I got the wrong sort of birthday present yesterday: a sincerely-written post by Jason Kincaid lamenting a perceived decline in the quality of Evernote software over the past few months. I could quibble with the specifics, but reading Jason’s article was a painful and frustrating experience because, in the big picture, he’s right. We’re going to fix this.
The past couple of years have been an amazing time for Evernote. We’ve grown massively as a company, a community and a product. And we’re still growing quickly. However, there comes a time in a booming startup’s life when it’s important to pause for a bit and look in rather than up. When it’s more important to improve existing features than to add new ones. More important to make our existing users happier than to just add more new users. More important to focus on our direction than on our speed. This is just common sense, but startups breathe growth and intentionally slowing down to focus on details and quality doesn’t come naturally to many of us. Despite this, the best product companies in the world have figured out how to make constant quality improvements part of their essential DNA. Apple and Google and Amazon and Facebook and Twitter and Tesla know how to do this. So will we. This is our central theme for 2014: constant improvement of the core promise of Evernote.
This isn’t something we just decided yesterday. We kicked off a company-wide effort to improve quality a couple of months ago. The precipitating factor was the frustrating roll-out of our iOS 7 version. We gained many new users, but rushing to completely rebuild the app for the new platform resulted in stability problems that disproportionally hit longer-term customers, including ourselves. Since all Evernote employees are power users by definition, no one is more motivated to make Evernote better just for the sake of our own productivity and sanity. I’ve never seen people happier to just fix bugs.
Quality improvements are the sort of thing that you ought to show, not just talk about, so we hadn’t planned on discussing this theme until closer to the end of 2014. However, Jason’s article hit too close to home to leave unremarked, so I decided to be up front about what we’ve done in the past few months and what we’re going to do in the next few.
Today, there are 164 engineers and designers working at Evernote. About 150 of them are currently assigned to our core software products. The total number will increase quite a bit in 2014, but the proportion will stay the same: over 90% of our resources will go towards improving our core experiences.
Past Two Months: Stability
Starting last November, our first priority was to drastically improve the stability and performance of our main apps, especially for long-term users with many notes. We’ve made significant progress, and Evernote is measurably less buggy than it was two months ago.
We’re starting to see the initial results of this effort in our app store ratings. For instance, when we started this effort in November, Evernote for iOS 7 was at a frustratingly low 2 stars. Today, it’s at 4.5. Our customer support volumes for iOS have been cut by more than half: from an average of 366 per day in November, to 148 now. We’ve made similar improvements to many of the other apps as well. I’m proud of the progress we’ve made in this area, but just because an app has a good rating, doesn’t mean that our work is finished; there are countless improvements to stability and performance that we’ll continue to make.
These are recent improvements, but the perception of stability is a lagging indicator of actual stability; you judge how solid or buggy an app feels based on your past few months of experience with it. So even though Evernote is a lot better already, and will get much better still, it’ll take longer for this feeling to really sink in. We understand that we have to maintain a high level of quality for the long term, if we want Evernote to be seen as a truly high-quality product.
Near Future: Design and Simplicity
As we get nearer to achieving our stability and performance goals, we’ve turned our attention to the other important component of quality: great design. Over the next few months, we’ll be releasing new versions of all the apps that incorporate our many lessons learned about what does and doesn’t work. All of our apps will be getting significant improvements and simplifications to the user experience starting in the next few weeks. The five most important areas of improvement that we’re targeting on all platforms are note editing, navigation, search, sync and collaboration.
Our new philosophy is to find every spot in our products where we’ve been forced to make a trade-off between doing what’s simple and doing what’s powerful, then rethink it so that the simplest approach is also the most powerful. We know we’ve found a good design for something when that conflict disappears. It feels like magic when that happens, and we’ll have several bits of magic in the coming months.
I turned 42 yesterday, which is the year that, according to classics of western literature, life, the universe and everything will start to make sense. This isn’t the way I imagined it starting, but I’m glad to have the chance to tell you what we started a few months ago, and what we’re going to be focusing on in 2014.
Thanks to Jason and to the millions of Evernote users who depend on us every day and who go through the effort of fighting for a better Evernote. Our goal isn’t to have a product that’s just good enough that users rely on it despite its warts, it’s to have a world class product, built with solid technology and with a fit and finish worthy of our users’ love and loyalty.
We’re the biggest Evernote users around, and it’s important to be in love with what you build.
It’s going to be a great year.
– Phil Libin, CEO
PS. To address Jason’s specific point about privacy concerns related to the Mac Helper:
There is no inherent privacy problem, but Jason’s article did alert us to a bug in our menu bar helper quick note feature for Mac. This bug resulted in an extra copy of quick notes being stored in the activity log on your local hard drive. This in itself isn’t a serious problem, but it was incorrect for our support staff to suggest that emailing the log file couldn’t expose any sensitive information. We’ve made three immediate changes as a result: (1) The menu helper bug has been fixed, and is available in the direct download version of Evernote for Mac. (2) A message now appears when you click the “email log” button that warns users that the logs may contain some account information such as note title and notebook names, which can be removed if desired, as well as other metadata designed to help the user and support engineer work together to quickly diagnose problems. (3) We’ve changed the training of our support staff so that they now warn users that note titles and notebook names are present in the log file, and that users can remove them, if desired.