Death of a Feature: The Impending Demise of Tags

We know that we’re going to have some angry users as a result of this decision– but for those of you who love tags, I hope you’ll read this post and (more importantly) try out the changes we’ll be rolling out next week before you get angry or kick RescueTime to the curb.  So here’s the big news: our release next week is going to remove the concept of tagging from the user experience.  Below we’ll detail what we’re adding/changing to compensate for this and (if you’re interested) why we’re doing it.  We’ll also talk a bit of how you can get help if you are a paying customer and you are using tags.  We’ll also show you some preview screenshots.  We are really freakin’ excited about these changes–  we’re making RescueTime less work, easier to understand for new users, and (most importantly) we’re making it easier to understand and improve your own productivity.

Breakdown of the Impending Changes

Tags are going away. As we looked at how our customers were using tags (the few who were using it, much less using it successfully), we saw people tagging things like they were categories (“graphic design”, “coding”) or saw people tagging things in terms of productivity level (“work”, “personal”, “procrastination”, etc).  To allow for both of these cases, we’re expanding categories and making the act of categorizing (and creating custom categories) one billion percent easier (measure it when we launch!  It’s true!).  Further, we’re are implementing a smart default-categorization system that will provide our users with well categorized data out of the gates.  Here’s a screenshot of the new categorization UI.  It’s inline and it’s FAST.

tagblog1

We don’t show it in this screenshot, but there are two things we’ve added since this mockup.  First, a category dedicated to software developers (a big slice of our userbase and obviously one close to our heart!).  Two, we’ve added an inline “add custom category” selection that will make adding in your own categories close to as easy as adding in a new tag was.

So that’s attacking how most people were using tags– pretty much as categories (in fact, the average number of tags a tagged activity had in RescueTime is 1.26).

But we’re also attacking the “subjective” use case by enhancing how RescueTime scores work.  First, we’re going institute smart defaults scores for all of the top apps and sites.  This can obviously be subjective, but we think it’ll help people get up and running faster and have more meaningful data.  Second, we’re going to make scoring easier and clearer.  Here’s a screenshot of the scoring UI:

tagblog2

One click in any view in RescueTime and you can rescore an activity.  Note that we are exposing categorization and scoring UI in ALL reports (rather than putting them a tab deeper like in previous version).  All of these scores are now available in graph report form.  Want to see how you spend your time in terms of productivity levels?  Check out this graph:

tagblog3

This shows a week of my time with a breakdown of good stuff (above the line) and bad stuff) below the line.  While it’s not strictly related to this issue, this seems like a fine time to note our new URL structure, which will allow clever folk to see reports with any granularity that they want.  Want to see a graph of a day by hour?  Fine.  How about a WEEK or a MONTH by hour?  Here’s an example of the new (human readable) URL structure:

tagblog4

We’re hoping that all of these changes will more than compensate for the sting that some will experience from losing tags.  To learn more about why we’re doing this, read on.

Why We’re Getting Rid of Tags

We’re a metrics driven company.  Any time we release a feature, we look hard at whether people are using it and how they are using it.  When look at tags, we have some fairly ugly data to look at:

  • The VAST majority of our paying customers are not using tags or not using them well (i.e. tagging Excel as “excel” doesn’t seem like a productive use of time).
  • Most users have a minority of their time data tagged.
  • The average number of tags a tagged activity has is 1.26… In other words, people are using tags as categories and are not taking advantage of the one-to-many powers of tags.
  • When asked, most users who quit cite tagging as one of their reasons for quitting.  “Seemed like constant work with tagging”, “tagging was confusing– it was hard to make sense of my data” are very common responses.

In addition to the data, tags create some big challenges for us.  Creating visualizations of tags is difficult due to the one-to-many relationship (imagine a pie chart of tags- If Outlook is tagged as “work” and “communication”, where does Outlook time go?).  Looking at a bar graph of tags, people mistakenly assumed that if they added up the bars, that’d equal their total logged time.  Not the case!

But the biggest reason for nuking tags is that we want RescueTime (as it stands now) to be as simple as possible to make room for some of the exciting things we have in store for you.  I remember reading a comment about RescueTime that really stuck in my craw (because it was RIGHT).  Paraphrasing: “RescueTime is like a fireman walking up to you and saying, ‘Hey!  You are on fire!  You should stop being on fire!’”.  RescueTime in the coming months is going to shift into firefighting mode– and help our customers stop being on fire rather than just letting them know that they are.  We’re going to damn well live up to our name.

