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So, umm..., what is this app actually for? (Read 39670 times)
Richard Pfeiffer
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So, umm..., what is this app actually for?
Jun 22nd, 2011, 8:28pm
 
I took the plunge a few weeks ago.

I had first heard about Tinderbox through a special offer for Scrivener users last year. When the offer was repeated last month, I immediately bought Tinderbox, Twig, and the hardcover edition of The Tinderbox Way.

After downloading the software, I jumped into the forums and stumbled upon the thread titled "How do I get started with this app?" in the Questions and Answers forum. That was my question, too! And I applaud the earnestness with which the Marks (B. and A.) and others were answering the question, but now that I have been using Tinderbox for a few weeks, I wanted to take a stab at some of the communication problems I have noticed when people who are experienced with the app try to explain it to those who haven't used it.

You all are very good at telling people how to perform specific functions. Of that there is little doubt! But I feel that your efforts to explain the big picture often wind up leaving it cloudy.

I make my living as a technical writer for a software company. I am also a philosophy student. I would like to bring to bear my experience in both fields to discuss the most basic question of all about this application: What is it for?

One distinction that I would like to bring into this comes from the software marketing lore of at least a couple of decades ago: Explain your software based on its benefits—not its features. You say that:

"Tinderbox is a personal content management assistant."

That is a feature. I would suggest focusing on the benefits, which for me are something more like this:

"Tinderbox is a personal thinking and planning tool that helps you develop, discover, and remember relationships among complex arrays of information."

Another way of looking at this is to say that you are not necessarily speaking at the right level of abstraction in your efforts to answer the general questions about what Tinderbox is and what it does. This is harder to pin down, but on some level, I believe that you have created an application that can handle radical complexity in an unprecedented way. Unfortunately, in order to explain that clearly to people, your knowledge of the app now has to be integrated, taking a leap into radical simplicity. You need to reconceptualize your understanding of the app—which, on some level, may actually be harder than it was to write the app.

As a way to promote some discussion of this issue, I would like to make an analogy to the object-oriented software principle of coding to an interface as opposed to coding to an implementation. For example, if I have a Door interface that has an Open method, I will try to use that method whenever I try to Open the GarageDoor or the BackDoor, rather than using the native Open methods of these specific implementations of Door. That gives me a lot more flexibility.

Similarly, when describing what Tinderbox offers, and how it works, if you can try to create higher-level abstractions, it will allow you to answer people's questions in a way that has so far often eluded you.

Tinderbox is big (huge!!!) on implementation! I have never seen software that has such great potential to fulfill my dreams! But I hope you will reach even higher towards the sky as you continue to bring new users into your community!
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Martin Boycott-Brown
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Re: So, umm..., what is this app actually for?
Reply #1 - Jun 23rd, 2011, 6:04am
 
I agree -- I said something like some of this on an earlier thread

http://www.eastgate.com/Tinderbox/forum//YaBB.pl?num=1306595528/32#32

though what you say here goes deeper and further. I'm a psychologist, and I've also noted the difficulty of bridging the gap between the experts and the novices -- a fairly common problem. In my view, the statement "Tinderbox is a personal content management assistant" actually obscures what the product does (or can do). It is a statement of technical capability which might mean something to a programmer, but it has no meaning at all -- or rather, it means too many things -- to a potential user. My psychoanalyst might also be described as a "personal content management assistant" because he helps me understand my thoughts and emotions. I would make any "first statement" about the program even more bald -- Tinderbox helps you to see links between bits of information. I feel that that is the basic idea that one needs to have when starting out with the program. Everything else can come later.

I look forward to howls of protest, and rebuttals saying that I have sold the program short! I know I have, but the novice needs a simple place to start, a basic idea from which they can build their relationship with the program.

Best wishes, Martin.
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Lucas D
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Re: So, umm..., what is this app actually for?
Reply #2 - Jun 23rd, 2011, 10:24am
 
Quote:
Tinderbox helps you to see links between bits of information. I feel that that is the basic idea that one needs to have when starting out with the program. Everything else can come later.

