Stemic is a web-based visual thinking tool that places a fresh spin on the idea of concept mapping and takes it to a whole new level. In addition to enabling you to map the relationships between topics, it also gives you the opportunity to categorize your ideas, add properties to them and group them in meaningful ways. In other words, it provides a rich canvas for knowledge workers to develop and share their thinking and meaning in creative ways.
I recently had an opportunity to interview the company’s co-founders, Christophe Fagot and Perrine Pothier, about the thinking behind Stemic, about some of the unique features and functionality that take it beyond traditional concept mapping and who can benefit from it. As you can see, they both had a lot to say about Stemic!
Chuck Frey: What is your background? Anything related to visual thinking or mind mapping?
Christophe Fagot: My background is related to semantic artificial intelligence and knowledge modeling. I worked for years focused on rule based systems, hence the way that we can infer knowledge based on objects described in a semantic way, and semantically linked together. So my main background is pure computer scientist.
Perrine Pothier: I’m a designer (UX-UI) for many years, so the tools I daily use to work and communicate my work are visual thinking tools. I take notes in the form of sketches. I bring up ideas in a brainstorming session, I organize them in the form of a post-it wall. I co-design interfaces during working sessions in the form of paper mockups. I make storyboards to explain the dynamics and the functioning of the products I design. For me, everything goes through the image, the schema. Even if I can explain a lot with text, I prefer a thousand times more to do it with a little sketch.
Fagot: I mainly look at everyday subjects from the semantical point of view and the way objects are linked together, influence one another. And during some research projects in the past, we have been faced to people reasoning the same way, talking about interconnected objects. When asking people to explain to us the relations between the objects describing a situation, some were using mind maps, some not, but when we came to discuss the “ideal” tool the conclusion was quite often the same : they need to draw graphs, not only trees centered on a specific subject.
Pothier: It’s mainly the meeting with Christophe, who thinks everything in the form of a graph (even when it is not necessary :P) and also, the desire to create a tool much more intuitive than those already existing…
Frey: What was inadequate about existing concept mapping tools that you were trying to fix or overcome?
Fagot: Existing concept mapping tools are generally either focused on a tree view of a situation, or only allow to describe concepts and their properties. But we didn’t find any concept mapping tools both allowing to create graphs of structured objects, linked with non-structured (meaning post-it like) ones, with interactions as easy as the ones we have when drawing on paper-boards. But interactions for redrawing and changing data on a paper board are rather limited.
Pothier: Yes, we want to bring freedom to the user. Today, the concept map tools are very restrictive. There is only one way to use them, so only one way to think. They are not thought for heterogeneous data or for data with different maturities (ideas, concepts, structured objects). And us, we want Stemic to be a tool to help thinking … and in real life, when we think, we mentally manipulate objects of all kinds and all maturity. This is what Stemic supports.
Frey: I see that Stemic grew out of a design agency. How did that influence the type of tool you envisioned and created?
Pothier: We designed Stemic with methods of Design agencies. The user is our main concern. More than a technical or techno-centered object, what we wanted to do is an easy to use object. So there are 2 or 3 ways to perform the same action in the tool. People find and use the one that matches them, the one that matches their profile. This is the way to build an intuitive tool for everyone even if we all have different cognitive functionings.
And rather than adding as many features as possible in the tool, we focused on a small number, well chosen and well thought out, well developed with high added value for the user. We’ll be able to add all the functionalities we want and we have a lot of ideas. Our strength is to design simple interaction for the end user, no matter if technically it is complicated to develop. The technique must be transparent to the user, he does not have to worry about it, therefore not to undergo it. The challenge was to design a very user-friendly tool, even without explanation, without demonstration … I think it was successful!
