Monday, June 30, 2008

Back of the Napkin Mind Map & Visual Thinking Codex

I started reading Dan Roam's "Back of the Napkin" months ago, but just didn't have time to get very far into it. Finally this weekend I was able to get through the first two parts of the book, which essentially explain his framework. I've mentioned in other blog posts that I really like Dan's ideas and I think his book has been excellent so far. After getting through the first two parts of the book, I went back and mind mapped the basic concepts.

For those not already familiar with Dan's concepts, there's several sources online. Dan's blog. VizThink's Podcast with Dan.

Beyond using Dan's framework to solve business problems with pictures, I've begun to think that Dan's framework does more than just provide a framework to solve problems visually. I think perhaps his visual thinking codex that he outlines in the book might be pretty useful as a visual thinking taxonomy.

Since VizThink '08 in January, I've been obsessed off and on with the idea of defining a taxonomy for all things in the visual thinking world. It's been an attempt to get my head wrapped around all the various things out there that seem to fall under the visual thinking umbrella. I've tried a few approaches at a taxonomy, the latest being a concept map and a visual thinking spectrum to show the range of styles of visualizations.

Now my latest idea is that Dan's Visual Thinking Codex can be used to classify the various visualizations available. I subscribe to a number of visual thinking blogs and websites, including; Flowing Data, Cool Infographics, Visual Complexity and many more. Each of these serves up examples of visual thinking on a regular basis. A lot of these can be classified as data visualization or infographics, but these terms seem to mean different things to different people and/or have fuzzy definitions. My new idea is to try to classify these according to Dan's codex.

A quick overview of Dan's codex. In any of the links to Dan's material I've listed above, you'll see him reference a framework for 6 ways of seeing and showing things; 1)Who/What, 2)How Much, 3)Where, 4) When, 5) How, 6)Why. When these are combined in a grid with Dan's SQVID criteria, you get a pretty good way of classifying visual thinking things. At least, that's my working theory I'll be testing.

For example, I came across this network visualization today; Ranking and Mapping Scientific Data.

Using Dan's Codex, we merely determine that this is predominantly showing relationships between things - a "what" framework. "How much" is also represented by the thickness of lines between things as well as the size of the dots. The next step is overlaying that on top of the SQVID criteria (S (Simple vs. Elaborate) Q (Quality vs Quantity) V(Vision vs Execution) I (Individual vs Comparison) D (Change vs Status Quo)). I'd say it falls somewhere in the middle of the Simple vs Elaborate scale, focuses on quantitative features more than qualitative, is more execution-based than vision-based, shows comparison of things rather than individual and shows the current or conditions in the past (status quo) vs the future or change.

So what's the big deal about being able to classify these things? Well, I think if we want to be able to expand acceptance of visual thinking, that visual thinking products need to have a way of being compared, ranked, judged, graded, etc.

If you're lost with all this talk of SQVID and Who/What's vs How muchs, I highly recommend checking out Dan's book, or at the very least, exploring some of the links to his stuff that I referenced above.


dave said...

I think the idea of developing a visual thinking taxonomy is quite useful, and an important endeavor. However I would be very wary of terms like "falls in the middle of." A taxonomy is useful because it creates clear distinctions between classifications.

For example, an arachnid has eight legs and does not have wings. A reptile is distinct and different from a mammal, etc.

Distinctions like "simple vs. elaborate" fall along a range, and although these distinctions might be useful they don't belong in a taxonomy.

Keep up the great work!

dave said...

I also recommend you take a look at the paper A Taxonomy of Diagram Taxonomies to see if it helps you in your work.



Makani said...

Thanks for commenting Dave, good points. I'll take a look at the paper. Looks good.


Edwin Yip said...

Wow, the second (concept ?) map is really complex to read, you even hard to find the text caption for a specific connection line!