Information Synthesis Tools

Tools used for Information Synthesis Mindmap

I work on shaping the direction of a technical platform. A big part of my job is organizing and synthesizing information about the platform product. I am communicating that information up to management, my team, or the users of the platform.

Where Information Comes From

The information I consume in general comes from the sources below.

  • Conversations
  • Blogs
  • Videos
  • Podcasts
  • Whiteboards
  • Books
  • Email
  • Work Wiki

Above I do not rank these mediums in any way. In the image below, I place the mediums on a quadrant. How information-dense a medium is versus how relevant it is to the day-to-day work. Videos, podcasts, and books will vary in relevance because sometimes you luck out and find the exact topic. Other times it is a mix of offhand references to the problem you might encounter. I often spend more time synthesizing material from books or taking one small nugget from a video or podcast that I can apply.

Information Density to relevance

Where Information is Synthesized / Organized

The tools I use as of today are:

If I need to read something long-form for work, like a whitepaper or a proposal, I use PDF Expert for marking up the document.

Tool Clarity to Speed

In the above diagram, I group tools around how I can achieve clarity versus speed. Speed meaning the ability to insert, change, and collaborate quickly. Without a lot of preparation and explanation of what the tool is and how to use it. Handwritten notes, with Good Notes, are not fast. There is value in taking slow written notes to help you focus and paraphrase what you are learning if that is the benefit.

Strengths of some Systems

Knowledge workers collaborating on a large project is a challenge. Everyone is an expert at different layers and areas of the system. It’s impossible to expect everyone to have the same shared understanding and see and hear everything that happens. There are also a limited amount of synchronous meetings you can have with your engineers before your weekly numbers take a hit. Leveraging tools to gather information asynchronously saves time. Your team will thank you if you find the time to collect this information.

Shareability / Collaboration

The Google Office suite makes it dead simple to interact on a document, spreadsheet, slide deck. I couldn’t imagine how inefficient it must have been to email around excel sheets, word docs, PowerPoint slides, and merging people’s changes. Office workers are familiar with the Microsoft-style suite of tools which hopefully reduces training time.

Whiteboarding

Miro is on top when it comes to Whiteboarding. However, if I were in an office, I would start with an actual whiteboard. I’ve found Miro to be great for meetings like retros, project pre-mortems, and other types of facilitated discussions.

Quick Capture

The Google Keep app on my phone is a click away from taking a note for me. In the future, I might use my voice assistant more. I’ve had mixed experiences with it mangling things I say.

Structuring Information

Nothing beats Google Sheets for rapid collaboration, gathering input, and structuring thought around ideas. I let anyone edit the documents I make. Strong opinions are welcome. We can make changes in the future. It also invites people to make changes without a lot of process or discussion. In my example, some components touch and interact with Kubernetes below the self-service experience level. One spreadsheet helped clarify what those things were, update schedules, the interaction between teams, and more.

Linking ideas

Obsidian excels at this. Notion features the ability to backlink as well. I’ve tried many tools like personal wikis and websites. Their ability to link is not enough to keep up a habit. I am attempting to move my permanent notes into Obsidian after I’ve refined them in Notion.

Viewing linked ideas

Obsidian has a simple graph view with a lot of customizability. You can see at a glance how ideas interconnect and establish new connections.

Drawing/Sketching/Doodling

The iPad pencil in combination with Good Notes stands out. I write a lot of notes to remember and focus my thinking. My worst habit is that I typically do not do much with these notes at all. Doodling also helps me focus my attention. Miro also has improved their drawing capabilities. I’ll continue to prefer Good Notes for now.

Task Management

Of the tools, I listed Notion is the only one closest to handling task management capabilities. I will leave it up to you whether it is beneficial to keep tasks and knowledge management in the same system. Using one system can reduce friction. Other tools are more likely to excel in the task management space. In my case, the work I manage is for others, and that lives outside my systems.

Tutorial Videos

I found this video on YouTube which explains how to write over your video using an iPad Pencil. My setup is different but very similar. I use stream labs because it looks nice and is a little more user friendly than OBS. I also use Good Notes with a green background to achieve the same effect of being able to write only on the screen. I’ve already sent out a couple videos using my white pen and the red laser pointer from Good Notes and I am thrilled so far.

Challenges of Knowledge Management Systems

No one tool excels at every kind of use case. Some are proprietary that features minimal or poor data export capabilities. Others feature great interoperability based on an open format at the expense of limited differentiation. I know one of my challenges is spreading my knowledge management across multiple systems. There are benefits to working with one system. My habit is to leverage the best features of these systems I use. Software licenses can be a barrier. Other problems are the training and perception of accessibility in how to find information. People can navigate a document. A Miro board can be overwhelming unless curated.

Conclusion

Structuring information for others to consume and think about is a pain. It is more painful if you need time and attention from your team. Structure the system you will use to gather input from others in advance. Make it easier for them to offer better feedback on what you are trying to achieve.

  • Assess what information synthesis tool works best for you, collaborating, or for others.
  • Consider the strengths and weaknesses of a system in a variety of dimensions.
  • Keep trying different tools and techniques to see what sticks.