What my children taught me

By Fraser Shein, Founder and CEO

I would like to share how I used ThoughtQ with my daughter and son and learned a great deal while it was being developed.

Originally, we started off with a research project at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital (Toronto, ON) to study and create methods to easily create topic lists to improve our WordQ word prediction software. This changed one day when my daughter came home with a school assignment.

She told me she had a school assignment to write an essay on a global issue. She had chosen pollution. I said, “Good luck. Try Googling that and see how much you need to read. Better try something more focused.” She replied, “air pollution.” I said, “Better, but that may still be too big.” She was overwhelmed when Google returned nearly 50M results to consider on air pollution.

For my daughter, what other options did she have? We are not a household with a well-thumbed copy of encyclopedia. While a public library is a short walk away, she would more likely be sitting in front of a computer than leafing through printed material.

At that time, we only had a rudimentary interface that returned a list of topic words given a key word/phrase and a Google search page. I proposed that she try it to get some ideas for a more unique topic for her essay. After typing in air pollution, the first topic word was acid rain. She had heard about acid rain but knew nothing about it. I suggested that it may be more suitable subject—global, yet focused.

Acid rain as a keyword returned a list of topical words. Within this list were some common words that did not thrill my daughter and she wasn’t interested in investigating. But there were words such as forest, soil, coal, fish and trees that she recognized may be related to acid rain but she didn’t understand how. A quick web search of acid rain + forest; acid rain + soil, etc., brought up very specific search results that clearly showed the relationships. Also returned were related images such as dead fish, coal-fired plants and even a graphic of the overall impact of acid rain on the environment.

There were words that my daughter didn’t yet know such as nitric acid, sulphur dioxide and fossil fuels. She clicked on these for fun. The related web searches returned specific articles on how these were key sources of acid rain! Then, there was “Scandinavia.” Even I learned something—the problems of acid rain were first observed there in the late 1950s; and for my daughter this made a perfect lead for her essay. After half an hour, she had gathered sufficient references and images to start preparing her essay. And it would be different from her classmates who mostly skimmed and copied one or two Wikipedia pages.

Later, I used ThoughtQ (prior to it being an App) to help my son who had chosen to write an essay on solar energy. He assumed to start that solar energy just meant solar panels that directly convert sun rays into electricity. Given my prior experience, I suggested he start off with solar energy but then immediately consider topical words that he didn’t understand. One of these words was concentrating. Here, even I with a civil engineering degree learned something—concentrating solar power is the best way to capture the sun’s energy. Plus, it was even featured in a James Bond movie! This became the focus of my son’s essay. Like his sister, he quickly gathered enough references and pictures. And we both learned along the way. Of particular interest was a concentrating solar power system that could run an affordable autoclave to clean medical equipment in remote villages in Africa that didn’t have access to electricity.

This experience, as a starting point, helped hone the design of ThoughtQ’s user interface to be both simple and effective. External beta-testing further helped refine ThoughtQ with feedback from a very broad range of potential customers.

As someone who is involved from the initial idea stage technology development to final commercialization, I have found that if I, at least, don’t have personal use for our products, how can I can expect others to find use? As owner of Quillsoft Ltd., an educational software company, I have built up the company on the premise that our products must have real-world utility and benefits. After all, you can’t touch, taste or smell our software, yet you are rewarded with something tangible. In my children’s case—less effort, less time to complete a project, and better marks (and a less frustrated Dad).

Fraser Shein