There are a bunch of desktop tools for mind mapping including the no-cost Java-based FreeMind, the popular and very expensive MindManager from Mindjet for both Windows and Mac, and ConceptDraw’s MindMap, also for Windows and Mac. For devoted mind mappers, it’s probably worth your time–and maybe some money too–to get a feature-rich tool on your desktop.
If you only mind map occasionally or if you want to collaborate in real-time with your colleagues, maybe you’d rather use an online mind mapper or brainstormer such as bubbl.us, Mindomo, or MindMeister. These tools don’t conform to Buzan’s principles of mind mapping in all respects, which call for free form curving branches and multiple colors, as shown in the hand-drawn mind map here, created by Graham Burnett. However, they’re still useful for collecting your thoughts, taking notes, or sharing your ideas with your colleagues.
Billed as “the simplest way to brainstorm online,” bubbl.us doesn’t claim to support full-blown mind mapping. This Flash-based offering suffers from what you sometimes see in Flash applications–overuse of gradients and animated effects, but at least you can turn the effects off. The keyboard access is not entirely intuitive; hitting enter to create a new child node and tab to create a sibling node works well enough, but I wanted to use the arrow keys to move around the diagram and couldn’t. Also, the diagram moves around as nodes are drawn, disrupting the flow of thought. You can pick up the diagram and recenter it, but it will just start moving again as you add nodes.
bubbl.us is early in its development and understandably rough around the edges. It has no import/export capability yet but does offer printing and sharing. Nodes are colored according to their level in the hierarchy, which makes sense if you’re creating an outline–and that’s probably how you ought to consider bubbl.us, as a graphical outlining tool less than a mind mapping or brainstorming tool.
Mindomo is aiming after the full mind mapping gestalt. It supports the curved connections favored by Buzan, though they are not organic and free form as Buzan suggests. Features include hyperlinks, rich text notes, customizable colors, and import from MindManager. The free version is ad-supported. Mindomo is based on Adobe’s Flash technology like bubbl.us.
You can customize the look of your mind map with different typefaces, line styles, and colors. However, drag-and-drop layout of nodes doesn’t seem to be available–you can only drag and drop nodes to connect them to a different parent. You can, however, choose from a variety of layout styles, which provides for some customization of the display.
Mindomo’s keyboard access is unusable for those on a Mac, because it uses the insert key to add child nodes–but Macs don’t have one. This is a strange choice of key because even on a Windows machine “insert” doesn’t mean “add something new.” It toggles between overwrite and insert mode in applications like word processors. However, arrow keys work to navigate through the nodes and the enter key can be used for adding siblings.
Unfortunately, one of the key benefits that you’d hope a web-based mind-mapping tool would provide is collaborative map building, the ability for two people to edit a map at the same time, and Mindomo doesn’t offer this yet
MindMeister provides all the basic features you might look for in a web-based tool of this sort. I found the keyboard access mostly intuitive. The tab key adds a child, the enter key adds a sibling, and arrows navigate around the diagram smoothly. Saving happens automatically with no action required of the user. Nodes can be repositioned using drag and drop. You can share with write or view-only access. It offers import from FreeMind and Mindjet’s MindManager, as well as export to an RTF outline or a GIF image.
These tools don’t really support Tony Buzan’s free-form organic and colorful mind mapping techniques, but they can still be useful if you’d like to capture what you’re thinking about in a visual form.
MindMeister, with its smooth keyboard access, information-dense display, and export-to-outline capability, is my favorite of the three. I have a number of invitations to the beta; leave your email here if you’re interested in trying it out.
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