My unsufficient cognitive tools

I love to rearrange items in a graphic window to visualize their relatedness. In many cases, I am quite content with my simple, ubiquituous program. Here I want to describe a scenario where I would have liked better tools support.

For gaining a quick overview over new developments in a certain field, it is often useful to look at a bibliography listing or the titles of contributions of, say, a conference, like IA summit. In a paper world, you would perhaps want to do “card sorting” to group the related ones and finally drill down to those titles that interest you most or that make you curious because you are unfamiliar with some terms and concepts mentioned. In a graphics program, rearranging the items is much easier, and connecting them with sticky connectors is far more flexible than using paper clips.

For the second step, some complexity reduction can be achieved by reducing the titles to the most significant words. I use to do that by just double-clicking such words and click on “bold” (or, if the font size is too small, color them). Then I can move the title around to the neighborhood of their related titles, or in a corner for yet undecided cases. Occasionally I have to split up a too long line by inserting a line break. Everything works smooth in this operations cycle: mark the significant terms, and move them to their apparent relatives.

The main problem is the first step: how to import the raw title strings. Of course you could simply copy and paste them, one after the other. But I don’t have enough patience to copy every single item, without starting to think whether each of the items is worth this manual operation. I am tempted to prematurely filter things out, and so the result won’t mirror the true list and hence not the true overview including frequency, completeness, trivial cases, and relative importance. Therefore, I have often been trying to collect the strings automatically:

  • If they are in a simple web page table, this is rather easy: just right-click on the table, and you can import it to Excel or Word and from there into tabbed CSV files or whatever you like.
  • What is still cumbersome, though, is how to get the items into the object oriented slide as separate objects. There is software that allows importing such item lists into special mapping programs (e. g. one quoted in a comment on D. Grey’s post on concept mapping), and as an alternative, I know now how I can import items from Access to Powerpoint (German description here).
  • If the source table is not simple enough (as the IA conference schedule mentioned above) then it can be a really hard job extracting the raw titles. (In the example, I probably wasted more time than acceptable, because I had to upload the HTML source to a unix system and reactivate my knowlegde of the awk utility, and still had to correct a few entries manually).

So my wish for this sort of usage scenario is the following:

  • let me select an area of a web page, and import the covered text items into individual textboxes of a graphic program, which should ideally be connected as a hierarchical tree, according to their original item list nesting.
  • Later on, when rearranging of a cluster of items is done, I would like to just rubber-band select a group of textboxes and their hyperonym, and let a macro button do the following for me:
    • insert bent connectors from bottom border of hyperonym to left border of each child node;
    • left-align the child nodes,
    • vertically distribute child nodes and parent
    • group them, vertically condense them, an d ungroup them,

    to please the aesthetic or pedantic traits of myself.

Click here for the sample result:

img66

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