I guess it all depends on the individual. For me, as a grad student in anthropology, "Tinderbox: The Tool for Notes" was the operative phrase---that is, the first stage for me is simply writing notes without any particular thought to seeing links between bits of information. I write all my notes in Tinderbox, whether ideas, reading notes, field notes, tasks, or whatever. At this stage, I make ample use of agents for organizing  and searching my notes (in a practical sense), but most of the analytics and relationship stuff can come later.
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Martin Boycott-Brown
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Re: So, umm..., what is this app actually for?
Reply #3 - Jun 23rd, 2011, 11:21am
 
I would certainly agree that a lot depends on the individual, but I'd be very surprised if "Tinderbox, the tool for notes" attracted many people to the program. In my lifetime, for taking notes, I have used MS Word, Stickies, XPad, TextEdit, SimpleText, Notational Velocity, Evernote, Scrivener, Nisus Writer Pro, Circus Ponies NoteBook, EagleFiler, Devonthink Pro, OmniOutliner, MyMind, MindNode and probably several others that I can't remember at this moment. If anyone had ever suggested to me that I should buy a program costing $250 for the purpose of taking notes, I would have thought they were barking! In fact, I suspect that the phrase "the tool for notes" is actually another reason why a lot of novice users don't really understand Tinderbox. Looked at from the novice's point of view, what is so special about a program for taking notes? There are hundreds of them, and some of them are free, and do a very good job, too. What distinguishes Tinderbox, and makes it worth investigating, in my view, is not the fact that it takes notes, but that it has special tools for showing relationships between the bits of information. Otherwise, why would we use it instead of TextEdit?

Cheers, Martin.

PS: I hope that doesn't come across as a rant: re-reading it, it seems a bit forthright! I hate it when there are no visual cues in communication. Imagine the above as being written wearing a red plastic nose.
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« Last Edit: Jun 23rd, 2011, 11:30am by Martin Boycott-Brown »  
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Lucas D
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Re: So, umm..., what is this app actually for?
Reply #4 - Jun 23rd, 2011, 11:39am
 
Yes, from a marketing perspective you're probably right. As for me, I've tried all those apps as well (except XPad) and scores of others, and what I wanted was something that allowed outlining (hierarchical organization of my notes) as well as unlimited metadata for individual notes and options for organizing according to metadata. Nothing else comes close (with the possible exception of InfoQube on Windows). I also agree that visualizing relationships is a key/core feature. All I meant to say is that from a "getting started" perspective (as opposed to a marketing perspective) it may not be necessary to get into "relationships/links mode" right away --- TB can also start out as simply a writing tool---albeit an unusually powerful one.
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russ lipton
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Re: So, umm..., what is this app actually for?
Reply #5 - Jun 23rd, 2011, 11:43am
 
@Richard:  I have never seen software that has such great potential to fulfill my dreams!

Why?

Your answer might (or might not) lead to surprising insights relative to the challenge you have posed, but even your own proposed TbX description seems dry as dust relative to this enthusiastic declaration ...
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Martin Boycott-Brown
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Re: So, umm..., what is this app actually for?
Reply #6 - Jun 23rd, 2011, 12:20pm
 
Lucas,

Yes, I absolutely agree -- but I think the important point that Richard was trying to make in the first post was that a significant number of novice users don't "get" Tinderbox, and end up floundering, and the expert users have trouble helping them. I am one of those (there seem to be a few of us) who have been "lured" to Tinderbox by enthusiastic users on the Scrivener forums, and then found ourselves rather at sea. The title of Richard's post is "what is this app actually for?" There is evidently a gap in understanding between the expert and the novice user -- not merely regarding technical details, but also "philosophy" or intention behind the app, and also its potentialities --  and I'm sure it would be beneficial to Tinderbox if something could be done to close the gap.

Yours, Martin.
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Lucas D
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Re: So, umm..., what is this app actually for?
Reply #7 - Jun 23rd, 2011, 12:58pm
 
Martin, I think you (and Richard) summarize the situation well. Off the top of my head: Perhaps the solution is to emphasize, say, three main use categories that correspond, in Richard's terms, to three main benefits. A compromise between the overly abstract "it does everything", on the one hand, and the possibly too narrow boiled-down-to-one-core-function approach, on the other. But I probably haven't given this as much thought as many others here.
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« Last Edit: Jun 23rd, 2011, 1:14pm by Lucas D »  

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Stacey Mason
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Re: So, umm..., what is this app actually for?
Reply #8 - Jun 23rd, 2011, 3:49pm
 
This is actually a difficult question, and marketing is not as obvious at it might seem. We've given this a lot of thought.

