Information Synthesis Tools that work for me

Posted by Alan Barr on Wed 24 June 2020

Information Synthesis Tools

A large part of my work in a strategic software development organization is thinking through ideas and communicating concepts. I leverage a variety of tools to communicate these concepts to other parties.

Miro

Miro is a phenomenal whiteboarding tool that is great as a giant graph/canvas with multiuser functionality. Living in our now remote Covid-19 era a lack of a physical drawable whiteboard has been the biggest blocker to effective communication on abstract topics. Otherwise Miro is a great tool with many different types of functionality. In the past when I would use a mind mapping tool, I have now replaced that with Miro. With Miro it is easy to add many different images, links, and stickies to a board and move them around at will. The greatest strength this tool provides is the ability to keep many similar but different resources together in the same visual space and move them around as one's thought process changes. This is a strength over a more document-based tool that limits the proximity of other ideas. Miro is great for developing mental models and collecting many ideas to shape and share a narrative. A technique I did in the past would have used index cards with different ideas and over time I would organize them into a coherent narrative. Miro makes this simple to do.

Notion

Thanks to Marie Poulin and Tiago Forte I have a framework to leverage notion. Using Tiago's PARA (Projects, Areas, Resources, Archive) and Marie's notion tips like the weekly agenda. Overall, I leverage notion as my centralized second brain where I can keep a hierarchical directory of different ideas and concepts. What I like about notion is that I can have a document format with embedded images, tables, links, lists, videos and various embeds as well as a highly adjustable format of my pages. A difference from notion is that this is information that I want separated from other items and I do not want to always re-explore certain areas. It's still something that I am evolving but I like the format I have so far.

Google Keep

For some reason sticky note tasks are what I am comfortable with. Kanban boards, todoists, and all the rest do not work for me. Even notion can feature some level of task management and I simply cannot stick with anything else. Google Keep is simple and works well enough for me to track items to do.

Google Sheets/Excel, Documents, Slides

This is the typical Office framework and I think overall this shouldn't be surprising. The most powerful feature of this office suite is the multiuser editing capabilities and easy shareability. Most of the time I am asking for feedback and collaboration on the different work products I have created. Sheets is my go-to for sharing lists of items and I might go to Excel if I need some advanced features or I downloaded a csv and I need to slice and dice it up. Google Docs is the work horse of linear communication. Most of the time either I'm defining reality or seeking consensus on what reality is. Advanced skillsets I bring for others is the ability to take their raw ideas and categorize them into a higher-level concepts or connect them to other ideas. Finally, Slides is the eye candy for people to look at during presentations. Great presenters do not typically need slides but in a highly technical field the audience needs mental models to look at to connect the abstract concepts to something they understand. All in all this whole collection comes down to crafting a narrative for oneself potentially to show to others that their ideas were thought through and the right amount of "homework" has been done.

Note taking - Good Notes on iPad with Apple Pencil, Rocketbook & Frixion Pen

I take lots of handwritten notes so that I can focus on what other people are saying. Often my thought process can be distracting and if I'm not writing down what is being said it is possible for me to become distracted. I also spend a lot of time doodling during meetings to stay awake and engaged. I have lots of handwritten notes stored in good notes but overall I rarely tend to go back to these notes unless there was an action item included as one of them. It's possible I'm not leveraging handwriting to its highest potential. On iPad the Apple pencil is fantastic and works well with Good Notes, Miro, and other online whiteboard apps. Each iPad note taking app has its strengths I haven't tried them all, but good notes worked well enough for me and with the Apple pencil provides the highest fidelity experience in drawing mental models. When my iPad is indisposed, I can leverage the Rocketbook and while I'm not a fan of wiping it down it works well enough.

Cawemo

Cawemo is a tool for business process modeling notation and it is great for modeling any type of process. While a flow chart could be used just as well, I like the fact that the notation has a specific meaning behind it. Communicating to others what a process is or should be is invaluable and it gives people something to work with to suggest improvements.

Communicating thought process and reality

Working in a software organization it can be easy to get lost in technical details, new tools, and the day to day. I think overall we over value "programming" and undervalue design, thought, discussion, and communicating the obvious. Communication is perennially difficult to master because people know and understand different things and are in focused on tasks of varying need and importance. Audiences require a wide mix of information broadcast liberally which might seem obnoxious but ultimately it turns out its essential.