My review of Yojimbo

You can read a follow-up to this review here.

Well, here is something I never expected to write. I am going to review Yojimbo – not the movie by Kurosawa or the comic by Stan Sakai, but the Mac OS X information organizer from Bare Bones Software, makers of BBEdit.

Why? Because I can. And because I have something to say about it.

Here is what Bare Bones say about Yojimbo on their website:

Yojimbo makes keeping all the small (or even large) bits of information that pour in every day organized and accessible. It’s so simple, there is no learning curve. Yojimbo’s mechanism for collecting, storing and finding information is so natural and effortless, it will change your life—without changing the way you work.

I am interested in personal productivity, so I decided to try the demo. I used it for a while to handle the things I come across that I want to read, blog about or cook (in the case of recipes). This blog post is about the things that started to annoy me quite rapidly. Now, if the following list sounds unreasonable, don’t blame me. Blame The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman. Reading it was an immensely liberating experience for me. Now, whenever I have trouble using something, I don’t feel like an idiot, I just blame the designer. Sounds stupid? I am quite serious.

Here is my litany of complaints about Yojimbo in no particular order:

Apple + I does not open the inspector. I can inspect items in Yojimbo. In other words, I can look at the fields and edit them. I am used to doing this using the Apple + I shortcut from other programs (Finder, iTunes). This doesn’t work in Yojimbo. I don’t know what Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines have to say about this, but I missed it.

Am I Moving to Trash or Deleting? The icon says one thing, the drop down menu says the other. Is there a difference? I am confused.

Tag Collections only use ‘and’ relationships between tags. You can make tag collections in Yojimbo, kind of like smart playlists in iTunes, only dumber. You can enter a number of tags, but the collection only selects items that have all of these tags (an ‘and’ relationship). You can’t have collections that select items that have any of the tags (an ‘or’ relationship).

Tag entry shortcuts suck. I can’t think of a better way to put it. I had the following tags: ‘to_blog’ and ‘to_read’. When I am tagging an item, I start typing ‘to_’. As soon as I hit the underscore, Yojimbo selects the first tag that start with ‘to_’ even though I had several other tags that start with ‘to_’. This is about as annoying as it gets. I renamed all my tags to (the inferior) ‘blog_it’, ‘read_it’, etc. Or, rather, I wanted to rename my tags, except:

Renaming tags is impossible. You just can’t do it in Yojimbo. Or at least I couldn’t find out how to do it in less than 30 seconds, which is the same thing. (Remember: I am not arrogant, I read Donald Norman’s book.)

Entering tags is counterintuitive. To me at least. Type ‘atag anothertag’ and you get ONE tag called ‘atag anothertag’, instead of two tags. You have to type ‘atag, anothertag’. To add insult to injury:

Tags that are not used keep hanging around.
There is no purge, you need to delete unusued tags by hand, and you cannot easily see if a tag is in use or not.

Adding items is inconsistent. In Yojimbo, you can add items using several different methods. Sadly, each method works slightly differently:

  • When you drop a link (a URL) on the drop dock, there is no feedback whatsoever, but the software creates a new item with the correct title and URL. You just have to go in later, find the item, and tag it, which is a) hard (see below) and b) bad workflow.
  • When you press F8 with a URL in the clipboard, Yojimbo creates an item with the correct title and URL, but you can’t enter tags (even though a dialog box pops up).
  • When you drag a link on to the dock icon, Yojimbo creates a new item that does not have the correct title (it uses the URL instead), but you can enter tags.

Each method does something different. You have to choose the lesser evil (the drop dock in my case).

I can’t make an ‘Untagged’ tag collection. This personally drives me nuts in a lot of tag- or collection-based software – the worst offender is OS X’s Address Book. If I want to do a GTD-like ‘throw into inbox, process later’ process, I need to be able to see what I haven’t processed yet. Only I can’t, because I can’t make a smart collection that checks for the absence of a tag, or the absence of all tags. Note that I don’t really want to process later, but I am forced to because I can’t easily enter tags for a new item (see above). I can’t implement the workflow I want using Yojimbo.

So there it is. I didn’t do full-fledged hyper-analytical testing, but I did try each thing a couple of times to make sure I wasn’t mistaken. As far as I can tell the natural thing I expected to happen, didn’t, every time.

I am still slightly puzzled about why I wrote all this. I think if over 75% of the items on this list hadn’t occurred to me in about 15 minutes, I never would have written it down.

Although I can get pretty passionate about software usability, I intend no disrespect towards the developers of Yojimbo or their ancestors. In fact, I am going to try and send them this in the hope that it is of some help (that is, if I can find some way of doing so short of signing up for their mailing list). Good feedback can be hard to get, and this post at least beats saying ‘Yojimbo sucks’ or just quietly looking for another piece of software.

Having said that, I am going to look for another information organizer.

Updated: Melodie Neal wrote a 6-part series of blog posts about her quest for a better information management tool. You can read it here. Her needs are slightly different from mine, but it was still a very good read.

Comments 5

  1. Falko wrote:

    This here is not intended to be some kind of information management tool, but perhaps it’s worth a look for you, if it hasn’t grabbed your attention already:

    http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.html

    It’s a writer’s tool, and it’s the best I’ve encountered so far.

    Posted 09 Apr 2007 at 20:42
  2. Jurie Horneman wrote:

    Thanks Falco, I didn’t know you used a Mac :). I’ve heard of Scrivener, but I’ve never taken a closer look. I will check it out!

    Posted 09 Apr 2007 at 22:25
  3. Falko wrote:

    “I didn’t know you used a Mac”

    Hey, actually it’s this year that I have used Mac hardware as long as my trusty Amiga 500 back in the days – and that was 8 years. There were 5 years of Windows hell in between … until the iMac Strawberry got me. :)

    Posted 10 Apr 2007 at 9:33
  4. Tom Scrace wrote:

    Thanks for this. I am on the hunt for a personal information manager too, and this helped a lot.

    The thing I most want to thank you for, though, is being unabashedly critical about something simply because you couldn’t use it.

    I can’t count the number of times I have become frustrated with some object, thrown it across the room and yelled ‘this is so badly designed’. People generally have a bad reaction to this, thinking me arrogant, or assuming I have not put in the requisite effort to make the thing work. I am firmly of the opinion that if I cannot use something that has been designed for the general population easily and quickly then it is badly designed. Sadly people seem to be strangely accepting of bad design, which is why there is so much of it.

    I think if we were all a bit less happy to accept badly designed products the world would be a better place.

    Posted 26 Feb 2008 at 19:09
  5. Jurie wrote:

    Tom: I totally let out my inner arrogant critic after reading Donald Norman’s Design of Everyday Things. Once you realize that when you push a door that needs pulling it’s not your fault, but the door designer’s, life becomes so much more pleasant :)

    Posted 27 Feb 2008 at 1:59