- Encourages lateral thinking
- more comprehensive than print resources
- wide range of uses
- North American bias
- dated look and feel
Writing can be a drag. You know what you want to deliver, just not quite how to get it across. You have ideas, thoughts, themes running through your head, but when they turn up on paper the words don’t convey precisely what you mean. The sentences look clumsy, unsophisticated and imprecise. IdeaFisher is a tool designed to help you get the words on the pages and the thoughts in your head to match up, and to help you have those thoughts in the first place.The software comprises a basic engine and some vocabulary modules. It's available in various versions with different groups of modules. Our review version included modules entitled Advertising/Promotion, Marketing Strategy, Evaluate, Modify, General Problem Solving and Strategic Planning. Modules are available separately for around $50 (~£27) each.
There are two ways of working with IdeaFisher: you can use either the QBank or the IdeaBank. IdeaBank relies on providing you with associations that should help to drive your thoughts. This might sound like the job a thesaurus does, and in part it is, but it's also much more. One of our test sessions started with simply typing in the word 'rain'. A thesaurus would deliver words like 'shower', 'wet', and 'storm'. IdeaFisher managed this too, but also came up with phrases such as 'into each life some rain must fall', associations ('weather forecast' and 'zero visibility'), and other related words and concepts ('car skidding on wet or icy road' and 'stinging sensation'), each of which triggers ideas, thoughts and mental images. To get associations that further stimulate the idea-generation process, you can go beyond words and concepts that are closely related to your starting point. What helps here is the software’s use of 'topical categories'. There are more than 400 of these, and they group words, phrases and so on together. You use topical categories by selecting them from a list, and the range is vast and varied. To give just three examples, there are topical categories called 'flying/aircraft/air travel', 'linens/bedding/towels' and 'spirals/twists/coils'. Each topical category is divided into sections that keep similar types of word or idea together. Section divisions include things like verbs, descriptors, people/animals, activities/events/processes. You can use these to filter words from the main topical categories so that the results of a search are small in number and well defined. This sounds complex when explained on paper, but in use it's relatively straightforward. One of several different usage options is to start with a single word or phrase, then choose a topical category and then the most relevant section of that topical category. Various new word or phrases appear, which can be selected with a mouse click. Now you can choose another topical category that's related to the new word or to a previous one. Your pathway is recorded automatically to an on-screen notepad, making backtracking relatively straightforward. The other way to use IdeaFisher is in QBank mode. This is based around a question-and-answer format with the questions designed to get you to think around an issue. There are set questions covering a number of discrete areas -- Speech and Presentation, Creative Writing, and Marketing Strategy, for example. You work through these providing answers, and the idea is that when the process is done you have a clear description of whatever it is you are trying to pursue. You can use IdeaBank while formulating responses to questions. As a way of focussing the mind it works quite well, but it's not as expansive and liberating a way of working as using IdeaBank.
Interface & ease of use
IdeaFisher could be a lot more user friendly. You need to put some effort into understanding how it works and how to make the most of its tools, and the old-fashioned interface doesn’t help in this respect. Right mouse click menus, which could be used extremely effectively here, are ignored completely. But what’s beneath the user interface can be surprisingly effective. QBank offers tools that are not essentially very different from those you might find in printed guidebooks, but they do seem to cover the relevant bases. IdeaBank doesn't resemble anything we are aware of in the printed world, and is potentially very powerful. One point which must be noted is that the software is North American in origin. This has positive and negative ramifications. In our exercise based around 'rain' we retrieved a number of concepts and phrases that are clearly more geared towards a North American than a British audience -- for example 'Alaskan Iditarod Dogsled Race' (which the Web tells us is annual event) --and some which probably wouldn’t pass muster in our own culture ('English Climate', for example). We actually found some of these returns quite useful, sparking off trains of thought that would not otherwise have occurred. We even used the topical category 'Americana/Mom/baseball and apple pie' to positive effect. So the North Americanisms aren’t necessarily a bad thing. More annoying, and less likely to endear UK-based users, is the fact that the spellings are North American. This matters especially when throwing in individual words at the start of an IdeaBank session -- 'Colour' turns up absolutely nothing, for example. IdeaFisher is potentially a superb tool for anyone who needs to be productive with words in contexts ranging from the creative to the purely business or analytical. Just be prepared to learn to work with it and put up with its foibles.