Mindsystems Pty. Ltd., a MindManager reseller located in Australia, recently launched a new program called Amode that takes the idea of visual mapping in an exciting new direction. In the process, it they have fashioned an integrated set of information management tools that will be very much appreciated by anyone who manages projects or large quantities of information.
I recently had a chance to work with Amode, and discovered there’s much to like. In this review, I will highlight what makes this new productivity-enhancing program different than mind mapping software, what its unique strengths are and how you can potentially benefit from it.
Redefining information management
While mind mapping software has been steadily growing in popularity as a business tool, Mindsystems customers have told them that it is not a panacea for every information management challenge. In fact, it has several weaknesses, which the developer sought to remedy when it created Amode. For example, mind mapping software works well for capturing and organizing unstructured information, but it isn’t quite as well suited to dealing with structured information. Secondly, when you share mind maps with others, they may not be familiar with the conventions of how to read and interpret it, which sometimes leads to confusion – and for some linear thinkers, a lack of willingness to take mind maps seriously.
That’s why the team at Mindsystems set out to develop an alternative that would provide the best of both worlds: visual and linear methods of representing information. Amode enables you to view your information in different contexts – a visual “tree” (which looks something like an expandable/contractible outline), Gantt, calendar and “briefcase” view (which enables you to view several projects simultaneously). These different views, along with some powerful searching and filtering tools, are what give Amode its power and flexibility.
The user interface
The Amode user interface consists of a large main workspace on the left, where you add content to your project and view it in a tree-like format. A nested set of panes on the right enable you to add notes, assign blocks of time to each item in your visual map, add attachments, links and icons to topics, and define relationships between them.
The program utilizes a ribbon toolbar, which some new users may find daunting at first – because Amode requires that you incorporate some new terminology and ways of working with information. I strongly recommend that you spend some time with the excellent video tutorials on the Mindsystems website. They will help you to get started faster with this unique program.
Below the toolbar are tabs for each open project. An Amode file may contain multiple projects; all files that are attached to it are embedded within it, which means when you share an Amode file with others, they will also receive all of its associated resources.
Within the workspace, Amode makes extensive use of right-click commands to speed common tasks, such as adding topics and sub-topics, copy/cut/paste commands, add link, add attachment, add note, add icon and set alarm. This is a big productivity enhancer, because you can do so many common tasks within the program’s workspace (minimizing “trips” to the toolbar).
At the bottom of the workspace are a multi-functional filter box – which gives you a powerful and flexible set of tools for zeroing in on the key pieces of information you’re looking for – and buttons to select from Amode’s four views: tree, calendar, Gantt and Briefcase modes. By default, the program opens in Tree mode, which looks like a hierarchical outline. Mindsystems says this type of view is more easily understood by most people than a mindmap, which may sometimes be confusing as it spreads out, amoeba-like, in all directions. This lowers the program’s learning curve, and also makes it easier for you to share Amode project files with your colleagues, whether they are linear or visual thinkers.
Adding content to your project
Topics can be added to your project using either the topic and sub-topic buttons in the ribbon toolbar, or using keyboard shortcuts – the Enter key inserts another topic at the current level, while the INS key inserts a sub-topic. This simple arrangement enables you to quickly add a large amount of content to your project, without using the mouse.
Keyboard commands are supported for rearranging topics – for example, Shift-Up moves the currently selected topic up one position in the hierarchy of topics, while Shift-Right indents the topic as a sub-topic of the item above it. These shortcuts are intuitive and once again help you to organize your topics quickly and easily. It’s nice to see a developer who has paid this much attention to creating logical, intuitive keyboard shortcuts that save the user time and frustration.
Each topic may also contain a tickler note, which is a longer description of the topic. Each tickler has a time and date stamp that shows when it was created and last modified. You can use it to provide more context of an item, or to record its current status. Each topic can also contain notes, attachments, links (to external files and web pages) and “indicator icons.”
As you add supporting elements to your project topics, visual indicators appear next to them, to show you what each topic contains. For example, if you add a tickler, a small rectangular icon with an up arrow next to the topic changes from gray to yellow. Notes are depicted with a miniature document. Attachments can also be added to any topic; when you do so, they become embedded in the Amode project file, so when you send it to others, all of its attachments will also be contained within it. No need to select a “pack and go” command – this happens automatically, as part of Amode’s standard mode of operation.
Indicator icons are added to topics via a right-click command; you can also add your own icons to Amode to meet your specific needs.
Task management in Amode
Click on the “timeline control tab” and you’re presented with a bevy of options, including task duration, priority codes, percentage of completion, color, and checkboxes that enable you to display or hide task data on the Gantt chart or in the topic tree. Within this pane are also options to create and manage resources (such as people) and to set alarms for specific tasks. When you install Amode, it enables an applet, running in the Windows system tray, that automatically fires alarms at the appropriate date and time, whether Amode is running or not. Nice!
Searching and filtering
Amode offers a powerful toolset for searching and filtering the contents of your info-bases. First, it provides a search command, which gives you the options of searching the entire briefcase (all projects in the file open on the desktop), the current project or selected tasks. You can also refine your search to focus upon the project summary, topic titles, notes and tickler notes.
