Formation for Mac OS, from Mekanica

Pros: Exceedingly flexible; inexpensive; fun; attractive; responsive customer service; very useful
Cons: None yet!
Rating: 5 out of 5

First published 1/13/2005

I have attention deficit disorder, so I’m always looking for better ways to get organized. I love little lists and stuff, it’s just that I lose them (ahh, the irony). I’ve tried various little pieces of “to-do” software (or such features in other programs), but eventually I get distracted from them and the lists get totally out-of-date and useless.

Formation, however, is different.

I saw someone somewhere raving about an organizational toy for Windows, and that reminded me once again of my search for the perfect organizer. I went to the Apple website to troll through their list of software for the Mac, and spent a good long while in the productivity section. Everything was too expensive, or not what I wanted, or buggy, or for a version of the OS I haven’t upgraded to yet (I still haven’t upgraded to Panther). Then I stumbled across Formation.

My Requirements

Flexibility: I keep track of a lot of things. Some of them have deadlines; some of them don’t. Some of them are projects with many stages; some of them are simple. I wanted to be able to keep track of items I needed to review, stories I was working on, stages of writing projects, deadlines for contests, to-do lists, the people and companies I’ve gotten review copies and items from, recipes I want to make, food items we have in the pantry and should use up, and more.

Each of these things has totally different needs. For review items I’ve received I want to keep track of when I got them, who I got them from, when I’m ready to review them, when I reviewed them, where I published the review, and whether or not I emailed or otherwise notified the sender that the review has gone up. For large writing projects I need to keep track of different stages of the project and how much of them I’ve done, projected deadlines or self-established due dates, and so forth. For a food inventory I need to know what we have, how much of it we have, and when it will expire or go bad. And so on.

Extensibility: I need to be able to keep all of these things organized such that they’re simple and easy to locate. If I have to open up and scroll through half a dozen files to find all of these different things, I’ll never end up keeping track of them all.

Shininess: I need whatever tool I use to be fun and interesting enough to hold my attention. (I mentioned the ADD, right?) It needs to feel at least a little like a toy–something I can open up and play with and truly enjoy using. Little fun frobbies help with this, as does a lack of frustrating bugs.

A good company: I like a nice company with good customer service. Many other things can be overlooked if a company gets back to you promptly and nicely takes care of your problems.

Formation: The Basics

Where to begin? There’s just so much to describe! To begin with, I should note that if what I describe here intrigues you, Mekanica Software’s website* has screenshots and further information. Hopefully I can give you some idea of what the software’s like on my own, however.

*[Added later: Please note that apparently Radical Breeze Software has taken over development and sale of Formation.]

First, I have to say that for a version 1.1.1, put out by a one-person company, this is an absolutely stunning little piece of software. It’s far more advanced, useful, and bug-free than plenty of more “professional” pieces of software I’ve used.

Formation allows you to set up nifty lists, or “topics,” inside of folders. You customize the form your list takes using a little tool called an “inspector.” You can include up to 14 fields, and you can use text fields, checkbox fields, date fields, priority fields, and more. You can size them as you please and order them as you want, changing, renaming, reordering, and adding to or subtracting from them as needed. Then, once you have that set, you add “items” to each list and fill them in. In addition to filling in the fields, you also get a “notes” field that lets you type in a large amount of text, even allowing you to style that text with bold, underlining, italics, etc.

But allow me to give you an example. Take my reviews list. First there’s a text field for the name of the item I want to review. There’s a checkbox for whether or not I’m ready to review it. There’s a date field for when I received the item for review, if it’s something a publisher or manufacturer sent to me. There’s a second date field for when I published the review, a text field for where I published it, and a checkbox for whether or not I emailed the URL to the person who sent me the review item. In the notes field I put the contact name of the person and company who sent me the item. I keep a separate topic for the contact information of those publishers and manufacturers. I can click on the top of the column that I keep the “done” checkbox in, and it will order the items by whether or not I’ve reviewed them yet. If I wanted I could instead click on the head of the column where I note the date I received the item on, and it would order things by when I received them.

The interface window has a nice little window on the left that shows you your tree of folders and topics. You can also have multiple windows; each one is a file. So I keep one for all of my writing-related things, and one for all of my household-related things.

How It Measures Up

Flexibility: So far I’ve always been able to adapt Formation to suit whatever I was trying to keep track of, with ease. It’s incredibly simple to create new topic styles, and you can do it individually or save them as templates to a “shelf” so you can use them to create new, similar topics over and over. Formation comes with a handful of pre-made topic templates such as contact forms.

Extensibility: The ability to have different windows/files, and the tree of folders and files on the left, makes it very easy to organize everything, and find things in seconds.

Shininess: The software is attractive and has lots of fun little frobbies. For instance, you can choose from a wide range of little icons to go with your topic templates. You can also muck with colors.

A good company: While I was testing out the demo to see if I wanted the product, I kept running into what seemed to be a bug that kept me from creating and using new types of topic. Since that would be a major deciding factor for me, I emailed the company. It turned out to be a slight mis-print in the documentation about how to do something, not a bug. But the developer got back to me immediately, figured out what was going on, and told me what it was I should really be doing–without even a hint of derision for the fact that I probably should have thought of the answer myself, in hindsight. In fact, he was flawlessly polite and helpful.

That was the deciding factor that pushed me over the edge.

Well, that and the price. I couldn’t afford to spend a lot of money on something that, ultimately, could have ended up going the way of so many other organizational toys I’ve tried to use. But this software, so much more flexible and handy than most of the others I looked at, was also much less expensive than many of them! How could I not try it out when the price was just $29?

And as it turned out, that was incredibly worthwhile. Here I am, more than a month later, not only still using Formation but using it for more things than ever. I organize everything with it. I use it to keep track of writing income. I use it to note articles I want to work on so I don’t forget my ideas. I keep track of recipes, food inventories, chores, and contact information. In fact, I’m not sure what I’d do without it!

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