But why not just keep the feature and de-emphasize it? In an ideal world, this is what we’d do.  But every feature that doesn’t bring joy/satisfaction to a meaningful percentage of our users has a cost.  It clutters the UI, slows down our development process, and gives us something else to maintain until the end of time.  Too much cost, and not enough benefit, in short.

What to Do if You Have Tags

As part of this release, we’ll be assigning automatic categories and scores based on the tags people have assigned.  The 98% of our users who don’t use tags very much will have much improved data.  The 2% who use tags a lot SHOULD have improved data as well (most people who tag don’t have all of their time tagged– this will help!).  For those of you who have tags and desperately want to keep them, you’ll have the custom category capability should you need it.  If you are a paying business customer, we will help you do this from our end to minimize the pain  for you.  In other words, we’ll learn from you which tags are critical and we’ll move them into a custom category on your behalf.

For folks who are anxious about this, we apologize.  And we ask that you reserve judgement and give the adjustments a few weeks to sink in before you pass judgement.  We’re are incredibly excited about what’s coming out next week (we’ve been using it on our dev server as we’ve developed it and it’s a huge improvement on a lot of fronts).  We’re also excited about what’s on the horizon (API and a rash of cool productivity features, to name a few things)


43 Comments on “Death of a Feature: The Impending Demise of Tags”

  1. Ian says:

    Good move, the interface was overly complex.

    In the spirit of simplifying things you really ought to move to a simple 0% to 100% scale for productivity instead of your overly complex and confusing -2 to +2 scale. There is no ‘negative’ productivity – using Facebook doesn’t “take away” from the work you did earlier in the day, it’s just 0% productive.

    As it stands it’s not possible to compare productivity between different groups because they can adopt different conventions for what each number on your -2 to +2 scale means.

    A simple 0 to 100% scale would work better here IMHO.

  2. Kate L says:

    Thumbs up! I have always struggled with tagging and the best way to use it, and I think getting rid of it will be a great simplification.

  3. Andre Kibbe says:

    The low adoption rate of tags wasn’t due to the concept, but the implementation. If RescueTime allowed users to create a project list, they could’ve created a set a tags related to each project and had much more discrete, actionable feedback. The project, “Design logo for iWidgets” could have tags identifying the time spend on each task within the project, such as “Photoshop,” “Illustrator,” and so on.

    I believe the UI would be more discoverable if action categories worked bottom-up from user-defined project headings rather than top-down, nested category descriptors (e.g. “News & Entertainent –> Music”). If the user knows he’s working on a “Design logo for iWidgets,” then the “Design and Composition” category follows logically.

    That said, I look forward to seeing the new UI, whose improvements I’m sure will make up for the feature loss.

    • Yuri Baburov says:

      Unfortunately, better application tracking is not possible.
      Often software can’t tell even if you’re “Working on project A in application X” or “Working on project B in application X”; “Sending email to a friend” or “Sending a business letter”. Applications don’t provide semantic information, and of course that sucks.

  4. Ken says:

    DIE DIE DIE YOU LITTLE PIECES OF NON-SEMANTIC CRUFT. Tags are the lint of the internet–accumulate enough of them and you could make something kind of interesting but mostly they’re just messy and make you sneeze.

    • Jens Knutson says:

      All I can say is AMEN and good riddance.

      (Also, free tagging-related hint to coders out there writing GTD software: tags != GTD. If you disagree, you’re missing the point.)

  5. It always seemed a bit weird having both categories and tags. They needed to be rationalized at some point. And, I get cutting underutilized features.

    I also agree with Andre Kibbe, above – the adoption rate may have had to do with the implementation – you had both categories & tags and it took a long time to see that they were independent. (and to understand how multiple overlapping tags were measured on the graphs).

    The handy thing about tags for me was that tag allowed you to measure multiple dimensions at once. E.g. I tagged each item with either “focused” or “diffuse”, then a set of tags that were essentially multiple categories. “diffuse” and “focused” had productivity scores of 0. This allowed me to measure productivity (first axis) as well as how many of my tasks were focused vs diffuse (second axis) I’ve found that a focused:diffuse ratio of 1:1 to 1:2 keeps me sane & productive.

