AMA: Ivan Zhao, Co-founder/Designer of Notion

over 6 years ago from , notion.so


I am Ivan Zhao, cofounder/designer of Notion – a unified tool for docs, wikis, and tasks. We just launched the 1.0 a couple weeks ago, which you can play with the web/Mac app at notion.so (and we are hiring!)

To give you some background, our goal with Notion is to create the general purpose work tool for a post-file, post-MS Office world. My cofounder and I often joke that this was like the "hot startup topic" of the 90s. Unfortunately, tools for knowledge workers haven't advanced much since then. The state of art is either Google Docs/Quip/Dropbox Paper (multiplayer WordPerfect), or rigid SAAS apps (forms + a table+ some buttons).

To end users, all the knowledge and workflows are trapped in different "silos", the best people can do is to duct-tape everything together, previously with emails, nowadays with Slack – Notion is our creation to challenge this status quo of "software as silos".

Before tech, I seriously considered a career in photography, as well as academia (cognitive science).

I will be answering questions today starting at 11am PST.



  • Giovanni HobbinsGiovanni Hobbins, over 6 years ago (edited over 6 years ago )

    Love the look and feel of Notion's marketing site and the product's way of feeling simple yet gracefully allowing for complex, rich content creation.

    Since the problem you and your team are taking on is functionally so large, how did you zero in on what to tackle first? How much of what you learned designing Habitat translate to Notion?

    Also, I'm a designer at FullStory and I noticed you guys are a customer! Would love to know how you use FS to improve Notion.

    2 points
    • Ivan Zhao, over 6 years ago (edited over 6 years ago )

      To be honest we don't have a methodology. It's largely just learning via making – listening to what people want, and fitting the things we want around it.

      The current Notion is actually 2+ years in the making. Last year this time the beta version fall apart (poor focus and implementation). We moved to Kyoto for a bit and built the whole thing from scratch.

      Re: Inkling & Habitat. I went to Inkling as my first job out of school. It taught me how to work with others, and bought me time to study the history of the domain – it's always good to make mistakes on other people's money ;-) (Inkling's founder is also Notion's first investor.)

      Re: FS. It has been invaluable especially for customer support (no more sending screenshots back and forth). It's a very powerful tool, we need to be really careful not to abuse it and invade the privacy of our users.

      0 points
      • Giovanni HobbinsGiovanni Hobbins, over 6 years ago

        That domain expertise is so crucial. Sometimes I think designers undervalue that part and skip right now the obvious solution.

        Curious, ever tried using FS to find UX problems or track user behavior? Happy to hear it's been valuable for support.

        0 points
  • Igor Romanov , over 4 years ago

    Hi Ivan, I know it’s been awhile since you had this AMA )) What’s Notiin tech stack? I can’t stop being impressed by how fast and fluent everything is with Notion. And the fact it’s fully collaborative and real time just amazes me. How did you guys do it? Any tech talk you’ve been given on your architecture?

    1 point
  • Joel CalifaJoel Califa, over 6 years ago

    Hey Ivan, why are you so dope?

    1 point
  • Aikomo OpemipoAikomo Opemipo, over 6 years ago

    Hi Ivan,

    Awesome work with Notion. My friends and I are curious, how large is the Notion design team?

    1 point
    • Ivan Zhao, over 6 years ago (edited over 6 years ago )

      We are a small team (< 4). So we don't separate out product from visual design. Visual-wise is mostly me.

      1 point
  • Kelsey LegaultKelsey Legault, over 6 years ago

    I would really love to see a calendar view for tasks in Notion, is this a direction you think would be valuable to the product?

    Great work! Love your photography.

    1 point
    • Ivan Zhao, over 6 years ago (edited over 6 years ago )

      Yes. It might take sometime but a lot of people are asking for it.

      It's just a different way to arrange your tasks. It doesn't have to be a different tool ;-)

      1 point
  • Sky WinstonSky Winston, over 6 years ago (edited over 6 years ago )

    Hi Ivan,

    Big fan of your work. I think it is becoming increasingly clear that rethinking the role of the document has the potential to unlock a lot of value for individuals and businesses in our modern, mobile, and connected context. Salesforce's recent $750M acquisition of Quip is one significant market validation of this movement.

    I have kept a close eye on this space for quite some time, and Notion has the most interesting approach that I've seen yet. There are two very large opportunities that I see in the product, and am curious how you're thinking about them.

    1. Regarding collaboration: Notion is clearly promoting Slack as the tool to enable communication around the content within Notion. Part of what made Quip so powerful and valuable for me was the colocation of conversation and content. The context is so much stronger when you can hover/tap a highlighted segment, and surface the questions/commentary pertinent to that piece of content without losing your place. It made achieving a full understanding of the relative development of the document quite doable. How are you thinking about enhancing Notion's capabilities to bring rich conversation directly into the content? Maybe Slack can still serve as a remote notification center and changelog, but only as a redundancy?

