What would your ideal mobile PKM app look like?

I feel like PKM on a small glass brick with a tiny, non-tactile keyboard taking up over a third of the screen is a hard problem. There are lot of challenges involved.

But let’s dream big (or in this case small). What would you actually want from your dream mobile PKM app?

I feel like I would want to focus on a combination of quick capture and remembrance agent type functionality. Capturing as much context as possible alongside quick capture notes (location, scheduled calendar events, people nearby?) then surfacing notes with similar contexts.

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Search in content&titles working like on desktop Obsidian.
Ability to open multiple notes, horizontal split.

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I find it very annoying that Roam thinks I just want to capture info on mobile. If I have PKM, I want to reference and read that information, I want to search for information. The more information I have in the PKM, the more I will want to do those things. For instance, I use PKM apps (Obsidian, Roam, etc.) as a CRM. If I see someone I know and forget their name, or their kid’s name, I want to be able to look that info up fast. Right now (on Roam) it seems to take forever from app launch to being able to conduct a search… And if I have my shopping list in a note, I want to be able to call it up quickly and check things off as I shop. Quick Capture is often the last thing on my mind on mobile (though when I do need to write something down that should be easy as well).

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Great topic!

First, I think it’s important to define “mobile.” I’m typing this from an 11” iPad Pro. I can pull up Obsidian via a remote desktop solution (Luna Display, in this case) and it looks and works just fine on this device:
Screen Shot 2020-05-26 at 7.59.32 AM.png

In turn, I suspect that Obsidian would work and look great on most tablet form factors. Perhaps limiting the number of panes that can open would be necessary, but otherwise I wouldn’t want to see any arbitrary constraints placed on the app’s design for a tablet.

Phones, of course, are a different story. As @Luhmann pointed out, we can’t assume the user’s use case. I would find equal use in looking up tasks (like Luhmann’s grocery list example), in editing notes, and heck, even writing longform notes with lots of linking (e.g., while stuck in an airport or something).

The phone form factor makes for some complex design decisions, for sure, but the answer to complexity is simplicity—not erasing the complexity. I hate patronizing designs: those that “take care of the user” by limiting what they can do. It is absolutely unnecessary. Look at Numbers, Ulysses, MindNode, or OmniGraffle on an iPhone. These apps all effectively have feature parity with their macOS counterparts, but they allow users to control only what functionality they can access (progressive disclosure). Meanwhile, apps like Mail have key features removed (Mail Rules?), leaving users with confused expectations and frustration that their device-of-choice is being treated as an accessory device. (It seems like nearly every iOS 14 wish list discusses the need for a refresh of Mail.) Evernote is another example of a powerful desktop app that treated (treats? I don’t use it anymore) its mobile users poorly.

Clearly Obsidian’s user base appreciates powerful tools and customizability. Personally, I’m desperate for an uncompromising note-taking experience on mobile devices. C’mon, Obsidian! You can do it!

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For the sake of stating the obvious, I’m going to state the obvious and hope it’s helpful but not too obvious.

I need to be able to put all kinds of things together — PDFs, webarchives, text files, images — and to be able to connect them, ie with tags or some other way. So, for instance, if I’m planning a trip to Boston for a conference, I can keep my travel info, which may be pdfs, in one place and my technical conference notes, which may be a combination of markdown notes I made, pdfs, web sites or web archives of “calculators,” and maybe audio recordings, in a different place. There may also be emails or some version of emails in the collection.

I need to be able to access some of it or all of it. I need to be able to filter it easily. Maybe temporarily bookmark some of it. And I need to be able see my filtered search results clearly on the screen.

A usable iOS share sheet is important. In general DEVONthink to Go’s share sheet functionality is good. (I’m not speaking of how well the app works, just its ability to collect anything of any sort.)

Ultimately, however, the ability to not just capture and review stuff but the ability to write in the thing is hugely important. Hence some important UI “feature requests” would be awesome.

  1. The keyboard should not take up as much screen real estate as the Dynalist keyboard takes up, and
  2. it would be awesome to be able to use the app in landscape mode.

Thanks for making the app. I’m a non-(computer)-technical person, but have been looking for years for something like Obsidian (or Roam) to organize my (medical) technical notes and ideas. (DEVONthink is just files and folders, ultimately. IDK … it just wasn’t quite working for me. Dynalist began to be useful but the iOS implementation was cumbersome.)

