Over on our other blog, StrategyMatters, I’ve been looking at a key strategic thinking and planning tool, mind mapping software. In this post I’ll start to look at the interaction of mind mapping software with the web and a warning – this is a longish post!
First, what is a mind map? Wikipedia offers a good definition:
“A mind map is a diagram used to represent words, ideas, tasks, or other items linked to and arranged around a central key word or idea. Mind maps are used to generate, visualize, structure, and classify ideas, and as an aid in study, organization, problem solving, decision making, and writing.”
As I said in the relevant StrategyMatters post, mind mapping has been around for a long time as a manual, pen-on-paper exercise. Organisation brainstorming sessions often use a loose form of manual mind mapping with less than satisfactory results, but now software has been developed to make the process much easier and more efficient.
There are dozens of mind mapping programs out there, but most work the same way, allowing users to add ideas as branches to a core concept. The software allows users to move these ideas around the resulting tree on screen, detaching them from one branch and attaching to another, and to add new ideas as sub-topics to these branches.
Most programs also allow you to prioritise these topics and sub-topics, to format them in other ways and to add information such as deadlines, resources, document files and web links. Not only can these programs provide a simple, visual one-page map as record of a planning or brainstorming session – these maps can also become effective “live” management documents for implementing an organisation strategy or managing a project.
Whilst mind mapping software started out as conventional PC and Mac based programs, it has evolved in interesting ways. Some programs have stayed in this conventional mould. Others remain computer based, but also have options for uploading, storing and sharing maps on the web – and, in some cases, for shared online collaboration.
A third emerging category is those programs that are entirely web-based, with maps stored online and accessed though a browser. Obviously this facilitates sharing, but it also makes it easier for single users to access their maps from any computer.
I’ll have a brief look at the last two groups, starting off in this post with the fully web-based applications. Three good examples are Comapping, Mindomo and MindMeister. Both the latter programs offer both free and charged accounts, though free account holders can access only a basic version with limited features (MindMeister however offers a time-limited trial of its fully-featured premium version). Comapping offers only a 30-day trial but the trial version is fully-featured.
Cost: All three programs make it easy to sign up and get started. However, to obtain access to additional features you have to sign up for at least the “premium” version of either Mindomo (a monthly charge of US$6) or MindMeister (US$4 a month). Both programs also offer closely-matched “business” and education/academic versions with some additional features. Comapping comes in a single version, which costs US$15 for 6-month and US$25 for annual subscriptions. Comapping also offers group, class and company subscriptions.
Interface: All three programs observe basic mind mapping software conventions regarding the creation of new topics and sub-topics, the ability to move topics around the map and the expanding and collapsing of branches. The creators of Comapping and Mindomo have opted for Office 2007-style tab and ribbon formats for their commands, with a button in the top left corner allowing access to the most basic commands. This has the advantage of familiarity for many users, but the downside is that because the map window is already in a browser there isn’t much area left for the map itself in either program if you are accessing it from a notebook computer, especially one with a small screen.
Mindomo’s ribbon layout is reasonably intuitive, but with some unexpected twists. For example, text formatting is under the Home tab and not in Formatting. It is also annoying that at least in the trial version a column of ads appears on in the right sidebar, taking up even more space.
Meanwhile, Comapping’s limited feature set (more on this later) and lack of advertising means that its interface is relatively straightforward.
Comapping also appears to try to make virtue out of necessity by offering only a right-facing map. This makes better use of the available real estate on a notebook screen, but is somewhat limiting, especially as you cannot vary the spacing between topics. However you can change the map’s focus to topics other than the main topic and at least there are no annoying advertisements.
Meanwhile MindMeister has a different approach. Across the top of the browser window is a narrow bar with basic commands only. Other commands are contained in tabs on the sidebar. Whilst it provides more real estate for the map in the browser window, this causes another problem for notebook users – if several of the uppermost tabs are open, the bottom ones are pushed off the screen.
This situation isn’t helped by the fact that the MindMeister sidebar contains “recommendations” (ie, advertising) which can only be removed by purchasing the premium version. Even if your screen is big enough to have all the tabs fully open, it isn’t easy to work out what options are available.
Feature set: Both Mindomo and MindMeister offer a reasonable set of features, though neither is as comprehensive as the range of features in a “conventional” commercial program such as MindManager. However, you can insert icons and images, add task information and attach notes and web links. Both programs also allow you to attach files but these first have to be uploaded. Mindomo can also handle audio and video files but these have to be available on the web in the first place.
Mindomo has by far the biggest range of map and topic formatting. There are 20 predetermined map layouts and individual topics can be given different shapes. Topic text font, size and colouring can also be changed and bold, italic and underline styles applied.
