Productivity Station – a review of the Station app

What is it – and why might it boost your productivity?

It’s a glorified task switcher. There, that’s it. Despite the hype and fuss, that’s what it does. The idea is that it allows you to switch between (online) apps much more easily and quickly, with less fuss, less interruption to your thinking process and without the RAM overhead of keeping lots of browser tabs open. Indeed, Station makes the bold claim that in terms of chewing up your computer’s thinking capacity it’s up to 90% more efficient that leaving tabs open.

With a research background I immediately recognise that for what it must be – a best guess based upon assumptions about your working habits – but if it’s even partially true it’s still impressive.

I found it a bit difficult to get my head around at first, too. Why wouldn’t I just have all the tabs open on my browser? Sure Google’s Chrome (my default browser) is a memory-hog of the highest order and can eventually drive even the most nippy of computers into the ground eventually, but to be honest that’s a pretty extreme circumstance. Any decent computer, by which I mean anything with reasonable RAM, should be able to sit with as many tabs open as the normal human being can use. So I started off feeling sceptical.

But Station was recommended by one of my AIR facebook group members (Mark Orr’s Pocket Video School is here) so I figured I’d give it a go. So – in all honesty – my interest here is whether it saves me time, rather that it lightens the load on my computer.

How may Station App looks on my computer, when it’s connected to my Google Calendar

I also found it pretty difficult to show you what it looks like, because by definition anything I could show you would show private data!  So I’ve opted for a rather uninspiring image, showing part of my Google Calendar. But in many ways, that’s the point… if an app which is supposed to silently allow you to skip between Apps looks too flashy it rather defeats it’s own objective: it’s supposed to be unobtrusive – and it is. The bit you need to look at in that image is the vertical blue line on the left.

You can see that I have added a fist-full of my online Apps, with one icon for each, and jumping around between them is as easy as a single click on the column. I like the feel of it and that puts me in a frame of mind where I want to like it – and given that most of productivity is about attitude and so on rather than the App that’s a big tick in the ‘win’ column straight away. You might remember another review for a productivity App, Simpleology, where I really didn’t want it to work or to use it, because it put my back up when I installed it by it’s nag-sell-nag. This isn’t like that. I want to give a good review.

Oh, and it’s free. What’s wrong with that? 😉

If you try and include more than six Apps you have to either pay or tell someone about it. As I’m just trying it out, I’m not going to pay! And as I’m just giving it a test run and can’t yet recommend it, I didn’t want to “Share the love”. The result was that I told one of my own spare email addresses about it. If I like it, I’ll play ball, I promise! It’s a trivial flicker of annoyance in an otherwise clean installation.    NOTE from later… after a couple of months, I now like it enough to share the love.

How do you get it?

Installation is a snap. The only downside is that the website is sooooooo minimalist you can’t really tell what the darn App does.  If you’re listening at Station, if it hadn’t been for Mark’s recommendation I’d have just clicked away at this point. 🙂

I can’t tell you how easy it is to install on a Windows machine as I use a Mac but it really was as simple as

  • download
  • double-click
  • drag the icon to the Applications folder

… frankly as it should be – and as it is for (I’d guess 90%) of Apps to my Mac.

Setting it up is also a snap.  Remember that left hand blue column on the first image? There’s a button near the bottom with a plus sign. Click it and select the App you want. Obviously the first time you use Station you’ll have to prove who are you to the App. The lovely exception I noticed was that because I was signed in with my Google account, quite a few things either grabbed that, or allowed me to sign in with just one click of “Sign in using Google”.

Rearranging the icons in that pretty blue bar is the click-drag that you’d hope it is.

So then… another tick in the ‘win’ column. But so far we’re only getting onto the starting grid. None of this matters if the experience of using it isn’t worthwhile…

How does it work?

Here’s the big idea. To jump between online Apps you just click. This image shows my instance of Station, open on ProsperWorks, my CRM. I took this screen shot as I was changing to MesiterTask (my project and task management App of choice. Clicking on ‘Home’ box takes me there. Clicking cog on the right of the box above takes me to the admit/signup/whatever of the App in question – typically useful if I wanted to sign on as someone else or remove the App from Station, etc. Just clicking on the icon on the left works too, of course, and is pretty much instant.

Slick… but… but… but… somehow pointless.

How is clicking an App on a vertical list like that any faster than clicking on a tab in my browser?

