Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Five Analog Brainstorming Tools

Following on from Messy Designs and prompted by the Design Games Podcast (around 19 min in this episode) I would like to talk about five brainstorming tools I like for creating things.

However the aim is not to talk about how to brainstorm (because the reader knows this) or how to use each tool (because there are plenty of online articles for that), but to talk about how each tool affects the process

Assumption 1: Brainstorming is a process of

  1. Meditating on a concept or heading
  2. Writing isolated nodes of information representing single ideas
  3. Connecting these nodes together
  4. Reorganising these for an holistic view of your overall concept
  5. Repeat

The above process is true for all five techniques below; they are different ways of doing exactly the same thing, namely mapping out the ways that single ideas branch out into smaller headings.

Assumption 2: How Each Technique Could Influence Thinking

First, working with each method has two modes:

  1. Authoring of new ideas
  2. Reading and revising

Second, when writing new ideas, the nodes are not created in isolation but are influenced by the visibility & spatial representation of neighbour nodes.

And third, when you’re looking at the whole thing, your ability to get value from the design comes from

  • context around each node, i.e. what is the thought process connecting one node to the next (is it implied, or explicit?), and
  • ability to reorder into a coherent view.

The Techniques

Considering 5 techniques:

  • Index Cards
  • Mind Mapping
  • Concept Mapping
  • Mandala Charts
  • Outlining

Note: I really prefer a physical piece of paper to interact with (“analog note taking”) but I’ve mentioned software options as well. I like the physical thing because

  1. less temptation to delete
  2. less distraction by screen elements
  3. more fresh air and natural light

Index Cards

Get a stack of index cards and write thoughts on them, then reorder, sort into piles, etc. Cheap, very portable, very tactile.

  • Writing: cards created in isolation, no visual influence from other nodes. No shape, no implied hierarchy.
  • Reviewing: sort and stack. May be harder to get an holistic view of the project, simply due to the size of each card. You can get an holistic view of the stacks as headings though.
  • Chaos: very messy

Software options: Scrivener (cross platform), SuperNoteCard (cross platform), IndexCard (iOS)

Mind Maps

Tony Buzan’s technique has the user start with a central topic and branch out in all directions, creating a hierarchy of nodes.

  • Writing: nodes created as subordinates and peers of other nodes. Central concept will always impose itself on the process. Radial hierarchy.
  • Reviewing: drag and drop (for software) and colour coding. Pretty good for holistic view, but focused on one central concept or question.
  • Chaos: moderately messy in that order isn’t imposed in the writing process and the map grows organically

Software options: FreeMind, XMind

Concept Maps

Joseph Novak’s technique involves a branching map much like Buzan’s Mind Mapping, but crucially differs as there’s no central node and nodes are connected by contextual statements.

  • Writing: nodes have peers but no subordinates. No hierarchy.
  • Reviewing: draw connections and colour code. Gives a fairly good holistic view although its main strength is being able to follow a thought process jumping from node to node
  • Chaos: messy, although it requires discipline to apply the contextual information around each node at the time of writing that node

Software options: C-Map Tools

Mandala Charts

This is a 3 by 3 grid with a concept at the central box; each other box in the grid then becomes the central box in one of eight secondry grids. There is some interesting method around creating the opposites as flexible pairs. Look here.

  • Writing: nodes have peers and subordinates.
  • Reviewing: highly ordered and focused on the headings you have chosen. 2-level hierarchy, and rigid shape. Good holistic view of the grid.
  • Chaos: low mess.

Software option: MandalaChart for iOS

Document Outlines

Document outlines are a series of headings and sub-headings, and you can move them about, promote and demote headings, etc.

  • Writing: nodes are subordinates of headings. Strongly hierarchical. Furthermore, because this is written vertically, higher priority implied for the top of the sheet vs. the bottom.
  • Reviewing: again highly ordered and focused on the headings. Promote/demote headings in the outline. Holistic view is good but priority of headings is implied due to the vertical listing.
  • Chaos: low mess.

Software options: Scrivener, MS Word, OmniOutliner


Preference will dictate what each technique does for you, but in summary I feel that

  • Index Cards maximise the “blank sheet” and minimise influences of other nodes on thinking during the writing stage. Plus they’re very portable
  • Mind Maps work well to promote one central concept and allow ideas to grow organically
  • C-Maps do the same, but they’re more about meandering cognitive pathways than a central concept
  • Mandala Charts are about top-down order and starting with an holistic view of your concept (or life). But they can do interesting things by pairing up headings on opposite sides of the charts
  • Outlines are about preparing a structure for consumption by someone else (e.g. a document). I know people like making lists so they have that advantage, although I don’t care for them for brainstorming


Saturday, 20 December 2014

iPad 2 and iOS 8: How to fix the slowdown

This is a public service announcement. If you love your iPad2 as I do (all those tasty, tasty game PDFs) but after updating to iOS8 found that it now has the responsiveness of a brick, here’s what you can do:

  1. Reset the network by going to Settings > General > Reset > Reset Network Settings. This will clear out all the networks and passwords remembered on your device (you do know at least your home WiFi password, don’t you?)
  2. Turn off WiFi Networking by going Settings > Privacy > Location Services > System Services > Wifi Networking and set it to Off.
  3. Reduce animations by going Settings > General > Accessibilty > Reduce Motion and set it to On.

