This blog is about software for visual thinking and organising information. It will give you the low-down on developments in the world of visual networks and all types of business maps.
I am Roy Grubb, a management consultant who has worked on the development, use and improvement of information systems since 1965, and in business change since founding G&A Management Consultants Limited in 1981. I am based in Hong Kong and undertake work in Europe, the Americas and Asia.
This is a blog about all the software that supports visual thinking and modeling, including mind mapping, concept mapping, ER diagrams, UML, argument maps, etc. I took this over from Vic Gee in August 2013.
- http://www.topicscape.com/blog/ deals with mapping techniques and organizing information in 3D landscapes
- http://www.informationtamers.com/blog/ is a personal, non-technical blog.
I’ve just finished a sweeping look at the Apple iTunes App Store and Google Play, searching for mind mapping apps … this with the aim of making a total re-write of the article in the Mindmapwiki about ‘Mind mapping on the Run’.
I found 62 such apps … sixty two!
But before I get to the numbers, let’s look at what’s behind mobile mapping tools.
Many apps can make use of a variety of cloud storage services, can import from other tools and can export files that desktop mapping apps can read. A lot work on phones as well as tablets. I use an iPhone, which I don’t find to be a good space for working with mind maps, but there are plenty of phones with bigger screens which will be less cramped. And given the rumors, even iPhone users should have a bigger screen for a better mobile mapping experience soon. I prefer a 24-inch monitor and a desktop with a proper file system, but when out of the office that is just not an option. On iPads and tablets the experience is much better.
All that I looked at (bar one: Prezi) can make mind maps. Most are designed for that specifically, a few have other types of map in their sights but can be bent to a mind mapper’s needs. Some of the 62 are very original explorations of how mind maps can be made and used on a tablet or phone. And some are solid, usable reproductions of desktop or browser-based apps that can exchange files with those apps. A few, very few, I wouldn’t want to waste iPad memory on they are so ugly – to my taste, but we all have different tastes so I won’t name them.
But the riddle for me is … why 62? The riddle isn’t limited to mobile apps but that’s where most of the action has been recently. It’s easy to see why established mapping tool publishers would want to stake out a position on mobile platforms. And some have broken new ground presenting an original twist, but so many are ‘me too’ designs. Do none of the developers look at the opposition before deciding to launch yet another tool into a crowded marketplace?
This now brings the number of still-available mind mapping tools in the Mind-Mapping.Org database to 143. (It has many more historical tools and software for making other kinds of knowledge maps as well as outlines.)
Oh well, never mind, all the more choice for users to draw from, especially at the low prices commanded by nearly all mobile apps. Many are free, $1 – $10 is the typical range, and a couple cost more than $10.
Before you head over to the new entry in the Mindmapwiki to see if there’s anything that would suit you better that whatever you are using now, consider one final option.
MindMeister can now take a bulleted, indented list from a Google Doc and, from within the document, make a mind map of the list and embed it.
I grabbed part of a contents list from a handy PDF file, pasted it into a Google Doc, added bullets and indented it. Then, picking MindMeister from the Add-ons menu, I selected “Insert as a mind map”, and I got this:
The text I grabbed means it would need some work as a mind map – editing the original list, shortening the lines, getting rid of the numbers before making the map. But I can see this being useful. There are limitations – no way to change the appearance or layout; the odd sequence of first-level nodes; no access to the map outside the document (other than as an image); but it is a good start. I’ve seen many request for mind maps in Google docs over the years in newsgroups and Twitter, and it’s good that one of the most (if not the most) popular browser-based mappers is there now. It is very fast and convenient.
You don’t need to sign up for a MindMeister account to use this, just in any Google Doc, go to:
Add-ons > Get add-ons… > and put MindMeister in the Search add-ons box.
Have you seen Biggerplate’s Annual Report on the state of mind mapping as 2014 commences?
A fine piece of work
It’s a fine piece of work consolidating the views of 715 mind mappers from around the world, collected over several months. The folks at Biggerplate made a serious and persistent effort to get the word out and the result is a goldmine for people like me who find mapping so useful that they take every opportunity to evangelize it.
