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Suggestions for Improving OF Visual Communication Thread Tools Search this Thread Display Modes
Hi everyone,

I think that OF could considerably improve its visual communication.

Let me start by laying some groundwork. OF has up to now attempted to give the user an understanding of the status of their projects and contexts with the use of coloured and styled text, and with symbols (for example a paused project has a pause symbol). Even with these features the user is still required to absorb a spreadsheet style view of data to understand their circumstances. Admittedly it has been possible up to now to omit some columns from the spreadsheet like view, but there is little to be gained from doing so. Which of the fields in the following list of fields could a user do without if they were seeking a deep understanding of their circumstances? - - Not Action Name
- Not Project when in Context Mode
- Not Context when in Planning Mode
- Not Start Date
- Not Due Date and
- Not Flagged as currently it is the only way to drill down on those actions that are of immediate importance. Therefore I cannot see how any of this information can be considered to be unimportant.

In addition to all of the text content I have just listed OF has up to now has also attempted to communicate (I say attempted to communicate because I don't think it has been very successful), additional information about actions using user configurable colours, font types and sizes. From the look of the OF2 video, it seems that OF is still committed to this approach. But ignoring OF2 and focussing on OF1, it's possible to have Next Actions, Blocked, Due Soon, Overdue or Completed actions to be coloured, styled and sized differently. Let's deal with each type in turn.

Next Actions

Perhaps I am missing something but I cannot see what significance Next Actions have in being coloured at all in Planning mode. Isn't the next action the top item in each project? And in Context mode, I cannot see any purpose for them either. I suppose there is value in knowing which actions within a context are holding up projects but that isn't necessarily the case because parallel projects still have next actions that aren't having that effect. The colouring of next actions (correct me if I am wrong) is just visual noise.


I think it's important to indicate that actions are Blocked with some kind of visual indicator, because they are in effect not capable of being actioned and that is very significant.

Due Soon

There is a single setting in the program that governs what Due Soon means for all actions. So if I set Due Soon to 3 days from Due, it doesn't make much sense if I must take my daily tablet or at the other extreme if it's an honours thesis that has taken all year to complete.


Using the same examples, I think it is of little help to the user if one takes one's tablet a minute past due to mark it with the Overdue colour, and at the same time mark an action for one's boss that was 2 weeks overdue in exactly the same way. These attempts to communicate visually with the user just burden the user with a whole pile of false positives to sift through in deciding what information is relevant.


Putting a line through completed actions works against reading what they are so I am not sure that this works completely.

Should We Do Without Any Visual Triggers?

So, if the current version of OF doesn't help the user understand dueness or overdueness all that well, and if other triggers don't assist much, could we just get rid of any visual indications in that area and leave it to the user to check out the Due column of actions for themselves? This removal wouldn't affect the sort of people who develop Omnifocus. After all, as developers, their skill is to look through lines of text one by one, in order to understand overall meaning. But a large percentage of users prefer to receive information through a combination of text and visual triggers.

Project and Context Hold Symbols are Too Small

One last observation before making some suggestions. Up to now, altered text using colour, style and size has not been the only type of visual communication utilised in OF. When projects and contexts are put on hold an incredibly small pause symbol is placed on a project or on a context to indicate that is in that state. Not a very strong indication that a whole project or context and all its actions are going nowhere.

Summarising the Current Situation

So, in summary, there is a lot of ineffective visual communication being transmitted to the user, because either the visual indicators are too small or have no real meaning, or what they communicate is not very important.

A Different Approach - Each Action Has a Visual Trigger

Before I suggest a different way of communicating with the user (and don't get your hopes up that I have done the work to provide a totally professional way of representing data visually) I want to suggest that ALL visual communication be at the action level and not at the context or project level. I think that every action should communicate its visual status (not just textual state) and that no projects or contexts need do so. I don't think, for example, that it would be preferable to have pause symbols on contexts and projects. Instead why not show some kind of visual pause on ALL of the actions within the project or context to strengthen the message that they are all affected?

Before I introduce my ideas, let me say that I think the most important thing to make easy for the user is to give them a means of deciding what the next action to complete is, and I think that a crucial part of doing so is for the user to be effectively be able to absorb which actions are Due Soon. The second most important thing for a user to realise, without heavy examination, is which actions are not actionable because, for example, they are blocked, or on hold due to their being part of a context or project that is on hold. If effective communication can be achieved in these two areas then the user has a chance of working out more accurately what they need to do next.

Principles that Govern My Approach

At I have made a PDF document of some icons I have drawn (yes they look terrible but they are seeking to communicate an approach) which could be put next to EVERY action in any every view. To assist you in understanding them when you see them, let me start with a few principles that govern their content. If an action is immediately actionable, it is green. If it is blocked, it is yellow (or amber like traffic lights if you prefer) and if an action cannot proceed because it is linked to a project which is on hold (it may not be its own project that is on hold and yes I know that currently it's not possible to have an action on hold due to a different project's action or actions needed to be completed), or if an action's context is on hold, then the icon is red.

So I have covered the colours of the background icons - now a word about the text within the icons. Before I proceed though a further word about Dueness. If we know that something is due at 2pm it isn't much help if we don't know the time and of course the time is always changing. But OF can keep track of the time so surely it could help out. Since Due Soonness is not currently well communicated with just a colouring of action text I instead suggest that that we do it with the following quasi language - 1Y means its due in a year, 2M means it's due in 2 months, 4W means it's due in 4 weeks, 3D means it's due in 3 days. 2H means its due in 2 hours, and 10M means it's due in 10 minutes. And if there is a minus in front of the characters, it means that the action is overdue by that amount of time. In addition to having the characters I suggest that we make the text black if the action is not overdue and red if it is.

Finally, and with some trepidation, I suggest an intermediate state, where the text is orange. This would indicate Due Soonness but Due Soonnes wouldn't operate at all unless certain requirements were present. There would need to be an estimate of time entered for the completion of an action and I suggest a preference area in which the user can say that an action with a time estimate of 1 minute is due soon X minutes before, and an action that takes an hour to complete is due soon 20 minutes before etc. You could even make Due Soonness overridable per action if the set times weren't working well enough for users.

Summing Up

This email is more than a suggested set of icons so please don't dismiss its logic or the need for a revamp in this area if you don't like the concept icons. One last point. I think that it's a downer, when you consider the need for people to teach others face to face and online how to use Omnifocus, that the current system allows users to choose any colours, fonts and sizes they like for various action states. It makes it difficult to look at someone else's screenshot or to walk up to someone else's computer and have a common starting point. I think that, since some people won't like the colour combinations that you communicate with, no matter how WELL they communicate, there has to be the ability to configure the background colour and text colour of icons. But it would be good to have a Reset to Defaults option to allow people to get back to something that communicates meaning when they inevitably create themselves a system which fails to do so. It would also allow a common base for communicating how to use OF, which is always going to be an issue if it is a sophisticated program.

Last edited by usertech; 2013-02-21 at 09:27 PM..

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