Get Carrot. Do it For the Kitten.
You want a to-do list manager that will actually help you do things? Forget choosing an app based on features, or design, or some grand productivity philosophy. Get Carrot, the sadistic little app that will goad you to mark things off your list. It’s $0.99 in the iOS App Store.
Carrot has been getting good press for the way it brings cleverness and snark to the earnest list-management space. If you don’t get enough stuff done from your list, the app turns from light and airy to dark and brooding, and it starts to taunt you. Get stuff done, and it pats you on the back with encouraging but sarcastic comments, and other rewards, like trivia. As a to-list app, it’s very clean, if quite basic.
Carrot was created by Brian Mueller, who was about to start film school when he was waylaid by the need to help support his new family. He diverted his career into medical writing. But he never gave up on his desire to entertain. Meanwhile, he found that the to-do list managers he was using were too busy and too boring.
He learned to write apps, and started work on a to-do list manager for himself. He wanted it to be a game.
But Mueller noticed that while “gamification” had started to infect all kinds of apps, he thought that most gamified apps were paradoxically un-fun. “Worrying about levels and points becomes a chore,” he told me. “And it’s making developers lazy.”
Games, to Mueller’s mind, aren’t about points. “When I play games, it’s for the characters, writing, and personality,” he said.
That thinking begat Carrot. “Her” character and personality is just the start of the app. As you use it, Carrot reveals a story involving an orphaned kitten living in a data center, and an emerging, twisted AI (Carrot herself). The game and the narrative in Carrot are not just tacked-on in the form of points and gadgets. The app changes as you satisfy or disappoint it: You may find Carrot giving you nicer task-completion icons as you please her. Slack off and she may appear to lose your tasks to punish you.
If you’re of a certain mind, it’s actually quite motivating. It’s funny, and emotionally honest.
That’s because, I believe, that Mueller is an artist who knows how to tell a story. And by “artist,” I mean a person who has created a piece of work based on his own internal aesthetic, not for the masses and not for a focus group.
Mueller, though, is a vengeful creator. “When I started working on Carrot, I was worried that it might turn people off. But then I said, screw it, and went with it. The threat is the hook. It’s almost impossible to not make her angry. It’s for a certain type of person, a geeky user who’s more accepting of a sadistic AI.”
The story arc in Carrot does, sadly, come to an end. Mueller told me how. I wish he hadn’t, and I won’t spoil it for you. But Mueller does plan to keep the story alive. He’s having fun weaving the narrative and plans to keep extending the story to keep ahead of his user base, some 2,000 strong in the days after launch, that are barreling towards Carrot’s current conclusion. Even if he doesn’t keep writing, the to-do list function will keep working, since Carrot has several hundred random “rewards” and “punishments” not tied to the narrative.
I can’t say I recommend app-as-story for other developers, but in a brutally crowded app market, there is a lesson to be learned from Mueller’s philosophy: Don’t dismiss the idea of putting real personality into your app. You may turn off a lot of potential users, but the ones who do find their way to your product could end more strongly attached to it. Perversely so, in fact.
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