Anyone offering help on mapping topics across social media will have had the impression that mentions and questions have increased over the last 12 months. Biggerplate’s membership figures provide objective evidence that this apparent growth is really happening.
The age spread
The age range analysis on page 8 supports my belief that the positioning of mind mapping primarily as a technique for students is not optimal. While responses to an opt-in survey do not indicate numbers actually engaged in mind mapping, they do indicate how the level of interest in the subject is spread across the age ranges and a mere 1% under the age of 20 is a very thin slice. Mind mapping is widely taught in schools in the UK, USA (though there, mixed with concept mapping), Malaysia, Indonesia and Hong Kong, mainly through the direct or indirect efforts of Tony Buzan, I would judge. I suspect that Canada, the Netherlands and France also teach it in schools, but am less sure about that.
It seems that going from using mind maps for learning in school, to using them for planning and idea gathering is a move that many never make. Here’s a student’s tweet I spotted: “I’m using a mind map to plan????? I’ve never even considered this before but in all honesty I like it” … and that’s the most important transition in any mindmapper’s life, I’d say, but too many students never make it. Instead, a common reaction among university students is “A mind map? Am I still in grade school?”
A gender puzzle
The gender mix shown on page 9 mystifies me, and it would seem, everyone else as well. Liam, has anyone tried to analyze the gender mix of those submitting maps to Biggerplate, and those attending Biggerplate Unplugged? That would provide two additional data points and a reality check.
Mapping medium / platform
On page 15 we can see the strong survival of hand-drawn maps in a digital world, which shows that many mappers still enjoy the physical process. Some go out of their way to produce attractive, engaging visual designs – others just want to capture fleeting thoughts without having to struggle with technology. But the degree of overlap with software use shows that most of us use both approaches.
Mapping alone predominates
Keen mind mappers will use mapping for almost anything and we only work in groups some of the time, so I would expect solo use to dominate, but expectation is just a guess – now we have the solid data set out on page 20.
Uses of mind maps
The word-cloud on page 22 has no mention of ‘learning‘ or ‘studying‘, further supporting the point made above about the age range. The proportions may have been skewed downward by the self-selected sample of respondents to the survey, but this is a convincing corroboration.
The second word-cloud on page 22 is a powerful snapshot of what mind mapping is about. The wisdom of crowds and the wisdom of (word) clouds!
The overall preference for software, both trialled and identified as favorite (pages 28 and 29), is for tools that make mind maps in the boxes-and-lines style, while the words-on-the-line Buzan-style map is represented, amongst those making it to the chart, only by Buzan’s own iMindMap.*
The dominance of Mindjet’s MindManager in trials reflects its very early establishment on the market (as Mind Man) around 19 years ago and its continued development and power. Despite that, iMindMap has pulled into a powerful second place in just over seven years.
So there we have it, the state of mind mapping at the start of 2014, and a benchmark to help us reflect on progress this time next year.
If you’ve seen How I lost my $50,000 Twitter username and read how @jb was targeted you’ll know how much more vulnerable to attack we are than we might have thought. There are some useful tips that those who lost out wrote about in those articles, so I thought I’d pull them together them in a MindMeister mindmap that anyone can contribute to. This way, we can all harden up our online identities and assets. I’ve added some ideas I picked up when my blog was hacked a couple of years ago, as well.
Now, can you make it more valuable by adding to what’s already there?
Argument maps, belief networks, debate maps, decision diagrams … all are ways of setting out the logical development of a line of thinking, discussion or deliberation where the aim is to reach a conclusion in a complex set of circumstances. Where a topic is under discussion among several people, or even where an individual is making a decision alone, a formal and visual approach can help in making an agreed position clear.
Austhink (now owned by Critical Thinking Skills BV) have long had desktop versions of their argument mapping tools, Rationale and bCisive. These have been in the database at Mind-Mapping.Org for more than eight years. Late in 2013 they released online versions of these two products: Rationale in September and bCisive in November. As these are tools for discussion and argument, having an online option is a useful and significant advance.
