LATE UPDATE, SEE BELOW
Today I want to look at a Windows* PIM application called Debrief. I’ve been intrigued by this software for several years, but its interface is a bit convoluted, and it is missing some key functions, so I’d start to use it then drop it. But I’ve started using Debrief again because I have remained unhappy with all the other business journaling applications I’ve tried. And this time I’m appreciating its many functions more, although I still have my reservations.
*For new readers, you’ll find discussion of both Windows and Mac software here, because I use a Mac as my own personal computer, but my day job requires me to use a PC.
First of all, let me clarify that there are three editions of Debrief (Pro, Standard and Free), and I’m writing today about the Pro version.
The basic function of Debrief is creating notes that can be associated with dates, people, todos, references, outline items, projects, etc. You store your notes in folders, which you can create, rename and nest. There is one special folder called Daily Notepad. When you fire up Debrief each morning, it automatically creates a new note that is stored by default in the Daily Notepad folder.
Throughout the day, you can keep all your daily notes in this one document, then, at the end of the day “debrief” it. That is, highlight the various separate notes and transfer them quickly and easily to other folders. Or, you can write new notes throughout the day and categorize them at the time of creation. This in and of itself makes Debrief a nice, functional daily journal.
But there is a lot more to Debrief. I don’t have time to go into all its features, so I’ll just highlight those that standout to me.
Instead of a note, you can create an outline document to build hierarchical lists. This isn’t a bad little outliner, either. No, it doesn’t have advance features like hoisting or cloning. But you can add checkboxes and move items around freely. There’s a brainstorm mode, for rapid-fire item creation. And, you can create a note to associate with each of the outline’s items.
You might be thinking, “Any two-pane outliner gives you notes associated with an outline item.” That’s true, but the notes you associate with outline items in Debrief can be further associated in other ways. First, you put them in a folder. But you can also associate the note with a contact or with an action item (another Debrief feature).
This leads me to another feature I like. Debrief shows you all your notes — title, text and date — associated with a specific categorization. So, for instance, choose the calendar view and select a date. All your notes from that date — no matter which folder they are stored in — appear concatenated in the preview pane.
This seems to me a very powerful feature, one that will become more and more valuable as my collection of notes grows.
There are a host of other features in Debrief, some more successfully implemented than others. It also has some glaring problems. Glaring to me, at least. First and foremost is that there is no way to import contacts. I had asked about this feature a few years ago and was told that it was planned for a future release. However, responding to a recent inquiry, the developer sort of hemmed and hawed about it, so I can’t say it will be added, and that’s just crazy, in my view. Why make us re-enter our important contact information? Why force us to use two applications for managing contacts?
Another problem is that Debrief does not handle links very nimbly. And it does not appear to have the ability to add attachments to notes. For me, these are not important issues, because I’ve got PersonalBrain to handle documents and links. I use Debrief mostly for managing my own notes.
I’ve also found a couple of bugs — so far nothing information-threatening. And finally, the user interface is highly unintuitive, which, I think, turns off a lot of potential customers.
My purpose in writing about Debrief today isn’t to send people rushing to the web site to download the trial version — although you might enjoy giving it a spin. Debrief, even with its faults, has been built with a vision and with some imagination. I always appreciate that. I just hope it continues to be improved (last update was a few years ago, though the developer told me there was an upgrade in the works). With an interface tune-up and an import feature for contacts, Debrief could be a real killer application.
UPDATE: Using the Index Feature in Debrief
In response to the question in the comments, here’s a screenshot of the Index function in Debrief:
Index works much like a tag. You can create your list of index “tags” or topics and assign as many as you wish to each separate note. When you switch to the Index function, as above, you can select an index topic and see all the notes that have been thus tagged.