Trying to be helpful here. I hope my comments are taken in that spirit. :slightly_smiling_face:

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Thanks guys, this exactly the kind of feedback I was looking for.
To be clear, when I’m talking about mobile, I’m mainly talking about phones. I’m sure most tablets could handle a full-fat Obsidian with no troubles at all.

But I’m not just looking at Obsidian, either. I’m trying to think “outside the box”. For example, if Obsidian was no-compromise ported to mobile with a great experience, what plugins would make the mobile experience better? What external apps/functionality would make your Vault more useful while out and about? Thinking wider, what unique capabilities of your mobile experience would enhance your notes for when you’re back at your desktop (or anywhere)?

There are some good insights in this thread already. Keep it coming, guys :smile:

The idea of ‘quick capture’ is summed up, in my opinion, more ideally in @ryanjamurphy comment of not erasing the complexity. Simply rather to keep it in the background yet accessible. To keep it sleek and easy to use, but powerful and highly useful.

To answer the question, obviously importing data is important. From photos i take, maybe a location sticker, audio recording, note taking or even flat out writing pages on my device. Tracking information as well, from pomodoros to timers, activity logging. Easy to read and listen to, text to audio feature. For when im reviewing something important.

Would sharing knowledge branches be too much? Like I’m writing notes on Economic effects of Corona virus and someone else has useful information under pure Medical notes and another person on pure Political notes. In the end you have a tree which doesnt originate from you alone

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I think on a small device, the most important feature needs to be quick capture. I use an iPhone so I’m speaking specifically from the iOS side but I’m sure most things have an equivalent on Android.

Two things are key for a PKM on mobile I think namely,

  1. Siri support: Summoning Siri to quickly dictate notes is a godsend. Enough said.
  2. Shortcuts support: The app must expose its funcionalities through shortcuts so that we can combine capturing text, audio, images, etc. with other apps that are part of our workflow already. Plus this also integrates with Siri so allows a lot of voice commands eventually.

I also think that the performance of running the app from background to quickly capture is crucial when not using Siri as above. I can think of two ways to solve that issue since most apps are usually too slow to open and be ready to type something.

  1. Have a separate companion app which is extremely lightweight and does only one thing, quick capture. On the phone, it can be set up in the dock for quick access and on tablets, it can be used in quick pull over when using other apps replicating an almost Mac like experience that some task management apps like Omnifocus or Things do for quick capture. Basically, an app like Drafts but just integrated with the obsidian vault.
  2. There could be a way perhaps to make the single app more performant if by default it launches only a quick capture screen whenever launched and that’s all that’s loaded into memory. When the user would like to view the notes, they’d need to tap an extra button to open the vault which then could load everything. Basically, optimising the app for write mode as opposed to read mode by default. There can be a setting perhaps for the user to select which mode to keep default.
  1. Capture

On mobile particularly it’s very easy for the brain to spit out ideas faster than our dinosaur thumbs can type/write. The only way to bottle such idea storm is by having audio recording functionality immediately available - 2 touches MAX i.e. step 1: quicklaunch app, step 2: action to start recording - even better is just a single step, as can be put together with siri shortcuts.

But then if you don’t revise your recordings often enough, you easily end up staring at a wall of hundreds of audio files you need to relisten to… I been there couple of times over the years and sometimes just end up declaring bankruptcy deleting it all.

Speech-to-text might look like the obvious solution but I found it isn’t when put to the test, because you’re trying to capture a superfast succession of thoughts where as you’re capturing the first thought but your brain is already pushing out severel branches of related follow-up thoughts so you need zero-fail superfast capturing precision, and speech-to-text although extremely good in the majority of cases, isn’t able to deliver on that - at least not for me (might be due to me being non-native english while capturing in english).

The holy grail does exist already though, but I found it properly implemented in only a single app:


On the surface this looks nothing special and similar to what many other apps or even a custom build siri shortcut can do, but what asana got right here is that 1. they do not only transcribe the text for you, but they ALSO keep the original audio recording next to it. Sounds obvious, but other apps and even siri shortcuts don’t do that, which means they’re not a viable solution.

Sidenote: the transcription piece is handled by Apple, so it’s a readily available service any app can hook into.

