Curio from Zengobi is a project management app and digital note book with tons of features, which I use to plan and organise my writing projects. Curio recently had a major update and is now even more full featured than before. Some of the things Curio has to offer include:
- mind mapping tools
- an outliner
- index cards
- text boxes and rich text files
- free drawing
- import of photos and videos
- split screen for viewing different idea spaces side by side
- the ability to easily import and export a wide range of documents
- a scrapbook that is available across all your projects
- audio recording
- integrated browser
- Evernote integration
In this post, I’ll cover some of the features I find useful in Curio, and talk about how I use it for research purposes.
The basic infrastructure and user interface
Curio is organised around projects and idea spaces. I create a new project for every piece of academic writing. Each project is made up of different idea spaces, which is essentially a white canvas which you can fill with any piece of data or information you might need. Here is an example of an idea space with a mind map, an outline, a text box, an index card and some instant documents. Instant documents are files that are integrated in your idea space, and can include Word, Powerpoint or OmniOutliner files. This helps you keep everything related to one project in one place.
To the left, you will see the organiser pane. Here you can create different idea spaces and rich text documents within the same project, and you can also add different sections and folders to your project if you need to more levels of organisation to your idea spaces. You can hide the organiser pane when you are working with idea spaces to get the most out of your screen estate.
At the bottom of the left toolbar, you can add the filter menu, which will allow you to search and organise your idea spaces based on tags, labels, last time of modification, or an open word search.
In the toolbar at the bottom, there are a range of options for inserting new things to your idea space, importing and exporting files, and adjusting the scale of the idea space.
Along the top, there is a menu bar that let’s you adjust a number of attributes of an idea space or a single item. For example, you can change the orientation of a mind map, the colours of an index card, the formatting of text, add tags or notes, or schedule tasks related to your project.
In the screen shot below, you will see the library pane to the right. The library pane has three sub sections: project, scrapbook and Evernote. Here you will find a list of all the documents imported to your project, your Curio scrapbook (more about the scrapbook below), and all of your Evernotes, if you have integrated your Evernote account with Curio.
I frequently use the mind mapping and outlining tools to generate and organise ideas. Mind maps and outlines come in different styles, with a range of options for visual customisation. A nice feature is that you can easily convert a mind map to an outline and vice versa through a couple of clicks. You can also import outlines from other apps in opml format.
A very nice feature that came with the latest upgrade is the ability to view two idea spaces side by side. This is useful, for example, if you are trying to write up an article outline or a brief summary, based on an initial brainstorming conducted in a mind map. Here is a screen shot for illustration:
Curio also comes with an integrated web browser. This is useful if you want to integrate web references in your project without having to leave the app. Just select ‘web view’ from the toolbar at the bottom, and a browser immediately appears in your idea space. Here’s an example of a literature search conducted in web view, where I’ve added a note:
Another thing I really like in Curio are instant documents. These are documents from other apps that are embedded into your Curio idea space (see the first screen shot above for an illustration). This brings the advantage of keeping everything related to a given project in one space, placing different files in particular relationship with each other, or assigning them a specific place within Curio workflows. At the same time, you maintain the the formatting and features of apps external to Curio. Instant document formats include Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OmniOutliner, Pages, Numbers, Keynote, Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator.
A final thing I’ll highlight is the Evernote integration. If you use Evernote for your research, this is an excellent feature, which allows you to directly access your EN notes inside Curio and add them to your idea spaces (it does not, however, let you modify your EN notes or ‘upload’ from Curio).
Importing and exporting
When working in Curio, you can import a wide range of files to your idea spaces, such as photos, videos, documents created in word, power point or excel, or outlines created in other mind mapping apps (opml files).
You can also transfer text and files to Curio via the scrapbook. To send text or files to the scrapbook from other apps, you can:
- add text via the general ‘services’ feature
- drag text or files to the Curio icon in the dock
- use ‘print to Curio scrapbook’ in the print menu
- from your web browser, use the Curio bookmarklet
There are a wide range of export options for all levels of your Curio files: you can export whole projects, selected idea spaces, or individual figures within an idea space. If you are a mac mail user, there is also a ‘mail as…’ feature – unfortunately this doesn’t work with other email clients.
How I use it to support my research
I use Curio as a hub to manage my writing projects. I create one Curio project per writing project. Within that project, I will usually
- first use the mind mapping tools and the tables to generate and organise ideas, and to support my initial sorting of data.
- Once this stage of the process has progressed, I tend to switch to the outlining tools to create more structured outlines for my writing. At this point, you can convert your mind maps to outlines with a few clicks, but I often prefer to start a new outline because I feel it helps my thinking process to start from scratch. I’ll use a split screen view where I have old mind maps, notes or tables on the screen to the right, and my ‘fresh’ outline on the left screen.
- In parallel to this process, I will usually be reviewing literature, so I might use Curio to review concepts or themes by using the mind mapping function to take literature notes (more on this process in this previous post), or by using the scrap book to import sections of a text or notes from Circus Ponies notebooks that I use to develop my outlines.
- Finally, I may write up some initial pieces of text using a rich text document.
I use Scrivener to actually write my articles; so the division of labour between Curio and Scrivener is that a lot of the initial idea generation, organisation and structuring of the text-to-be takes place in Curio, in conjunction with work on literature and data. Then, when I have a clearer idea about how to write up my argument, I’ll switch to Scrivener and import the things I need that I generated in Curio. I find Curio preferable for that initial process of brainstorming and organising ideas, because of the flexible way you can work with mind mapping, outlining and other forms of idea organisation.
Some final comments
Now, for some more critical remarks: The most common argument I’ve seen against Curio is that it is the jack of all trades and the master of none. For example, there are outlining tools out there with more features, such as OmniOutliner which offers multiple columns, or mind mapping apps that offer more features than Curio. I think there is something to this argument, and it will come down your personal requirements and work flow whether you want a comprehensive app that does a lot of things at a reasonably high level, or a range of separate apps that are more sophisticated at their individual tasks. For my purposes, Curio meets most of my needs. Even when I want to use other apps (for example, I frequently use OmniOutliner or NovaMind), I often import the results to Curio, because I like having everything related to a given writing project in one place. However, there is no fixed answer to this – it just depends on what your needs are, and how you prefer to organise your work.
Another consideration with regard to this app is how much screen estate you have. To really maximise the benefits of Curio, you need a large screen. If you do most of your writing on an 11″ Air, you might not be able to take full advantage of what Curio has to offer. I use it regularly (and happily) on my 13″ Air, but I also like to connect to a larger, external monitor so I can spread my ideas out on a larger canvas.
This post is by no means an exhaustive review. There are many features in Curio that I haven’t covered here, as I have primarily focussed on things that I find useful for my own work flow. If you want to know more about what Curio can do, check out their web site and their comprehensive user manual. A final thing I’ll say in favour of Curio is that their customer service is, at least in my experience, outstanding – very responsive, comprehensive, and helpful.