PM Dissects : Notability vs GoodNotes

PM Dissects : Notability vs GoodNotes

Hello! I have always wondered why apps that aim to solve the same problem can end-up so differently. Software is often a reflection of the teams building it and I want to dissect why one would chose a feature over another. This is what PM Dissects is attempting to do.

Here, I am dissecting two really cool handwritten note-taking apps → Notability and Goodnotes. I am trying to weigh the pros and cons of both approaches and understand why the teams made these choices. I don’t really think one app is better - just different.

Folders vs Subjects

The most striking difference between Notability and Goodnotes is their folder organization system. It is quite an interesting difference. Both apps are trying to work with the constraints applied on them by iPadOS and iOS. For a very long time both OSes just didn’t have a file explorer. So any app that was used to create something had to include an explorer view - that listed out the various projects. Mature OSes like Windows and MacOS have a file manager you can use for this, but iOS was meant to be light weight and easy to use. Each app was supposed to be a self contained unit solving a simple usecase. Yet as devices got more powerful, app developers wrote software that kept getting more complicated.

Notability has taken the view that an iOS user is used to apps being self contained entities and as such the UI of an app should be purpose built. If an app is digitising a use-case then the app’s interface should represent the mental model of how the task is organised in the physical world. By this logic - dividing notes into subjects, as Notability does, makes a lot of sense. It is simple and intuitive. Adding a divider as a group of subjects also makes sense as a lot of notebooks and document folders have dividers and they are closely associated with the task of organising notes.

Goodnotes, on the other hand, has taken the view that iPad is a late generation computing device and user of iPads have used PCs and Macs before. Hence they are familiar with and have an expectation of how a file management system to work. It looks something like this → You have folders and you can create folders within folders and each folder can contain files and other folders. Hence browsing Goodnotes feels exactly like using the Finder on Mac. It makes a lot of sense. It is familiar, it is easy to organise complex notes with a nested structure and you need almost no user training.

Writing Options

Both Goodnotes and Notability are primarily handwritten note taking applications and offer different selection of writing tools. When these apps were first being written, there weren’t any standards unlike today where all you need to do is integrate Apple’s PencilKit or MS’s equivalent on Windows. So they had to figure out what would users need in a writing toolkit.

Notability has chosen the approach of broadly classifying writing tools and provide one of each with minor customisation features. They support a pen, a highlighter, an eraser, and a lasso tool to select things. You can choose pen colour, stroke size and that’s about it. I think the reasoning behind it is - you are trying to teach the user a new way of using the device and the more you can reduce the cognitive load of this activity, the more likely the user will repeat this behaviour and unlock the value of the product.

On the other end, we have Goodnotes that has chosen the approach of going to a stationary store and making a lit of the most popular writing instruments. They have then re-created this in the app. You have a fountain pen, a ball point pen and a brush pen, along with an eraser, a selection lasso and a highlighter. Right next to the these tools are three color options you can set for quick aces, an clipart selector. I suspect the Goodnotes team wanted to create an experience that was not sup-bar to any of the alternatives. The alternatives they identified were physical notebooks and stationary and word processors like MS Word. So their options look like a cross between the two. It is a good choice - one that casts the widest net and but is also is clearly aimed at super users most likely to use the product.

Editing Options

Both Notability and Goodnotes came out after Google Docs and operate in a market where collaborative editing is quite popular. But only Goodnotes supports it. Here we come back to how the two teams perceive the use-case differently. Notability, building on the real-world mental model, thinks of notebooks as personal objects - edited by a single person, which they are. Goodnotes is trying to have feature compatibility with all the note-taking alternatives, not just notebooks. They have defined their market more broadly. Hence they have added shared documents and team editing.

One time payments vs subscription

Early in their product lifecycle, both Notability and Goodnotes were pay-one use forever apps. Users got access to all the feature updates. At that time in the market - it made sense. It was a relatively new market - digital handwritten note taking. New users were easy to acquire and hence revenue easy to grow and sustain. Also, both the apps were being built from the ground up. Having few baseline features meant feature updates were frequent and getting users to pay for each new feature through either a subscription model (which themselves were rare then) or through new paid versions made little sense. Users would also never sign up for such a deal. But as the apps become more full-featured. New feature updates would also need to be more complicated use cases that severe a niche of users rather than more broad use-cases. Also, as the market matured, new users would become harder to acquire and revenue would have trailed off. To counter this Goodnotes chose to have big feature releases that were paid even for existing users. So they released Goodnotes 2,3,4 and 5. Each one costs money for the existing users, although discounted vis-a-vis new users. It is easy to convince a large swath of users to pay a single one time payment with the promise of a “new” app.

Notability stuck out a bit longer. They could probably afford too- with fewer and more focused features- they had a leaner app. They also experimented with additional paid assets within the app like templates. Now they have come up with Notability Plus - a SAAS offering. They are hoping that a smaller but committed fraction of users will pay them enough recurring revenue to keep building the app. It’s a different approach to Goodnotes. In my opinion, fewer people will choose to pay the recurring charge. One-time payments also allow you to get the money upfront and the flexibility for the user to decide whenever they choose to pay the money. But the net revenue generated might still be more from a small committed user base paying month after month. Recurring revenue also incentivises Notability to identify niche use cases and solve for them - convincing one group after another to subscribe. A choice visible in the MyScript plugins Notability is working on. Big version releases mean Goodnotes has to release broadly appealing features which may or may not work. It is riskier.

Miscellaneous Product Choices

Numerous other choices highlight the different thought processes both teams have chosen. Like how Goodnotes recently released a clip-art maker which converts your work into .png files that can be used elsewhere. They identified that a lot of people doodle between their notes to personalise them and made the process easier. Maybe more artistically inclined people use Goodnotes. Or how Notability has now a math conversion feature that converts your math equations into high-res images. It’s also converting user’s input to images but for a different use-case. Maybe more mathematicians and physicists use Notability.


I think the difference in the two apps highlights how product management is not a scientific process, no matter how data driven your insights are. You can validate your hunches and inclinations and improve the odds of success for a feature but they are still your hunches and inclinations. And both Notability and Goodnotes are massive successes . I think in product management usually there are no wrong decisions - only poorly executed ones.