Phew! This has been a looong task, working through ThinkComposer, a tool with many blades, compartments, pockets, drawers and attachments. At last, after helpful exchanges with its designer at Instrumind, it’s up on Mind-Mapping.Org.
This is an interesting product in many ways. It can produce a wide range of diagram types and visual models immediately after installation, it allows users to specify new diagram types, and it even has the capability to generate code when that is appropriate and specified by the user.
Let’s start with the out-of-the-box capabilities. Ask this software to make a new diagram and you’ll see this choice of types:
The visual models included with the software are: Business model, class diagram, concept map, data model, fast-food cuisine, flowchart, genealogy tree, mind map, organization chart, sequence diagram, timeline, use-case diagram, web environment and an ‘all-purpose’ diagram.
An impressive list. I haven’t tried all of them … I wanted to post this review before Christmas! But I have tried the business plan, mind map, flowchart and the concept map. I’ve also included some examples of finished diagrams contained in the installer.
ThinkComposer refers to each of the diagram types as ‘domains’. Each pre-defined domain provides access to a set of diagram elements, but you can add to the set, and you can define new domains using the very many additional diagram elements and shapes shown on the right:
Each node (mostly referred to in ThinkComposer as an ‘object’) can contain a whole diagram, allowing users to drill down through multiple levels, or by moving through successive tabs. Objects in the diagram can include text, images, attached files, links, custom-fields or tables.
The user interface is unusual, and doesn’t follow a typical Windows program’s style. There is the diagram canvas in the middle, and around it is a frame of control panels, shown here:
At the top, is a ribbon-style set of controls and, though it is not a Microsoft-style ribbon, it is easy to understand.
On the left is a linear list of the objects in the diagram, and below it a panel showing, if an object is selected, how that is related to other objects.
On the right, is a pallet of objects available, and below it panels of markers and other items that can be added to embelish the diagram.
It’s worth keeping an eye an eye on the hints panel near the bottom-right corner of the window. This often indicates controls that are available to you at any one time.
When you hover the cursor over an object, icons appear, indicating how the object can be manipulated. Objects have a layer of additional information that can be added, including structured data to record such data as field properties in a data model. These are not constrained and can be defined to suit the user’s needs.
So, a few examples, then – some I made myself to judge the usability of the software, and some that come installed with ThinkComposer:
Initial business model outline
It makes this type of business model easily. I just took it to the initial stages, but you would go on to fill out the details when planning or analyzing a business. Source: Roy.
I prefer to use a purpose built UML tool like Visual Paradigm – the one I use for software design – but this looks capable of producing a decent and useful class diagram. Source: ThinkComposer web site.
ThinkComposer makes a good job of concept maps, as good as CMAP, the leader in the field. I made a small one myself and found it easy and usable. Here’s a more complex one. Source: ThinkComposer web site.
Again, it is capable of making a data model. Being familiar with ERwin, I prefer that, but we all prefer the tools we know and ThinkComposer is workable. It includes the various cardinality connection types that data models need. Source: ThinkComposer web site.
Fast food cuisine
This is a good example of how a specialist diagram can be developed using ThinkComposer for specific purposes that may have no existing visual tool. Source: ThinkComposer web site.
Flowcharts are possible without much difficulty, though I found some things I’d like to do – like keeping all lines rectilinear – not so easy as you can see, but this may be down to my inexperience with the many controls. Source: Roy.
Source: ThinkComposer web site.
After the smooth experience with ThinkComposer’s concept map it turned out that making a mindmap with this software was something of a struggle. I have reported the issues to the developer, who is working on them. Nevertheless I was able to make the map below. Source: Roy.
Source: ThinkComposer web site.
If you don’t have integrated UML software, you could use ThinkComposer to make sequence diagrams. Source: ThinkComposer web site.
Being able to build timelines is a handy addition to all the other tools here. Source: ThinkComposer web site.
Again integrated UML software is one way of visualizing use cases, but you can use ThinkComposer to make them as well. Source: ThinkComposer web site.
Source: ThinkComposer web site.
Define your own diagram type (‘Domain’)
So, we’ve looked at all of the built-in diagrams. But ThinkComposer’s designer doesn’t see these as the main motive for using the software.
The fact that you can assemble your own diagram elements, describe how they interact and what they contain, means that for many cases where no existing visual tool fits your needs, you can build a Domain from the ground up with the components provided by ThinkComposer. You can use your own template from then on, to work visually in a way that suits you.
Some software that helps us produce diagrams can also generate code. One I’ve mentioned above, ERwin, can generate SQL that will create a database as described in an ERwin data model diagram. Some UML diagrammers can generate program code. But these are specific to a purpose.
ThinkComposer offers a general-purpose file generation capability and that is unusual. To use this, you’ll need to use Liquid template markup language, which is fairly straightforward, in conjunction with the Composition Information Model, as defined in the ThinkComposer manual. Which brings me to…
This is written in a rather abstract style with extensive specialist vocabulary. I suggest that if you just want to use the wide range of diagrams built in, it would be good to start with the User Interface section (p.40 in the current edition of the manual). You will need the other reference material to use the full capabilities of ThinkComposer.
Other forms of output
ThinkComposer offers HTML output, and this is neat, clear and quick.
It can also make a PDF or XPS file from a diagram. This is fast and to an advanced level of detail that you won’t always need, but for technical work is likely to prove useful.
This may not be a tool for casual use, but don’t let that put you off trying its many capabilities. It is in active development … a new version was released just as I was finishing this post. The release fixes a few issues that I reported to the developer, who is very responsive.
Where to find it, and the various price options are set out in the Master List.