Now instead of a wall of audio messages, or a wall of sometimes total nonsense text, you end up with a wall of text which makes enough sense in a lot of cases to immediately understand what the thought was about, while if it doesn’t then the idea isn’t lost because you can still relisten to the original audio recording.

I don’t use asana at all except for this one single functionality which they really nailed.
Which brings me to my second gripe with mobile apps:

  1. Swipe

It’s a wasted opportunity every time an app requires multistep touches to perform repetitive tasks while at the same time completely neglecting swipe functionality.

No need to go deeper into this as I think it’s obvious enough. I’ll leave an example of an email app which does this well https://apps.apple.com/app/unibox/id933879046 and similar to the Obsidian philosophy allows users to configure the behaviour, in this case what they want their swipe action to do or not do.

  1. Speed is really important. Evernote is quite slow in loading, while Apple Notes is very fast. It’s only a couple seconds, but it makes a big difference.

  2. If I can save notes to it using Siri, that’d be amazing.

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For the time being i use Google Keep for the mobile quick capture. It is quite good. You can record your voice. You can speech to text. You can share links. It even has ocr so you can turn pics into text.

On Google chrome, Keep has this really cool extension that you don’t even have to copy and paste. you just highlight the text and then it is stored in keep with the url as well.

Oh yeah! i can actually watch youtube videos and take notes in the chrome extension while watching it. Pretty cool.

Another cool thing about mobile capture on Android , is the split screen. i can read a book on my tablet, or phone, and copy my notes straight into keep. If you are on Google Play Books, all your highlights and notes export automatically to a google doc… I think you have to set it up first?

But, you can do a lot on mobile. From catching instantaneous ideas with ONE CLICK on a widget, to taking video or book notes.

Of course…

I tag this #obsidian and then import them into Obsidan when i have time.

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I think MarginNote 3 for iPad is a wonderful app, because it can use addons just like in Mac. I hope Obsidian can reference from it.

I’d like to celebrate the QuickDynalist app that I use on Android. You can create items by voice, enter text from the notification screen and use widgets with filtered items. A dashboard is particularly important for finding your way between projects, though I admit it’s usefulness for knowledge management is less.

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@death.au: thanks a lot for creating this thread, and thanks to everyone who participated. There’s so much good feedback that we’ll be sure to refer back to when planning out our mobile app.

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I’d like to be able to organize, make connections, and generally play around in my notes while I’m waiting for a doctor or if I’m just killing a few minutes in between calls. I don’t have the time to do real writing. But I do have the time to dip into an app and do some high level bonsai maintenance.

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I know I might be in the minority, but I’d like to be able to get notifications for things like due dates, etc. Maybe even if we get some kind of SRMS plugin, it could prompt me via notification.

For myself there is a pretty big difference in needs between pad and phone. I need to be able to work on the ipad with full functionality. On the phone a simple quick capture would be fine.

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Guy I really hope you will enable to use custom CSS… if I have 2 different looks in computer and in mobile it is not going to work. I have highly customized CSS and switching between different themes will just lead to confusion.

I also want to stress that customization of Obsidian is one of most important feature. You should build the mobile app with this in your mind. I will bet there isn’t one app in Apple store with this ability. Not saying about any note-taking apps…

You are doing great work! Thank you for all!

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For the phone:

  • Speed is critical
  • Quick capture of anything into a dedicated space in the vault is core
  • Powerful search is a must for me
  • Sync with a custom (meaning private) vault
    For the pad:
    As much as possible from the desktop edition as I use my iPad as a substitute for my Mac quite often. On the other hand, this is something that can be built up gradually.
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I may be missing something here, but…my sense of the feelings in this thread is that folks who want instant entry to Obsidian for urgent thoughts already have that in the Apple ecosphere on the iPhone with 1Writer or iAWriter to name just two apps that already interact well with Obsidian. On the other hand, there is no app for the iPad that can fully interact with the myriad other things (too numerous to list) Obsidian offers on the Mac. And yes, I’m aware of ‘helper’ apps (Jump, etc) that facilitate connections via WiFi between Mac and iPad. But for a purely business, growth and sustainable future, I selfishly hope the Devs focus on the iPad. If they do, my iPad Pro will be thankful.

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