Thursday, November 19, 2009

bCisive Online vs WebEx and friends

Screen-sharing programs like WebEx, GotoMeeting, etc. allow you to show a desktop over the internet. They allow one person to present at a time, by broadcasting that person's computer's desktop to all participants.

bCisive Online instead provides access to a common virtual workspace -- and a superbly functional one at that! -- with one person able to edit at a time (to maintain order!), and the ability to pass editing "control" to other participants.
It's the difference between taking turns presenting, and really getting work done together.
To enhance participation all participants are equipped with virtual "laser pointers" that enable everyone to point at boxes in the workspace when making comments:

A remote participant uses his virtual "laser" pointer to
draw attention to the Option

That's for real-time collaboration. The results of your remote meeting are centrally stored in a Space and members of your "site" can revisit as needs dictate.

Note: At this time bCisive Online does not provide audio chat. We suggest that you use whatever you're using now. E.g. Skype or Google Talk.

Table of Contents

Welcome to the Austhink Software blog. Read it like a book:

1. Visual thinking
2. Product comparisons
3. Clear writing
4. Compelling presentations
5. Teamwork
6. Product news

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

But I'm not a visual thinker!

Some people protest that they're not visual thinkers and shy away from visual thinking approaches.

My off-the-cuff reply is that most people -- even avowed non-visual thinkers -- tend to consult a street directory when trying to figure out how to get from A to B:

A page from a street directory

The general point is that a visual approach may be the far-and-away the best tool for the job, even if you are not -- or don't consider yourself to be -- primarily a visual thinker.

Visual thinkers love visual tools and techniques, but visual tools and techniques aren't just for visual thinkers.

Top down or bottom up?

Top-down and bottom-up thinking are complimentary. Let's see why:

The alternatives (all images produced in bCisive Online)

Both top-down and bottom-up thinking cut across the critical / creative thinking divide:

Critical thinking
  • Structuring and categorizing (mainly bottom-up)
  • Hypothesis testing (top-down)
  • Argument mapping (top-down and bottom-up aspects)
Creative thinking
  • Brainstorming (bottom-up)
  • Mind-mapping (top-down)
  • Dialogue and issue mapping (top-down)
Let's look at what's good about each in visual form:

Some merits of working top-down

Some merits of working bottom-up

A combined approach

The pertinent "higher level" thinking skill is knowing which tool -- top-down or bottom-up? -- to use for which job.

As with all techniques, practising the skills is important -- first learn the rules of the game, follow them until they become internalized, then understand the limits of the rules and where to break 'em -- and then you can enjoy the benefits of these complimentary approaches.

Critical thinking or Creative thinking?

No! It should be critical thinking and creative thinking.

Some definitions, from Tim Hurson's book Think Better:
  • Creative Thinking: generative, nonjudgmental and expansive. When you are thinking creatively, you are generating lists of new ideas.
  • Critical Thinking: analytical, judgmental and selective. When you are thinking critically, you are making choices.
Experts in both styles of thinking will prefer more nuanced definitions, but these are good enough for my purposes.

Although individuals often excel at one ("she's very creative") or the other ("he has a mind like a steel trap"), the two modes are clearly complimentary. Sometimes they are embodied largely into different roles. For example:
  • Writer (creative), editor (critical): But writers are critical of their own work
  • Architect and client: Here who is being creative and who critical will be fluid depending on the phase of planning or construction
  • Judge (critical), lawyer (both): The lawyer must generate many attacks and defenses (creative), but must select those that appear to best conform to the body of Law and make sense of the Facts to stand a chance (critical)
Techniques (and tools) for mind-mapping had their genesis as creative techniques, at which they excel.

Rationale and bCisive (desktop and online) have their roots in techniques of critical thinking, but lend themselves to both creative and critical visual thinking, by providing convenient facilities for
  • Putting your ideas in boxes (creative)
  • Uncovering and representing relationships (creative and/or critical)
  • Categorizing (mainly critical)
  • Making judgments and choices (critical)
Not only are these tools aids to both kinds of individual thinking, they lend themselves to teamwork around planning, strategizing and trouble-shooting, and subsequent visual communication.

They are strong all-round tools for both critical and creative thinking. And most people need both.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

bCisive vs Visio and the rest

Microsoft Visio is primarily a computerized drawing program. With it you can draw very precise diagrams in a multitude of different styles. It is great for visual communication. In fact Microsoft suggest that we all "Learn why Visio is the key to Visual Communication". Fair enough!

