Review: Axon Idea Processor's awkward interface hinders its productivity-boosting goal
At a Glance
Axon Idea Processor ($135; limited demo) presents something of a paradox: I can see many potential uses for it that other applications will not fulfill, but the experience of working with it makes me wonder if it's worth it.
Axon Idea Processor is not purely an outliner or mindmapper or process simulator, though it has aspects of all of those. Axon's design encourages a creative flow from high-level abstraction and brainstorming to concrete models and plans, and this is a very good thing. Unfortunately, a clumsy interface hinders precisely the kind of free-flowing exploration the program's design encourages, and a mixture of bugs and poorly documented features compounds the problem.
Using Axon initially consists of placing ideas—essentially, labeled objects—onto the work area. Detail text can be attached to the ideas, either plain or rich-formatted, but formatting requires opening modal dialog boxes instead of using toolbars, one example of many in terms of how Axon first creates an alluring creative sandbox and then seeds it with bricks. Then one can add connectivity between objects, links that can also be labeled to show relationships and interactions. A writer might start with characters and then link them with lines labeled "loves," "hates," etc, while someone documenting the process by which an order is placed might link business departments and actions with "assigns to," "reports on," and so forth.
Axon provides a wide palette of shapes, colors, and styles for the various objects it allows you to create, and leaves it to you to add meaning; red boxes might mean "external companies" in one model, for example. This is not enforced by internal structure, but is there as a tool for you to use. Links can join multiple objects in complex patterns, and have a variety of shapes and colors to use to distinguish the meaning of each connection.
As models grow, Axon allows you to create nested hierarchies and levels; a complex process might be a single object on the high level, and the user can then drill down to the details. Unfortunately, again, I often found navigation of the complex models included as samples confusing, and often had to restart operations to re-orient myself within a structure. On the plus side, Axon includes tools to analyze models as you develop them, documenting sequences and structural data to help keep you focused.
Axon is much more than a glorified whiteboard. It includes the ability to perform calculations and to simulate the flow of information or objects through a system. Again, I found bugs; moving a dialog box while a simulation was running cause the animation to go out of sync (this has since been corrected), and I after rigorously reading and rereading directions on setting up the simplest possible calculation, and failing, I asked for help and was told it was a bug and that there was a workaround. Axon Research was very prompt in answering this, and other, issues I had, and deserves credit for that.
There is a lot of potential functionality in Axon that I have not mentioned, because there's a lot more than can easily fit in a review, and because it was difficult even working through basic features. The sample applications included demonstrate a rich suite of possibilities, and it's clear many people can, and do, use Axon in a variety of highly productive ways.
A review is by nature subjective; I can detail why I hold the opinions I do, but I can't guarantee everyone else will draw the same conclusions. The Axon trial has no limits on time, but does have a limit of 20 objects, as well as some functional limits, which makes it difficult to build complex models. It will suffice to determine if the general structure of Axon Idea Processor suits your purposes.