Fagot: In a previous life, I was working on semantic technologies. We were only computer scientists and developers. The main consequence was that the tools we tried to create were having graphical interfaces designed to fully show and handle the data our technologies were handling. But these data, hence these graphical interfaces were understandable only by … us or some other computer scientists. A tool like Stemic aims at being used by all kinds of people. Some digital natives, some aware of new technologies and software, some not very confident when using such tools. The vision of designers specialized in UX/UI design is the complete opposite of the one of developers, most of the time. They care about what people need, how they interact with software, what can be done to allow them to deal easily with hard theoretical notions. So instead of trying to push technologies created by developers to end users, we always ask us the questions: “Are the users ready for such an innovation, how will they understand it, how would they naturally interact with it, does it answer one of their regular problems, does it simplify their life?”
Frey: What made you decide to select concept mapping as the format for your application?
Fagot: As said above, during some research projects in the past, we have been faced to people reasoning on interconnected objects and concepts. When asking people to explain to us the relations between the objects describing a situation, without using any software, their natural format was the concept mapping, even if none of them knew that representation. However, they were using it often.
Pothier : Yes, Christophe often says that when someone wants to explain a complex situation, he takes a pencil and, facing a whiteboard, he will draw potatoes (nodes) and lines (link) … the worst is that it’s true and it’s called a concept map!
Frey: When was Stemic launched?
Fagot: The public version of Stemic was launched by January 21st, 2020.
Pothier: We hesitated a long time about the launch date, we wanted to be sure that the tool has enough functionalities to be adopted. Now that Stemic is launched, new features are added regularly.
Frey: What kind of workers does Stemic appeal to?
Fagot: Stemic appeals workers needing to deal with interconnected knowledge they have in mind (or they are reading), that knowledge being too big to be handled only in their mind. They know they have to be able to analyze this interconnected knowledge, they know that it will sometimes evolve, and they know that if they draw it, magically, they will be able to understand or decide on a situation. Simply because they can visualize it the way they think about it, not the way automatic tools display it.
Pothier: For all the people who, at one time or another, will need to map a situation, an issue, a complex project to better understand it.
Frey: What are the typical use cases for Stemic?
Fagot: We discover new use cases every day, through users’ testimonies. Today, typical use cases are related to economic intelligence, investigation (police, homeland defense), project analysis, corporate/department restructuring, and even teaching.
Pothier: For fun, I even mapped the films, series to come around the Star Wars universe.
Frey: How do people use categories in Stemic? What advantages do they provide?
Fagot: People use categories for two purposes. The most common use is to “tag” some nodes, in order to recognize them and to store data they need to decide or explain their decision, structured in the category’s properties. The main advantage, beyond the ease of use is the possibility to mix, in the same concept map, some structured data and some unstructured one. Hence to visually express and show that some part of their reasoning is based on structured information, and some part are notes, intuitions, quotes, etc.
Pothier: Categories allow you to classify the objects that are handled by family/nature/type of object. The user is free to choose the icon most likely to represent this family and this icon will be visible on the graph. The added value is big because the perception of the represented situation is greatly increased thanks to these different kinds of icons.
Frey: How to people typically use properties in Stemic? What do they enable?
Fagot: Properties are mainly used by people aware of structured objects. For the time being, thes use them to keep in a map specific data for their objects. But in the future, new features will be attached to structured objects so everybody will be able to perceive the advantages of structured and described objects.
Frey: Can properties be customized by topic, by category or across all topics in your diagram?
Fagot: Properties are attached to a specific category. It means that all the objects of a given category can be described according to the same properties. It allows the users to compare values for different objects of the same category, but also to keep such property values for arguing their concept map or point of view described through a concept map.
Frey: What’s the difference between the catalog and properties?
Fagot: The catalog is another view, compared to the concept map. On the concept map, objects appear to be linked, with positions chosen by the user. The catalog view is a list of these objects, sorted by category and then in alphabetical order. Properties allow the user to describe the categories listed in the catalog. Once the catalog opened, they appear as column titles, in a tabular way, so the user can quickly fill the values for each object, compare them, etc.