In MindMeister there is only one style of map and node shape, whilst only text style, size and colouring can be varied. MindMeister however does provide a history view and a “geistesblitz” (mind flash) facility, which allows users to insert topics directly from a sidebar, browser or via email or SMS.
Comapping also has a limited feature set. Again, you cannot change the basic map style or format topic shapes but you can change the colour and size of text and apply a background colour. You can insert a hyperlink for the whole map and as well as for individual topics – however some of the editing options only appear when you are actually editing the topic. Comapping does not have predefined images, but if you attach a graphics file to a topic it will insert a thumbnail image of the file.
One feature is unique to Comapping, however; its presentation mode allows users to drag topics onto the ribbon to create a slide show focussing on these topics in the order selected. This is actually quite clever and easy to use. Other Comapping users can view the presentation on their computers by clicking on the Join Presentation button in their tool bar and the map can be edited in presentation mode.
Mindomo and MindMeister offer the most comprehensive help facilities with detailed instructions and FAQs. Mindomo also has a forum, whilst MindMeister offers an online tutorial. Comapping has the most limited support, with only an FAQ and “Tips & Tricks”.
Accessibility and sharing: All three programs allow map sharing by inviting colleagues as well as posting them publicly on the web. MindMeister explicitly allows groups to work on the same map at the same time – and so, apparently, does Comapping – but neither program makes it clear how conflicts are handled. Mindomo does not indicate if it is possible to work collectively on the same map at the same time.
Both MindMeister and Comapping have downloadable versions which allow users to edit maps when they are not connected to the internet. MindMeister’s offline version is free as long as you have a premium or team subscription, but it requires Google Gears and a fairly complex installation process. Comapping’s offline version costs US$99 and requires Adobe AIR. Mindomo have not yet released an offline version, though one is in development. Business and academic users can however get a server based version.
Import and export: The basic versions of Mindomo and MindMeister can export image, PDF and Word (RTF) files, but a signup to the premium version is required in both programs to export more sophisticated formats such as MindManager. The premium version of Mindomo can export MindManager, Microsoft Project (MPX), Excel and HTML files whilst MindMeister can export to Mindmanager and Freemind. Comapping has a similar range to Mindomo, allowing export to RTF, MindManager, Freemind, HTML, Project and OPML files.
The ability of all three programs to export to MindManager and of Comapping and MindMeister to export to Freemind is especially significant. Although neither the commercial MindManager or nor the open source Freemind (or any other program) dominates the mind mapping market in the way that Microsoft does with office software, both have a large base of users and a number of other programs can also import their files. On this front all three programs can import maps from Freemind and MindManager.
The ability to export to common file formats also provides a simple way for users to back-up their mind map files off-line (which is relevant in the context of what I wrote recently regarding Web 2.0 services and data security) and to access these files easily using other software if required.
Verdict: Unlike Comapping, Mindomo and MindMeister both provide free versions – but these are very basic. Once payment is involved, the playing field is a little different. Comapping is the cheapest over 12 months at US$25, whilst MindMeister will cost US$48 and Mindomo US$72.
Comapping and MindMeister have an edge in online collaboration and both provide offline facilities (though you pay extra for Comapping’s software), whilst Comapping and Mindomo have a wider range of export options. MindMeister and Comapping have the most limited options for map formatting, though Comapping alone offers a very useful presentation mode. Mindomo has by far the most comprehensive range of formatting features.
Both the Comapping and Mindomo ribbon-based interfaces are reasonably intuitive and even for new users would be easy to pick up. This contrasts with the MindMeister interface, which seems to require more visits to the online help to understand.
I think that Mindomo offers the best balance of features and ease of use and would probably suit single users – especially those who have previously used other mind mapping programs – or small groups who want to share files, but not necessarily work on them at the same time. Both MindMeister and Comapping may be best suited to workgroups who want to collaborate intensively on maps in real time. Of these two, Comapping probably just wins out, especially for larger groups, because of its ease of use, presentation facility and lower cost per user.
However the great thing is that all three programs allow potential users the opportunity to try them out for free. I would suggest giving all three a trial to determine what suits you the best. It should also be noted that I haven’t had time to apply all the tests I suggested in my last post about avoiding problems with Web 2.0 services – but you are strongly advised to look at these issues in evaluating these products. At the very least you should use the ability of all of these programs to export MindManager and Freemind files to provide off-line backups of your maps in either format.
In a future post I’ll look at the web-based collaboration of the more conventional mind mapping programs such as MindManager.
At Gooding Davies Consultancy we use MindManager extensively and can provide a range of strategic planning and program management solutions for your organisation based on this versatile program. We can also advise on solutions using the above products.
Those are the three Web-based mapping tools that I happened to find the most compelling as well.
None of them are perfect, and there is no clear winner.
Note: annual price of Mindomo Premium: $65/yr, not $72 (when paid annually in advance).
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