Rationale is a tool aimed at anyone wanting to improve their critical thinking skills, and is presented primarily as an academic tool, though it could also be seen as a tool that would help in legal argument. bCisive targets business decision making and has many capabilities related to evaluation, review, documenting and implementation of decisions.
In use, Rationale is different from mind mapping products, but is not difficult to use, with a drag and drop approach. Arguments are laid out with ‘supports’, ‘opposes’ and ‘rebuts’ elements so that the users can see all points raised in support of or against a contention. When an ‘opposes’ item links to another ‘opposes’ item above it, Rationale automatically changes the lower one to ‘rebuts’ (see on the right):
There is a collection of images that can be used to highlight visually and in words the basis for each element of the argument. For example, ‘expert opinion’, ‘law’, ‘statistic’, ‘web’, ‘media’, ‘assertion’, ‘common belief’, and more. Here is an argument map I made with Rationale:
Not everyone likes a map or visual format, and for the traditionally minded, a map can be rendered as an outline in various formats using one of the Text Panel tools (see on the right):
An advantage of mapping out an argument is that it can take the heat out of the conversation in the early stages. That is, we can take the approach of “We’re just trying to record all views here, let’s make sure we have everything down before we start arguing.”
bCisive, being intended for business use, is less about argument or debate, and more concerned with evaluating the pros and cons of a proposal. The principal of operation is similar, and again it is easy to use.
Here is a map I made with bCisive:
Again, one of the Text Panel tools can make a text-based outline (see on the right):
For now, neither of these online tools allow simultaneous collaborative work, but the developers are working on that, as well as on a tablet version. Also in the works is the ability to embed maps in web pages.
Others in this field
If you go to the Master List main page and in the ‘Refine software list’ tab at the top right select ‘argument maps’, ‘belief networks’, ‘debate maps’, ‘decision diagrams’, you will see seven entries in addition to the two above, namely Argunet, MindDecider, Netica, Cohere, Debategraph, Flying Logic and GeNIe. On my future-additions list are nine more: Araucaria, Argumentative, Carneades, Copeit, Deliberatorium, iLogos, jCollam, PIRIKA, Riyarchy, Theorymaps, Truthmapping and Wrangle. It’s quite a crowded field! Now some of these are not strictly comparable … GeNIe and jCollam are oriented towards developers, Netica is for Bayesian networks, and some look more like student projects than mature products.
Right now if I had to choose for business use, I would be looking at Rationale and bCisive.
Mohiomap, the web app that maps out your Evernote notebooks, has an update. I reviewed this in September.
Now it has a new kind of in-map search function (Ctrl+f) to highlight matches in notebook or note names. This is in contrast with the search box at the top of the Mohiomap page, which effectively builds a new, temporary map from the search results.
There are improvements in the user interface as well: hovering, and graph behavior.
Here’s a collection of process modeling tools that haven’t appeared on Mind-Mapping.Org before. As well as helping you make process diagrams, most offer simulation or analysis of processes, and some can make flowcharts and organization charts as well.
They range in price from free (a very capable simulation tool supported by the National Science Foundation and Google) to nearly US$2,000.
All Clear produces functional diagrams from text instead of the user manipulating the diagram directly. Although billed as flowchart software, it can also make organization charts and process maps and includes a process analyzer.
Its price is US$349.
Bizag Process Modeler
Bizag Process Modeler is a component of the heavy-duty Bizagi BPM Suite but is available free as a stand-alone unit. It is designed around swimlanes. The price for the full suite is not stated at the site. Bizag Process Modeler can be used alone to produce business process diagrams and if you purchase the suite, you can turn your process maps into running process applications.
The BPM Suite is an enterprise product that supports business rules, forms designer, workflow, work portal, and analytics.
Insight Maker is a substantial browser-based tool, used for visually modeling processes, simulating them and presenting the result graphically. It is supported by the National Science Foundation and Google Inc. and is free.