    This could be implemented by just allowing multiple categories. Yes, that makes them effectively tags again, but it gives a single interface this time. Much less confusion for users while giving power to others.

  6. Spencer says:

    Good idea to drop tags. I’ve been spending too much unproductive time tagging stuff and couldn’t figure out the use of having something tagged with more than one tag because the charts didn’t provide any useful info. I’m keen to use the improved system but have to say I’m very impressed with RescueTime’s potential. I look forward to the day when it will become a seriously helpful tool for logging activity against planned schedules – and helping us stick to our goals (with growl reminders of what we had planned to be doing). Most of us freelancers need a tool to help us maximise our time and get those elephant sized projects completed. I’d happily pay for that.

  7. kirsty says:

    I’ve just checked and I have 581 things tagged as “work” which have been used in the past six months – RT has these scattered over all kinds of different categories. I’m currently a “Solo (Light: Free)” user. I can’t export this data to CSV. Is it all just going to vanish next week?

    When you say you’ll help “paying business customer”s migrate to custom categories does that include me if I upgrade to a “Solo (Pro: $8/month)” service?

    (I use your service and am happy to pay for it – just so far the free account has met my needs just fine.)

  8. Joseph says:

    I installed this but quickly uninstalled it after seeing what it actually is. There is no valid reason to send all data to your server when the app could have just as easily been designed to track everything on my desktop. Lame.

  9. Bob V says:

    I am cautiously optimistic, emphasis on the “cautiously”. I think this all depends on how well the automatic default categories work. I use tags as a category system (1 tag per activity). It’s a pain, but I get to choose what gets assigned to what. I would hate for an app that I use a lot to be categorized as something that doesn’t reflect how I use it. (For example, I tag e-mail as entertainment.)

  10. Saravanan S says:

    Nice to hear that you are dropping the tags.. this was one time waster everyday or week to tag the untagged ones rather than look at the stats and improve upon using your time, which is the ideal purpose of rescue time.

    BTW when are these getting implemented?

  11. Brad Kynoch says:

    I whole-heartedly support this change! A productivity-improvement tool should not feel like an unnecessary burden, and that’s what tagging felt like. I look forward to the changes!

  12. francisco says:

    i love the tags, but you have to be organized and diligent about using them … most people are not, which would render this tool not as effective as can be … so i’m all for the changes … and besides, if 98% of people are not using tags, what better way to respond to the user community than to make them happy … what a concept !!!!

  13. Jason Kirst says:

    I agree that this is a move in the right direction – especially the idea of the “smart defaults.” Basically the more standardized the defaults are the more accurate my efficiency comparison score will be.

    What I am worried about the following use case (which I would imagine is pretty common among your user base): Time tracking by client/project. I currently use tags to keep track of what client and/or project a task belongs to.

    I understand that I can just make a new category for each client and project — but then if I do that don’t I lose the benefit of all the smart defaults and predefined categories that you are putting together for us?

    How would you recommend using the “new” rescuetime to track time across multiple projects?

    (I LOVE your app, by the way – killer work.)

  14. jammus says:

    I enjoyed tagging, it made sense to me even though I was maybe using it wrong.

    I had a bunch of stuff tagged as personal or work. Then sites tagged by clients. Certain applications as web development. Thunderbird and Yahoo! mail as email but one as personal and the other work. Twitter/tweetdeck/search.twitter.com tagged as twitter and social networking (along with facebook, etc). And so on…

    Anyway, hope the system works out. I’m a handsome and resourceful guy so I’m sure I’ll adapt to it.

  15. Nigel Rowe says:

    A few thoughts. First as a power user who tagged everything (albeit probably too much) I am disappointed with this change, although I understand the needs of the many, the desire to keep the UI as clean as possible, etc.

    1. A custom project tag separate from an activity tag is very important to me. nytimes.com might be a news category to lots of people but to some it is a project or work or research to be tagged as such for later review.

    2. Tags allowed Rescuetime to be used for many purposes *instead* of other tools, while having the added benefit of all the time tracking. This alone was a huge productivity help.

