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Interview: Prof. Dr. Frank Thissen

1. Oktober 2013 — Eric Böhnisch-Volkmann

A few months ago I got into contact with Dr. Frank Thissen, lecturer at the Stuttgart Media University (Hochschule der Medien, HdM) in Germany. Frank is a DEVONthink power user and we exchanged a lot of ideas on how our apps fit into the university ecosystem. This May I also had the opportunity to give a presentation at the HdM.

In a more formal interview Frank tells us more about how he uses our apps for his research and for preparing his lectures.

Prof. Dr. Frank Thissen

Frank Thissen lives in Karlsruhe, Germany, and teaches at the Stuttgart Media University.

Frank, you are a professor at the Stuttgart Media University. In which field are you doing research?

At the moment my focus is “mobile learning” and “electronic learning media”. Because of the rapidly increasing number of tablet computers and their new possibilities, change is in the air almost everywhere at schools and universities at the moment. You can compare this to the invention of the letterpress which has changed the handling of information and knowledge forever. Today it has become possible to have access to all information available on the Internet at any time and from any place. Enormous possibilities demanding a lot from people.

Here the requirements in the future are the development of information skills, the creation of electronic learn media, and the usage of virtual classrooms for self-directed learning.

What about your workflow? Which tools do you use?

In spring 2012 I switched to the Mac and in this context I questioned my workflow, looked for new suitable tools, and altercated with the concept of the paperless office.

The most important tools besides the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500 document scanner are OmniFocus for my to-do list, Sente for reference-management, Scrivener for writing, Circus Ponies Notebook for short notes en route, DEVONagent Pro for research, and DEVONthink Pro Office as my central archive.

What kind of data do you organize using DEVONthink? And how much data are we talking about?

In the past I had to tediously search my filing cabinet for papers, sift through my email, and search the whole hard disk for files. Today finding everything I need is just a matter of seconds. DEVONthink is extremely powerful although you have to exercise to make full use of it. In the beginning I have simply filed my PDFs and Word documents into DEVONthink. Today I put all kind of data, e.g. papers, notes, even photos into my databases. I tag them and add flags and labels to the most important of them. Finally I replicate them into the bet fitting groups.

The longer I use this tool, the more elegant my workflow becomes. There is, for example, a smart group that contains all documents I am actually working on. The documents, however, are stored in other groups and are gathered here through their tags and labels. I have also automated the naming of the files. I use the application Hazel which changes names of files automatically and adds e.g. the creation date in front of the file name.

How du you structure your data? How does your structure looks like?

I have multiple databases, for example one for private data, another one for subjects I am actually working on, and a third one for everything concerning the university and the organization of my courses. Inside these databases I have created a hierarchal structure and added smart groups. If there is a subject I still have to work on, the document is marked with a flag and my smart group simply shows me all flagged documents, means: the one that need more work.

Replicating documents is also very helpful for me. In my database I keep also all course materials as well as groups for the courses of the following semester. If I want to show films or presentations I simply replicate them from their thematic group into the group of the course. If I change something the same changes happen automatically in all other groups where this document shows up.

How have you organized yourself before you discovered DEVONthink?

A lot of papers, shelves of folders, confusing hard drive-archives, Outlook, slip boxes – you get the idea. Today I have more space on my shelves than ever before because I have scanned all folders and trashed them later. I keep only a few documents on paper. Organizing the external chaos and creating workflows made my work and my mind more structured. As a consequence I am able to work more effectively.

Which parts of DEVONthink do you like best, and why?

It is very helpful that I can view almost all documents directly in DEVONthink. In addition I use the browser plugin („Clip to DEVONthink“, the editor) on a daily basis for archiving web pages. The integrated “artificial intelligence” helps finding documents quickly.

What don’t you like? What are you missing most?

I have learnt to mark my documents in different ways using flags, labels, and tags. From time to time I miss a rating like the one you can use in Lightroom or iTunes: stars that show popularity or meaning. This would be a great addition to a future version of DEVONthink although you can already achieve this today by using labels.

Finally, are there any tips you would like to share with other customers?

New users should start small and become acquainted with DEVONthink. As soon as the workflow is clear I would broaden the usage. Regular backups are extremely important because the more you have captured in DEVONthink and deleted from other places the more important is it to save the important data. I use Time Machine for continuous backups and also copy my databases to an external hard drive regularly. With four external hard drives I still have the status of the last four weeks.

German universities always behave neutral. Why this open confession to DEVONthink and DEVONagent?

For multiple reasons. First, the president of DEVONtechnologies was student at our university. It is very interesting for me to see what has become of our diploma holders. In addition, DEVONthink has made my daily routine at the school so much easier. This experience is something I want to share with other researchers. It’s not about advertising a product, it is about presenting a workflow and the tool I consider being useful to people with similar needs.