    2. Regarding todos and team coordination: I use the checklists in Notion and like them, but there are still questions that cannot be answered in Notion. Questions like: What is due for me by the end of the week? If I was working with a team in Notion, I might ask: What does Jay have on his plate this week? Again, I see benefit in colocating the tasks my team is accountable for with the content needed to perform those tasks, just as I do in colocating conversation and content. Combine all three in the right way, and you have something truly unique, and incredibly powerful. Is Notion of the opinion that it should be a supporting role in team productivity, maybe living life as a hyperlink in the notes section of a task in another more dedicated piece of task management software, or are you thinking about how to move todos into first class within your system?

    I think you guys are the team to make this happen, I truly do. Keep up the great work.

    1 point
    • Ivan Zhao, over 6 years ago (edited over 6 years ago )

      Hi Sky,

      • I don't have a definite answer on how to make Notion more Slack-like. Our stance is that quick, communication-heavy collaboration requires very different channels and habits from knowledge-building collaboration. Slack has built great pipes on the former, and Notion is good at the latter, so we want to leverage Slack as much as possible. The pie is large.

      • We'll definitely beef up tasks. Once you break free from paper metaphors, the possibility is amusedly endless. Right now calling Notion a unified workspace for "docs, wikis, and tasks" is a bit false advertising. We should replace "tasks" with "checklists".

      Thanks for all the feedback and patience. We'll get there :-)

      0 points
  • Suganth SSuganth S, over 6 years ago

    Hi Ivan,

    To begin with, I totally love Notion! It's one of the best web apps I've seen in recent years which I felt can be good replacement to my Mac Notes app.

    1) Can you share some insight on how you guys came up with the idea - like design iterations etc. (I'm using the app from 0.8 I guess - #beta times )

    2) Whats the future of Notion?

    3) Not a question, but a feedback on the website - The illustrations are really pretty! I loved the site design because it's not like the usual trend - Very minimal and speaks about the product directly!

    Kudos for building an amazing product :)

    1 point
    • Ivan Zhao, over 6 years ago (edited over 6 years ago )
      1. Our guiding light has always being history. To be honest nothing is new in Notion. We copied everything from earlier systems.

      2. Oh big question. More bundling, more polishing.

      3. We love the website too. Digital visual design always feels a bit too segregated as a young discipline for me. There's a lot of good inspirations from the past (e.g. print ads from 60s-80s) or other disciplines (e.g. pre-modern American architecture, Japanese crafts). Too many places to steal.

      3 points
  • Max LindMax Lind, over 6 years ago

    Hey Ivan! - thanks for joining us.

    • How did the idea for Notion first come about?… what were you using previously in it’s place?
    • Thus far, have you noticed how users are mostly taking advantage of Notion? - Docs? Wikis? Tasks?…or a combination?
    • Is Notion for team use only?… or is there a use case where you might share with users as well?
    • Can Notion be associated with a custom URL?
    • You mention Slack integration a couple times, in your eyes how imperative was it to get Slack and Notion working together?
    1 point
    • Ivan Zhao, over 6 years ago

      Thanks for having me Maxwell.

      • The idea of Notion comes from history. In the early days of computing, we created interesting systems that celebrates the power of computing medium. Somehow since the early 80s, we have been building software tools that imitate paper. Notion wants to challenge that.

      • People usually start with one use-case, and then discover the power of combining multiple in one tool.

      • There's a large portion of people use Notion as personal Evernote replacement, which surprised us since it's not something we advertise on the marketing page. All welcome though ;-)

      • Indeed. Custom domain is on the upcoming roadmap https://www.notion.so/What-s-New-157765353f2c4705bd45474e5ba8b46c

      • Slack is one of our very top priorities. It has a monopoly on the internal communication/notification space. We don't want to reinvent the user habits there.

      0 points
  • Mattan IngramMattan Ingram, over 6 years ago
    1. The product design of Notion is excellent, but requires thinking about documents in a very new way. How do you plan to tackle the marketing challenges of convincing people to change their workflow?

    2. What other document services do you use alongside Notion that you feel it isn't a replacement for? For example do you still have a note taking app like Evernote, or do you just put that all into Notion?

    Really fantastic work, and I look forward to seeing where Notion goes!

    1 point
    • Ivan Zhao, over 6 years ago (edited over 6 years ago )
      1. Marketing is indeed interesting. We are less about forcing new workflows, but more about bundling the existing ones. It's a lot more understandable that way. And who doesn't likes all-in-one, as long as the "one" has good quality on its own.

      2. Notion is all I use. It has replaced iA Writer (drafting & thinking), Google Docs (collaboration), and Evernote (collecting). The entire team is running on Notion + Slack, nothing else. The separation of tools is largely a historical legacy from the rigid physical world. The computing medium is dynamic and elastic.

      1 point
      • Troy RobinsonTroy Robinson, over 4 years ago

        Thank you for making this helpful tool, Ivan! Would you share an overview of your team's Notion pages? I'd find your setup very inspiring!

        0 points
        • Vadim Rykov, almost 2 years ago

          hm... good info!

          0 points
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          0 points