It is strongly geared towards continuous process simulation and is probably not the best choice if you are primarily concerned with documenting business process where you want to show decision points and movement between departments, for which I’ve always preferred swimlanes.
iThink is business process simulation software built based on systems thinking.
Documents, forms, web pages and third-party systems relevant to each step in the process can be dropped into the diagram to make embedded links. It is priced at US$269.
Vensim is a tool for modeling business processes visually. It has four versions, PLE, PLE Plus, Professional and DSS, offering increasing degrees of capability with increasing price. It can simulate processes and report results graphically.
Per user: PLE $50; PLE Plus $169; Professional $1195; DSS $1995.
Sébastien Georget recently announced a personal initiative to allow Freeplane users to work together on a map without all the emailing back and forth, and spotting changes to copy to your own map. He calls it Freeplane-collaborative-tools.
Users work on their own local copies of the mindmap and periodically publish the modifications on a central server from where they can fetch other users contributions. The heavy lifting is done by your choice of versioning system: CVS, SVN or GIT, and this synchronizes the various copies of a map on request.
If you’re familiar with the Freeplane icon, I think you’ll like the Freeplane-collaborative-tools logo, it looks like a squadron in close formation:
Freeplane is open source, so the source code for Freeplane-collaborative-tools is open as well. There are introductory videos and documentshereand they look pretty clear to me.
You might ask yourself ‘why not use a free web-based mapper?’ but for expert users of FreePlane, the fact that you can use all the hacks that this software offers to adapt it to your own needs and preferences can be a strong motivation.
MindMup is a web-based mind mapper that you can use free, with no limit on the number of maps. It supports multi-user, simultaneous access and, if you’re using MindMup’s free storage or storing maps locally on you computer, it requires no log in. This makes it an attractive tool for school use. That’s not to say that it’s a toy as it can be used for serious mapping.
The user experience
Starting to map with MindMup is easy – their motto of “Zero-friction free online mind mapping” is one that its designers have taken seriously. You might get the impression that MindMup is less capable than it is, because some quite important functions are somewhat hidden, but there are easily-found web pages for help, hints and shortcuts and I’ve mentioned some here.
The appearance is quite conventional: Bubbles joined by curved hierarchy lines. There is also an option for straight lines in place of the curves. The strongly-curved hierarchy lines turn out to be a good shape for making best use of space for your map (see the example here, and the ‘Free Movement’ section, below).
Here’s an example of a MindMup map, built for this review:
Relationship lines – the out-of-hierarchy lines connecting nodes in different branches – can only be straight at present. This means they will often cross other lines and pass behind other nodes … not very clean but not too confusing in practice, as their style and color can be changed.
There are ample keyboard shortcuts for those who like to build maps as much as possible from the keyboard (count me in). A few of these are a unconventional, but it’s easy to find them from a ‘Hotkeys’ link in the map, and the ‘Help and Hints’ item under the Information button: (i).
Selecting multiple objects: MindMup provides a rich series of controls for multiple object selection: Shift+click to add to objects selected (not the conventional Ctrl+click), buttons for ‘select subtree’, ‘select all children’ and ‘select all siblings’, and an unusual one – key in a number: 1 selects all 1st-level nodes, 2 selects 2nd-level nodes, and so on …
Oh, and a good user experience to mention: MindMup saves your map in local temporary storage as you work, and once while I was reviewing it, my office power tripped out. It had saved all my work.
Free movement – a good balance
If you have read my earlier reviews, you’ll know that I like the freedom to move nodes where I want them. I know from forums, groups and social media that there are many other visual thinkers who feel the same way.
Some mapping tools, like Coggle, give complete freedom.
Some, like Xmind, allow you to move any first level topic around freely and the rest of the branch follows.
Some, like MindManager, allow you not much more than a choice of the order of branches and on which side of the map a node appears. It’s true that you can move first level topics away from the central topic, but you cannot then tuck a small branch into the space that the move opens up.
Complete freedom of node movement can result in partly-crossing branches, and it’s up to the mapper to sort that out. Allowing just first level topic movement helps, but the mapper still sometimes has to intervene to keep branches separate.
