In the last few weeks I have been researching and evaluating Mind Mapping software to aid me in the early planning stages as well as structuring of Web site design and re-design projects. I think the concept of Mind Mapping offers a very efficient manner of gathering large amounts of data or ideas quickly then organize it, format it, tag it, transform it into an action-plan, schedule, to do list or re-use it in a multitude of other formats.
If you are intrigued by the idea of Mind Mapping or have been looking for such software yourself, here’s some comments on my recent experience and short reviews of the 5 applications that made my short list and why. I’ve tried several others but I quickly “rejected” them for several reasons and I won’t mention them here.
You probably should know right off the start that I am quite new to mind mapping to begin with so my criteria and experience may differ from someone who’s been using it for a long time. I also plan to mostly use mind mapping in relation to the planning and management of Web site design and re-design projects. During the course of my evaluation, I’ve created and re-created a map of a Web site I’ve been hired to re-design. It’s a large Web site with a lot of content as well as llinks to external resources. Re-creating its structure as a mind map has permitted me to identify and note repetition in content, out of date content and links as well as find relationships between elements found in separate sections of the site. It was the perfect project for me to try out mind mapping and I loved it.
The Mind Mapping Process
About the applications I tried themselves, the first thing I have to tell you is that, aside from one exception, it seems you really get what you pay for in the area of mind mapping software because most mind mapping apps only excel one area and are really weak in others. In order to understand what I mean by that you have to know that I divide the process of mind mapping into 3 areas or steps. Not all areas may be as important to you as they were to me. Those area for me include, brainstorming, editing/adding information and exporting.
These 3 areas are explained below:
1- The mind mapping or brainstorming process itself:
At this stage you need an app that gets out of the way and let you add topics and sub-topics (sometimes called ideas, nodes or items) and navigate them with the smallest amount of effort possible. You’re trying to get your ideas or data down as quickly as possible without any thought flow interruptions. The best apps let you start a map, then type your main idea/topic directly then hit enter to “finish” it then hit enter again to move to the next “sibling” topic or press Insert (close to Enter on most keyboards) to start a sub-topic then type text again, Enter to finish, Enter or Insert to move on. You would be surprised how many apps complicate this process needlessly. Navigation is done simply using the arrow keys. You should never have to touch the mouse to click in the map or worse still, click a button in the mapping app’s UI to add an item. Quick and simple is the key here.
2- Editing and refining the map by adding data and adding formatting:
This is where you add icons, relationships, links (URLs or links to local documents or internal map topics, Web sites, etc), notes or attachments. This is also here where you format the look of specific items to differentiate them from one another and add further hierarchy than the natural topic/sub-topic/sub-sub-topic hierarchy the map contains naturally. This area is where all the mind mapping apps I tried vary the most. The one I chose has the richest set of tools here (and I’m just starting to skim the surface), including named styles you can use to format nodes/topics easily and spread changes automatically to others who have the same style applied. You also need to be able to add notes to further “explain” certain items or ideas further. Not all mind mapping apps offer the ability to add and format notes. You also should be able to change the layout of the entire map. This area is very deep so I’ll stop here for now but there’s a lot of stuff you can do here to enrich the basic map data and give it more meaning. Some of them even give you the ability to transform an item/topic into a task with start and end dates, icons to denote percentage of completion and more. Several apps excel here but none of those I tried go as deep as the one I chose.
3- Exporting to other formats (for client deliverables like outlines or interactive maps they themselves can play with for example):
This is the area where most mind mapping apps fall very short for me with a couple of exceptions. To me and I may be one of the few thinking this, what’s the use of creating a detailed map if you cannot export this data into other useful forms. A simple hierarchical text outline really is something very basic that should be easy to export. Even better is if links, icons and notes are exported along with the outline and basic formatting applied to differentiate all elements. Better yet is tying the outline levels to styles in an existing Word template file directly. Again, only one app goes the extra mile and many do not go past the first step which is a pretty useless simple graphic export (inserted in a Word, Powerpoint or PDF file). Here, you’ll here a lot of promises of MS Office integration and what-not. But if, like me, your idea of integration goes further than adding a solid bitmap image copy of your map to a Word or PowerPoint file with no text whatsoever, then many mind mapping apps will disappoint you here. Only 3 apps amongst those I tried offer anything really useful here and all 3 actually go above and beyond in different ways.
So what are all these apps I’ve kept hinting about. I’ll spare you the worst and will only highlight 4 of them and mention a 5th because I think it has great potential and offers much more than mind mapping.
