Why Adopting New Second-Brain App is Challenging: Unraveling the Top Barriers to Entry

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about why it's such a challenge to start using most apps designed to manage work and knowledge, aka second-brain apps. I mean start using them effectively, not to "try it out".

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about why it's such a challenge to start using most apps designed to manage work and knowledge, aka second-brain apps. I mean start using them effectively, not to "try it out".

What obstacles do we, as users, encounter when switching between different apps and adopting new ones? What fears do we have? And as a consequence, what areas need more love and attention from app developers of such apps?

I've collected notes that could be bundled into five challenges faced by users. And it turns out that these areas and challenges might be shared across many different types of apps, not just second-brain apps focused on helping us manage work and knowledge.

Five areas of challenges users face:

  • Basic Human Psychology
  • User knowledge and awareness
  • Tool related concerns
  • Features Conundrum​
  • Financial Constraints

So what's hiding under each area?

I've sorted the areas based on perceived importance for users, as it stands for me, after talking with many self-proclaimed PKM (Personal Knowledge Management) nerds.

Basic Human Psychology

  • Fear of change (aka resistance to change): Most people simply hesitate to try new apps because they just feel comfortable enough with their current methods of managing work and knowledge. They may not be satisfied, but they're not dissatisfied enough.

    Sadly, this is over 85% of the population.
    (confirmed by the generally accepted Adoption Cycle)
Visual from: https://www.business-to-you.com/crossing-the-chasm-technology-adoption-life-cycle/
  • Feel of Cognitive Overload: These days, many of us fear that we'll have to constantly manage, update, and organize information in a second-brain app. That alone may lead to feeling (upcoming) cognitive overload.
    It might sound counter-intuitive once you realize that, in any case, we all constantly manage, update, and organize information in many different places.
  • Seeing the value quickly (or not): Aka seeing the value without too much friction and in as short as possible timeframe, is critical to establishing new habits, such as regularly using a second-brain app for work and knowledge management.
    Most app developers focus all of their efforts here, but it is just one piece of the puzzle.
  • Time commitment: This one is kind of related to cognitive overload, but many of us (users) feel that using a second-brain app requires too much time and effort to set up and maintain.
    Which is definitely true at the beginning before you master the app and build some habit of capturing and distilling knowledge.
  • Social Influence: If you don't feel social influence, you're f**d (or you're a nerd). If your friends, colleagues, or industry leaders you admire do not use or endorse second-brain apps, you are less likely to try any new app "just like that". Especially if you're community will not see it as a socially accepted or valuable tool.

User knowledge and awareness

  • Lack of awareness: Many people may not be aware of the benefits and capabilities or even of the existence of second-brain apps, making it less likely for them to seek out and adopt these tools.
  • Perceived Redundancy: Many users perceive second-brain apps as redundant to their existing tools like Gmail, Dropbox, and Trello.
    This seems bizarre and funny to tools-enthusiasts (or nerds) like me, but the majority really does consider these tools sufficient for managing work and knowledge, dramatically reducing the perceived need for a new app.
  • Overwhelming options: When someone decides to branch out of their comfort zone and try something new in the PKM/TKM area, they're met overwhelming number of choices of apps claiming they'll help you manage your knowledge, work and life, and anything in between ... And the sea of options really scares people off.
  • Unfamiliar Terminology: Second-brain apps often use specialized terms and concepts that are unfamiliar to ordinary users, creating a barrier to entry and making it more difficult for users to understand and adopt the app.
    We're all guilty of this, me included - just shortcuts like PKM/TKM are totally foreign to the majority of people outside of the knowledge management industry.

This is a very interesting one because that's the area that gets a lot of attention in discussions from users and way less attention from dev teams. Even though it seems obvious that these concerns deserve dev teams' attention.

  • Data Migration: Transferring existing data and knowledge from current systems to a new second-brain app usually is tedious and time-consuming.
    Almost every app will claim they have an API or connector you can use but it never works for everything. Also, it is typically easier to get data in than to get data out of a tool.
    Most users are actually not thinking about getting data out when they start, but when you go through a few app changes, you'll appreciate that you thought about it early on when the time to switch comes.
  • Integration with Existing Tools: Users may already be using various tools for different aspects of work and knowledge management, and a new second-brain app might not integrate seamlessly with their existing workflow or tools, creating friction in the adoption process.
    Even though the integration is the second best thing devs can do for their app, most are not doing it well. But it seems clear that not everyone (or I should say - almost no one) is willing to change 100% of their tooling for the next new app right away.
  • Security concerns: Knowledgable users are getting more and more paranoid about their data. I do as well. Hence I may hesitate to store any personal or sensitive information in a new app unless it's fully encrypted. This is true, especially if I'm unfamiliar with the company and its security measures.
    Many people I talked to were simply fearing potential data breaches or misuse of their data.
  • Insufficient Documentation & Support: Most of the second-brain apps lack usable (not to say comprehensive) documentation, sensible short-form tutorials, and/or customer support. They're happy to leave it to the user to figure it out - and there are good operational excuses for doing so.
  • Usability and UX/UI: It's a sad fact that UX/UI and general usability are often not given the utmost attention, even though they can actually help you win the war4users!
    Couple that with insufficient documentation and you're just making it difficult for users to get started and overcome initial friction.
  • Platform Limitations: Many apps (not just second-brain ones) are not available or fully functional on all platforms or devices, hindering users from seamlessly integrating the app into their existing workflows.
    Again, it might be surprising but the majority of users are living with multiple platforms across their work, home, school, etc.

If the users actually survived the above-listed potential problems then they're most likely nerds or enthusiasts from the industry. They still haven't won but they're trying to find the best option for their situation. And they most likely encounter features conundrum and financial fatigue.

Features Conundrum​

  • Lack of features: Some second-brain apps may not offer enough customization options to fit the user's specific needs. That's especially true when the early days of app development.
  • Too many Features: Many second-brain apps come with a plethora of features and functions which, when shown early on, can overwhelm users unfamiliar with the platform. It makes it difficult for new users to see the value early on and use the app effectively.

Financial Constraints

  • Subscription Fatigue: Many second-brain apps operate on a subscription-based model, and users may already be subscribed to multiple apps and services, making them less inclined to add another recurring expense.
If you build it they won't come. Adress the issues above and you may have a winning model.