    3. I *heartily* recommend that you keep some aspect of the UI that allows those who want to assign more than one category to an activity to do so. Tags fitted this fine. All we need is the ability to pull subsequent reports. A single data entry field similar to the tags field now will suffice. Put it under an advanced option if you want to hide it.

    4. Please add a separate custom “project” classification. remember you have sophisticated users as well as country bumpkins, and our needs will not be met by the overall single category assignment.

    5. Also, please work out a way for those who have invested a lot of effort into tagging to have access to tags for a while longer

    Rescuetime is a great tool and allows me to maximise my productivity, but as you have pointed out, this change is not going to be welcomed by many of your advanced users. Please throw us a bone, otherwise this will; become just another “tool with promise” that faded away. Right now, this change would make me definitely not want to step up to a subscription plan, which I’m not on right now, but have been considering as I use the tool more.

    Thanks for taking these thoughts into consideration.

    Nigel

    • Jason Kirst says:

      Nigel, you have a good point. One thing the developers of RescueTime mustn’t forget is that often it’s those %1 of power users who get excited enough about a product to sell it to their “country bumpkin” clients and project managers – who then in turn create inane tags like “excel.”

      So – simplifying is all well and good – just make sure not to leave your power users (i.e. the few of us who actually use tags “correctly”) behind.

  16. Rodion Romanov says:

    Into thy codes I commend my spirit… :P

    So far the changes have worked for me, so I’ll tyr them and give you feedback as soon as possible.

  17. Spencer says:

    If the menu bar drop-down had an option to assign current app/document to a project we could get all the functionality of tags without having to back-tag half our work. Defaults are handy, but configurable defaults are even better and user selected assignments would really rock.

    Nigel is right – you are on the cusp of becoming must-have for many or an irrelevant frivolity for most. I don’t disagree with dropping tags at all – they weren’t ideal – but you are almost there, please don’t drop the ball now.

  18. Zalary Young says:

    I use tagging because it has historically been much faster than re-categorizing things based on how sites apply to me as opposed to the default assumption of that site’s function. Like many of the users who are “doing it wrong” I use work and personal as my primary tags, because that is how I break up my online time.

    While I’m sure that I will adjust to the lack of tags, I’m perhaps disproportionately disappointed in this change because it’s an instance of software taking away features in an effort to dictate to me HOW should use it, instead of learning HOW i use it and adapting the software to better benefit that.

  19. Dan says:

    Look like some great changes if you ask me! Tags were messy and pretty unhelpful.

    I look forward to giving them a try!

  20. Dona says:

    I’m one of the 1% who do use tags (possibly incorrectly — but it worked for me) and am concered about the change.

    After spending some time looking at categories cannot figure out how to change from tags to categories. I’d like an overall “Work” category in which I assign all applications I use for work. I’m a work-at-home consultant that works on one project only — at this point.

  21. I use tags but I don’t mind if you get rid of them as long as there is a way for me to track how much time I spend actually working, it’s cool with me.

  22. Scott says:

    I still have tags. Did the release get delayed?

  23. Eric says:

    Oh no!!!! TERRIBLE decision! All my time on firefox now shows up as “System Utility”! I use the internet for work and for fun, and “System Utility” doesn’t capture AT ALL the essence of what I’m working on at any given moment. Oy, RescueTime, I fear this is the end of our relationship.

  24. Sachin Rekhi says:

    Great move. I was always confused on how to differentiate between categories and tags and ultimately decided I only cared about categories. Getting rid of them will simplify the UI with little draw back.

  25. Amer Khalid says:

    Hey Guys,

    I love your software! I just start using it (this weekend), and spent hours tagging my softwares. And I came across this post accidentally.

    I wish you had added a warning or something on the dashboard that tags are going away and don’t waste your time tagging.

    Anyways thanks for the great software, I look forward to new changes!

    Amer

  26. Nigel Rowe says:

    Finally had a chance to dig out the excellent post by Tony last year “Google owns 13% of me.” This was a chance to use tags in a useful way that I believe will be lost. The ability to group sites together in a way that was beyond a mere category. Since 1997 I did this *manually* with all the key Online media players to try and understand how my eyeball time was being distributed. RescueTime replaced the chore of having to do this in Excel. I’m disappointed to see that this particular tracking activity will have to return to a manual process.