1- In first place and the top of the crop for me is MindManager 7 from Mindjet. It is also unfortunately one of the most expensive of the lot at $349.00 but it’s already helping me greatly start a redesign project on the right foot. This one is deep and although it doesn’t offer the stunning Flash export of the next second place app, MindJet offers a free reader application you can point your clients to if you want them to interact with the real app and see things the same way you did. Otherwise it can export to Word with a full outline, TOC, full map images and all the data and “metadata” you added to the map. Amazing. It also has 2 flavors of Powerpoint export which I haven’t really explored yet. Next is Visio export. As I don’t have Visio I cannot comment. Next is MS Project export which ties to the tasks oriented editing I hinted at earlier. I don’t have Project either but think Gantt charts and the like. Seems quite powerful. Next still is what seems like great integration with Outlook. Think tasks again, schedules and the like. I don’t use Outlook anymore and never did in that way so I cannot say how it does here. PDF export could be better but i goes beyond inserting a simple solid graphic in a PDF file. Think editable text here (it’s rarer than you’d think). I’m still learning the app so I’m sure there’s much more I could mention. Last point is about the UI. MindManager (like my Honorable mention app below) use a MS Office 2007 “ribbon-like” UI. Not everyone likes this but I use Office 2007 at work and although it took me a few days to get used to it, now love it nd would never go back. MindManager’s UI is definitely the most sophisticated of all the apps I tried and it’s very uncluttered for an app that offers so many tools at your fingertips. See it here:
2- In second place for me is FreeMind… yes the free, open-source mind mapping app. It excels at brainstorming, does an adequate job of formatting and it offers the most incredible and unique interactive Flash export. It also export to a few other special formats like the also open-source ToDoList application. It has good Word export as well but it’s been a while since I used that so I cannot remember the level of detail. Drawbacks include some rough areas due to the fact that it’s still beta software (0.8.0 is the stable release, latest is 0.9.0 beta 12). Well worth considering. See it here:
3- In third place for me is MindApp from Varatek software. Very inexpensive at $29.95 and very good at steps 1 and 2 (brainstorming and formatting). Where it fell short for me is export. Well worth downloading the trial, especially if you don’t foresee needing very detailed exporting into other formats. It was on my short list. See it here:
4- In fourth place is The Brain’s PersonalBrain. A most intriguing app which I really tried to like more. It may serve someone else’s needs better. It is on the expensive side (not far behind MindManager) and doesn’t have nearly the same depth in the formatting department. Maybe I would have discovered more had I spend more time with it. Great brainstorming abilities and very good Web export with a data pane at the bottom and interactive map at the top. See it here:
Honorable mention goes to SmartDraw 2008. It doesn’t have as seamless brainstorming abilities as the 4 others but it still does a good job of it. It excels at the formatting aspects. It also offers a lot more than mind mapping so, eventhough that’s not its core purpose, it’s very good value for the money. Great formatting abilities, disappointing exporting. Not exactly cheap either but I’ll keep an eye on its growth. Another point against it for me was a very cluttered ribbon-like UI. Much less successful here than MindManager. It sometimes feel more like a big glorified Microsoft Wizard than a drawing application. It may be that it’s aimed at business people and I’m a designer used to apps like Fireworks, Illustrator, FreeHand or InDesign. Still well worth trying but you better be quick about it… it only offers a pityful 7 days trial. For an app sold at nearly $300 USD, this is rather cheap IMO. See it here:
Last topic I’d like to touch is support and user community. Only two of the commercial apps I tried have forums: MindManager and PersonalBrain. FreeMind has a forum on SourceForge where developers seem to be active. I’ve also tried to contact two companies. One is SmartDraw which I contacted to express how disappointing I though their exporting abilities were (forgot to complain about their ridiculous trial’s lenght). I then had a very interesting email conversation with one of their sales rep over the course of 2 or 3 days… even though I was clear I would not buy their product. They seemed open and eager to get user comments and suggestions. Kudos to them for this.
On the other end of the spectrum was MindApp. I wrote them with a couple of pre-sales questions using a form on their site. Never heard back. To me this is unforgivable, even when your product is as inexpensive as theirs is.
I hope my comments in this post will help anyone looking to get into mind mapping. The process of trying out mind mapping apps has definitely sold me on the idea of mind mapping itself. I find that using software to enter and organize ideas and data quickly very freeing. It also creates something tangible and much more malleable than scribbles on a piece of paper. You can come back to your map, refine it, add to it and re-export or re-purpose it in a variety of useful forms (denpending on the app you choose of course). It’s also a lot quicker than doing it on paper would be for me.
I love mind mapping now eventhough I’m far from being an expert and can’t wait too apply the process to other areas of both my professional and personal lives and see how it can help me further.