From my personal perspective there are a few reasons:

  1. I can physically have more Apps live than I could have tabs open as the icons are smaller. That doesn’t sound significant, I know but I quickly found a circumstance when I was a handy trick – when I was in hardcore online research mode. Doing that means I can have about a dozen tabs open as I cross-reference things from various places. And 12 tabs is pretty much all you should have, which means that there’s no space for Apps.
  2. It’s more fun. That might get old, but right now I like it. It makes me feel smug and smily
  3. they’re right about it being faster: I didn’t think they would be but they are. Faster enough for me to notice it

So despite my initial scepticism, I’ve kept Station. In fact it’s now wormed it’s way into my workflow to the point where I’ve set it to autostart when my computer boots up. It’s become a slick and integrated part of my productivity.

And it’s fun.

So where might it go wrong?

Setting aside a vague feeling of Emperor’s New Clothes that I’ve mentioned as a repeating theme in this post, because I can skip between Apps without this, there are a few things that jarred.

  1. Redundancy. If I have Facebook open in my browser (hey! I run a group there and am an active member of a few – it’s legitimate, honest. Honest!) then that comes with Messenger. So when I get a message I now get positively bombarded with it. My browser’s Facebook tab tells me, my iPhone tells me ‘cos I have the App open there, and now bloody Station tells me. 🙂  Okay, it’s not the end of the world but it does build into the ‘why bother’ story.
  2. Desk top Apps. Quite a few of the online versions of Apps that I use have desktop versions too. I know the point of this App is that I don’t need to spend time/mental energy opening them and so on, but the simple fact remains that, for example, the desktop version of Skype is about three centruries ahead of the web based version that Station access.
  3. Missing Apps. We use an accounting App called FreeAgent. Station integrates with a shedload of Apps and they claim to be adding more ‘every week’ but right now I need to have my browser up and running to use some Apps anyway, which chips away at the whole point of Station a bit more
  4. For quite a few of the places I go online, I need to go to a specific web address that’s not truly an App. This very website is an example – and so is the AIRproductivity group in Facebook. That’s not handled in Station (which does rather make a mockery of some of their marketing videos that claim you don’t need your browser for work any more!)
  5. Four

At the back of my mind is a bigger, more philosophical concern. I’ve been using Station for a bit now and I’m finding it genuinely boosts how quickly I can zip between Apps… and if you’re doing something that requires that, great. But one of The Big Things about being productive is that focus is key. How often would we, and our productivity, benefit from being more cleanly and clearly focussed on one thing at a time. By being able to zip around faster, it might actually backfire.

And as a side note… some of the help facility and FAQs is shocking. Yeah, I can see that they’ve tried but my guess is that the problem arises from something like:

  • a non-native English speaker writing difficult stuff
  • a technical bod writing what they think is important, not what users do: the result of this last bit is bloody annoying because it can lead to assumptions such as “right-click” but without saying what to right click on.

Still, it’s intuitive enough to mean you won’t need this stuff often. I hope. (Note from later – I’ve very rarely needed the help stuff. Very rarely indeed.)

And what actually goes wrong?

I know it’s free but you’d think it would all work perfectly, despite that.  Here’s a bug.

This button would be a bit more productive if it worked!

I have open in Station my gmail, specifically an email from a car hire company about one of my overseas trips. I want to change the booking, to take the car back a day early. And there’s a big, red, shiny button called “Manage My Booking”. Perfect. So I push. Nothing happens. Less perfect. Being stubborn (and stupid) I press it twice more before I realise the issue.

Station is opening a new window of Chrome (my default browser) but not doing anything else – it’s just sitting there with my default screen showing. When I try and use the button from inside a web browser it works faultlessly. This is almost a deal breaker for me, I think. While I can reply to emails from inside Station, if I can’t act on links embedded in them it’s, well… not to put too fine a point on it… broken.

Just so you know, I tried a few other things – Email worked fine, but none of the emails I tested allowed me to open links from inside them. Then I found the problem.   According to Station, it’s a bug in Chrome that they can’t fix. The workaround is to restart Chrome.   Not the end of the world, but annoying!

And truth to tell, yet one more thing that chips away at the utility of the App.  If I have to keep rebooting Chrome, it’s going to dent my productivity, right?

What do I think?

Initial thoughts…

I loved the feel of it, I really did.  I wanted to like it. I wanted to use it. It’s sleek. But…  But I can’t be 100% sure it’s making me more productive by a mile, but it feels nice!

Later thoughts…

Yup.  I’m keeping it. The drawbacks I mention above are still drawbacks, but it’s worth it, for me.

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