The problems that people sometimes have when getting "lost" in Tinderbox seems to come from the fact that Tinderbox is an open-ended tool; everyone's uses and needs are different.  This, more than anything else, is in my opinion Tinderbox's greatest strength, but it is also the most difficult thing to explain to people.  This is also why the easiest way to "teach" Tinderbox to people is to get an idea of the specific work they want to do with the program, and work on solutions from there.

I don't think it's fair to say that the expert users have difficulty helping the novice users "get" the program. Tinderbox Weekend events have been very successful on this front, as is email and phone support.  It is, however, difficult to explain to someone (particularly someone unfamiliar with the program's features) what they "should" use the program for, especially with no context of what kinds of work they're doing and what they're hoping to get out of the program.  

Speaking only for myself, there are so many ways to use Tinderbox, that even the "experts" are regularly surprised by clever applications or uses that we've never seen.  Yes, you can do more than just "take notes" in Tinderbox.  You can analyze, develop, discover, remember, and manage relationships.  But this doesn't take into account the people that use Tinderbox for tracking, updating, generating, planning, or reminding and who don't take notes or analyze relationships at all.  Now we find ourselves with so many verbs that marketing copy would be awkward to say the least! By the time you step back to verbs that incorporate all the things Tinderbox CAN do, you find that you're at a level of abstraction that's not helpful to anyone.

There really is a delicate balance, and we will never be able to capture what everyone is doing with the program in our marketing.  We are, however, aware that there is a perceived gap in understanding between "experts" and "novices," and are working on different approaches and tutorial methods to help with that.  Unlike other programs there is no "right" way to use Tinderbox, so prescribing one "right" marketing approach is difficult.
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Pierre von Kaenel
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Re: So, umm..., what is this app actually for?
Reply #9 - Jun 23rd, 2011, 8:18pm
 
Stacey,  your response is no different than others from The Company. Not much help to novices, and that is the issue brought up by the OP.

I teach program design, as well as most levels of our CS curriculum, and a programming language is not introduced as a program that can be used for processing data and asking students how they would like to use it. In parallel, we introduce the features and commands of the language while exploring case studies (micro and macro) of applications of the "program" to specific problems.

Maybe comparing TB to a programming language is not comparable, so how about a spreadsheet?  Shortly after buying an IBM PC-1, I was informed of a new app named Lotus 123 that was about to come out. I was not too knowledgeable of spreadsheets and couldn't see the connection to graphics (charts, etc.) and a database. Years later, when spreadsheets were the fashion in intro college CS courses, we introduced them much like programming languages. We studied modules of features and applications. We could have described them as rows and columns of numbers and labels with summation and average cells thrown in, but the with calculation cells that included logical and other advanced functions, we truly needed to introduce case studies in order for our students to understand what spreadsheets could do.  Sample applications did not limit them; they could extend these case studies to new problem domains - that's really what our goal is.

Eastgate seems to think that when a demo application of the program is revealed, users will think that's what TB is designed for. This is where I disagree.  

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Ben Worthington
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Re: So, umm..., what is this app actually for?
Reply #10 - Jun 24th, 2011, 6:23am
 

This is an interesting discussion.  

My sympthies are very much with Eastgate on this one.   Time and again on software sites you come across individuals (and I certainly don't mean to sugest the OP falls into this category) who are compulsive buyers of software but appear to have no real use case; they just like to play with stuff.  Then, when they buy the software and it doesn't work exactly like omni outliner does they complain that it's not user friendly or is missing features or whatever.  But often the problem seems to me that that they didn't think about whether or not they actually needed the software in the first place. Every single app on my Mac is there because I have some real need for it.  Nothing is there because 'it might be useful but I havent figured out what I want to do with it".    

Certainly I agree that the onus is on the software developer to explain how the software works, and there is a stack of this kind of information available for Tinderbox and an extremely responsive developer.  But it's surely for the user to define what they want to do with the software?  Take my use of Tindebox.  I am a construction lawyer. I have particular (idiosyncratic) needs related to the management of legal know-how that are shaped by my interests, my practice, my clients, my ways of working.  It's quite possible (likely, in fact) that nobody else has these exact needs, not even another construction lawyer! Is it reasonable for me to expect Eastgate to know what these needs are and to explain them to me?  I dont think so, and I don't expect to find that kind of information at Eastgate or anywhere else because no one can understand my needs better than I can (although I bet Mark and Stacey would have some good ideas if I were to drop them an email).