I don’t know which of these had the biggest effect; I suspect the first one. iPad is now perfectly usable now, when previously browsing was impossible and even typing was a painful experience. YMMV, of course.

Friday, 18 April 2014


I’ve been having fun with Tesseract, an open source OCR engine. It works from the command line, taking image files (TIFF and JPEG work for me) and outputting plain text.

That’s all. It doesn’t do anything fancy overlay text on an image to generate a searchable pdf (it does output hOCR and handles multiple columns, so I assume that the output can be processed, although I’ve not looked into that). I assume most people who want to scan a document with OCR will want a facsimile of that document, just with searchable text.

That makes Tesseract’s usefulness a bit marginal. But on the other hand, I am a marginal usage case. I just want the text, nothing fancy. Why? Because (awful hipster that I am) I typed this on a typewriter.


Tesseract is very good at doing what it does. I’ve trialled other commercial OCR software and the accuracy when scanning single column text from my typewriter doesn’t come close to Tesseract’s output. It’s not perfect, but it’s something I can live with, and typing on the Olympia beats staring at a screen.

So, if by chance you’re also a filthy typewriter fetishist who wants to use their machine more often but is held back by the need to get text in electronic format, give it a try. I can’t comment on Windows, but the Macports version installed just fine on both Snow Leopard and Tiger.

Scanning settings are not something I’ve looked into too much; the best results seem to be using high contrast B&W for photographs, rather than default settings for documents. I confess however that I’ve not been too adventurous with my scanner, sticking with the default Canon drivers because I couldn’t get SANE to work just yet.


Tesseract does require a bit of post-processing. I’m happy to say the above text was produced with 100% accuracy (including typos); however it did insert the odd line or two. The main frustration is the hard line breaks, e.g.

Blog Tesseract Crop

will output as

So, if by chance you’re also a filthy typewriter fetishist who
wants to use their machine more often but is held back by the
need to get text in electronic format, give it a try. I can’t
comment on Windows, but the Macports version installed just fine
on both Snow Leopard and Tiger.

The quickest way is probably to shove it into Word and do a special Find/Replace to swap paragraph marks (^p; the OpenOffice equivalent is n) with spaces.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Rolling Back to Snow Leopard

This brief post is coming from a freshly minted Snow Leopard install on my Macbook Pro.

I wrote about issues with OS X Mountain Lion recently, and repeated disk and permissions repairs have not fixed the problem after all. Format and reinstall was the only option, with all of the anxieties of backing up and hunting for software keys.

I did consider doing a clean install of Mountain Lion (complicated by lack of physical install media, but it can be done) but I decided to roll back to 10.6. There are a few things I’ll miss from 10.8 like multi-touch and full screen, but I won’t miss the beach ball of death every time I try to access a network share or open a web browser.

As for the differences in Mail and Finder, I can mostly take or leave them–but it is nice to have the old “outlook” style column layout for mail instead of the iOS format. The coloured icons in the Finder are a nice bonus.

For the benefit of anyone coming here from a google search, here were a couple of issues I had to deal with:

  • Applications software from the supplied disk (bundled iLife apps) wouldn’t install because of an “unknown error”. This turned out to be an expired certificate. Rolling the system clock back two years fixed that issue.
  • Trying to delete the sparsebundle in the Time Capsule from OSX kept hanging; I eventually resorted to connecting with a Windows machine (TC as SMB share) and deleting all 700Gb of previous Time Machine images.
  • I couldn’t back up my main iPhoto library–the database was corrupt so it wouldn’t copy, and the machine was too unstable to rebuild it. I resorted to View Contents on the library and extracted the Master images. OK, so I’ll have lost any cropping or thumbnails generated, but that only applied to a few of them (most of which have been published her anyway).


p>And that was about it–hopefully beach balls will be fewer from now on.

Maybe it was the in-place upgrade of Mountain Lion that screwed up my hard disk, and a fresh install would have fixed things… but right now I have a working computer with versions of Mail and iTunes I prefer. Jolly good.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Mountain Lion Beach Ball

I upgraded to OS X Mountain Lion on my Macbook Pro last year, and since then I’ve had no end of grief with the machine locking up with the beach ball of death. I was ready this morning to do a fresh install of the OS or even roll back to Snow Leopard–but in a last-chance attempt at resurrecting the installation I did a couple of things. One of these was to clear out the applications folder including the Flash installation.

