How do we cope with our growing digital lives?  How do we manage the ever increasing amounts of digital stuff we create and use?  This is the challenge of Personal Information Management.   



Entries in Mindmapping (4)


Web-based mindmaps become my primary PIM and PKM tool

I have written about Mindmeister before, a web-based mindmapping service that I am fond of.  During this past year I have used a single mindmap to manage my day-to-day to-dos as well as my longer term goals.  I use this mindmap as an all-purpose dashboard, linking to other documents as needed--such as a google docs spreadsheet I use to track my project work hours and my personal journal, also a google document.  I also use it to store and manage what I refer to as my "directional" information, including my mission, my goals, my key research questions. My daily routine involves consulting this mindmap first. During the day I check tasks off as I do them, and add notes and new to-dos as they come up. 


I also use Mindmeister to capture book notes and thoughts on certain topics, in some cases attempting to capture and outline my current thinking on a topic.  Sometimes I return to these mindmaps and review them so I can increase my retention and memory of the topic.  Sometimes I add to them.  In this fashion, I use this tool for personal knowledge management (PKM).

Although this service is powerful and continues to be improved I have run into two issues.  As a cloud-based service I am dependent on my network connection to use it.  Occasionally this connection falters and the tool is not available when I need it.  Second, I am concerned about the lack of portability of these mindmaps.  So long as I stick with this service, I am OK.  But should it go out of business or change its terms so as to make it unattractive,  I will be forced to save/migrate each file one at a time to get the information out of the service.   Bulk backups are available, but only to large scale business users with a much more expensive subscription.  I will speak more about this in a follow-up post about cloud-based services

This is part of a series of posts summarizing my PIM activities in 2011.


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 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. 


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.


Mindmaps as personal information managers

Need a better way to organize your thoughts, or better yet, a way to remember those thoughts you had yesterday?  For me, the mindmap is a good answer; or more specifically, mindmapping software.  In previous posts, I have shared links to mindmaps I created to get my head around the topics of personal information management (PIM) and personal knowledge management (PKM).  Here, I used them to visually organize my answers to key questions about the topic.  Likewise, I use them to diagram information in books I am reading, so as to better remember them. (One example is here. Here is a different one.).  It’s no surprise then, that students can be found using mindmaps to organize their notes and classwork.  For an example, see this 23 minute video showing in detail how one student uses Mindjet’s Mindmanager software to manage his schoolwork.  Here is a good definition from Wikipedia of what a mindmap is:

A mindmap is a diagram used to represent words, ideas, tasks, or other items linked to and arranged around a central key word or idea. Mindmaps are used to generate, visualize, structure, and classify ideas, and as an aid to studying and organizing information, solving problems, making decisions, and writing.

While these maps can be created with pens or pencils, it was the advent of mindmapping software that allowed mindmaps to be used for personal information management.  With software you can link concepts on a map to electronic resources:  web sites, files, images, and notes.  With software you can create maps that are easily shared and reused.  You can also expand or collapse sections of a map with a click of your mouse and control the detail that is visible, especially useful if you have a big or complex map.  This interactivity and the ability to visualize a topic and the relationships between items is what makes the tool compelling to me.

Also, mindmapping software has another key attribute that I rarely see mentioned: you don’t have to draw the mindmaps!  Unlike conventional drawing programs, mindmapping software lets you concentrate on entering the information and it creates the diagram for you.  Yes, you can manipulate the maps and format them to enhance their presentation, but you don’t have to spent lots of time sizing, placing, and connecting individual elements.  This frees you to focus on the topic at hand.

I first learned about mindmapping through my work as an information architect. Someone on a listserv recommended Mindjet’s Mindmanager software as a tool for prototyping taxonomies and creating Web sitemaps (which I now use it for).  But it was in organizing my work where I came to love it.  I used it to manage my task lists and diagram big, complicated projects. Not only did it help me to better understand those projects, but when I shared them with others, it helped them understand those projects as well.  And as a presentation tool it was more fun to use than PowerPoint. 

 Here are other uses I have made of mindmapping software:

  • Task management / lightweight project management – Mindmapping software often includes the ability to manage tasks, with to-do dates and resources.  Icons that show task status and priority can be added to provide easy-to-read, interactive, project dashboards.
  • Outlining writing projects – A mindmap can help you quickly capture and organize all the ideas you have for a document you are writing.  Here, it’s part brainstorming tool and part visual outliner.  
  • Brainstorming – This is one of the original uses of mindmaps.  Some packages include timers to support this.   Used in combination with an overhead projector, an online mindmap can be used to rapidly capture and display the results of a group brainstorming session.
  • Personal information dashboards – Because they can link to other objects mindmaps can be used to create a visual dashboard to tasks and reminders, goals, key bookmarks, documents in progress, and other key files.   These can be organized visually using any labels, images, or colors you desire.  In this scenario, a mindmap becomes your personal productivity home page.

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


Mindmap of Personal Information Management (PIM) space

I have just created a mindmap showing how I view the Personal Information Management (PIM) space.   Click on the image below to load an interactive flash version of the mindmap.  If you have a problem viewing that, try an interactive PDF version.  Both are around 1.6MB in size.