Most people who think they lack ideas might very well have the opposite problem. They may have so many ideas that they obscure each other. It’s not a problem of having ideas, but of seeing them. Once they’re visible, it becomes easier to see their relationships to each other, prioritize them if necessary, identify their central theme, find related details and resources, and eliminate the ones that aren’t critical to the project at hand. To paraphrase a business cliche, we need to work on our ideas rather than in them.
MindManager is the best known software for mind mapping — the art of diagramming networks of discrete thoughts around a central topic. Some people still prefer mind mapping by hand, since it’s faster and more intimate. But software based mind mapping has a number of advantages.
- The resulting mind maps look more professional
- They can be shared in several file and image formats
- Files and web links can be attached to topic nodes
- The user can rapidly convert maps into lists and back
- Its possible to collaborate in real time with other users
I last used MindManager 6 about two years ago, when I sold my laptop without realizing I had no backup copy of the software on it. Before long, I was actually relieved at not having it on my newer laptop, since mind mapping had become an addictive time sink. While many long time users insist that MindManager 2002 remains the best version ever, I’ve always thought that MindManager 6 had the best user interface of any piece of commercial software on Windows. Let’s see if things have evolved with Version 7.
The first change that any veteran user will notice is the Office 2007 style ribbon interface. At first glance, it’s a love-or-hate innovation. Most users will find that it’s an acquired taste. MindManager has plenty of features that I would be unaware of if they weren’t persistently visible on the ribbon, neatly arranged in grouped tabs.
One example of this was the Focus on Topic feature I don’t recall seeing in the previous version. If you have a node selected (what MindJet calls a topic), clicking on Focus on Topic will move the entire map to position the focused topic in the center of the document window. It may seem like a minor adjustment on paper, but I found myself using this feature constantly, since it made it easier to develop child items into more complete maps. Another happy discovery was the Balance Map feature, which arranges an equal number of topics to be displayed on either side of the central topic.
The ribbon does gobble up precious real estate. Fortunately it can be collapsed or restored by double-clicking any menu heading. For newcomers, the improved tooltips are a good way to get familiarized with the app. These tooltips typically have two or three lines of description, and they’re almost better for touring MindManager than the installed or linked guides.
Mind mapping isn’t reserved for free thinking romantics, and MindManager demonstrates this by buddying up to MS Office in every conceivable way. Outlook tasks, appointments, contacts and notes can be inserted into mind maps, as well as ranges and full spreadsheets from Excel. From MindManager, you can export tasks into Outlook, or entire maps as PowerPoint or Word documents.
Other import and export functions
MindManager has other options for sharing maps. Maps can be exported as PDFs, as images (including GIF, JPEG and other formats), HTML pages, and even OPML files (collections of feed subscription links). Slightly more relevant than exporting OPML files is the ability to import them, so you can theoretical have a research project that gets updated with related RSS feeds.
Not every collaborator will want to see your ideas in the form of a mind map. MindManager now allows you to toggle between Map View and Outline View. Outline View is also useful for exporting to MS Word or any text editor. In Map View, you have the ability to globally expand or collapse the map by one or two levels of hierarchy. One of my favorite commands is Show Branch Alone, which displays the selected topic and its children without showing the rest of the map.
The zoom level can be adjusted dynamically with a slider, but I mainly used the Fit Map button whenever my maps grew beyond the document window.
One feature that I never use, but seems to be popular with other MindManager users, is the Select by Rule tool. Topics can be selected by queries (that can be saved), map markers, task information and other criteria. This probably comes in handy for delegating parts of a project to a someone.
The notes window in Version 6 was justified to the right exclusively, which bothered some users. Now the notes windows can be positioned below the document as well.
The print options have been expanded to include headers and footers, so you’re not stuck with having the map’s central topic as the title, which could get annoying. You can also choose to print a map on a single page, or across several pages.
You can control the growth direction of your mind map from the menu. These can be omnidirectional maps, concept fans sprawling left or right, or pyramidal org charts. You can even change the map style of your current work in real time. For instance, a standard org chart layout can be transformed into to a split tree format. If your map is asymmetrical, with more topics on one side then the other, you can select Balance Map to even things out.
One thing I keep hoping to see in MindManager is an easy way to access line patterns with directional arrows for informal flowcharting. I frequently need connections between topic nodes to express a transition of some kind, and the only software I’ve that lets me to this easily is CmapTools (which has other problems). You can do this in MindManager if you select a “Relationship Shape” — a dotted line that can be straight, curved or angled, but dotted lines have different connotations than solid ones.
Some users, usually adherents of Tony Buzan’s canon of mind mapping, are increasingly critical of the “corporate” look of MindManager’s included map styles. They might want to take a look at some of the style templates in the Miscellaneous folder (like “Circles”), and modify them with additional colors and images. It is possible to create organic looking maps with the app; it’s just not the default.
If you’re like me, and find mind mapping too good for your own good, you’ll appreciate the countdown timer tool to reign in your brainstorming sessions. It would’ve been nice to see this feature incorporated in Presentation Mode as well.
You can add various “map markers” to topics to denote priority levels, highlights, completion status, discussion points, decisions, and emotional values (like smileys for agreeable items). These would be great in conjunction with the Select by Rule and Show/Hide filtering tools.
Mindmapping in the cloud with a tool like MindMeister is nice, but I prefer having any critical authoring software on my own computer, with web-based functionality as a supplement. Mindjet Connect is the company’s service for real-time collaborative mind mapping with MindManager clients, featuring instant meeting (for Windows clients), chat and email integration. Like a couple of other value-adds to MindManager, I chose to forgo testing this service to get this review finalized, but I will be review it separately in the future.
Is MindManager worth buying?
If you’re a power user of Version 6, then probably not. By power user, I mean someone who knows the vast majority of features in the software, and can access them with the shortcut keys or without much effort.
If you’re new to software-based mind mapping, and you’ve tried out some of the free alternatives (like FreeMind or Compendium), you’ll probably end up graduating to MindManager 7. It has an incredibly intuitive interface, a ton of features now made visible with the ribbon, and very tight MS Office integration. For project managers, there are a couple of useful add-ons, like Mindjet’s own JCVGantt and Gyronix’ ResultsManager.
But definitely try before you buy — it’s pricey. After the 30-day free trial, a single-user license of the Pro version is $349, and $174 for the upgrade version. Mac users, rejoice! The Pro version is $129, and the upgrade is $69.