The other thing I did was to go into the recovery console (hold command-R at boot) and repair the disk permissions on the drive. The list of repairs was extensive–possibly it was a legacy from the Snow Leopard upgrade.

Taking these actions has removed the cruft of unused applications and so far I’ve not seen much of the beach ball. For anyone else thinking about something as drastic as wipe and reinstall, maybe this post will save you a morning. I’ll update in a month or so.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Mountain Lion

I’m going to sound like a dreadful fanboy now, but I just got Mountain Lion, and I really like it.

Screen Shot 2012 07 31 at 17 40 10

Since my rant on Windows 8 I’ve been eager to see Apple’s effort, hopeful that 10.8 will be the evolutionary, rather than revolutionary release that is expected of the even numbers. Evolutionary because there was a lot I liked when I tried out Lion – I don’t want those features to change.

I’ve also been expecting my macbook to turn into a smouldering slag-heap where Windows 8 pixies dance and point and laugh at me. So far, this has not happened.

Briefest of rundowns on the new system:

  • Really great multi-touch
  • Better, more precise and responsive bluetooth trackpad
  • Mission Control replaces Spaces – after a bit of practice, I vastly prefer the new desktop
  • Full-screen apps dynamically taking their own Space on the virtual desktop
  • Lauchpad – iOS-like way to select apps, seamlessly integrated with the rest of the desktop


p>Downsides? It does seem some of my apps take longer to load now. I don’t know if that’s because the new system is optimised for SSD, or if some core apps are cached for fast loading but the majority of my apps aren’t. Time Machine seems to take a bit longer to start.

The rest of it I can take or leave – the new versions of Mail et al look good and it’s nice that they operate in the way I’d expect to find them on the iPad.

I’m waiting for something bad to happen but so far all my writing apps work and the desktop seems stable. If I were using the mac for more complex creative stuff (like music) I would probably be a bit cautious with the upgrade. My reckless upgrade cost me £13.99.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Windows 8 Release Preview

I downloaded and installed the Win8 preview alongside XP on my old PC (which I only really keep around for playing Thief).

Now I was probably expecting a bit much when I asked it to run some games, since most of my content is from XP-era and earlier. Steam installed fine but none of the content I downloaded would work. Valve are particularly negative about Windows 8, so maybe this is a symptom of what’s to come.

Good – Clean Interface

There are some good things about the new system, and a couple of annoying things. The windows look cleaner all round, like they’ve taken the best aspects of Aero Glass and the Classic borders. I like the start page too:

Windows 8 Start Menu

OK, it’s clear that their primary market is tablets but that’s probably a good thing. The combination of colours and icons is very visible.

The other good thing from a usability POV is that apps tend to be in fullscreen by default (at lease IE is, and I assume Office will be). Not having borders, toolbars and other distractions is a big bonus.

Bad – Cognitive Dissonance

The lack of a start button is questionable (despite arguments that it’s irrelevant) and it’s not hard to work out how to launch applications – however, you need to click between screens to get from the desktop to the Start screen where you can find all of your apps.

Windows 8 Consumer Preview Desktop Mode Windows Explorer 2

It took me a while to work out why this bugged me so much. Then I realised – in order to open an app in the Desktop Mode, I had to go back to the Start screen by moving the mouse pointer into a corner, waiting for a toolbar to unhide, then clicking on it. So, more clicks.

But it’s the act of transitioning between the start screen and the desktop that’s jarring. Maybe in time the user is supposed to learn to work in one mode or the other all the time. But I suspect the majority of users won’t, and it’s going to piss them off.

OSX managed to implement iOS features (mainly screens of icons) pretty much seamlessly with their core interface, and yet retained both types of program launch options. Win8 doesn’t appear to do either. It seems the Win8 uberOS is trying very hard to look different from iOS and Android, and shooting itself in the foot in the process.

Ugly – We Want Your Details


p>To install Win8 I had to set up a Microsoft Live account. Well, OK, I had to set up an iTunes account to use my iPad. But I didn’t have to do that for my Macbook – there, the app store is optional.

Fair enough, MS didn’t ask me for my credit card details. But it did ask for email address, password, and personal information with me having to opt out of newsletters.

But the worst thing was that I realised that to log onto my computer, I needed to use my MS live account id and password. I know this because when I forgot my account password (I’d entered it with a fairly random password, thinking it was just registration information) I couldn’t log on. Then, when I asked MS to reset my password, I could log on again.

In other words, my PC has become intrinsically tied to my MS Live account. I guess if an internet connection is available, it phones home on boot. I’m kind of creeped out.

