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Compendium review

Compendium is a hypermedia mapping tool created by a consortium of universities and research labs in Europe and the US. It is rooted in Rittel’s wicked problem conceptualization and IBIS approach to design and design rationale capture, building on combined efforts of Al Selvin, Simon Buckingham Shum, Jeff Conklin, and many others. Compendium allows designers to create a node-link graph of interrelated concepts, including questions, ideas, pros and cons, references, and decisions. It’s similar to a lot of the mind map tools that are out there, though its scientific basis makes it

I downloaded Compendium (version 2.0b1) and used it as part of a personal brainstorming session. I wanted to exercise the things that could be done with Compendium, then share my results with a remote group of colleagues–as seems to be the great strength of Compendium. Specifically, I wanted to explore how an app or set of apps on mobile interfaces can be used to encourage physical activity among K-12 students (mainly middle schoolers)–assuming each has a phone with the apps installed. We’ve come up with a small handful of games and activities ourselves, and we’ve been inspired by the process and products from the SICS-Microsoft “Inspirational Bits” effort. What we need is ideas, and that why I turned to Compendium.

It was a bit slow to get started using Compendium–even/especially with the 42-page (!) getting-started manual (though there’s also a 2-page quick reference sheet as well, which was helpful once I had a basic understanding of Compendium). There are the typical “starting-with-a-blank-slate” problems where the initial actions aren’t obvious, full of “aha” moments as I played around with it. The palette of nodes on the left of the screen was helpful–but clicking on them does nothing (aha, you can click-and-drag them onto the screen). I couldn’t quickly figure out how to link elements (aha, it’s not just a click-and-drag motion, that’s for moving nodes, it’s a right-click drag motion for linking). Hitting return when I finish typing a node name pops up a node dialog instead of just naming the node (aha, I can click elsewhere to defer adding node details).

My first pass in using the tool resulted in a single question and around 8-10 ideas that address the question. For better or worse, I then felt compelled to use other nodes–namely, the “pro” and “con” nodes (that are quite similar to the upsides and downsides of claims). I considered using the other nodes, but they didn’t seem as applicable–I didn’t want to “decide” anything, and I didn’t delve deep enough to include any references or videos or web sites. Alternating between ideas and pros/cons worked out well, as thinking about pros/cons typically inspired other ideas, and thinking about new ideas led to new pros and cons. Being a good engineer, I ended up with a four-level tree: a question at the root, four idea categories, a bunch of ideas, and a bunch of pros and cons for each idea.

The layout aspects of Compendium are a major weakness of this tool. There’s an automatic layout feature, but it seems to use a poor layout algorithm…thus there’s no way the Compendium graphical representation could support a large node set (beyond 20-30 nodes) that would emerge from many brainstorming sessions.
For example, my 25-node graph, created in a few hours of thinking about, interconnecting, and evaluating ideas–couldn’t fit on the screen either horizontally or vertically in a readable manner. The zoom isn’t very smart, simply shrinking the nodes and thus losing the context that goes with them (rather than, say, keeping the icons visible and/or 1-2 keywords readable) and it doesn’t seem to be possible to zoom down only a portion of the graph. There are so many great graph layout algorithms, and so many ways to lay out and zoom graphs (e.g., radial, fisheye, hyperbolic), that it feels very limiting not to have them available in this tool.

The computer-supported features of Compendium are what I feel makes it worthwhile. When I “lost” a list that I created, I was able to search for it to locate the node where I stored it. You can limit search just to the visible nodes or extend it to embedded lists, notes, etc. The search also extends to deleted nodes, so as a project ages I could have found ideas from weeks or months before. There seems to be some sort of back/forward buttons and history bar which (I assume) allow you to revert back to previous versions of the page–but I couldn’t get this to work. A well-implemented history feature seems like one of those things that would really be worthwhile; e.g., to view what transpired between the beginning and end of last week’s meeting, or to revert back to the state of inquiry from the start of the meeting. But a well-implemented history also seems hard to implement!

After completing a Compendium graph, I sent it to my six remote colleagues, both in HTML form (which can be viewed by any web browser) and in XML form (which could be loaded if you install Compendium). Two of the colleagues responded back, both of whom seemed to look at the HMTL version but not the XML version. There were positive comments about the ideas that emerged, though little specific. One of the two seemed interested in using it in a design session on her end, so I may update this paragraph with more details (and if there are comments from the other collaborators).

