Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Domain Research using MindGenius

One of the tasks that I am frequently asked to do is to research a business sector activity (domain), for example Incident Management in the Aviation Sector. Not a small subject by any means. I have to provide our company with information on how the domain operates, its business/change drivers and the significant challenges and issues that it faces.

Domain information is used by our development, marketing and sales people to identify the overt benefits a software solution could provide the customer and how they could be enticed to purchase such a software application. So I need to be able to provide information in a form readily understandable and usable by a variety of people.

My starting point is usually from a position of no knowledge. I am effectively starting with a blank canvas. Somehow I have to end up as a ‘Domain expert’.

No use procrastinating. You need to get on and do it. I usually start by gathering information from a variety of sources: browsing the web, interviewing people (experts, potential customers, practitioners), competitor analysis. I follow one lead after another, sometimes down blind alleys, but often to hidden jewels of information.
It’s surprising how quickly you run into information overload. 100+ page standards/guidelines contain an immense amount of valuable information covering a range of activities/subject matter.

What do you do with all this information? How do you make sense of it? I use MindGenius to break the information sources down. It’s like eating an elephant, you do it in small chunks.

I create a map of the information source. Each chunk of usable information becomes a branch. The title of the branch describes the subject matter. The text associated with the information is added in the branch note. Any supporting image/video is attached to the branch. I build a map up of the information, the branch parent/child relationships reflect the relationships within the master document.

What I have created so far are the jigsaw pieces. But unfortunately I don’t have the jigsaw picture. As I map other significant information sources, I start to begin to build up a possible information structure in my mind’s eye.

Now it’s time to start building the jigsaw. I usually start by forming the skeleton of the information (the bones) by laying down the process or lifecycle that I think is associated with the subject, in this case the lifecycle of an aviation safety incident.

I start to attach the information chunks (flesh) to the skeleton structure (bones). To ensure I don’t miss anything, I create a copy of the information source map and extract and attach the information chunks to the skeleton structure.

The map will build up in front of my very eyes. Once the copy map is essentially empty, my extraction activity for this piece of information is complete and I haven‘t missed anything.

Then I move on and transfer information chunks from other information sources to my master map in the same way. As more and more information is added, my knowledge and understanding of the subject increases. As new pieces of information provide new insights, I rearrange and edit the map’s structure so that it continues to be a good fit for the information content. With MindGenius you simply drag and drop to rearrange the structure.

Although there may be a mass of detail, you always have be aware of the big picture. MindGenius’s Explorer pane gives me an up-to-date visual view of the hierarchical structure of the map and allows me to quickly dip in and out of sections of the map for viewing, or editing. A big plus.

Invariably I have to spend many sessions building up my domain map. Such maps are often developed over a three month period or longer. So how do I know where I last finished? I mark it with a specific category and use the Quick Filter to find it again.

One secret of doing this type of activity is to keep the flow going. Don’t get bogged down.

If you hit an obstacle, mark it with a category icon and use the quick filter to return to it at a later time.

It’s surprising how your subconscious will work away at the obstacle and when you return to it, a solution to overcome it is invariably at hand.

You will also find that an idea seemingly not associated with your immediate train of thought will surface. Don’t lose it but don’t let it distract you either. Record it, mark it and return to it later.

So what other challenges do I face in creating domain stories? Well here’s a few.

I need to be able to look at the information from different perspectives. We need to understand the stakeholder roles that people perform - who does what - so that the software application caters for the needs of many different individuals. I assign roles as resources to the branches, e.g. ‘Flight Safety Manager’ so that I can use the MindGenius filter feature to view the activities associated with a particular role.

One of the dangers in creating the domain stories is that I can start to lose objectivity as I become more and more familiar with the domain. I need to separate my opinion(s) from the evidence. So when I create a ‘story’ – i.e. the summarisation of the evidence, I create a separate parent branch which is my interpretation of the evidence and denote it as a story (category icon). Its child branches are the evidence. That way, a reader can read the story, access the evidence and decide for themselves if the story accurately reflects the evidence.

This approach also allows the evidence to be accessed quickly, it’s at your fingertips. Another advantage of this approach is that you visually get an indication of how much evidence supports the story.

I’ve tweaked this approach a little further by adding category icons for different evidence sources – often based on organisation’s logos or corporate logos or colours. This gives me a visual indication of whether or not a story may be common across the sector or perhaps may be either specific to a particular organisation or I have insufficient evidence.

The stories can be broken up into sub-stories to provide indications of variants of a specific theme that exist, e.g. risk matrices, reporting forms. You can see and access the variants that you would have to cater for.

And finally, having done all the work, I need to be able to make my findings in a usable form to management, development, sales and marketing. Having used MindGenius, the information and knowledge has been captured is in a usable, dynamic format. Evidence, opinion, category classifications, stakeholder roles – it’s all there. Others can now access the map and walk through the information, or take different views of the information, as they see fit.

Without MindGenius, I would find the task of performing domain research an extremely daunting one and I would be likely to crumble under the mountain of information that I have to manage and understand.

I hope you find the above of interest and that you can put MindGenius to good use when you are gathering and understanding information.

Any queries, ask Gordon


Stuart Singleton-White said...

Thanks for this really informative article Gordon. I have some very complex projects coming up, one is building and major global environmental campaign and the other a major Open University project. Both will require the gathering and assessment of vast amounts of evidence from a wide range of sources. I can see myself returning to your article again and again for advice on how best Mindgenius can make my life easier.

Gordon said...

Hi Stuart. I’m pleased the article was of interest to you. The articles I will be writing will highlight the building blocks I use from my MindGenius toolbox. I hope you continue to revisit the articles in the future and adapt such building blocks to meet your needs on an ongoing basis.

Wordpress Polls said...

That's a good point - in Education it's fairly well documented that pictures aid memory recall but I'm not sure about similar research in business.

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