Thursday, March 22, 2012

Mapping my mind with XMind

Mind mapping software is on my mind. 

I've always really liked the idea of Mind Mapping software. I like the idea of capturing ideas in an unrestricted way. Too many software packages force you to conform to the working style and thinking style of their vision.  The reality is that nobody shares exactly the same way of thinking.

The premise of Mind Mapping software is that it is free form and adapts to the user's mind, instead of the other way around. Obviously this is a little Utopian since every software has some sort of constraints but the goal is a good one. 

I've experimented briefly with various vendor's mind mapping software but they never really clicked with me. I think part of my problem has been my reluctance to purchase a piece of software (most aren't cheap) without trying it first. Most of the demos that are offered, by the major brands, are not full functioned and so you don't get a good feeling for what the software is capable of in a real life scenario. You end up not using the demo and then losing interest.

Recently I re-stumbled on XMind. It is an open source mind mapping software that has come a long way recently. It is essentially free software. You only pay if you want to use the collaboration or custom theme functionality.  I haven't found a need for either.

I have been working on a medium length project for the last 2 months that I thought would be a good test bed for the software. I have been immensely happy with the results.

I have been using XMind as the central repository for all information about the project. This includes all technical data, project management information, email references and my own conceptual thinking.

The product is very intuitive to use and has a very easy learning curve. Not only that, most functions are available through keyboard shortcuts so navigation and map creation is fast and easy. 

I have found that by using a combination of internal notes and linked documents I can keep everything organized in a way that makes it easy to keep track of the information and relate disparate data. 

I didn't think that I would use the "marker" functionality (icons) because they look a little clunky but I have actually found that they are invaluable. They give me a quick reference for the statuses of different parts of the project and let me mark risk items so they don't get forgotten.

One functionality that I have found clunky with XMind is attaching or linking to files. Intuitively I want to be able to drag and drop files into my mind map. Unfortunately this can only be done in XMind by navigating a file menu. I hope that functionality is on the short track for inclusion because it would make life much easier. 

The notes functionality is also a little clunky and would be well served to have an improved editor or integration with Word as an editor. 

I am sold on XMind and I am going to continue to use it for all of my information management needs. It is my replacement for Evernote, which I have recently uninstalled.

Have you tried a mind mapping software? What did you like or dislike about it? Do you still use it? Comment below.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Give an accurate ETA

Accurate ETAs help your customers manage their busy schedules. They will appreciate you for it.

Image: photostock /

Whether you are delivering a critical component in a just-in-time manufacturing process, you are providing a business process analysis report, or you are cutting a lawn for a customer, your customers need to have an ETA that is accurate.

The interesting thing about an ETA is that it isn't nearly as important to the person giving it. The ETA is primarily important to the person receiving it. It is easy to think that your particular task isn't important enough for a solid time commitment. That is a mistake.

Take the example of a lawn keeper. Is it really important that the customer know specifically when their lawn is going to be trimmed. Most times, probably not. But what if the customer is planning an outdoor wedding and needs to have your task completed in time for the setup to happen? It is your customer's priorities that determine the importance of the task.

When you are giving an ETA, be realistic or even pessimistic. There are few things that annoy customers more than being late for a deadline. Even if the deadline isn't important to them, it will still be irritating. Setting a deadline with the expectation of pushing it back is setting yourself up for failure.

Ask your customer how important the task is to them. It will help you prioritize the task in your schedule and might change your delivery date.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Is it Evernote or Nevernote?

Evernote, like the elephants that their logo is based on, is great at remembering things. Unfortunately, I use elephants as a reference just as often...
Image: YaiSirichai /
I really like the idea of Evernote. A single place to put all of the notes, pictures, websites, and everything else in your life. What could be better?

I've "used" Evernote for approximately 3 years now. I faithfully clip items and store them in the software, I save webpages, I take pictures of things I might want to reference. I also downloaded the iPhone App and snap pictures on the go into it.