But before visual communication, you need to think and work through what you want to communicate, and this can also best be done visually. For visual thinking -- both working individually and in groups -- you need something that is simpler and quicker to use. bCisive (desktop and online) are such tools.

They allow you to manipulate ideas like pieces of Lego, which snap into place. The user concentrates on re-arranging to reveal relationships and structure, while the computer handles layout in a largely automatic fashion. Visio et al. are not really suitable for this kind of activity; especially when working in groups.
bCisive is for visual thinking and visual communication.
Where Visio encourages you to futz with appearance, bCisive is suited to working with substance. The desktop version provides a range of visual methodologies suitable for a wide variety of activities from capturing discussion in meetings to analyzing hypotheses, or just brainstorming. [In the online version we plan to provide options for customization around common organizational language and processes.]

Because bCisive diagrams look pretty damn good -- if not as polished or providing as wide a variety of diagrams as those of Visio (and friends) -- it is also a handy visual communication tool. Both versions even provide tools to break a map into a sequence of PowerPoint slides, and structured text output in a variety of forms (coming soon to the online version) to make going from preparation to communication straightforward and efficient.

bCisive helps you do visual thinking and communication, and one of our challenges at Austhink software is maintaining a happy balance between these aspects.

bCisive and Rationale vs The Whiteboard

Manual tools are not good enough for real visual thinking.

The conventional whiteboard is big and tactile, but has only two operations:
  • Draw
  • Erase
You can do visual thinking on a whiteboard, but rearrangement -- which is crucial if you are trying to solve a problem or gain insight, rather than simply present -- is only possible with constant rubbing out and rewriting, which is prohibitively difficult.
In practice, the difficulty in rearrangement deters the participants from undertaking the crucial activity of rearranging, or limits them to doing it in their heads, where no-one else can see and participate.
Even if you try to make use of the whiteboard for serious visual thinking, eventually you tend to end up with something rather messy:

Visual thinking on a whiteboard

So if you know what you want to write, a whiteboard is great, but it is of limited use in exploring ideas by playing with the arrangement.

bCisive (desktop and Online) and Rationale let you move around boxes at will, without the constant rubbing out and rewriting.

Butchers paper is even worse than a whiteboard (you can't rub out), and sticky notes allow rearrangement, but tend to be too small for group use and are poor at showing relationships (the lines connecting the boxes).

So while manual tools are flexible and have several advantages -- cheap, flexible, tactile, easy to get started (at first) -- they are cumbersome when it comes to the rearrangement needed to uncover structure and relationship.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Why visual thinking?

Visual thinking -- especially boxes and arrows -- allows people to organize and communicate their ideas more effectively than almost any other means.

Visual thinking helps to take the implicit and make it explicit.

Compared to linear text, visual thinking helps by easily revealing structure and relationship.

There are many different types of visual thinking:

Some types of visual thinking (click to enlarge)

In future posts I'll look at how different tools (both software and physical) are better adapted to different types of visual thinking.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

PowerPoint output for compelling presentations

Both bCisive desktop and bCisive Online have powerful facilities to take your maps and break them into sequences of PowerPoint slides. There is also a simple strategy to break a complex issue embodied by a big map into an easy-to-follow story.

Together, this facility and the systematic approach add up to compelling presentations.

Maps trump bullet points for visual impact
Compare the visual impact of bullet points, for example:
  • What are the Pros and Cons of Outline form?
    • Pro: Good for input: Fast and familiar
    • Pro: Handy for output, sometimes
    • Con: Boring: The reader / audience's eyes glaze over
      • Fix: Mix bullet point output with other more visually interesting and informative styles of presentation.
        • E.g.: Images
        • E.g. bCisive Online diagrams
    • Con: Not great for showing relationships
with the corresponding bCisive Online map:

Click for full size

Far more compelling, eh?

Problem: Big maps are intimidating
Big maps, often the outcome of fruitful group discussion, tend to be intimidating when presented to someone who wasn't there to see them emerge. We recommend that you break them into bite-sized chunks to form a story.

Solution: Tell a story
In this post on the bCisive Online blog Anna walks through an easy method to do this. The slide sequence drops out almost effortlessly ... once you know how!

Released: bCisive 2.0.4, Rationale 2.0.7, with Multi-page printing

We have just released bCisive 2.0.4 and Rationale 2.0.7. These are largely bug-fix releases, and they do include a new facility for multi-page printing, and it's very cool.

In the past both our bCisive and Rationale would simply scale your map or workspace to fit a single page. If you had a big map you either had to break it into pieces yourself, or get hold of a large page format printer.

