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Sunday
Nov142010

Mindmapping software: how far down this rabbit hole do you want to go?

In a previous post I discussed why mindmapping software is worth using.  Here, I want to talk about the software itself.

This category of software is best referred to as visual mapping software, because it includes functionality that goes beyond what mindmaps were originally designed for.  I think of it as visual information management software because I don't just use it to create and present information. I use it to manage information too: to-do lists, projects, and my research and learning work over time.

What follows is not a comprehensive review of available software, but rather recommendations based on my personal experience and research. I will start with the two products I am using: Mindjet's Mindmanager and Mindmeister, a web-based service.

Mindmanager

Mindmanager was the first package I used and is probably the best known commercial mindmapping software package.  Targeted primarily at business users, it is an excellent tool:  easy-to-use, loaded with useful functionality, and available for both Windows and Mac users.  Here are a few things I like about it:

•    Its core mindmapping capabilities are as strong as any I have seen
•    It is good for creating and sharing presentation quality mindmaps
•    It is good for creating interactive maps that you can load on websites

It’s also well integrated with Microsoft productivity tools; so if you use MS-Office, Outlook, MS-Project, and even SharePoint, there are interesting opportunities to use the applications together. More recently, Mindmanager has beefed up its project management capabilities.  It's a Cadillac product, but with a Cadillac price: $350 for Windows users (version 9) and $250 for Mac users (version 8).  Luckily I got mine while I was still working at a university, and got a reduced educational price. 

Mindmeister

I began using the second tool, Mindmeister, when I wanted to share my maps on the Web and collaborate.  I was drawn to the convenience of a web application that I could access from any browser on any machine, at home or at work.  What I found was a simpler tool than Mindmanager.  It had less functionality, but was easy to use, and for what I needed it was sufficient.  It has subscription pricing of $59 per year ($18/year for educational users).  In addition, there are mobile versions available for the iPhone and iPad.  The company is constantly releasing new features, and because it's a web application I get the new features when I login; no software upgrades required. 

I do have complaints though. The maps are not as polished as what I can produce with Mindmanager.  For presentation purposes I prefer Mindmanager.  Also, I occasionally get network hiccups while editing a mindmap, which means I have to wait a few seconds and hit reload on my browser. (Update: the latest release adddresses this lag issue.) Nonetheless, Mindmeister is the tool I use the most.  Right now, I only use Mindmanager for presentation quality mindmaps and for creating mindmaps to embed on webpages.  Although Mindmanager has come out with an online collaboration service, it's more complicated and costly to use than Mindmeister.

Thinking about which solution is best for you

When considering what software or service to use, think about the following questions:

  1. How do you intend to share your mindmaps?

    Do you want people to be able to access them via the Web?  If so, do you want them to be able to have access to an interactive version that lets them open and close branches of the map, or is a static image sufficient?  If you will be printing them out, then look for good print formatting capabilities. Also look at the import and export capabilities.  If you will be presenting them in meetings then look at the presentation features.

  2. How important is the visual look of these maps?

    Is it important for you to make them visually distinctive?  Do you want an "organic" look to your maps?  Do you wish to make extensive use of icons and images?   If so, look for how well a package delivers on this.

  3. Do you intend to collaboratively create mindmaps with others?

    For collaborative creation of maps, I recommend a web-based service (i.e., Mindmeister).  Otherwise, your collaborators will need to get the same software package.  Also, web-based services can support simultaneous editing.

  4. Do you use want to use it for task or project management?

    Then look for calendar integration and the ability to set due dates and easily add icons to designate task status or priority.

  5. Do you want to create big mindmaps or manage lots of information with your mindmaps?

    If so, then look for filters and the ability to easily look at only 1, 2, 3...N levels of the map.  Look into the features for linking different maps together and managing collections of maps.

  6. Do you want to edit or view your mindmaps using your mobile device?

    Then look at applications for your mobile device or the ability to add topics using email or SMS messages.

Other packages to consider

There are lots of options out there and reviews of new and upgraded offerings that are regularly published. Among the many others, these are definitely worth considering (available for both Windows PCs and Macs):

  • Novamind – This is a polished, full-featured offering that is directly comparable to Mindmanager but costs less.  Its current version has been strongly reviewed and its new layout engine and visual formatting capabilities are reputed to be the best out there. The sense I get is that this tool is stronger visually than Mindmanager, but doesn’t have as many bells and whistles.

  • The Brain - This is mindmapping on steroids. I haven’t yet tried it, but I am intrigued by its 3-D interface, its ability to express different kinds of relationships between concepts, and the way it is positioned as a tool for managing large personal knowledge-bases or “brains.”  Check out the short video on their web site, and maybe you’ll be intrigued enough to create a “brain” for yourself.

Lower cost options

  • XMind – This is a capable, free, open-source offering that is a good choice for anybody wishing to get started in mindmapping but who doesn’t want to shell out any money. An upgraded version, XMind Pro, is available for a subscription price of $49 per year.

  • Freemind -  This is the best known open source mindmapping package.  Though not as polished as Mindmanager or even XMind, it's quite capable.  Compared with XMind, it uses less memory, and is reported to be quicker and more responsive. See also Freeplane, which is a splinter offering, based on the original Freemind source code. 

  • Inspiration - This software is targeted exclusively at the education market, which may account for its reasonable price: $69.  It doesn't contain much in the way of productivity features (task management, etc.) but lets you create more than just mindmaps. This includes concept maps, outlines, affinity diagrams and more. Kidspiration is a K-5 version.

My recommendation:  get started

The best way to see if mindmapping software is for you is to try it. Decide whether you want to use a client software package (loaded on your PC) or whether you want to use a web application. If you want client software, and money for a full-featured package isn't likely to be in the budget anytime soon, then start by using an open source or low cost package. Otherwise, test drive one of the full-featured packages like Novamind or Mindmanager. They pretty much all offer 30-day free trials.  If available, take advantage of video tutorials which are often helpful. My choice for a web application is Mindmeister, though if you want to look at other options, look at the list provided here.

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