Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Mystique of Visual Information

It's alarming that information overload is getting worse despite some amazing technology.  The more information we have access to, the more we wish we had a trustworthy way of finding it when needed:  A way that thinks as we do.

This is the story of how one person took a visual way of organizing information and added a new ingredient - the magic sauce that makes this really different.  I'll get to the sauce later.

Indexing software There are many: Google Desktop; Windows Desktop Search; X1; Copernic; Cindex; Macrex; SKY Index . . . many more.  These programs can be useful.  They undeniably help find things sometimes but for me, indexing software offers only a limited solution. Why?

First: I can't always identify the right phrase.   I was looking for something I copied from the web about stress in children.  I looked for 'reduce stress', 'stress reduction', 'cope with stress'.  The specific item I wanted, when I found it by hunting, turned out to mention 'alleviate stress'.  I remember concepts, not specific words.

Second: I'm sure you know - too many results!  When an index search gives any hits at all, it gives too many hits for me to want to search through.  In the case I just mentioned, searching for the word 'stress' alone gave far too many results (and I must stress this point!)

Third: Drain on performance. Having indexing software running can slow a machine down.  When moving files around or working on files temporarily, it will still index them. I know it's a temporary move, but the indexer doesn't.  And if you do a daily backup, the indexes can add a lot to the load.

And Fourth: Whether I have indexing software or not, I have to impose some order on important material anyway - I just don't feel safe relying on indexing alone.

Visual representation The core of this post is that a visual approach is the best way I've found yet.  I'll give you an illustration of this (even the word "illustration" says a lot) - a real story of how presenting things visually can often score strongly, the visual 'roadmap'

I worked with a client to pull together a visualization of all its many computer applications spread around the Asia Pacific region to show how they were linked, and what depended on what.  It was a large diagram with a database holding the essential information in the background.  It was intended as a position statement only, to support future planning with the database being key information, and the diagram as a quick overview.  but it turned out that the visual element kept the project alive long after the original intended few months.

Here's what I delivered to the client - with a database behind the diagram:

The client took it over and two years later it had grown to this:
Visual roadmap
Ten years later, on another project for the same client, I found it was still being maintained and used.
 Then it came in handy for a new project with a global scope.  So this visual representation with its underlying database, originally conceived as temporary, was sticky enough to last for at least 11 years in Asia Pacific.  Recently it has become a permanent way of tracking the company's computer applications in Europe.  The database / visuals combination taught me something, and that is a key point for this post, but more about that later.

So what's the best visual approach for information management on computers?
  • Many use the file system itself -- folders or directories, nesting one inside another to build a hierarchy - this is just a little visual, but not very
  • Some use a simpler lists method - not visual at all
  • Many are disorganized and would have you believe they're proud of it - not visual
  • Word indexing with software is a solution for some - not visual
  • Some have an enviably good memory and just know where they put things - still not visual and no good for me
  • But increasingly, people use some form of visual layout with files attached

Concept map
thumbnailMind map thumbnailI've used mind mapping (left - a mind map from ThinkBuzan) and concept mapping (right - a conceptmap) for more than 30 years for idea generation, facilitating meetings, planning, and organizing projects.  They are personal, individualistic and flexible.

As you're at Visualmapper's blog you probably know about these, but in case not, here are two links with a quick explanation: concept maps and mind maps.

Most software for making these lets you attach files and URLs to nodes, but managing realistic volumes of information this way would be difficult.

large working
mind map thumbnailFor serious work, the mindmaps became seriously big.  At a readable size, the example on the right (used to plan and control a project) needs to be read in sections on a large screen, and though it was useful in a project, it wasn't ideal.  The rigid tree structure was also a problem. Any item could be a child of only one node so I couldn't link a node to two parents.  Multiple parents are a hierarchy and are often needed in managing information.  People used to make photocopies of typed documents, for example, one for the client file perhaps and one for the project file.

Then came TheBrain (yes, it was alloneword). I learned about this in early 1998, while it was still in v.1 Beta, and gave Natrificial some feedback. Some of the ideas made it into the product, though I don't imagine I was the only person suggesting them.

I used this for a year actively, another year less often, and another year just occasionally when I had specific things to look up.  I had a lot of personal information in there, some client projects and some business planning ideas.  At first I was very enthusiastic, but the enthusiasm waned as I came to see the limitations.

Advantages TheBrain had a mind-map way of thinking without the tree limitations of mind maps.  You could centre on any node and wander around the map so the size limitation was less significant. And any item could be a child of many nodes.  This was one thing I really wanted.  If I have a piece on Hong Kong businesses obligations under the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance, it can appear under 'Hong Kong law', 'privacy', 'corporate governance' and 'IT practice'.  Then, searching down any one of four branches will bring you to the same item.

Limitations For years (long after I abandoned it) only one item could be saved against a node, so a six-page web article needed six nodes.  An unnecessary restriction.

For large, complex projects, visibility is highly limited, even with a 24-inch screen at 1920x1200.

TheBrain referenceFor me this was the killer with TheBrain and why I started thinking about an alternative.

There was no "sense of place", little to help me recognize the surroundings and home in more quickly on what I wanted. This has turned out to be really important now I use software that does offer this.

Minimize abstraction Abstraction is the enemy of quick comprehension. We must make things concrete to remember them.  At this point my company signed an agreement with 3D-Scape Limited to develop an information organizer, so the thinking I'd been doing for years, on and off, crystallized.  We needed a concrete way of presenting information.

