Stop Taking Notes — Visualize With Nodes

A system that helped me get A’s on my exams when I was lagging behind

Martin Andersson Aaberge
Jan 6 · 7 min read
photo of a spider web with droplets looking like a node tree
photo of a spider web with droplets looking like a node tree
Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Writing text might not be the answer to note-taking at all — Nodes are

This is why I have stopped taking notes by hand even though I love it so much.

Yes, the iPad Pro gives me the same freedom because it is digital and not lost, but those hand-written notes also end up in a whirlpool of nothing.

With new services like Notion, Bear, Craft, or even Apples’ own Notes, your text notes are more available than ever.

That’s great. Text will never die, but for studies, planning, and work, nodes have been overlooked for a while. Maybe you don’t know what nodes are or that you are not familiar with how they can help you. This story will show you some examples of how I have used them to study.

Writing text might not be the answer to note-taking at all — Nodes are.

Visual representation over the wall of text

TL;DR — Too Long; Didn’t Read.

This goes for your notes as well. What is the point of writing notes you are not going to read?

When you are in a situation where you need information fast, visual nodes will help you find your information right away. It will also help you understand how this information is related to other aspects of what you are reading about.

These days a lot of students have home exams and their preparations will separate an A from a B.

You don’t have time to look up information in a book. Your nodes will help you reach the information you need.

Connecting the dots — Literally

One of the downsides of text is that it is hard to connect the dots. There are many clever ways to take notes and you can use tags and mark sections that belong together, but it will never be as visual as nodes.

Here is an example. Let’s say we are working on a study on design principles. Our focus for the day is Norman and Schneiderman and how we can use their principles in User Interfaces.

The textual version could look something like this:

screenshot of notes with bullet lists.
screenshot of notes with bullet lists.
Regular notes, screenshot by author

This is perfectly fine. It has a nice overview, it is easy to read, and it gives you easy access to the material.

But can it be better?

The superpowers of nodes

I use Miro for my node work, but there are many services out there that can do the same thing.

If you wish to give Miro a try, you can check out my extensive guide here:

Let’s try to break down the text we looked at earlier. The node representation would look something like this:

screenshot of design principles in node representation
screenshot of design principles in node representation
nodes representing the same bullet list as above, graphics by author

At this stage, you might say the text representation looks better and is easier to read.

I agree, but that’s not the point. It is when you start using the nodes, it makes more sense. Node’s power is not text.

If we are working on a breakdown of how these principles are related to something like an error message, it can be hard to connect the notes.

With nodes, however, connecting the dots is as easy as ever.

screenshot of how the principles relate to error messages, represented by nodes
screenshot of how the principles relate to error messages, represented by nodes
The connection between errors and the design principles, screenshot by author

You could create a series of these where you replace the colors and connections based on what the blue square represents. This way it would be super easy to get a quick overview of the different elements and how the principles relate.

screenshot of how the principles relate to menus, represented by nodes
screenshot of how the principles relate to menus, represented by nodes
The same representation, but now with menus, graphics by author

This is a simple example to show the theory behind it all. Here is an example where I break down a full chapter of a book.

This is the breakdown of how to conduct case studies from “Research Methods in Human-Computer Interaction” by Lazar, Feng, Hochheiser.

a screenshot of a full breakdown of a chapter represented by nodes
a screenshot of a full breakdown of a chapter represented by nodes
A full breakdown of a chapter in a book about case studies, graphics by author

The top part is a table with information that is common for the method. The bottom part is a visual representation of the most important parts, plus a full breakdown of how you can conduct a case study.

Let’s zoom in on the different parts.

The timeline for conducting a case study

This is the complete timeline of a case study starting with a research question or a hypothesis.

The middle section is about all the choices you have to make along the way and what information you need.

The dark blue nodes are the main stream nodes. The bright blue ones are the input you need. Orange nodes tell you what options you have and grey nodes are comments.

In the end, there is an exception where orange is used to represent what is needed in a protocol. In hindsight, those should have been another color, like green, to represent the output.

graphics showing the flow of conducting a case study
graphics showing the flow of conducting a case study
zoomed in on the flowchart representing a case study, graphics by author

The relationship between Case Studies, Experiments, and Ethnography

A quick overview of how case studies relate to experiments or ethnography. When choosing methodologies and methods you need to know why you chose one over the other and how they relate.

With this quick overview, it is easy to see what case studies and ethnography have in common. The color codes tell us that orange is common and green is different.

node trees showing us the differences and similarities between the different methodologies
node trees showing us the differences and similarities between the different methodologies
The similarities and differences between the methodologies, graphics by author

Types of Case Studies

Here is an overview of the types of case studies we can choose from.

When you read about case studies, it can be hard to remember it all. Notes would take care of this as always of course, but with this overview, it is easy to see how the different types are related to each other and the difference between them.

nodes showing the different types we can choose from.
nodes showing the different types we can choose from.
overview of the different types of studies, graphics by author

Using a flow chart like this to break down this chapter, it is easy to see what goes where, where it came from, where it goes, and additional information.

The flow-chart showing us all the stages of conducting a study shows what is needed to start the study. It tells us we need to choose a type and on the way, it also shows us what types we can choose between. As these can be hard to remember, an additional information box is at the bottom.

zoomed in view of the flow chart to look at what goes where
zoomed in view of the flow chart to look at what goes where
close-up of the flow chart showing how it works, graphics by author

From there on, it is easy to follow the flow chart and make sure we don’t miss anything along the way.

Final Thoughts

Nodes have completely changed how I do notes. One of my problems studying was that I had a poor study structure. I know that many people are great with notes. I applaud this and if you are able to write notes consistently throughout the year and use these preparing for your exam, that is great. If you do struggle a bit connecting the dots and access your thoughts from when you wrote the notes — nodes might be the thing for you.

With nodes you don’t have to look for the answers, they are right there.

There is a huge variety of node types and how you can connect them. You can add message boxes, alerts, dotted lines, solid lines, and the list goes on.

How you like to structure the nodes is up to you. Unless you plan to share your notes, you can set them up however you like. What’s important is that you can access information quickly, it must make sense to you, and you are able to implement it.

This way, your B’s will most likely end up as A’s.

Thank you for your time.

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Martin Andersson Aaberge

Written by

CG supervisor with 17 years of experience in the Animation- and VFX industry. Studying Design, Use and Interaction (UX) at the University of Oslo

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Martin Andersson Aaberge

Written by

CG supervisor with 17 years of experience in the Animation- and VFX industry. Studying Design, Use and Interaction (UX) at the University of Oslo

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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