Any sort of design tool has overhead associated with it. At times I suspect a paper version of Compendium might be better, at least from a usability standpoint. When leading a design session, I want to get ideas up there quickly, I want to move them around quickly, I want to stack them and move them around and hand them to breakout groups to flesh out themselves. Those sorts of things seem to go faster with Post-Its than with Compendium. And I don’t think it’s the fault of Compendium–I noticed the same sort of thing with PIC-UP (from our lab) whereby the richer and more communicative interactions occurred with paper versions of cards. Of course, those were short one-off sessions, and I suspect the real value of tools like Compendium lies in its use over long periods of time.

Compendium has been widely used, and there are tons of comments on their web site. Compendium’s heydey seems to be the 2003-2007 time frame, when there was an annual meeting on it, and there were lots of case studies and papers emerging about it. It’s certainly still active–the beta version that I tried was released earlier this year–but much of the web site seems dated, and there’s currently no formal support for the tool (though there’s a somewhat active online forum for reporting bugs). It’s hard to judge how large and active the user community is right now, but historically there’s been a fair amount of use.

So is this a good tool? I think it can be great for the right type of situation–when you want to save and revisit and search a collection of ideas, and when you need some encouragement to balance questions, ideas, pros and cons, and associated rationale. The tool really guides you to do these things, and if you’ve got a task that could benefit from it then it can really be worthwhile. And a final note: Compendium seems to be one of those “all-or-nothing” tools–if you buy into its philosophy, there can be great value…but you have to buy into it. The project leader must decide that Compendium will be used, and the team members must agree to use it during their design. If you’ve just got a small portion of the team using it, then the results won’t be nearly as meaningful. But if everyone is on board, it can be a great repository for design.

  1. October 11, 2011 at 7:00 am

    Yeah, that history idea sounds great. I think what you are referring to is the “history” of which map nodes you’ve clicked on.

    • October 11, 2011 at 4:57 pm

      Ben, thanks for your comment. It seems that the idea of a full history has been kicked around by the Compendium community, but getting the details right is tricky. I’m still not sure how the history feature works on the version I’m using–the buttons don’t seem to do what I expect. But it may be because I’m using a beta version of the tool.

  2. October 11, 2011 at 12:11 pm

    What you have attempted to do is ‘issue map’ a discussion and produced an ‘issue map’ not a Compendium graph. The power of this craft – issue mapping – does not require fancy layouts and zoom graphs; most of the times just the four basic nodes: question, answer, pro and con. You need to stop mapping as per mind mapping (that is what your issue map looks like now); when you issue map the Conklin way, you will then understand the power of it. We use dialogue mapping (issue mapping with facilitation) for our client engagement, user adoption process, requirements gathering, envisioning workshops, goal alignments, strategic planning workshops, training, knowledge capture…well pretty much everything :)…and believe me, every project we’ve used this method has been a huge success for our clients. Our clients include government and private, ranging from IT to Allainces comprising of stakeholders from government entitities, construction, engineering, etc. The inbuilt tutorials only give you a very surface look at this craft, not enough depth to teach you the process of capturing rationale effectively, among other things. I suggest you sign up for Jeff Conklin’s Issue Mapping Webinar Series http://www.cognexus.org

    • October 11, 2011 at 6:35 pm

      Teresa, thanks for passing on your thoughts on Compendium. It looks like you all have been using it with tremendous success, and there’s an impressive list of companies who’ve used it on the Compendium website.

      Not sure what I’m missing regarding the difference between issue mapping and dialog mapping…I read a lot of the examples from the website, and the papers stretching back to the original IBIS/gIBIS/PHI ones, and I tried to identify a “wicked” problem with enough depth to have many equally-valued facets to it. I sought to exercise the question/issue/pro/con model, and I definitely had as my goal to generate design rationale that would be valuable to myself and to others as this project advances. And I tried to focus on the question, not just a word or phrase as I’ve seen in most mind mapping exercises. It just seems that the idea space becomes very large very quickly, making it difficult to keep track of all of the ideas floating around. Perhaps the facilitator role is important as well (along with some more practice with the tool). I’d love to learn more about particular avenues of success that you (and others) have experienced.

      Conklin’s Issue Mapping Series sounds like a great way to ramp up with the tools and techniques. It looks like the introductory one isn’t currently scheduled, but I’ve plugged into the online Compendium community and will keep an eye out for it, thanks.

  3. December 2, 2011 at 10:12 pm

    Thanks to everyone for the great comments–I’ve been doing a lot of reading, thinking, and “doing” based on your comments and emails. There’s a follow-up post that gives some broader thoughts on IBIS-based tools and methodologies–feedback welcome!

  1. December 2, 2011 at 10:04 pm
  2. January 23, 2012 at 9:23 pm

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