Hands On With Wunderlist: Four Things It Does Well, Five Things It Could Do Better

Hands On With Wunderlist: Four Things It Does Well, Five Things It Could Do Better

The quest for a killer to-do list app continues. Why try an app over a pad of paper? Because computers and software can do cool things: Set up repeating to-do items, let you re-organize items by different projects, prod you into acting when a due date approaches. I love my paper to-do list, but surely there's an app that can kick up the productivity an extra level?

I've already tried Todoist. And for the last three weeks, I've been using Wunderlist to try and coordinate several home and work projects, including editorial calendar management, podcasting, coordinating a few family celebrations and one DIY project.

Here's what I loved about the app, and here's what I wished it did better.

GREAT FEATURE #1: The interface is lovely

A good interface is important: it's the difference between wanting to spend time within an app to make it work for you and feeling like you're struggling to work within the app.

Wunderlist is clean and pretty, and it's easy to get started. It's especially easy to begin putting your different lists into different categories.

See how easy? The app includes tool tips to walk you through the process.

GREAT FEATURE #2: It's well-integrated into the cloud

Being able to access a to-do list that's synced across all your devices is a tremendous convenience. Wunderlist does a great job with this, and I like how quickly things move: an item I added via the browser plug-in popped up on the desktop app within two seconds.

GREAT FEATURE #3: I like the drop-and-drag feature for individual to-do list items

This appeals to me for two reasons: First, it lets me fiddle with items so I can approach my to-do list sequentially, and that makes my Type-A heart happy. Second, I like how this works in the app's iterations on tablets and smartphones, because I can use the touchscreen. Being able to "grab" and rearrange items is very satisfying.

GREAT FEATURE #4: I like that there are browser and email plug-ins

It's a nice acknowledgment that a modern workplace is often contained within a browser. And it's a nice start to moving email correspondence from "I need to take care of that" to "Oh, hey -- it's on my list."

The browser plug-in is especially nice for a few reasons. First, I like that it defaults to web page's URL, thumbnail image and blurb: it's almost like a miniature clipping service, and that can be handy if your to-do requires you to look up some information. Second, I like how easy it is to edit the default note within the plug-in's window: You can easily rewrite or add whatever you need to so that your to-do item is as information-rich as necessary.

See how you can easily add extra notes and then select where the to-do item is going to go.

Now what about what doesn't work for this app? Read on ...

WHAT I WISH WERE DIFFERENT #1: I want more control over the dates displayed on the app

This is a familiar complaint, but it's no less pertinent here. The only calendar-based view you actually have is a weekly setting. There's no daily setting, nor is there a way to page ahead or back to see what past or future weeks hold.

If you enjoy living in the eternal now, hooray! Given the app's weakness on scheduling and reminders (more on that below), the inability to offer users any sort of anticipatory view beyond the weekly one means that you can't use Wunderlist as a tool to help manage the ebb and flow of your time and tasks over a sustained period.

WHAT I WISH WERE DIFFERENT #2: I want a better way to schedule tasks and reminders

In an ideal world, we'd all read the documentation before we began using any product. But as my task-oriented communication professor told us, "Nobody does that, so write the manual under the assumption that your reader is baffled and enraged."

"Baffled" is the best descriptor for how I felt after trying to figure out the syntax for scheduling a to-do item in Wunderlist. I had a few basic goals:

  • Figure out how to write a to-do item so it would automatically fill in a due date for today or tomorrow.
  • Figure out how to write a to-do item so it would automatically fill in a due date and a deadline time for any date in the future.
  • Figure out how to write a to-do item so it would automatically fill in a due date, a reminder time, and a deadline time for any date in the future.
  • Figure out how to write a to-do item so it would automatically recur on a specific day every week, with a reminder set for a specific time every week.

It took me nearly an hour to figure these out. 

Worst, some of the default syntaxes set you up for failure. For example, one of the items on my to-do list was a graduation luncheon on Saturday, from 12:30-2:30. When I wrote "Emma's graduation lunch Saturday 12:30-2:30," Wunderlist managed to get the date correct but the time for the reminder was at 2:30 -- or right as the party was winding down. I checked the preferences to see if there was a way to set the reminder default to some time period before the due time on the task, but there is not.

And this is the story of how I almost missed a lunch date.

