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ndxCards – the electronic index cards for all of us March 13, 2009

Posted by ahress in architecture.
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7 comments

The best way to start talking about ndxCards is to say that the inspiration for the software came from the paper index card. In fact, the name ndxCards is pronounced ‘Index card’ without the first ‘i’ sound, something like nn’-dex-cards. The software was first developed from a need triggered by watching a high school student using a stack of index cards to write a research paper for a class assignment (see the story here ).

A familiar medium

I don’t need to point out the versatility of the index card – just a casual web search shows examples of its use in a wide range of endeavors: managing information for a wedding, writingpersonal time management , Agile software development managing your small business, are just a small sample; It is also easy to find just sheer praise for the medium.

Let us consider the index card as the medium to hold information for future use (after all we put down that information so that we can see it and use it sometime in the future).

  • Almost everyone has used one at some time to jot down something.  Perhaps you have only used a scrap piece of paper or a post-it note, but the idea is the same.
  • The size of the card enforces a discipline of sorts – makes us practice to be succinct, and use separate cards for separate ideas or pieces of information.
  • The cards allow us to easily rearrange a flow of ideas – just reorder them.
  • Note cards are handy to carry, share and collaborate – e.g. students can take notes separately, put them together and organize the deck of cards for a class project, a lot easier than if they took their notes in their notebooks.
  • The cards lend themselves to easy organization – You can use different cards to denote different classes of information, use tabs or other indicators on edges of cards to classify them
  • Using the front and the back of the index card, we can create Flash cards for studying / memorizing.

You can add to that list, I am sure.   But let us also look at a couple of points on the downside & see what we can do about them.

  • Note cards are small and somewhat easy to drop, misplace. However, the electronic version can be developed so that you just do not lose a note card till you deliberately remove it and throw it away.  Paper cards also can only be one place at one time.  If you have to turn in your cards as an interim submission in your term project, you don’t have access to that information till the teacher returns it. The electronic version makes duplication easy and both you and your teacher can have that information at the same time.
  • Note cards have bulk. If you are in the habit of using index cards for your notes, you can easily get to 100s and even thousands of cards and you can easily get overwhelmed. Even with elaborate organizing methods, finding a set of particular note cards can be difficult. Again, the electronic version makes it easy. In fact, a disadvantage can be turned to advantage with flexible and powerful retrieval methods.

Designing an electronic equivalent

When ndxCards was first being developed, there was no software available that adapted the index card to the computer.  Some of the early input for its design came from students and professionals who used paper index cards in their lives.  There was the look and feel of the application or the user interface to consider, as well as the underlying technology that would make the application provide flexibility similar to that provided by the physical index card.

The idea was to make the note taking interface of ndxCards look as much like a physical index card as possible.  There were to be none of the standard elements associated with a PC software such as a menu bar with File, Edit etc.. In fact, the first release did not even let you increase the size of the card – just like the physical card, you were restricted to the initial size (current version does let you resize the card and even remembers your preferred size).  The mechanics of the basic operations were to provide you a blank card when you need one and once you are done writing what you want on it, you save it which puts the card away in storage for future use.  There were other design considerations as well that came from the needs of the researcher, writer, student etc. (more on this in future blogs), but the essence of the index card is still maintained even as we redesigned the user interface for release 2.0

The other part of designing based on index card has to do with storing and retrieving cards. Again the design uses the idea of a ‘shoe box’, something which would be familiar to most.  You write a card, tag it with any keywords and source if any and put it in the box. As far as you are concerned all the notes are in this virtual, large shoe box. When you want to browse through them, the notes appear as a long list. You can see a partial list by specifying criteria that match what you are looking for at a particular time. The software is rounded out with features that support other things you want to do with note cards – a way to sequence and organize the cards using an outline; a way to bundle and share with others (obviously, you still have your notes with you); and even some ‘goodies’ such as tickler or reminder cards that pop up out of the box when you want them to.

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