The computer screen is blank and so is the expression on your face. You’re wishing that the document you have to create would just magically write itself (preferably before the deadline you have looming) because the idea well has run dry.
Unfortunately, those of us who work as consultants don’t have the luxury of wandering into the next cubicle to “toss a few ideas around” with someone when our creativity hits a road block. And since we don’t have fairy godmother hanging around either, it’s worth looking into creativity software for those times when you need a little help jump starting your brain.
Recently, I had the opportunity to try out some new creativity software from a company called Rich Content. I heard about the company because about 10 years ago, I used a brainstorming product called IdeaFisher that I loved. It had a tremendous word-association database that was great for helping you get out of a creative rut. I held onto my IdeaFisher floppy disks for years and installed it on probably five computers total. Basically, I installed it until Windows wouldn’t run it anymore. That was a sad, sad day.
It’s Just Resting
So when I saw a notification that IdeaFisher was back (or more accurately, not actually dead), I got excited and asked if I could take a look at the current product. The good news is that Idea Fisher isn’t totally and completely dead. The bad news is that it’s so long in the tooth, that it needed to be rewritten. So I didn’t get a copy of IdeaFisher. Instead, I got to check out a new program from Rich Content called eXpertSystem.
The idea is to be able to brainstorm a bunch of ideas and then organize your thoughts into linear form, so it makes sense. The venerable Idea Fisher did this to some degree with its QBank modules, but eXpert System takes the concept farther.
Because many people now have high speed Internet access, a lot more types of searches and associations are available than they were in 1995 when I bought IdeaFisher. It also means that like programs such as Norton Antivirus, the software updates itself every type you launch it. So as Rich Content improves the software and works out bugs, you benefit.
Know Thy Mode
The program has several modes. When you open it, you see the free eXpertSystem viewer. Much like the PowerPoint viewer, anyone can download this piece of the software, so you can share your brainstorming sessions. You can do much except look, but it’s good if you need to collaborate.
The second mode is the Author mode, which you can access with just a click of a button after you buy the program. To use this part of program, you have to set up a Session. The create a session wizard is easy, but includes options for a lot of security features.
All this security is fine if you’re in a workgroup. Mostly I found it got in the way, since I never want to password protect a session from myself.
Once you have a session set up, you can load one of the pre-built eXpertContent modules. For example, I got to try out a speech writing module.
These are again much like the aftermarket products for IdeaFisher that contained QBank questions you could answer to help you do things like write a business plan or name a product. However, eXpertSystem takes that concept and runs with it. In the Author mode, you can add comments, images, links and compile it all together. You can even run a slide show off from your results. Another feature is the ability to go into TopicAuthor mode and write your own modules using the built-in outliner.
My favorite part of the program is the third mode: eXpertLingo. You can highlight a word in eXpertSystem and click the little light bulb icon and the eXpertLingo brainstorming tool appears. You click the buttons to get a whole laundry list of ideas about your selected term. It has buttons for Definitions, Synonyms, Hypernyms, Coordinate terms, Google, and the most popular related Keywords on the Web.
Like most people, I know what a definition or a synonym is, so I knew what to expect from those buttons. But I had no clue what a hypernym is. Fortunately, there’s a Quick Start guide that has answers to these types of questions. According to the guide, “Hypernyms are the generic term used to designate a whole class of specific associations. Dog is a hypernym of Beagle if beagle is a (kind of) Dog.” Anyway, that description doesn’t really do it justice. In some cases, clicking the Hypernym button leads you down a fascinating word-association road.
I also didn’t know what Coordinate Terms were. Apparently, they are nouns or verbs that have the same hypernym. Sometimes clicking the button nets you nothing, but other times it’s somewhat interesting. The concept of “senses” of a word again can lead you down mental pathways where you might not normally venture.
If you do keyword research for Internet projects, the keyword button is incredibly useful. For example, I used the keyword tool to decide on a search-engine friendly Microsoft Word article for this issue of Computor Companion. Using the keyword button, I discovered that people are searching for information on how to create certificates in Word. So I had an article title ready to go. (You can read the article here.)
The Bottom Line
On the one hand, the copy of eXpertSystem I used was essentially beta software and the user interface takes some getting used to. Many people who are used to certain Windows conventions will find them lacking. For example, I kept wanting to right-click items or have access to something like a “back” or “previous” button in a few places.
However, I think that once Rich Content get the kinks worked out and adds the full Idea Fisher word-association engine back in, the program will be worthy of some serious attention. Although there are mind-mapping products available, nothing I’m aware of lets you free-associate terms, ideas, and pictures quite as easily. It’s sort of in a software category all by itself.