Use visual methods The visual approach has great potential, but using 2D mapping had the problems touched on already, like impractical map size for significant (but not huge) projects and the poor visibility that results.  This was where the magic sauce - 3D - came into the information management picture.

The design rules were these:
1. Present information visually, and in 3D to open up the space on the screen, with zooming and flying;
2. Use a mindmapping or concept mapping way of thinking;
3. Allow multiple parents for any node (we call nodes Topics);
4. Allow multiple attachments per node (we call attachments Occurrences);
5. Allow importing from nested folders, outline-formatted text and popular mapping software and reflect the organization of the folders and maps in the 3D landscape produced;
6. Files stored in it should be accessible in the normal way, as well as through the visual information organizer;
7. Behind the visual front end there should be a robust and fast database.

We set aside a day a week for ideas, experiment and discussion and had daily design discussion meetings.  We had two artists coming up with multiple visual concepts.  And on more than one occasion we had the unusual task, maybe unique for software designers, of working in clay, photographing the results, adjusting, making more models.  Very concrete!

What we found In a concrete 3D space, you're not feeling around in your head for where you stored something.  You can find what you're looking for more quickly.  You feel much more confident that what you need can be found.  You can show others that you're better organized.

3D mindmapping takes shape Taking that 2D example we gave earlier into 3D, we arrived at this. (The colored lines showing relationships between cones are optional.)

Topicscape landscape image

Small project
mind map thumbnailThis project was actually done with a 2D mind map because it was pre-Topicscape but it shows how the nightmare of that 2D mindmap that we looked at before (the thumbnail on the right) can be tamed by moving it into 3D.

The topic cone "Findings" above is the focus of this view at present.  We refer to it as the Current Topic.  Any topic can be chosen to show as the current topic with its child topics in front and its parent topic(s) behind.  Small cones in front of larger ones always represent the larger one's children.  The parent of Findings is EPD REPORT, which is also the parent of Findings' siblings in three columns on the left.

Topic cones contain files, notes, web shortcuts and allow for the user's additional comments and descriptions against each topic and file.  They can be colored and tagged, at will. This is the view inside a topic cone:

Topicscape topic center image

If you want more you can click the image on the right for an explanation of the Topicscape structure.  The multi-parent capability in this is achieved with topic cloning.

Association Type example
imageTopicscape structure explained link imageTopics are nodes and Occurrences are often files containing information about the Topic in which they appear, but may also be fileless if you decide just to add a textual note to a Topic.  Topics are linked by Associations (like relationships connecting ideas), and Associations may have Association Types, a descriptive phrase that defines how the topics are associated.  In the image on the left, the Association Type is " is the capital of ".  So you can capture knowledge as well as organize information, concept-map-style.

What does an info management software need to do?

Help you find information, help you place it That's what it's all about.

Indexing: Of course, Topicscape has word and phrase search - not my preferred approach, but it's a basic need.  This works with information the user has added, as well as names, file types and dates.  And there's a simple file content search or it can hook Topicscape's search directly to Google Desktop Search and Windows Desktop.  Concept search: In Topicscape you will organize the material according to your own hierarchy of concepts.  Then when you want to search and cannot remember the words, you can start as high up as you need to, and drill down according to the concepts you have established.   Multiple parents increase the likelihood of finding an item in this type of search.  Flags, tags and colors: You can add a flag to topics for quick, visual recognition; color files according to your own scheme, again for quickly spotting what you want; mark occurrences 'finished with' - this pushes them down the list, turns them grey and suppresses them from searches unless specially requested; make 'favorite' topics and occurrences - they will then appear in the Favorites menu.

Context: When organizing information, it's not just about files, but the context around the files to be referred to later by you directly or used in searches.  You can add a description, note of author, and the source.  Web shortcuts will fill in the source automatically.

Special help: It's useful for an information organizer to have a few tricks up its sleeve.  Tricks like allowing a large document to be sliced up 'virtually' and organized visually, and edited in that form while retaining the integrity of the original.  It does this by combining automatic wrappers and paste special.  Tricks like a way of queuing web-page archiving to allow you to carry on surfing as interesting material is saved locally for later study.  Turns out that this is red-hot for Web research.  And tricks like a lightweight helper app that gives special help, even when Topicscape is not running.

Importing: One of the settled early principles was to allow importing and matching the implied organization of information in the 3D landscape produced.  This applied to nested folders, outline-formatted text and some mapping software like FreeMind and MindManager.  To give one example, here's the same material in folders and in a 3D landscape:

Folders/Topicscape contrast image

 In folders, only the contents of one top-level folder can be seen, whereas in 3D all can be seen, examined closely, or flown around, giving an entirely different perspective (literally).  A single mouse click while the Shift key is held down allows for an instant zoom in to the area around any topic (cone) and instant return, if needed.
Exporting: There are many forms of export as well. With FreeMind, even a round-trip is supported.

Previewing files: You can save any type of file in Topicscape, see it and open from there, but many types of file can be previewed in thumbnail, medium or large form without the need to open the file.

Here are just a few uses:

-              Organizing reference material;
-              Organizing  and saving material on the fly as you research;
-              Managing all the material for a project;
-              Managing To Do lists and activities

Just think about your needs to organize files on your computer, capture web pages to study and control your notes.  This brings a new dimension to those activities, which is both satisfying and effective.

For more information on this 3D information manager to judge for yourself, you may go here:

This account by Roy Grubb of G&A Management Consultants Limited

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