Readwise is a great example of user-centric product design

Apps with great User Experiences (UX) aren’t talked about a lot. Reason? One, the number of apps with great UX are quite scarce. And two, the UX in some of the apps are so good, it misses our radar. Readwise is one such app.

I came across Readwise a year back through my friend Sanjeev. Until I came across it, I had no idea I’d want such an app. I tried it out for a week and have been a paid user since then.

What is Readwise?

For those who don’t know, Readwise helps you bring all your book and article highlights from various tools and sources into one single location and helps you revisit them frequently.

How Readwise changed my thinking process?

Before getting to the design part, let’s take a quick look at how Readwise helps unify your knowledge consumption process.

Before Readwise

My knowledge consumption workflow was siloed. I used to read a lot on Kindle and the iBooks app on my phone and make highlights whenever I come across something interesting. Apart from books, I read a bunch of articles each day which I usually discover through Reddit, Hacker News, and publications I subscribed to via Substack. Whenever I come across an interesting article, instead of highlighting portions of it, I bookmark the entire article on Raindrop and add a tag to it.

And, being part of the startup ecosystem, I also spend a lot of time on Twitter. So I bookmark tweets and tweet threads.

So, I read and I highlight what I think is important and I save them for future use. Sounds good, right?

But, there is one problem. I don’t revisit my highlights. Like never. Reason?

  • All my notes and highlights are siloed.
  • I don’t know what I am looking for as I would’ve forgotten what I had highlighted.
  • The highlights and bookmarks aren’t easily accessible — The kindle highlights are buried somewhere in Kindle and the Bookmarks tab on Twitter is not the best place to categorize and find the information you had saved for later.

But, Readwise changed it all.

After Readwise

Readwise helped me bring highlights from all the apps and devices under one roof. Within a few minutes of signing up, I was able to pull in highlights from my Kindle, iBooks app, Medium, Goodreads, etc.

Also, instead of Bookmarking Tweets, all I do now is add a comment to a tweet saying @readwise save and the tweet/thread gets saved into my Readwise account.

And, that is not the best part.

The best part about Readwise is, it collects those highlights and sends them to me via email at frequent intervals (you can set how frequently you’ll like to see these emails.)

This way I am exposed to my highlights frequently and it triggers a thought process when I come across a sentence from an article or book I read a while back.

Readwise played a key role in helping come up with topics for my Atomic Essays Project.

The UX of Readwise

Over the past year, I’ve made a few observations while using Readwise.

In-depth understanding of user persona

The end-user of Readwise is an avid reader. Someone who reads a lot — across multiple devices and services. In order to create an app that provides value to them, the folks at Readwise should really understand their user’s habits.

From what I’ve seen, they’ve excelled at learning how users consume knowledge in different forms (books, articles, and podcasts). Here are a few features from Readwise that tells us how well the product team understood their users.

  • Highlights from physical books — The mobile app has an option to scan text from physical books and it lets you snip the portions of highlighted text and save it to your account.
  • My clippings.txt — The highlights on Amazon Kindle get synced only for the books you buy from Amazon. Highlights from epubs you copy into your Kindle device are usually saved in a ‘My Clippings.txt’ file inside your Kindle. What about those highlights? Readwise has an option where you can upload My Clippings.txt to capture those highlights as well.
  • PDF highlights — Reading and highlighting portions of a PDF file. You can upload the PDF to extract those highlights as well?
  • Browser extension — With the extension, you can highlight portions of articles you come across and save them in your Readwise account.

And not just that! Borrowing ebooks from your local library via Libby? Buying and reading books on your Android device using Play Books? or using an RSS reader like Feedly or Inoreader? Readwise has integrations built for all of them.

Helps you think with Daily Review

An app delivers the best experience when it delivers the value to where the users are instead of making users visit the app or the service often. One of the reasons support through social media and sending updates via Whatsapp became famous among users is because it brings users what they need to where they are.

Readwise does something similar with Daily review. It randomly picks highlights and tweets from your account and sends them to your email or surfaces them in the mobile app. You don’t have to log into the app often to go through your highlights.

And since it directly comes to your inbox, it is easy for you to consume, reminisce, and think about why you had highlighted a certain portion. It can help you come up with a new perspective, give you a new idea or it can simply make your day.

Discovery of new apps and services

Apart from storing your highlights, Readwise provides you with an opportunity to get to know about new apps and services that could add more value to your current process. For example, I came to know about apps like Airr, Inoreader, and Hypothesis through Readwise. The discovery process also helps complementary apps acquire new uses. A win-win for all!

Readwise also enables knowledge discovery by bringing highlights from books you haven’t read. The review email contains an additional highlight at the end which is often picked from a book we haven’t studied. If we like the highlight, we’d end up reading the book. Here’s how it looks on the email:

Export Your Data (No Strings Attached)

I’m paranoid about my data. I want my apps to provide me with an option to export all my data in a simple, readable format. In fact, this was the reason I stopped using Evernote. Despite all the amazing features, it becomes really hard to migrate all your notes out of Evernote.

The folks at Readwise really understand this. Their export option allows you to sync your highlights with all your favorite note-taking apps — Evernote, Notion, Obsidian, and Roam. (I have synced highlights with all the apps except for Roam)

You can also export all your highlights in markdown format.

Areas that need improvement

Better Mobile Experience

The mobile app could be a lot better. For example, the highlights feed in the mobile app doesn’t let you filter highlights based on type, time, or source. For now, it is just a barebones list. The app can have a quick capture button to jot down thoughts via text, photo, or voice notes. Right now, the option is hidden behind the Add Highlights section.

Voice notes are a more natural way of adding notes when we’re on the move. We already use them on apps like WhatsApp and it feels natural. Readwise can support voice transcription similar to Otter Notes. Imagine someone reading a passage from a book and you can quickly transcribe that and add them to your Readwise account. Or someone giving a speech and you’re there taking notes. Voice transcriptions would be really powerful in these scenarios.

The mobile app could also use speed and performance improvements.

Better UI for web app

The web app also needs a lot of improvements.

For example, The moment you log into your web app, you see a screen that has options for import/export, settings, and browsing the highlights. As a user, I am not getting any value from this screen. Everything is either one or two clicks away.

Instead of showing the settings-like screen, there could be a dashboard that has widgets to show the newly saved items, highlights for daily review, new book recommendations, etc.

But, despite the flaws, Readwise stands out due to its deep understanding of the target persona and designing features to import data from literally any app. The core functionality of the app is so strong it masks all the other flaws. Also, the flaws on the web and the mobile app can be ignored as users hardly log into the app and receive their highlights mostly via email.

But, they’ll have to strengthen their app experience and fill in the UX gap because the knowledge management space rapidly expanding with the entry of new apps.

Originally published at https://karthikpasupathy.com on February 20, 2022.

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Writer. Marketer. Optimist. A little lazy, and loves automating stuff. Dreams to workout someday. But, sits idle every day.

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Karthik Pasupathy

Karthik Pasupathy

Writer. Marketer. Optimist. A little lazy, and loves automating stuff. Dreams to workout someday. But, sits idle every day.

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