Accommodating users’ desired node positioning without overlaps is quite a hard problem to solve for the software developer, and MindMup has the best balance between freedom of movement and avoiding messy maps that I can recall in any mapping tool. If you drag topics around, then when released, they snap back where they were. But select a topic, hold down Shift, and drag, and the topic moves to where you place it. As soon as you release, its children follow and any conflicting branches move aside neatly to leave space. You can create spaces and move branches into them. And this is important: You can freely move any node, not just 1st level ones.
The generously curved hierarchy lines make it easy to move topics to one side of the map without crossing other lines or topics. You can see this in use, in the example above.
How mapping software handles attachments is often important in mapping and MindMup has adequate attachment support for most tasks.
Text: Right-click a node, choose ‘Node attachment’ from the context menu, and you will see a panel where you can enter rich text, active hyperlinks and images. When a node has an attachment, a small paper-clip icon appears, and clicking on that opens the attachment panel.
Images: It handles images nicely – drag an image and drop it on a node, or right click a node and use an item in the context menu. You can re-scale the image and choose where it appears relative to the text in the node. Alternatively, you can choose ‘Node attachment’ from the context menu, and have the image accessible in the attachment panel, but not directly visible in the map.
If you select a node and then drop an image on the canvas (not directly on the node), the image will appear in a node by itself as a child of the selected node.
Large images will be scaled automatically to a reasonable size, but you can adjust that scaling immediately.
Hyperlinks: There are two ways of including hyperlinks. You can have as many as you like in a node’s attachment panel (as mentioned under ‘Text’ above), or you can include the full URL in the node text. In the second case, MindMup will convert the URL into an active hyperlink, remove the URL from the node text and add a small link icon to the node. A single-click on the icon will open the hyperlink in a new tab of your browser. Mindmup also recognizes the links in text attachments and makes them active hyperlinks.
Formatting of the map itself is limited. You can choose the color for the background of each node – either from a color picker of 36 colors, or by pressing Shift+space and entering a color name or a web color code like #FFDAEA.
But you cannot change the hierarchy line colors (the edges, which are always black), or thicknesses, or specify organic, tapered lines. The node borders are also of fixed thickness, and always black. Nodes are always the same shape.
The node text is always black, of the same font and size, and line-breaks for longer text is automatically controlled and not variable.
Formatting for task-progress
There is a formatting capability that I can’t recall having seen built into mapping software before. In place of the usual icons indicating progress and priority, a sequence of colors can be associated with a status. This is configurable so you can change the colors to suit your own needs, for example, red as ‘urgent’, white as ‘complete’ and so on. A status is inheritable, so if an item at the end of a branch is marked ‘urgent’, then the parent, grandparent, etc. all the way to the central topic are all marked urgent.
A problem that I see with this is that the use of color is overloaded. If you color a map, as many people like to, to make colors highlight and separate the branches visually, these colors may conflict with the status colors. The usual icons for progress inhabit a separate layer, so do not cause this problem.
Where you can use MindMup
Being browser based, it works on Windows, Mac and Ubuntu. I tried it on Windows (Chrome, Firefox and IE 11) and Ubuntu (Firefox). I gave it a spin on an iPad as well, and it can just about be used, but with great difficulty. I’m told a version designed for mobile use is coming, and in today’s world that will be a significant boost to MindMup. For browsers, they recommend Chrome, Safari and Firefox. If you use Internet Explorer it brings up a warning, and this inhibits map sharing.
Many map storage options
It offers three ways of storing your maps: Locally on your computer, in one of the popular Cloud services and on MindMup’s own servers.
You can save maps on MindMup’s servers for free, up to 100KB. This is a reasonable-sized map if there are no images, but adding images can easily take the map over the limit. A subscription service, MindMup Gold allows a total of 1GB, but until the end of the year it is under beta testing, price to be announced. With all the other options for storage, there is only one reason I can see for subscribing to Gold: If you want to embed a MindMup map in a web page.
