Tot: opinionated app design matters

Tot, a scratchpad app for macOS and iOS, has graduated from a side experiment to an essential part of my workflow in a matter of weeks. I highly recommend giving the app a try on Mac (it’s free), and if the design works for you, buy it on iOS.

Admittedly, when I first saw Tot pop up on social media and sites like MacStories, I was skeptical. There are already hundreds of note taking apps available on the App Store. Given several options like Bear and iA Writer nail the basics so thoroughly, with strong aesthetic design and years of iteration, it’s hard to see how any new competitor can stand out. But I’ve always had longstanding respect for The Iconfactory in terms of their attention to visual design. $20 later (more on that price in a bit), equipped with Tot’s iOS and Mac apps, I dove in to give it a try.

After a week or so, I was surprised to find myself returning to Tot often, usually at least once a day. I found a sweet spot with content I only needed temporarily or otherwise could transfer to a final, permanent resting place in a Google Doc or iA Writer. I ran a large amount of ephemeral material through Tot: meeting notes, longer messages to precompose before dropping in Slack, errands for a midday break, Letterboxd reviews, Tweet drafts, and ideas for more substantial posts to write.

Tot works because it’s a uniquely opinionated app, razor-focused on capturing quick notes and scrappy ideas. Its most distinctive feature is the app’s minimalist spin on file organization: seven notes are available at any time by clicking or tapping seven associated dots at the top of the app. There are no named files or manual saves. Just select a note and start typing away. The finite limit of seven “thoughts” at a time helps encourage a transitory nature to what you’re writing down; capture what you need, delete, and move on.

The dot-based note structure also removes any semblance of traditional file maintenance. There’s no debate on what to name a new note, nor any need to wade through old files to find existing content. Tot makes it easy: it’s in one of seven places, or it’s not. Less maintenance means less mental overhead for capturing my thoughts, which makes me turn to Tot more readily than other apps for the task. Tot’s simple note framework also ensures that iCloud syncing is lighting fast. In informal tests, I’ve found the app keeps my iOS and Mac clients in sync faster than any other note taking app I’ve tried.

Tot also has warm, playful aesthetic choices that make the app inviting. Each of the notes has a uniquely colored background, with complementary colors for both light and dark modes. The color of a note’s background also matches the color on its associated dot on the app’s nav bar. In a smart touch, the MacOS icon color changes to reflect the color of the note currently selected. As expected with The Iconfactory’s visual design talents, the color choices are excellent across the board. Each note background balances saturation well, with enough color to be noticeable, but not too much to cause readability issues.

The app’s color usage isn’t just for fun either; it also provides a subtle reminder of where you are in the app and which notes have content. When I’m writing against a soft yellow background, I know I’m in the first note. Purple means note four, and green note seven. The dots also change appearance to show which notes have content (outlined in color, filled in color when selected) and which are empty (no color). These visual touches improve orientation, which again speeds up my usage within the app.

If only Tot’s pricing structure would be as appealing as its design. Having one platform be completely free (macOS) while the other $20 (iOS) penalizes users who mostly stick to just their iPhones, and will turn off an audience unnerved by the sticker shock on the iOS App Store. If I could have it my way, I’d split the cost to $10 for each platform, with a free multi-day trial version to try the app out.

Quibbles over pricing aside, I stand by $20 as a reasonable cost for what Tot offers. It’s true when you start comparing raw features, Tot “loses” against competing note taking apps that provide more for less money. But playing a head to head game over features is a disservice to what Tot is all about; it’s a happily minimal, opinionated app that assists a very focused, ephemeral part of your workflow. I use the app almost every day, and in multiple instances, Tot gave me the mental headspace to capture something I otherwise wouldn’t have. That makes $20 a no brainer for me. The same may be right for you; I’d encourage you to check it out.