I'll go a bit further and say that whenever developers do try and tell me what I might use their software for, I find it unhelpful.  Check out the videos for omni focus.  Is there really anybody out there using omni focus to organise how they tidy their garage?  Take a look at some examples on Screen Casts Online - the usage examples are just silly, trivial.    

I also think the learning curve issue with Tinderbox is somewhat overplayed.  Yes, there are aspects of Tinderbox that are complicated but do you really need to understand them all?  At its heart, its acually pretty basic;  if you can hit enter, you can make a note in Tinderbox.  If you can click and drag, you can make a link.  If you are familiar with databases or columns in a spreadsheet, attributes shouldnt vex you too much.  

The OP asks "what is this software for?"  In my view, the real question is "what do you need the software for"?  If you can answer that, you are over half way there.  

 
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Stacey Mason
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Re: So, umm..., what is this app actually for?
Reply #11 - Jun 24th, 2011, 3:38pm
 
Quote:
Eastgate seems to think that when a demo application of the program is revealed, users will think that's what TB is designed for. This is where I disagree.


Actually, we agree that offering demo applications is very helpful! This is usually the approach we take with our Tinderbox Weekend events. We frequently present case studies and explain how and why the example uses certain features to achieve specific goals. We take a similar approach for the tutorial CDs. In fact, we have a new tutorial volume currently in pre-release that will be available as soon as we get some Web site issues smoothed (probably early next week).

Here are some additional resources on this front in the meantime:
  • Tinderbox at work series
  • Many of the screencasts are use cases in disguise
  • Mark Bernstein's blog is very good about linking to real people sharing details of how they use Tinderbox on their own weblogs
  • At the bottom of the Tinderbox home page, there is a category of case studies called "Using Tinderbox"
  • And I'll update this with a link to the new tutorial series as soon as it's up and running
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Mark Anderson
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Re: So, umm..., what is this app actually for?
Reply #12 - Jun 24th, 2011, 5:30pm
 
Quote:
...when a demo application of the program is revealed, users will think that's what TB is designed for.

Well, experience shows the above assertion is actually - if inconveniently - all too true. Many, though certainly not all, users unfortunately do measure a demo topic very precisely against it's relevance to their intended use. Why? Either (a) because we expect to be told how to use the app or (b) because we simply assume the app is always used for our [insert topic] purpose. If TB did just one thing, e.g. like Scrivener is for writing, then it's far more understandable to assume that all demos to be 'relevant' to (most) users of the app. The reality is otherwise. Some Scrivener users might use TB, but not all TB users are Scriveners, and so on for other apps and areas of interest.

Another factor that, I think, underlies angst over demos is some of us like to feel we totally understand our tools before we use them. Indeed, I'd admit to the latter, but for all I've learnt about TB's mechanics I'm aware I'm still scratching the surface of what TB can do. I've learned that sometimes it helps to not try to understand everything before you begin. It's an ironic to see folk using an app that - atypically - doesn't ask us to understand everything before we begin and then ask exactly how to use it despite our not yet understanding our own problem's requirements. When suggesting people 'just dive in', it's well meant - not just an excuse. Experience here in the forum shows all too often people's initial analytical process isn't best structured in the way they initially assumed, but happily resources like the forum can help with that. Bottom line: don't feel embarrassed to ask questions - those who aren't seem to get most traction.

Separately, patient assistance of users here (and previously in the wiki) has taught me that many of those using TB don't understand software/coding - nor desire to - so models of abstraction or object orientation only add to their sense of confusion. Abstraction is great for the Computer Science grads but tends to be lost on on the rest of us.

Eastgate are a small company. Time spent arguing this sort of angels/pinheads topic simply steals from real development work providing the enhancements we all write in about. So, if you're poised, pitchfork in hand, why not put it down and think how you might help, by perhaps looking at your own research and offering up some data that might offer the bones of a demo? I stand by my offer that if a user is willing to offer up a body of real world info as the basis of a demo, I'm happy to help obfuscate data (if/as necessary) to form the basis of worked scenarios and to work on demos based on it. So, who's first up?  Smiley
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« Last Edit: Jun 24th, 2011, 6:55pm by Mark Anderson »  

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russ lipton
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Re: So, umm..., what is this app actually for?
Reply #13 - Jun 24th, 2011, 8:59pm
 
I think this thread is not exhausted quite, at least for me. Warning: Friday afternoon verbiage lies ahead ...