The filtering tool at the bottom of the Amode workspace offers even more options for ad hoc searches of your database, but it is limited to the current information tree and its tickler notes. In this sense, it is more of a high-level search. You can search by:
- Task progress,
- Items flagged as top priority
- Resource (the person to whom a task has been assigned, for example)
You can select multiple conditions for Amode filters, making it possible to do some fairly sophisticated searches of your database. You may also save filters as new projects, a feature that is particularly useful if you’re working with a large database in Amode and only want to look at one small aspect of it on an ongoing basis. The new project you created from the filter is saved in another tab in the same Amode file – very nice!
In addition, you can set up and save filters in Amode to view items flagged with particular icons. The rules dialog not only contains a “filter if” drop-down box, but also an “ignore if” option – which makes it possible to filter your database for any topics that are NOT flagged with a specific icon. When you save filters, they are automatically added to the filter bar at the bottom of the workspace, so you can quickly apply them in the future.
Earlier in this review, I told you that an Amode work file may contain multiple projects, which are displayed in tabs in the workspace. That means you can only view one at a time. Briefcase mode gives you the ability to view two or more project outlines side by side. When you first enter this view, all of your projects are grouped vertically in a “stack” – a logical grouping of your projects. In this view, you can create new stacks at any time, visually differentiating them by color. Stacks can have tickler notes, which are used to briefly describe their overall purpose. Up to 8 columns of project stacks may be created. Stacks may also be merged, if needed. Like topic trees, stacks can be minimized to reduce visual clutter.
To regroup your projects, you simply drag and drop them to the appropriate stack. Within Briefcase mode, you can still perform any functions accessible the right click menu – such as adding topics, tickler notes and topic icons. Mindsystems designed the briefcase mode to enable you to work with your project files at an overview level.
Amode lets you create simple Gantt charts that are appropriate for smaller projects and limited numbers of people, but it is equally well suited to more complex charts that can include resources, working times and relationships (dependencies) between tasks.
The calendar mode is somewhat similar to the Gantt mode, in that it depicts the start and end dates and times of tasks – but it does so in a more conventional calendar-type view. I added start and end data to one of my project’s topics, enabled it to be shown in calendar view (via a checkbox in the timeline control pane) and the task appeared as an appointment in the calendar.
Relationships work something like they do in mind mapping software, where you can have two topics in different parts of our map joined to one another via a relationship line. In Amode, however, relationships can be much more complex. To create a relationship, you first select the source topic in the workspace, then use drop-down lists in the resources pane to select the destination topic and the nature of the relationship (two-way, inbound, outbound, and a variety of start-finish dependencies). Amode adds a rectangular icon with a down arrow next to the source topic, but doesn’t draw a connector line – to avoid visual clutter. I set one of these relationships up to see how it worked. When I clicked on this icon, the program grayed out the entire workspace, except for the two related topics, which I thought was a very elegant way to visually show the relationship. Click on the icon again, and the workspace returns to its normal display mode.
Importing and exporting to other applications
Amode gives you many options for importing and exporting project data. It can import and export Microsoft Word, Excel and Project files – as well as OpenOffice Writer, a popular shareware alternative to Word, and OpenOffice Calc, an alternative to Excel. It can also export Amode tasks to Microsoft Outlook, and can also exchange data with KnowledgeLink and MindManager. Amode also exports to PDF and web page formats. Pretty impressive, especially the support for open source apps!
Amode ships with a large set of business-oriented system templates. However, they are buried several layers deep within the program, and I had to use the program’s PDF help file to figure out where they were. It turns out that you needed to click on the project tools tab, then on a template bank tab at the bottom of the screen, and then on yet another nested tab to view the system templates. They include everything from “building blocks” for common tasks such as brainstorming, outlining pros and cons and planning meetings, to business planning tools, a variety of check lists, disaster planning, event planning and much more. It looks like a lot of thought went into creating these valuable “starting points.”
You can also create templates at any time within Amode. You can save entire files or groups of topics and their elements for future re-use. If you tend to handle the same types of projects over and over, you’ll really appreciate this flexibility!
Amode is an impressive new class of information management tool. I hesitate to call it a mind mapping program, because it really only bears a passing resemblance to that type of visual thinking and planning software. Instead, Mindsystems has succeeded at creating an entirely new type of productivity program that is uniquely designed to meet the needs of today’s knowledge workers. Its multiple views enable you to display information in the format that makes the most sense to you, and to sift through piles of data and re-use it and re-organize it in some very powerful ways. Kudos to the development team for creating a truly remarkable piece of software!
Amode is available now from the Mindsystems website for US$250 per license; volume discounts and education/non-profit pricing are also available. In addition, you can download a 21-day free trial of Amode. If you feel adventurous, I’d recommend you go for the trial version, so you can see for yourself what it offers to you and your specific needs. If you’re not sure, then take a look at the excellent video tutorials, which give you a very high-level overview of how Amode functions, and why it’s designed like it is.