Software at the speed of thought

Two brothers have developed a new way of representing and working with information.

1 March 2010
Barry (back) and Patrick Kayton (front), Cognician

If software is meant to be a tool to help us think better and faster, then perhaps it could use some help. Two brothers from Cape Town think they have the answer.

Barry and Patrick Kayton have been working together for about nine years, gaining experience in the educational market developing teaching materials and passing on thinking skills.

“We’ve worked with a number of major institutions,” says Barry Kayton, “but the major client we have had is the South African Institute for Entrepreneurship.

We’ve developed an entire curriculum for them from Grade 3 to Matric. But it’s not a textbook. We’ve created varied teaching materials from props to people to interact with, through to board games like Monopoly.”

The brothers did numerous seminars for the Graduate School of Business on critical thinking before they realised that there’s a limit to selling time.

“So we had the idea of turning that seminar into software for critical and creative thinking. Neither Patrick nor I were programmers but we understand how software should work, particularly for our idea, where for the whole thing to work the interface had to work well. And it had to work at the speed of thinking with the help of a notebook and pencil. Nothing can keep up with pencil and paper – that was our goal.”

But once the two had put down their design for the interface, they realised they had created a general framework for conceptual guidance, not just for critical thinking.

“It can be for anything,” says Barry, “writing a business plan, a scenario plan, or for self-help – anything that provides guidance for thinking. What the software does is allow you to jump around or follow a very structured path, depending on how you work.

In 2008 we created a prototype in Adobe AIR using the Flex language. We’ve switched away from Flex to Javascript and HTML so that we can eventually have an iPhone version.”

The system, named Cognician, is an elegant visual tool that uses ‘cogs’ of information and links between them to organise concepts and turn traditional source materials into something dynamic and two-way. It’s hard to describe without seeing it in action, something the two bumped up against when selling their idea.

“We built our initial prototype and although it wasn’t feature-complete, it allowed people to get the idea,” says Patrick. “Up until that point, we just had a document.”

Barry chimes in with some words of advice for other budding entrepreneurs.

“Build a prototype. Until someone sees it working, you have nothing.”

After showing the working system to a venture capitalist, he horrified them briefly by saying he had seen something identical 18 months before. But they quickly realised it was their own presentation he had seen. Impressed with their tenacity, he helped them with some capital. How did they keep going for so long with so little return?

“What has kept us going is the knowledge that we’re developing something utterly unique,” says Barry. “And we’re sick of the old way, which is feast and famine. Projects keep you busy and then nothing for months and the profit you made is depleted. This is a much better way to earn a living.”