In a recent audio interview with Michael Tipper, he asked me what five features people should look for when trying to decide which mind mapping program to buy. Here is a distillation of what I told him:
1. Links and attachments: First, the mind mapping software you select ought to support a wide variety of links and attachments – including web pages, files, folders and, ideally, links to individual e-mail messages. If you think about it, when you’re conducting research and capturing ideas and knowledge in a mind map, a lot of that information tends to be embedded in the text of e-mail messages, received as we collaborate with others, as we request information from our teammates. And being able to pull that content into your mind maps is extremely powerful.
2. Topic notes: In software-produced mind maps, notes are an excellent way to capture extended thoughts without cluttering up the visible part of your mind map. Yet you can still “drill down” to them with a single mouse click. A note can contain anything from a single sentence to several paragraphs. So if you’ve got some additional thoughts or ideas that you want to capture that are longer than a few words, you can record them in map notes. If you’re writing a report, a book or other lengthy document, notes give you a practical way to begin fleshing out the major points of it. Later, you can export what you’ve collected to Microsoft Word; the topics become headings and the notes become paragraph text – your document is already half-written!
3. Content filtering: If you are planning large, complex projects, which will produce large, complex mind maps, the ability to filter their content is critically important. One of the most practical ways to filter map content is based on tasks. If you apply such a filter, only the topics that are tasks will be displayed – enabling you to clearly see what needs to be done, and by whom. That’s very powerful. Another example is to filter your map’s content based on an icon or symbol, which could correspond to a particular person on your team or a certain segment of your business. The key benefit here is focus: Filtering temporarily hides everything else, so you can focus in on the information you need to be more organized and productive.
4. Export formats: The ability to export to multiple formats, such as Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Project, PDFs and web pages, is also very important when you’re considering which mind mapping program to buy. Often, what you’re producing in your mind map is not the end result. You may use it to organize all of your material and then export it to PowerPoint or Word, where you’ll finish it up. The other thing to keep in mind is that there are some linear thinkers out there who don’t feel comfortable with mind maps, so for them you may want to convert your map into a more conventional, palatable format – such as a Word document.
5. Keyboard shortcuts: Most mind mapping programs require you to use toolbar buttons to add content to your map. But when you’re brainstorming, whether individually or in a group, you need to be able to capture ideas quickly, without the program’s users interface getting in the way. That’s where keyboard shortcuts come in. They enable you to quickly create new topics and sub-topics, into which you can type your ideas without restricting your creative “flow.” One of the marvelous things about mind mapping software is you can just do a “brain dump” – capturing ideas on the fly without respect to their structure – and then rearrange them later.
If you’re a current user of mind mapping software, what features and functionality do YOU think are absolutely critical? What should prospective buyers look for (no commercials for a particular program, please!)?