What Evernote has learned from Apple

The note-taking software company has an increasing emphasis on design. Part of it comes from watching Apple, the consummate consumer tech designer.

Evernote CEO Phil Libin speaking at LeWeb.
Evernote CEO Phil Libin speaking at LeWeb. Stephen Shankland/CNET

You might think Phil Libin is a little crazy. Several months ago, the CEO of Evernote was sitting down with a pack of Post-its, slowly peeling away one piece of paper at a time from the gradually shrinking stack, repetitively.

He was in awe, studying the adhesive on each brightly colored note. "You should try it. There are millions beads of glue on the back of each of them," he told me.

I suppose you could call what Libin was doing due diligence. On Monday in San Francisco, Evernote officially announced a partnership between itself and 3M, the company that makes the venerable sticky notes. The two companies are releasing software that digitally categorizes Post-its on Evernote when a user snaps a picture of the notes with a smartphone.

But what this really tells us about Libin is that he's a stickler for detail. "There were decades of work that went into the feeling of peeling them off," he said.

The anecdote also illustrates the company's increasing emphasis on design. What started out as a Spartan notepad app that looked like a tired e-mail client is now lush and layered. And offshoot products like the sketching and annotation app Skitch and the handwriting app Penultimate push forward Evernote's design focus. The five-year-old company, which boasts 75 million users, won this year's Apple Design Award.

Design became a central focus for the company about two years ago, Libin said, but he had an "epiphany" after seeing iOS 7 , the completely overhauled version of Apple's mobile operating system, which got rid of many of the textured surfaces that mimic real world objects in favor of flat, minimalistic surfaces .

"A lot of people took that to mean: nobody needs nice, textured surfaces anymore. But what iOS 7 is saying is that your app doesn't have to have fake textured surfaces," Libin said. "Your digital stuff doesn't have to pretend that it's made out of leather or felt or wood, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't have good experiences with actual physical objects. The two should just work together seamlessly."

After hearing that, some of the other announcements the company made on Monday seem less out of left field. In addition to the Post-it software, Evernote introduced a bevy of branded physical products, to be sold on a brand new online store called the Evernote Marketplace. They include a fine-point stylus called Evernote Jot Script, made in partnership with Adonit; a smart scanner that culls relevant information from the Web when docs are scanned; and high-end bags made by French boutique Cote&Ciel.

"That's right. We're a fashion brand now. No one saw that coming," Libin said on stage, laughing . The company also tapped Jeff Zwerner, a former creative director at Apple, as the company's vice president of branded products and experiences.

But Libin said the new products are anything but superficial. "None of this is shwag. It's not like we just slapped our logo on it. Each one is designed to solve a specific problem," he said. For example, one bag is triangle shaped and doesn't fall over when you put your laptop in there, and is meant for commuters on crowded trains.

He also thinks the experience is good for employees. He notes that the same engineers working on the Mac app are the ones who helped develop the Evernote scanner.

"It's not just how it looks, but how it works," he said, echoing, perhaps subconsciously, what Steve Jobs often used to say.

 

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