Developing Your Ideas

In this section we will introduce you to a selection of elicitation techniques that can be used to advance your thinking and develop your ideas. These techniques can be applied at different stages in the research process and might help you to:

  • identify the topic of your research (the research question)
  • plan a comprehensive search of the literature
  • structure and/or conceptualise your personal information collection.

Your research question

You may need to undertake some research in the form of a literature review or you may want to identify a topic for a thesis. Where do you start? Here we describe two approaches: ‘general to specific’ and ‘specific to general’:

General to specific

This approach would be useful if you are able to decide your own research question and you are starting with a broad area of study.

  • Gather together all your relevant information.
  • Use an elicitation technique to break down your area of study into smaller inter-related concepts.
  • Create a visual record of this process.
  • Identify any gaps or areas of uncertainty.
  • Create a list of possible research questions.

Specific to general

This approach would be useful if you have a narrowly defined research question in place, such as those provided by industrial sponsors.

  • Gather together all your relevant information.
  • Use an elicitation technique to expand the argument surrounding the original question.
  • Create a visual record of this process.
  • Identify any gaps or areas of uncertainty.
  • Create a list of possible research questions, maintaining the focus on your original concept.

In both these approaches we suggest using elicitation techniques and visual records. This is because these techniques are designed to enable a user to see an area of study from a global, holistic and non-linear perspective. Looking at an area of study in this manner can provide unique insights - essential for creating an original research question.

Mind Mapping™

Mind Maps (or concepts maps) can be used to help frame a research question, plan an essay or a literature search, or take notes in a meeting. The maps are a way of representing information in a visual format that is similar to the way the brain itself maps concepts; i.e. in a non-linear, interconnected view. Mind Maps make use of colour, images and symbols to help stimulate the brain’s recall.

One way to implement a Mind Map in your research process is to use the map to state what you already know about a particular topic. The map can then help you identify the gaps in your knowledge. You can also use Mind Maps to plan a literature search - using images as well as search terms could help stimulate other alternative terms or synonyms. If you annotate the Mind Map as your search progresses you will be able to see how you achieved your end result. Details on this application of Mind Maps can be found in Sheila Webber’s paper ‘Mapping a path to the empowered searcher’.

The leading authority on mind maps is Tony Buzan. You may want to read his book, Use Your Head (1989), for further details of how Mind Maps can be used in a variety of situations. Buzan suggests the following basic rules for creating Mind Maps.

  1. Start with a coloured image in the centre of your sheet of paper.
  2. Use plenty of images throughout your Mind Map.
  3. Words should be printed in capital letters.
  4. Printed words should be on lines and each line should be connected to other lines. This will give structure to your Mind Map.
  5. Words should be printed one word per line.
  6. Use colours as they help memory recall and stimulate creativity.
  7. Be as spontaneous as possible. Don’t pause or think about it, just explode on to the paper.

There are various versions of Mind Mapping software available, including FreeMind, which can be downloaded free of charge from (last accessed 7 July 2005).

Mind Mapping example

This Mind Map was produced using the FreeMind software. It illustrates what is possible. As you can see, some of the Mind Mapping rules have been applied, but not all. For example, we have more than one word to a line. However, we have tried to use colour and images to help stimulate recall.

Try the following activity. It uses Mind Mapping to formulate a strategy for a literature search.


Use either a search topic relevant to your own research or the search topic suggested below.

You want to find information on the effects of food additives on human health.

Develop a Mind Map to formulate your search strategy. Start by writing the question in the middle of the page. Then use the branches of the Mind Map as a means of exploring the different concepts you will need to use as part of your search.


Brainstorming can be done on your own or within a group. It could be a useful exercise to conduct with your supervisor. The process is as follows.

Starting with a single word or concept connected to your research topic, record (write down, tape, video) anything and everything that you associate with this word or concept. There are four practical rules for classical brainstorming (B822, Technique Library).

  1. No criticism: the idea is to defer judgment until after you have gathered all the ideas.
  2. Freewheel: ideas should be uninhibited, anything goes.
  3. Quantity is important: the more ideas the better.
  4. Hitch-hike: build on other people’s ideas as this fosters collaboration and idea improvement.

When you have run out of ideas you can try to create a relationship diagram for the subject. The Enchanted Learning website provides a summary of the various types of organisational diagram that you might find useful.

Brainstorming example 1

  • Ask members of the brainstorming group to individually write their ideas on Post-it notes or cards.
  • Make sure you write only one concept on each card or Post-it.
  • Do not spend more than 5-10 minutes on this task.
  • At the end of this time, gather the cards/Post-its together to examine the groupings or trends.

As a group you could then vote for your ‘top’ concepts by putting coloured dots on your top three themes. You could rank the themes according to the number of dots: for example, 1st = 3 dots, 2nd = 2 dots and 3rd = 1 dot. This system will help you to focus your research and set priorities.

Brainstorming example 2

Using a random word or a random image as a stimulus during brainstorming can be a good way of generating new ideas.

  • Choose a random word or image; for example an animal or object.
  • Ask participants to brainstorm around the word or image and record their ideas.
  • From this initial brainstorm, try to relate the words and ideas to your topic. This type of brainstorming may sound strange, but it is surprising how well it works, as it makes you think about the subject in a new light and helps foster innovation.

Personal information collection

During your research you will collect large amounts of information. In ‘Information Literacy Education for PhD Students - a case study’ (Pilerot, 2004), PhD students described how difficult it was to conceptualise, organise, structure and generally manage their research information.

Elicitation techniques can help you to conceptualise and then add structure to your personal collection of information. For example, you could try brainstorming and using the results to create meaningful categories by which to organise your personal information collection.

Bibliographic software packages and desktop search engines can also help you organise your information collection.

Bibliographic software packages

As you will process a large amount of information during your research activities it is worth investing in a bibliographic software package. Bibliographic software can be used to sort references, annotate them, manage quotations or create reading lists.

There are several software packages on the market. Some are listed below.

  • BibTex
  • EndNote
  • Procite
  • Reference Manager
  • RefWorks

Adept Scientific, the company that licenses EndNote, ProCite and Reference Manager, also licenses RefViz. This is a software package that presents database search results visually, the visual representation being based upon full text analysis of the database results. You may find this useful when handling large numbers of references and/or when making connections between different aspects of your area of study. RefViz provides a 30-day trial version of the software.

Using bibliographic software

Bibliographic software can be used for more than just storing and presenting references. If you spend some time learning the functionality of the package you have, it will be of more use to you.

Consider entering quotations of relevance in the notes field. You may want to have multiple entries for an item, one for each quotation you are interested in. If you also add subject keywords, you can then sort your database to identify useful quotations on a specific subject. It is worth keeping a list of the terms you use, so you can be consistent about how you apply them.

You could also use the notes field to add your comments on a particular reference, which could help you to assess its usefulness to future research you might be doing. You may find that to view this information in a printed bibliography you have to choose the correct bibliographic style, or indeed alter an existing bibliographic style. Instructions on how to do this will vary according to which bibliographic package you are using, so consult the help files if you wish to explore this functionality.

Desktop search engines

The search engines that work on your own computer’s desktop are useful tools for retrieving information held in a variety of formats (e.g. email, word files, recently viewed web pages). These search engines include:

You may like to read ‘Deep File Divers’ (Dunn, 2005). It is an article in PC World that reviews some of the desktop tools currently available and it might help you decide which tool(s) would be most useful for you.