So there is no need to log in, if you are storing your map locally. If you are storing it in one of the supported Cloud services, you will have to log in to that and authorize access to MindMup.
If you store in MindMup’s free service, make a note of the URL to ensure that you can find it again. With all other storage methods, you will either log into your cloud service, and find it that way, or with MindMup Gold, you will have loaded a license on your computer and Mindmup will recognize that.
Import / Export
MindMup can import and export FreeMind/Freeplane files (.mm), which is useful as this is common currency among many mind mapping tools. It’s mainly the hierarchical structure that survives the transition either way, as most of the formatting is lost.
It can export image files (in .png format), HTML with images and indented text where the background color of text follows node colors, tab-indented plain text, and MindMup files (.mup) to your own machine.
This is a fast-moving subject as new functions are implemented, but in summary the following are not present in MindMup: Searching in a map; built-in icons; drag and drop hyperlinks on topics; floating topics or free text on the map canvas; branch boundaries.
Icons can be added as an image, but you’ll have to find the images yourself. Topics can have hyperlinks, but not by drag and drop.
There’s more detail about this in a footnote* to this post if these concern you.
Although there is no explicit multi-maps function, it is easy to link maps together. As all maps have a URL, hyperlink attachments to a node in one map can link to a second map, and so on. If you are sharing maps using this technique, you will need to keep in mind that all sharers need access rights to linked maps.
Embedding maps in web pages
If you have stored a map on MindMup’s own servers (Free or Gold), you can embed it in a web page. Using the share option (File | Share map | </> Embed this map), you can copy the code MindMup provides. Then paste this into the HTML of the page where you want to display it, and users can view it, zoom in and out, close branches and so on, but not edit it.
The code to embed the map that appears first in this review looks like this:
I haven’t embedded a map directly in this post for two reasons:
the fixed width of posts here is relatively narrow and you would see only a very small window into a quite large map.
Instead I have embedded it into three stand alone pages to cater for a variety of screen sizes, in case, like me, you don’t like to see mind maps through a tiny window. Small screen, 1024×768. Medium, 1440×900; Large, 1920×1200. Expect a short pause while the page trots off to MindMup’s server to fetch the map.
If you look at the code above, you’ll see that “data-width” is set to 90%, and this makes the embedded map adjust its width according to the size of your browser window. Unfortunately, “data-height” is set to a fixed value (500 pixels) and neither percentages nor “auto” work. That’s why I decided to give links to three page sizes, each with an appropriate height to the screen size.
This mind mapper is now in the Master List here. Give it a try!
There is a UserVoice page devoted to MindMup, so over time these items may well be implemented, but this is what I miss at present:
You cannot search in a map. Even the browser’s own search box will not find text in topics or attached rich text.
There are no symbols, progress proportion icons, smileys, ticks, crosses and so on available as built-in icons. You will need to find your own, drag them in, and possibly resize them as I did in my map.
Progress and other topic statuses are indicated by color, and this may conflict with the color scheme you would like to choose to make related topics in a branch immediately visible as grouped together.
Hyperlinks cannot be dragged from another browser tab and dropped on a topic. URLs must be keyed in or pasted to a topic’s text.
There is no provision for floating topics, free text on the map canvas or a user’s own legend. The built in legend can be made to float on the map but this defines only what colors mean, and does not appear in any exported images.
There is no provision for a branch boundary.
Connecting edges, node outlines and node text cannot be formatted, as mentioned in the review.
FreeMind imports lose text decoration, multi-line node text, line and border colors, images, icons, relationship lines, and attachments. Links and node background color are retained. Multi-line node text becomes a text attachment to an empty node.
FreeMind exports lose colors, images, icons, relationship lines, attachments and active hyperlinks. The links are present, but appear as plain text.
There is no ‘rubber band’ method (drag round objects with mouse) for selecting multiple nodes.
As I say, many of these may be coming. There were several other functions that I missed, and the MindMup developers had implemented them within a day of my mentioning them, so they are responsive and are likely to remain so.