakthroughs have been when reading through the examples blog posts that show others work flows.

Dr Andus
6 years ago

Reblogged this on Dr Andus's toolbox.

6 years ago

Just wanna say thanks for showing different ways of using WorkFlowy. With such an open ended product, it’s really helpful to see concrete examples of other people’s workflows.

I thought I was power user until I read your book Frank, but learned heaps of really useful tips that have helped get my giant WorkFlowy doc in order!

Thanks Jesse and Mike for a god-send of a product! I have no idea how I ever functioned without it.

6 years ago

I’m a pro user and went from “this is interesting” to “I will die without this — take my money now!!!” in about a week and a half. I’m also a Engineering Program Manager with a background in usability and particular needs based on my work.

How about a user’s group to help provide input from multiple viewpoints? A selection of pro users (hint hint) who would provide input. You could role out beta feature and let them beat ’em up and find all the weird bugs that only users find. You could ask them about their workflows in more detail. I’m thinking a cross section of artists, engineers, homemakers, and maybe the occasional program manager. You could even point them to sample workflows that have click tracking integrated so you can see how people approach your product. I’ve run groups like this before and they can be an invaluable resource for countering the myopia that focused engineering teams sometimes get.

I’m happy to see your commitment, not only to the product, but to your specific vision of the product. Thanks for sharing it with all of us.

Dave Stewart
6 years ago
Reply to  Ivy

Workflowy would really benefit from being on Get Satisfaction

Gloria Lassich
4 years ago
Reply to  Ivy

A forum for WF would be FAN-FREAKING-TASTIC!

6 years ago

@cflat7 Wouldn’t we all like to know!? 🙂 You’d be hard-pressed to find any app developer at all giving a ballpark estimate/ projection. That’s just not something that is ever disclosed, really. I’d rather any new features come out in their own good time than have a developer pressured to roll out a half-baked feature to keep people tinkering.

Look at the classic example of Evernote (I was/ am heavily involved in the forums)… They pumped out new bug-ridden features that caused untold PR damage – which is still having repercussions until today. And it was admitted that it was intended to create a buzz. New features are always welcome… but I’d like to know that they don’t cause any road bumps in the process. “Slow and steady wins the race” is fine by me.

It was from the above perspective that I did not ask a question which may not have been a fair one to ask. I think what’s more important is that we get a feel for WorkFlowy’s vision and philosophy – and know that there is much happening behind the scenes all the while.

One thing Jesse has mentioned on the blog here fairly recently is that they’re working on ways to onboard people through the sharing of WorkFlowy lists. That, I think, fits in with the direction that Jesse was heading in with his answers. We may or may not hear from him on that one. One thing is for sure… everything I know about the behind-the-scenes is in the last 2 posts. So we’re all in this together… and it feels like this boat is pressing on steadily downstream (or upstream if you prefer).

6 years ago
Reply to  frank.dg

Yeah, I didn’t expect an answer to when, but the what would be interesting. Of course, everyone is hopefully for their pet feature will be next (mine being the time/date stuff)… so I suppose it’s fair to continue to keep us guessing so that that the lobbyists are kept at bay. 🙂

6 years ago

Some great questions, with great answers.

The one question I was most interested in, and hoping that would be asked was something like, “What are the top 1 or 2 things you are currently working on, and what is the planned release date for them (even a ball-bark)?”

Perhaps it was asked, but the answers weren’t forthcoming. 🙂

Stefano F. Rausch
6 years ago

Very reassuring to have the chance to look “behind the curtains”. Thank you.

As I see it WorkFlowy is open for extension / overlay ( even though this is not as simple for the man on the street ) and closed for modification ( OCP ) and that is good. And yes, it can take a while — for me quite a long time — to get the hang of it and to appreciate how flexible WorkFlowy is. It is all about changing the perspective and I am happy to slowly but surely leaving behind all the bells and whistles.

Keep up the good work!

6 years ago

First: thank you Frank for asking such awesome questions! They’re things I often wonder myself! Second: thank you Jessie and Mike for your time!

Jessie’s comments on onboarding were enlightening and will make me a better advocate for WorkFlowy. Because WorkFlowy has been so valuable to me I recommend it any chance I get. However, because I instantly realized WorkFlowy’s value and quickly came to love it, I wasn’t aware that people had these sticking points. It might explain why none of the people I share WorkFlowy with stay with it. I’ll keep Jessie’s points in mind for future demo’s.

6 years ago
Reply to  rekluce

I got a lot more back than I was bargaining for. I mean, which app developer speaks so candidly? 🙂

6 years ago

As a web developer myself, regarding the API, I’ve always seen the outline / zoom mechanism as the core product, then every other feature should work as a plugin.

I’m sure once a bunch of user cases were applied to this idea, a plugin architecture would become apparent.

Dave Stewart
6 years ago

“Our philosophy so far has been that basically it is text lists with superpowers. So doing anything in WorkFlowy should just feel like typing, and the more familiar you get with it, the faster and more intuitive it gets.”

That’s *exactly* how I feel about WorkFlowy! Please don’t let that change, ever 🙂

6 years ago

Glad to see that the list of new features I’d like to see is very similar to Jesse’s. Good luck in your work, guys!
Also, honestly, I’m not a Pro user, but I’ve decided to go Pro after the next major update (like sidebar or pictures or mobile app update etc.). Anyone going with me?

6 years ago
Reply to  Tom

Hey Tom, there’s no time like the present to support a powerhouse app. I imagine that a sidebar would be like training wheels for newbies. Once you’re in the full swing of things you don’t need it anymore. I can’t personally see why that particular feature might be needed, given how one can manage your brain as it is… but I’d like to tinker with any new feature, for sure.

What I’m getting at (apart from mobile app updates) is that you can do so much as it is. I have a WorkFlowy list that houses absolutely all of my book content, including Markdown image references. The whole bang-shoot. So it can be done presently – yet I’ll be the first rooting for inline image display.

Once you squeeze all you can out of the present WorkFlowy that we do already have, I just don’t see how one could get by without WorkFlowy Pro. If so, I think either it’s really being under utilized and/ or one doesn’t quite see what can actually be done in WorkFlowy yet… or one must be getting a ton of people to sign up (like a few I know of) and as a result getting extra lists.

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