I do all of the things that Evernote is supposed to be good for, except one. I don't actually reference any of that material, ever. 

Why not? Well, I've discovered a few things about the product.

  • It is great at searching, but poor at displaying results.
I find trying to find specific items in the Evernote annoying. Results are cluttered and hard to quickly scan for the right result.
  • It isn't good at showing relationships
A lot of information that I store is only useful if the relationships can be quickly seen between the individual bits. Evernote pukes out all of the bits without any of the context that makes them useful.
  • It isn't great at taking or manipulating screenshots.
The Evernote screenshot utility borderlines on useless compared to other tools. I have completely switched to Screenpresso for taking and manipulating screenshots. (That is a great utility by the way.) It integrates into Evernote as well.
  • It doesn't organize thoughts well.
I am a recent convert to XMind (mindmapping software) as a way to gather thoughts. I find that my mind works in a [loosely] structured way. Searching for my thoughts proves difficult in Evernote. Perusing for my thoughts in XMind is much more intuitive.
  • Information gets stale.
At first I liked the idea of saving websites for future reference. But, I quickly realized that most of the information on websites is organic and continues to be updated and improved. In most cases the information that I want will either still be available online or a better version will be available next time I want it. 

So what are the alternatives?
I use XMind for gathering thoughts, project information and design ideas, I use Screenpresso for taking screenshots, and I use the original sites for web content. Anything else can live in email, browser links, or documents. 

I'd say that I'm switching to these alternatives but the truth is that I never really switched to Evernote in the first place. It is the equivalent to the pile of paper on my desk that will never get organized or used in any meaningful way. Maybe I should recycle that stuff too...

Question: Are you an Evernote fan? Give me your positive or negatives feelings about Evernote below? 

Monday, March 5, 2012

Show you care by focusing on the mundane details

There are few things as frustrating as a service provider that just doesn't care.

We've all had countless experiences like this:

  • Your meal comes to you half cold at a restaurant.
  • Your cable installation guy shows up 3 hours late.
  • You are made to wait an hour past your appointment time at the dentist because they overbooked.
Or, in my case this morning...
  • Your newspaper delivery guy throws your paper underneath your car, in an [F'ing] slush puddle.
These annoyances happen because individuals are going through the (often mundane) tasks of life and forgetting that there is someone at the other end being affected. 

Today, as you are going through your own routines, take a moment to think about what you are doing. Do the extra effort to show your customers that you care. 

Question: What small thing can you do differently today to improve your service?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Crap service

You know that you have good customer service when people rave about your service in an open forum.

I need a new head for my sailboat (that's a toilet for you land-lubbers out there). I won't get into the particulars of the why or the how, since that is the realm of my other blog, but suffice it to say that this is not an optional purchase. What is optional is my choice of replacements.

After a long and arduous research project (I tend to over analyze buying decisions) I decided to purchase a composting toilet rather than the standard store & pump-out variety. As with most products, there are a variety of vendors to choose from. They range from the inexpensive (around $500) to more elaborate and costly (around $3000). While there are definitely technical differences between them, they all accomplish the same [foul] task. 

So, how did I decide on a vendor? Google, of course. I read many reviews of these contraptions on forums and discussion groups. 

Out of my research came two obvious conclusions:
  1. Everyone that has installed a composting toilet is happy with their decision. 
  2. Everyone that dealt with the vendor Airhead Composting Toilets was exceedingly happy with their service.
You know that you have good customer service when people rave about their service experiences in an open forum. 

I can back up those claims by my dealings with Airhead. I had a few questions about installation space requirements and he was very prompt in responding, asked for clarifications before making a recommendation, and even offered to do a AutoCAD diagram of how it would look. 

The Airhead is more costly than their main competitor, which is similar in design by most accounts, but I am moving ahead with my Airhead purchase. I would rather buy from a vendor that has proven they have good service. 

Lesson of the day, if you are in the business of giving crap service, give good service and you will win the customers.

Question: How important is good service to your buying decisions? Comment below.