This brings me to my second complaint about reminders: Why don't they actually remind you of anything? Sure, Wunderlist can mail you a reminder, but unless you're camping out in your inbox, that's not exactly effective. Their idea of a "desktop alert" is for the in-app alarm icon (a bell) in the top toolbar to turn red, indicating you have something due. But that's not nearly as effective as, say,a pop-up reminder that sits in a corner of the desktop. Microsoft Outlook's got that -- why can't any task-management app follow suit?

You can see the bell up in the right-hand section of the top toolbar, then select it to see what you have due.

WHAT I WISH WERE DIFFERENT #3: I want better subtasks 

I live in a hundred-year-old house that was, until very recently, a flophouse where people slept in the kitchen. (I am not making this up.) So there are a lot of DIY projects I'm tackling, and I thought I'd see how Wunderlist does with helping me break down a big task into smaller tasks.

The good news is, it's easy to just keep typing subtask after subtask. You can also drop and drag them for easy rearranging, which I adore. 

However, you can't attach due dates to separate subtasks. What is the point of breaking down a large task into its smaller components if you can't map out when each component should be finished? I can put down that the due date for finishing my child's bedroom upgrade is August 5, but how successful am I likely to be if I can't schedule all the subtasks encompassed in that along the way?

WHAT I WISH WERE DIFFERENT #4: I want to be able to attach files and images to specific subtasks

This came up a few times when I was hacking out my subtask lists (see #3): I have pictures of what I'm going for, it would be nice to include them in the Notes that you can append to specific subtasks, and you can't do that.

(You can, however, attach those files to the overarching task -- fine if you don't have too many files per task, one supposes, but not so useful if you've got lots of specific files for specific subtasks.

While I'm complaining: You also can't drag-and-drop contacts from any other apps to a specific to-do item. This bugged me because I'd like to be able to easily aggregate all the information I need for a specific task. If I have an item that reads "call Patti's swim school for registration," then I should be able to easily drag an email from the school into my note somehow.

WHAT I WISH WERE DIFFERENT #5: I want a better Gmail plugin

I don't care why it's not working well on my system; I just care that it is.

In an ideal world, a plug-in that pulls my to-do list into my email app would let me see what to-dos I can complete in my inbox, and it would let me turn emails into to-do list items. Wunderlist in my Gmail lets me do the former, but at a cost: When it's on display, I can't scroll through my inbox, which reduces my ability to actually do anything in my Gmail.  

See how the list actually blocks messages and eliminates the ability to scroll? This does not go away if you resize your browser window.

And there's no way to turn individual messages into tasks or subtasks. So much actionable information is in email messages: any smart to-do tool that's got a plug-in for an email client should be able to pull from email for a to-do list item.

(Note: I did not test the Wunderlist plug-in for Outlook.com yet.)



If the to-do list methodology that works for you is basically a numbered list, this might be a good candidate for you. And if you don't rely excessively on reminders -- again -- Wunderlist might be a good candidate for you. There's a case to be made for lightweight apps that do one thing well, and this certainly lets you make running lists.

However, if you're planning on using your to-do app as a component of project management, this is not the app for you. It's too difficult to organize sub-tasks, you cannot set separate due dates for them, and you can't include extra assets (like files or images) that might be necessary to your project.

Wunderlist is only the second to-do app I've tried and reviewed lately, but it's also the second that doesn't effectively tackle time management as a component of to-do lists. 

The reason you'd use an app over a paper to-do list is because your device can do things that a pad of paper cannot: scheduling repetitive tasks, offering multiple views of your tasks without requiring you to write a to-do list in multiple ways, sending reminders to your phone, laptop or email.

And what's an effective way to blaze through your to-do list? To figure out how to do the work -- and this is where scheduling to-dos, getting nudges, and doing a little predictive task management would come in handy. There is nothing stopping these apps from putting a pop-up on your desk every morning that tells you what you've got to get done that day. Similarly, there are no technical obstacles standing between this app and a "Here's what your next 48 hours look like -- plan accordingly" email sent to users each afternoon.

This app -- and Todoist -- don't give users easy options to anticipate their workloads. Users are missing out on a way to proactively manage their time, and that isn't good for ultimately knocking items off the to-do lists.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter how good an app is at letting users add items to a to-do list. What matters is whether your app can help you manage your to-do list by reminding you what you've got due right now and what you've got coming up. 

Wunderlist is part of the Microsoft portfolio now, and we know Microsoft's got an outsized interest in using machine learning to streamline worker productivity. Here's hoping that the folks in Redmond turn their attention to making to-do lists smarter. They can start with nudging us to do the stuff we're supposed to cross off.

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