Many diagramming software programs today are like Swiss Army Knives – they can create almost any kind of diagram you could imagine, including mind maps. But mind mapping isn’t usually their strong suit. If you try to use Visio, SmartDraw or other similar programs to create mind maps, here are the shortcomings you will run into:
1. The map creation process is time-consuming: The process of dragging and dropping a shape to the workspace, typing text into it and then adding a connector line is too slow to capture the “flow” of ideas when you’re brainstorming alone – and completely inadequate for a group brainstorming session, where the ideas may come fast and furious. Contrast that to the typical mind mapping program, which enables you to use keyboard hot keys to quickly add topics. A number of the programs actually have brainstorming modes, which are designed to enable you to quickly add a succession of ideas to your map, helping you and your colleagues to keep the creative “flow” going.
2. No ability to attach documents, links and notes to individual topics: This is where a lot of the value of mind maps in business resides. If you’re working on a project or conducting research, you can attach many different types of resources to your mind maps – in effect, creating a flexible visual database of all of the resources you’ve collected. Diagramming software enables you to create a set of shapes and connect them to each other in different ways. That’s all.
3. Limited ability to expand and collapse branches: One of the unsung capabilities of mind mapping software is the ability to expand and collapse branches, either on an individual basis, or by level. This enables you to see a high-level overview of your topic (with the lower-level branches closed) AND drill down to the details (with all of the branches opened) within the same visual document. Diagramming software only does this on a rudimentary, topic-by-topic basis.
4. Limited ability to export your map’s contents to other formats: Most mind mapping software enables you to export all or part of your maps to other types of productivity software, such as Word, PowerPoint and Project. This enables you to utilize it as a “front end” tool, where you gather and organize your information in skeletal form and then export it to one of these other applications to put flesh on the bones. Diagramming software can’t do this. At most, you can export your diagram in a view-only, image-based format, such as a JPG, GIF or a PDF. I just tried this in SmartDraw, for example. Exporting a simple mind map to Word opens a new document and simply copies the map into it as an image. You can’t really output your diagrams in a format where you can still manipulate its elements.
5. No ability to import data: A number of the high-end mind mapping programs enable you to pull data from other applications into your mind maps, such as Excel spreadsheet ranges, e-mail messages from Outlook, RSS feeds and the results of SharePoint searches. Diagramming software is self contained. This limits the number and type of business applications for which you can utilize it. If you want to create an art element that will be placed within a report, that’s fine. But if you want something you can interact with, a diagramming program won’t help you.
6. No project or task management capabilities with a mind map: Most mind mapping software enables you to treat selected topics as tasks, adding start and end dates, status (percentage complete), priority and any resources assigned to it. Some of these programs enable you to convert your project map into a Gantt chart, where you can see a visual timeline of your project and any dependencies.
7. Not easy to embellish topics: Mind mapping software enables you to embellish topics with images, symbols and icons – which add visual interest to our mind maps, but more importantly, help us to visually classify the information contained in our mind maps. Mind mapping software ships with hundreds of symbols and icons, which you can use to designate urgent items, priority levels (A,B,C or 1,2,3), flag items as needing additional research or attenion, and more. Diagramming software doesn’t usually contain such symbol libraries.
So there you have it. Clearly, diagramming software leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to mind mapping. If you think you’re going to need to do both mind mapping and other types of diagrams, then I would consider investing in both types of software. I personally use SmartDraw 2012, and highly recommend it for producing many types of business diagrams.