With the new feature you can now also pick a fixed zoom level for your print out:

The new controls

and the software automatically figures out how many pages will be needed to print the map or workspace:

A four page map (click to enlarge)

With Page Preview on you can not only see how many pages it will take to print your map, but the Page Guidelines (the grey grid-lines in the example) show you where the page breaks will occur. It's really cool to see how the pages adjust dynamically as you edit your map.

When we bring printing to bCisive Online we expect to follow a similar model.

Scientific writing

Geoff Hyde is putting together a free online course on scientific writing, using Rationale as the tool of choice. He's cautious, but it's already up, and we expect that he'll refine it over time.
When the course is fully developed, its design will allow it to be done independently online by anyone who wants to improve their science writing skills. Alternatively, it could be done in conjunction with a teacher who provides feedback on certain exercises. The great majority of the content, and exercises, however will not require teacher feedback. -- Geoff Hyde
Why Rationale?

I highly recommend however that you do the course by accessing the course web site within the argument mapping application Rationale.

I have been using Rationale for several years now in Scientific Writing courses that I run for postgraduate students at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore. Rationale is mainly focussed on teaching people how to think clearly about contentious issues, and has very successfully popularized a diagrammatic method of argument development.

My experiences in the classroom have taught me that this diagrammatic approach is also a great starting point for writing all types of scientific text. It is the most practical way to outline that I have come across. Outlining is often promoted as a writing tool because it forces the writer to focus first on organising ideas, before moving onto packaging them. Getting your thoughts in order is very important - many writers waste a lot of time crafting elegant sentences only to trash them when they realise they don't fit in with the bigger picture.

If you try this course please let Geoff ( know how you go.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Inverted Pyramid style of writing

Want to grab attention like a front page journalist? The Inverted Pyramid style of writing is one of the keys. What is it, and how can bCisive and Rationale help you to learn to how to do it, and keep on doing it?

The inverted pyramid

What is it?
The Inverted Pyramid style of writing is commonly seen in print journalism, where it allows the reader to leave off reading at any point, and still have the gist of the story. It is also an excellent style when writing for busy people, because it gives a summary at the start, then delves into increasingly more detail, rather than "building up suspense".

How to do it
Here's an example of a list of facts to be assembled into a news article (source article):
An accident occurred. It happened yesterday. Today is Tuesday. The accident was a car accident. It happened in Murfreesboro where Main Street and Broad Street intersect. One person was killed. The person was John Frazier. He was 20 years old and lived in Murfreesboro at 212 Moore Court. He was driving a blue 1998 Ford Mustang. He was driving northwest on Broad Street at about 5 p.m. He lost control of the car. It was raining, and the road was slick. He was also driving about 20 mph over the speed limit. He was the only one in the car. The car smashed into a utility pole along Broad Street. The impact crushed the whole front of the car. Frazier was thrown through the car's windshield. He landed on the pavement some 20 feet away. He wasn't wearing a seat belt. He was killed instantly.
Let's organize these visually, under the headings What?, When?, Who?, Why? and How?:

The facts arranged visually (click for full size)

In this case I have not only classified the facts by placing them under the relevant questions, but also arranged them in order of importance. The most import facts respond directly to the questions, with elaborations below.

To draft the start of an Inverted Pyramid style story, I simply hide the lower reaches of my map:

The top of the map gives a visual summary

A suggested first sentence draws on all these elements, quickly summarizing the situation:
A Murfreesboro [Where] man [Who] died [What] Monday afternoon [When] when his car spun out of control [How] on rain-slickened [Why] Broad Street [more Where], crashed into a utility pole and threw him through the windshield [more How].
The rest of the story can be constructed by delving into more detail mainly around one of the top level questions at a time.

A visual approach
By using Rationale or bCisive (in this case I used bCisive Online) you can quickly and visually organize your facts so that they are not just listed, but well structured. From there the structure of your writing will follow easily, and it just remains to polish the prose so that it sounds good too.

Being able to easily drag and drop the pieces and have the layout automatically adjust makes the use of such tools much quicker and easier than using pen and paper or whiteboard, or text-editing or straight drawing software.

Finally, export a text form of your map to create the basis for the final, well-structured, written version.


Welcome to the Austhink blog.

We aim to use this blog to show how visual thinking can make a big difference and talk about our direction and ideas going forward.

Austhink makes a range of visual software tools:
  • Rationale 2: Educational tool for critical thinking, clearer writing, and analysis
  • bCisive 2: Individual and group problem-solving, and presentation preparation
  • bCisive Online (beta) and blog: Real-time collaborative problem-solving and communication
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