    Nigel

  27. Lawrence says:

    Just wanted to say thanks for all your work on this app, and for understanding that you can make a product better by removing features. RescueTime’s already one of my favorite apps, and I’m looking forward to seeing the new changes.

  28. Dan Lundmark says:

    To automate a lot of this, I have a suggestion. Before I got a Mac I used a Windows app for a few years called SWTT (Smart Work Time Tracker) from aklabs.com.

    It would watch the Title bar of any application. I could make a rule to watch the first 4 letters of the filename. Apps generally show the filename that is open/being actively worked on in the app’s Title bar. (for example, Photoshop shows the current filename being edited etc).

    To optimize this, I would name all my files based on the client project. For example, when working on a Sony website I would name the file sony-web-home-01.psd, etc. This would then assign any active time automagically to the Sony project.

    Using this I was able to have SWTT give me very accurate accounting of my time on projects, without tags (just preset client categories). I’m using RescueTime now and hoping the new updates will help me get organized even better than when I had my PC… I’m using the free RescueTime, let me know if I’m missing something, maybe watching app Title bars for filenames is already possible, let me know, thanks!

    • Biggles says:

      Dan, you’re a genius!

      Rescuetime guys, you were saying that you had difficulty working out exactly which file an application was working on but it’s simple! For many of them it’s in the title bar! Ok, so for some it isn’t but for the major office you must be able to define a few custom rules to work it out.

  29. Serge says:

    Hmm, interesting :) I personally used tags as “custom categories”, to avoid problems similar to your “Outlook” example. Well, time to update :)

  30. Brian Smith says:

    Do us Solo Pro users get to experience the new drop down menus? Or is this reserved for the world of Pulse and Empower users…?

  31. Landon says:

    I’m a little curious as to the reasoning behind your crazy new url structure. (You know that no one but the nerds that appreciate mod_rewrite are going to utilize it…)

    Why not do something like /browse/scores/by_day/for_week/2009-05-17/? Seems a bit overkill to have article-adjectives in a url, but that’s just me ;)

    Anyway, keep up the good work. I, like the masses, agree that a one-to-many (or :has_and_belongs_to_many) categorization structure doesn’t need both tags and categories. Way to fight the web 2.0 mantra; tagging != life. :P

    Thanks,
    Landon

  32. Is there going to be the possibility to embed a top categories chart to my web site when tags are gone?
    It´s the only reason for me to use tags right now.

    thanks.

  33. [...] are officially gone. We broke down our reasoning here if you’re [...]

  34. Ian says:

    Love the new rescue time interface. simple – tells me what i need.

  35. Phil Willis says:

    So if I previously had nine apps tagged as “art” (photoshop, flash, maya, premiere pro and certain reference websites like http://www.flickr.com) how do I add up all the time I spent on “art” under the new system?

    And does it now mean that all “Internet Explorer” activity is considered as one category?

    Why not just track “Phil is using his computer now” and make one big category?

    I don’t get it.

  36. lupin_sansei says:

    I miss tags too.

    I had 3 very broad tags: work, non-work, and productivity. I classified everything into those 3, and had rules saying I had to do so many hours work a day, and less than so much non-work. By removing tags RescueTime has lost me one year’s worth of classifications and I’ve kind of lost interest in learning how to make the categories work for me this way.

    • Tony Wright says:

      Hey Matthew! The subjective-style tagging capability is now built into scores (and we have defaults scores for most things based on your tags and the scores of other users, but you can override them). I can’t help you if you’ve truly lost interest, but you could check out our new “Total Time by Productivity” visualizations, which we think are awesome: http://www.rescuetime.com/browse/productivity/by/rank/for/the/week/of/2009-07-21

      To make sure your scores are pretty accurate, you could browse down this list (list of all apps/sites for the month) and just double-check the scores on the right. Change any you disagree with and you’ll pretty much have what you had before (and more!). I’d wager it’d take you (at MOST) 5-10 minutes.

  37. abhi says:

    this is a terrible change.
    what happens to all my tags and all the time i’ve spent building up the system?

    can i pay to keep tags or the old tagged data i had?

    resucetime has gone from my favorite time management site/app to wtf.

  38. [...] Their blog post explaining this change is a masterpiece of ‘this world revolves around us’ and ‘who cares about customers’ – [...]