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Anyone who has ever scribbled a page of notes in a meeting or at a conference knows how quickly it can turn to gibberish: just what did those key words, written in capital letters and so carefully underlined, actually mean?

Many people have already switched to modern hardware to store and retrieve their notes electronically. But that is only a first step.

Just as the spreadsheet changed the way that structured information is handled, users should now be demanding software that lets them create notes more easily and make them more intuitive to understand.

Logitech has tried to solve the storage and retrieval problem with the io Digital Writing system, a smart pen that tracks its position as the user writes and draws on paper. The pen remembers the ink strokes, reproducing the page electronically when it transfers its data to a PC. The accompanying software allows searching of the notes, using handwriting recognition, and also allows for modification of the electronic page on the computer.

The idea is great, but the io system’s flaw is that it requires special paper, covered with microscopic dots, so that the pen can tell where it is.

Microsoft separated handwriting from paper altogether with its Tablet PC operating system. This version of Windows enables users to write directly on the screen of a specially designed laptop PC with a stylus. The laptops have lids that flip around so that they close with the screen facing the outside, effectively turning them into a very expensive A4 pad with a hard drive.

Poor marketing and a price premium has limited Tablet PC sales, even though when they are used with Microsoft’s OneNote system they can be a boon for mobile users.

OneNote is a notebook in software form. The system lets users draw and write directly on the screen, storing the penstrokes in Microsoft’s Digital Ink format.

The attractive part of the system is its ability to record sound through the PC’s microphone and link the penstrokes to the audio. After a meeting, users can select a particular drawing and listen to what was being said when it was sketched, for example. Finally, all those doodles will start to make sense.

OneNote can also be used on non-tablet PCs as a way of storing and searching type-written notes, but Tablet PC users can even search their scribbled notes using surprisingly accurate handwriting recognition.

“To take that a step further, with the next version we’re including optical character recognition, so you’ll search across photos of, say, whiteboards at a conference,” says Microsoft’s product manager Joel Davies.

The software will also allow users to search for words and phrases directly in audio recordings, he promises.

OneNote has made this journalist’s life easier, but it misses an important aspect of note-taking psychology: thinking visually helps people structure information more effectively.

Simply emulating a notepad does not encourage users to map out their information in a visual form. For that, you need a mind map.

Mind maps are diagrams connecting words and pictures together in a way that makes it easier for people to understand concepts than they would by ploughing through reams of written notes.

One of the most popular mind mapping tools is Mindjet’s Mind Manager.

The Windows-based software is popular for business planning during meetings, explains UK managing director Dustin Newport.

“Visual mapping lets us capture key points and bullets in a very rapid fashion. It shows the relationships and contexts between those words, enabling the author and the reader to digest quickly what is being communicated.”

The software includes the ability to convert a mind map to another format such as a Word document, or a set of tasks in Microsoft Outlook, but Newport says this is becoming less necessary. “We’re finding in organisations now that people are using maps not only to gather their thoughts and structure a written document, but rather than converting that map to a document they are using the maps as a currency for communications in the business,” he claims. Mindjet has built features into its software that take it further than traditional mind mapping tools.

It supports floating topics, for example, allowing users to introduce a concept into a map without immediately linking it to other words or pictures until they understand how they fit together.

This moves it in the direction of concept mapping – a cousin of mind mapping in which many varied concepts are connected together using relationships which are themselves named.

So, concept “Bob” and concept “Margaret” might be linked together by a relationship called “married to”.

Whereas mind mapping is useful for breaking down topics into hierarchies, concept mapping is best at understanding large, complex topics with lots of concepts that may not fit together in a hierarchical way.

A journalist might find concept maps useful when researching investigative articles, for example, making it easier to track relationships between characters operating multiple businesses at the edge of the law, where relationships may not be clear.

Similarly, a book author or documentary researcher would probably find the CmapTools software useful.

Developed at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, a non-profit research institute affiliated to the Florida university system, CmapTools* is a free, open source concept mapping tool designed to produce “knowledge models”.

These are maps of interlinked concepts that can be viewed to gather large amounts of information about a topic in a short time.

The key to taking notes is to find the balance between structuring information in a way that makes it easier to understand, and keeping the structure loose enough to make the notes easy to produce.

The creativity necessary for good note taking is often ignored, which is why office bins are littered with scribbled pages from spiral pads.

A truly adept note taker produces notes that add value to the information rather than just poorly replicating a subset of it. That is more difficult than it seems, but with the right software, there is a chance of mapping out a whole new approach.

*CMapTools at http://cmap.ihmc.us/

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