Pothier: As Christophe said, there are two paradigms for representing data in Stemic. The graph view and the catalog view. The catalog view is a kind of spreadsheet view like an Excel file, a practical tool for filling in a large amount of data on the fly or for having a “list” view of all the objects that we handle, etc.
Properties are only the characteristics with which we want to describe objects.
Frey: How do identity cards help users to get more out of their diagrams? Are they the same as topic notes?
Fagot: Identity cards allow the user to see or fill the property values of objects directly on the concept map. When you are working on the concept map structure, linking objects together, linking objects to new ones, you sometimes want to describe or update precisely these structure objects. It is important to keep the user in the cognitive paradigm of the concept map if he is working in it. So the identity cards of objects are here to keep the user in that paradigm, instead of opening the catalog, hence be distracted from its previous activity which was to link the objects he has in mind. In an identity card, you also have the possibility to write some free text, as in topic notes.
Pothier: The identity card also allows you to associate a small note to all the objects in the graph. This note can be displayed in 2 clicks and closes automatically so as to not overload the graph view.
Frey: How do groups work? How can they be used?
Fagot: Groups are here for constituting some kinds of sub-maps. When grouping objects on the concept map, the user says “These objects are the inner description of a higher level subject”. They provide a kind of third dimension in the concept map, like nested graphs or child nodes of classical mind map software.
Pothier: We have a lot of improvements to bring to groups to make this feature fully relevant. It’s designed but it’s not easy to develop, so it will take a little time!
Frey: What do you hear from Stemic users? What do they love the most about it?
Fagot: No doubt, the fact that even for people disliking computers, it is easy to use after watching only the little videos of our website. Just after that, I would say that they don’t need to have a structured vision of what they have in mind. They can easily link some textual notes with structured objects, and, at any moment, they can easily show that state of work and explain it. I remember of two beautiful compliments : “Thanks to Stemic, I’m no more stressed when presenting my work, since I show what I have in mind and I forget nothing,” and “No, the limit is not the tool, the limit is my mind.”
Pothier: Without a doubt, the ease of use! Being able to take hold of a tool in a matter of minutes seems to be an extraordinary thing… It sounds crazy, especially when you are a designer but today too many tools are still designed and developed by engineers. It gives complicated interfaces for end users and it is normal: you would have to be schizophrenic to design software which will then be difficult to develop. This is one of the reasons why it is important to distinguish the two trades. But at Stemic, our developers are also sensitive to usage issues … so we promise you that the features are coming will be as easy to use and intuitive as those that already exist!
Frey: What’s next for Stemic?
Pothier: The tool is constantly evolving. Since January, we have already improved many things and added the possibility of sharing a map via a URL. We are continuing this momentum … we are currently working on a collaborative editing feature: big technical challenge, but real added value for the users. We can’t wait to show you. Then, we will work on the features of import/export of data in the catalog, export of maps, management of maps on the homepage, add web links in the note of objects, perhaps also the possibility of creating maps with touch devices, we will see. We’re not going to be bored. We hope that these new directions will satisfy all of our users.
Fagot: Once the evolutions described by Perrine that we will deliver during the second part of 2020 will be dedicated to the way we can connect Stemic with statistical tools dealing with big data. The challenge is huge since concept maps and statistical tools are two very different paradigms, but for the end users it could be a very big added value. The second challenge will be to provide features for visualizing nodes and links according to values of their properties. It means that links should also have properties and identity cards.
Frey: In closing, is there anything else the readers of the Mind Mapping Software Blog ought to know about Stemic?
Fagot: Try it, it’s free. If you need to express your knowledge in an interconnected way, use it. But if your classical mind map tool is enough for your activity, keep it. The right tool for the right purpose.
Pothier: “Trying Stemic is adopting Stemic”- it’s our users who say it … and as it’s free, don’t hesitate to try it and adopt it! If Stemic interests you, do not hesitate to follow us on Twitter or Linkedin, where we will keep you informed of what’s new. Thanks.
You can learn more and play around with Stemic at the application’s website.
What are the differences between concept mapping and mind mapping? Learn more here.