So far there’s a lot of bad and not much good. Like all other versions of the OS I may learn it eventually through necessity. But I never, ever used any version of Windows by choice. I always chose to use something else – and I only came back to Windows for games. Seeing as MS no longer have a monopoly on gaming, Windows really doesn’t have much to offer.

The final straw? The new bootloader doesn’t boot NTLDR based OS directly – it requires the machine to be restarted to boot into a legacy OS. Frankly I don’t see the Win8 partition surviving the next 24 hours.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Windows 7

Up until a few months ago my computing at home was a sort of inhomogeneous affair. I had a windows XP Pro desktop (dual booting Crunchbang Linux), a G4 Powerbook running MacOS 10.4, and an old PII that originally ran Win98 and had been used for a variety of server duties, and even as a command-line only writing machine.

Then my mum said she wanted a laptop to replace her old, ugly, bulky and slow (800MHz, 384 Mb ram) PC. I said get a Macbook Pro, because learning OSX will be no more painful than learning Windows 7. She loves it.

I then realised the last new computer I had bought was in 2006, so I was probably due an upgrade. On impulse I got a Macbook Pro as well. Now it’s my main machine. The WinXP machine is used to play old games that I can’t let go, otherwise it would have been given away by now.

But I wonder what would have happened if I’d bought a PC laptop instead of the mac. And then by chance (well, luck over judgement) I’ve been selected to pilot the new work desktop, based on Win7. And today I got my new desktop.

Ho hum.

Shiny Shiny

It’s really shiny. In fact, it’s too shiny. Out of the box there are several “theme packs” that vary the desktop background and the window border/taskbar colours. I found that anything other than a variation of grey for the borders and taskbar just annoyed me. I was never a fan of the cartoonish default blue for the XP desktop (the Royale theme made it bearable, otherwise I just used classic).

Once the grey borders were turned on – and a fairly calm desktop background selected – the UI became a lot less distracting. I realised I’d chosen more or less the same colour scheme as I like on the Mac.

Busy Busy

The Mac UI tends to put toolbar icons, if there are any, against a grey background in the top of the window. Folder icons in the finder tend to be muted grey or blue.

Win7’s folder icons are pale yellow – not the best contrast with the white background in an explorer window. And then there’s some weird shading thing going on with the folder icons and others that make small icons difficult to identify if you like to use a detailed view of the explorer tree all the time.

OK, that sounds like a stupid complaint, but hear me out. There are a lot of places where spots of colour stand out and really draw attention – like the close button on window borders, or the back button on IE. It means than the window decorations have a higher visibility than the actual content you’re working on.

The worst offender is MS Office. Yeah, I know that the Office Ribbon (from 2007 onwards) was a big UI change that annoyed a lot of users, but I really wasn’t concerned when running it on Windows XP where it had a nice pale blue background that let all of the options stand out. But in 7 the Ribbon background is somehow paler, and this doesn’t change if you switch Aero off. If your contrast is too high the toolbar turns white, meaning it’s harder to see where the toolbar ends and the content begins. Couple this with a dazzling number of icons of different sizes, shapes and colours, and it’s just so much harder to see the option you want.

Snap To It

While I miss the virtual desktops of OS X and Linux, I really like the Aero features. Aero snap, aero peek and the other tricks do raise visibility, and alt-tab (or win-tab) works nicely. Overall the accelerated desktop is lovely, although jerkier than I remember it (probably because of crappy integrated graphics).


Finally, this is where it’s either genius or stupidity.

A user’s documents are grouped together from different locations into “libraries”. The phrase Document Library is used, even though I don’t believe it’s the same as the Sharepoint definition (something else I’m also trialling at work).

I have never liked this trend of hiding the folder path from the user, but to combine more than one location into one symbolic link seems madness. OK, iTunes does that but then it’s a content delivery vehicle, not something you would upload to. It’s confusing and, I think, a bit unnecessary.

I used to think OS X hid absolute paths from the users, until I realised that if you want to know that information it’s easy to find out. Not so with the Windows 7 libraries. I have yet to “get” them, although I remain hopeful.


I have yet to encounter UAC but then it’s my first day with the new OS. But my initial impressions are they created a nice, hardware accelerated desktop and then made it so garish and busy that in many cases it’s not fixable. Compare to my OS X experience, then Win7 UI is inhomogeneous and confuses me. I have done productive work in the environment, but I can’t see a single thing that Win7 offers that WinXP didn’t aside from a longer future of security updates. Fair enough businesses need to migrate to Win7 for security updates past 2014, but aside from that I can’t see a single thing that Win7 brings other than some cute graphical effects. Maybe my opinion will change with time and experience. Or maybe I will just let the crushing inevitability of Windows 7 roll over me.

Thank goodness Windows isn’t the only option these days.