Hi all, I’ve had an idea for a while that I hope could address some frustrations I have felt with many block-based apps, including Anytype, Notion, Roam, and others. I am curious how you all feel about this, and especially if you can point out any problems with my proposed solution.
In short: block-based writing and editing is less “smooth” and distraction-free than I would like. As a result I often use other non-block apps for e.g. more in-depth writing, or quick notes. I would prefer to be able to use Anytype for all of this type of thing, if possible.
Some specific examples:
I find all the block editing UI elements - handles, highlights, etc. - to be unnecessarily distracting when I am just free-flow writing. It’s great that I have quick, easy access to e.g. block move or transform or add functions, but I find I need to access those things far less than their presence in the UI supports. I do appreciate that in Anytype and Notion the handles only appear on mouse-over, but I still find them unnecessary much of the time.
I also think that the “gutter” space that some of the block editing UI elements occupy might be useful for some other things, such as toggle handles (I’ve elsewhere suggested that “toggle” should be a function/state of a block rather than a type of block), or time stamps ([see here for that suggestion](Add author, timestamp, and history per-block)). Having them always occupied by block functions might be unreasonably prioritizing those things vs. other possible uses. I think it’s important to really consider what does the typical user most often want to know or do that we can utilize the gutter space for by default?
Additionally I often accidentally move or otherwise manipulate blocks or select the entire block when I am just trying to select some part of its text contents. Anytype is actually already better about this than many other systems, e.g. it can switch back to text selection if I move my mouse back into the originating block area (Notion doesn’t), so kudos on that. But it still becomes problematic when trying to select text from parts of multiple blocks, e.g. starting in the middle of one block and continuing into another below it, but not selecting the entirety of either. In these situations most block-based apps select entire blocks only (including Anytype). Anytype has some functions that modify this behavior, like holding Alt disallows selection of the entirety of current block, which is at least some improvement. But it’s still quite limiting IMO as compared to e.g. Microsoft Word or any other text-only editor.
As an example of when/why I might be trying to copy e.g. a sentence or several from one block and into another, I often find myself deciding whether a sentence belongs in one paragraph or the next one when writing something like an “essay” (or block post). This happens often enough in my writing that I run into annoyances with select, cut/copy, and paste in block-based systems fairly frequently. I’m sure there are other examples for regular writers that I don’t even run into, and I know the “feel” of writing in apps like Notion is often criticized by more serious writers.
I suggest that the default interaction mode should be oriented toward text editing, not showing block handles or even, perhaps, block Add buttons below the existing block. This includes essentially ignoring blocks for selection of text (treat it like a PDF viewer, for example), not displaying drag handles and the like on mouseover, etc. The “text edit” mode/status should probably be clearly displayed somewhere so people are aware (see discussion of a toggle below).
Then, to enter block edit mode, it would be as simple as holding down Alt or Ctrl (or Mac equivalent), or some other simple hotkey. With the key held down, all the normal block manipulation controls come up and you can drag and modify to your heart’s content. Not only that but you wouldn’t go to select/move a block and accidentally select text, the opposite problem as the one I mentioned above, but which also occurs for me. In fact selecting and moving blocks would be much faster and easier because the entire block could become the handle.
This additionally solves the need for a “lock” option for block editing, which I’ve seen some people request for Notion (although an overall page “lock” would still be desired).
This could also allow for even greater orientation of each mode to the needs of that type of interaction. For example more “hinting” or other UI indication of e.g. block positioning, columns, etc. that would otherwise be distracting to the writer. I would say a full outline of blocks in block edit mode would be a great addition, for example, as currently there is almost too little clarity as to where one block starts and another ends. This may be a compromise to avoid cluttering the UI too much, but if block editing were more of a “mode” then arguably you would need to worry less about such a compromise. In other words each mode could be more strongly tailored to its specific needs, rather than trying to blend between them effectively.
That might even have development process advantages as you wouldn’t need to deal with sometimes tricky implementation issues or feature decisions that run into issues of trying to determine the user’s intent between block edits and text edits. Making this more explicit should allow for greater focus and simplicity in implementing features for either mode.
For those people who might be annoyed by having to hold the modifier key to stay in block edit mode, there are a couple methods to address this, which are mutually compatible but don’t have to be implemented together.
First, you could simply have a toggle in a prominent place, e.g. in the top nav bar, between “text edit” and “block edit” modes. When you held the modifier key you’d see it temporarily toggle, too. If necessary you could even have a default “middle” position that acts as the hybrid we currently have (that tries to interpret user intent and allows both block and text edits).
Second, you could have a hotkey that toggled between the modes quickly. I would suggest just a double-tap of the normal hotkey, e.g. alt-alt in quick succession, or alternatively a single hotkey that would toggle, e.g. alt-e (for “edit mode”?). Pressing that repeatedly would just toggle between the modes without having to hold the key down. But the ability to hold the key down and be immediately in block edit mode, and then switch back to text edit mode quickly and seamlessly by simply releasing it, would I think greatly increase speed of workflow for this proposed mode distinction, while allowing for the benefits I’m outlining.
I drew a lot of inspiration on this idea from working with 3D tools for many years. In most 3D content creation apps like Maya, Blender, etc. you have a 3D viewport in which you want to do two majorly divergent things, and often need to switch between them quickly
- You want to select and manipulate/edit the contents of your scene
- You want to change your camera position i.e. your view of the scene
Both functions require interaction with the mouse. It would be slow and cumbersome to have to go up to a toolbar and toggle between modes. So what most of these tools do is make Alt the key to temporarily enter “camera movement” mode. As long as Alt is held down, your mouse clicks and movements affect the camera. As soon as you release it, you’re back in object selection and manipulation mode. I’ve found it to be a very intuitive, quick, and valuable solution to the dual requirements of viewport interaction, and I think it could work really well for similar situations in text editors where you want to balance multiple different types of interaction effectively. Rather than try to guess your user’s goal, let them be explicit with a simple, quick key press.
I recognize that this is a bit of a drastic move, and no other major apps of this type seem to take this approach. But at the same time most of those other apps also have lots of users complaining about how they are not as “quick and easy” for text editing and general writing. Many people who use Notion also still use e.g. Google Keep or Scrivener, etc. And there are other reasons for this too (slow app launch, lack of an “inbox”, etc.), but I do think that part of it is that block-type editing is extraneous for many writing tasks, or at least for many stages of the writing process, and it can get in the way or just feel a bit clunky vs. our general experience of text-focused apps in the past. Block manipulation often just slows things down in these cases, to varying degrees, whether actually limiting what you can easily do (e.g. text selection), or simply being a distraction (manipulation handles, etc.).
I also think that while Notion is one of the best existing examples of how tools like this may work, differentiating itself with better workflow and more well-thought-out design is one clear way to gain market share vs. the dominant player(s). I personally find a lot of things feel more poorly handled in Notion than I would expect for an app with $1b valuation.
Even if you don’t like my proposed solution or the distinction between writing and block edit modes, I hope you’ll consider and suggest ways to streamline the writing process so that block editing does not get in the way. In the end blocks should be a tool that provides value and enhanced functionality, not a defining feature that imposes a certain way of working.