First, not a few folks who have invested in the software clearly experience a need and need 'support', if only to to be encouraged not to 'worry'. Kudos to staff for being patient.

Second, though a long-time user, I have gained a small, but vital point of clarification myself, namely, that there is a difference between the 'what is it used for?' question and the 'how do I climb the learning curve?' question - admitting some overlap.

As was pointed out, Eastgate is aware of the apparent leap required to move from novice to intermediate and working on it. Neat.

On the former point, I see TbX as a toolbox for exploratory problem solving in situations where a formal application/solution is not available or, perhaps, suitable. In other words, if it can be solved in another piece of software designed specifically for that domain, go for it elsewhere. Alternatively, use TbX to get far enough to use the 'other' app effectively and/or as data input to that application. Use TbX when you can't avoid it is my point - and no shame in that.

Not everything requires or benefits from out-of-the-box exploration (thank goodness, or we would never get anything done). OTOH, some of the most rewarding study, learning, discovery and subsequent formalization demands exploratory work. MB emphasizes in his book that TbX rewards the deferral of formalizing 'x' method or approach until it is truly needed. Quite so.  Our culture is biased against admitting the necessity (read: the joy) of learning tools which don't treat us as children or slaves and we are suffering greatly as a result.

TbX demos are useful precisely because they cover such a ridiculously broad set of domains. Sensible users 'get it' that TbX isn't for just 'this' or 'that' - so I don't worry about this leading to misharacterization of the toolbox.

To me, a thread like this is (or could be) most useful if we pushed the discussion itself outside-of-the-box a bit. To wit:

.....why did the original poster say that TbX looked like it could meet his wildest dreams? We don't usually speak this way about software (or I hope we don't)! So, please, what dream are you talking about that, remarkably, this product might allow you to achieve? I argue that the answer to your own question might be found by pursuing that line of thought ...

... and Mark A (of all people) claims that even he hasn't 'scratched the surface' of TbX. I'm not sure if that is depressing or exhilerating. What the heck does that mean (serious question)? We don't usually say this about Word or PHP or even reasonably cool software products. Mark, what do you see 'below the surface' at your level of expertise that remains to be mastered or that could be put to use for you to do ....what?

Bottom line, "the application that can be described is not the application". I think that is a Zen thing? Seriously, that TbX can't be put neatly into a box doesn't mean nothing can be said about its target usage, but emphasizes rather that its architecture matches (as it should) its core use case: exploratory problem-solving for out-of-the-box requirements across a wide set of end-point domains (education, law, business, writing/publishing, religion, daybooks, cooking, movies, fantasy baseball, etc).

Other applications should be so lucky as to have an issue like that ....  Smiley
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Matt Cawood
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Re: So, umm..., what is this app actually for?
Reply #14 - Jun 25th, 2011, 1:44am
 
Separately, patient assistance of users here (and previously in the wiki) has taught me that many of those using TB don't understand software/coding - nor desire to - so models of abstraction or object orientation only add to their sense of confusion. Abstraction is great for the Computer Science grads but tends to be lost on on the rest of us.

That would be me.

I get the open-endedness of Tinderbox. Where I hit the wall is on the amount of friction I encounter when I go beyond basic queries or exports. The little learning I do to get through that resistance is often lost by the time, weeks or months later, I attempt to do the same thing again.

Ben Worthington may have got me en passant: my need of Tinderbox may not be imperative enough to force me to do the necessary learning. I love building a system of notes tailor-made for my needs, but I want to understand the tools I use to do that right out of the box.

Why shouldn't I sit down and really learn how to drive Tinderbox? I think part of the reason is that abstraction that Mark A. mentioned. I'm not good with abstraction. Perversely, I partly engage with Tinderbox because I want to minimise my time in front of the computer and get out into the physical world of our garden or farm, or my workshop, where there are a great variety of physical tools that I have no trouble understanding.

My turbulent relationship with Tinderbox doesn't need more demos or explanations. It needs less of the abstract, more of the visual, perhaps in the form of a more visual query builder or export template builder. Maybe it needs skeumorphic design elements, like a notebook metaphor ...

I jest - I see Mark B. shuddering at the thought. But unlike Mark B., I have no history in computer languages or hypertext. I'm firmly aligned with the physical world of objects, and I suspect a lot of those who try and fail with Tinderbox are too.

- Matt
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