Three Web-Based Mind Mapping Tools Reviewed

125 Comments

Hand drawn mind map by Graham BurnettMind mapping, originated by Tony Buzan, aims at capturing what’s going on inside your head. In this video, Buzan calls it a “swiss army knife for the brain” and makes all sorts of claims about how you should do it in order to get your mind absorbed and intrigued in the ideas you’re mapping.

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.

bubbl.us

bubbl.us logoBilled 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 diagrambubbl.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

MIndomo logoReleased in beta on February 22 of this year, 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 diagramMindomo’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

MindMeister logoUnlike the first two tools mentioned, MindMeister is Ajax-based, meaning it’s been implemented with HTML and JavaScript and doesn’t require a third-party player to run within a browser. Because it doesn’t have the fancy graphical effects of Flash available to it, the default display is more about the information you’re capturing and less about shapes and gradients and animated effects. In my mind, this is all to the better, but some users may want more visual excitement with their mind mapping.

MindMeister diagramMindMeister 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.

Conclusion

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.

125 Comments

Richard

These programs are great and I have used a few of them. However I prefer doing mindmaps on paper and created templates for mindmaps. See my URL and download for yourself.

Cheers

ALan

Hey, thanks for the write up… I’ve been looking for a way to organize my thoughts without a notepad (I always forget to bring it).

Can I get a BETA invite? If you still have any.

Anne Zelenka

Hi pam, welcome! Always glad to have new subscribers. I’ve sent you an invitation to MindMeister. Let me know what you think after you try it.

MarillaAnne

Hi Anne, I like the uncluttered look of MindMeister. I would appreciate an invite. New reader, new subscriber, here.

have fun,
pam

Nicola Larosa

Mind mapping is based on a hierarchical, tree-like organization. This is often too constraining, and unable to represent all useful associations among things and ideas.

Concept mapping is a more general method of organizing ideas, and free of such limiting principles.

The relevant Wikipedia entries show the contrast between mind mapping and concept mapping.

A popular, Java-based, free concept mapping tool is Compendium.

A enlightening essay on the limitations of hierarchical organizations is A city is not a tree, by Christopher Alexander.

Anne Zelenka

I have sent invitations to everyone who asked so far. If you didn’t receive one by email, let me know and I’ll try resending. I have eight invitations left.

Tim

Hi! I’d really like an invite to MindMeister. I’ve been wanting to try it!!

Karl

Thanks for this summary; it was very helpful. I would appreciate an invitation to MindMeister. The import/export capabilities, coupled with the information focus, seems to the closest fit to what I need.

Ric

Well you certainly have a larger readership than me! If you run out of invites, send ’em my way …

physio

I’ve used Freemind in the past with some success. I find it a bit clunky but the price is right. I’d love to find a decent online mind mapping solution. If you have any invitations for MindMeister please send one along.

Andrew Wilcox

I think both Mindomo and Mindmeister offer a great opportunity for MindManager users like myself to involve non-MindManager users in asynchronous collaborative mind or business map development. I work with a large number of associates on a range of product and service development programmes and projects. These tools lower the threshold for them to work the way many people recognise as being better than some existing alternatives. Perhaps later on they will recognise that some of the sophisticated desktop tools such as MindManager are also worth their price point.

On other hand Mindomo and MindMeister may move forward very quickly. It is is going to be interesting part of the application world to watch over the next year.

Anne Zelenka

Elizabeth – Nice to see you too! I sent you an invitation. Akismet had marked your comment as spam but I rescued it. I wonder how many real comments we’ve lost to that.

Anne Zelenka

Wes, Toolfarm, Peter, Duncan – I sent you all invitations. Let me know if you don’t get them and I’ll resend.

Duncan Griffin

Nice analysis…Have used Mindjet and Freemind. I agree with your sentiments that less is more…If you have an invite to mindmeister I would like to give it a go.

Cheers

Christopher Mahan

I tried mindmeister 2 days ago thanks to the Twitter Early Warning System, and well, maybe mind mapping tools aren’t for me, because it felt too unnatural. Of course, I like to doodle and make my own, and having a pencil and eraser and a bunch of 11×17 paper along with some capabilities to draw non-sucky lines makes the experience better than any software for me.

Overall, though, nice review.

Peter Jennings

This review is very timely, as my demo version of MindManager is about to run out, and at €200 it’s a little expensive. I also tried MindMap, but prefer creating maps which are a little less ‘visual’ – MindMeister looks ideal. So please send me an invite!

toolfarm

I would also like an invite to MindMeister if you ave any available. This looks exactly like what I need!

Wes

I would like an invite as well. Have been using bubbl.us and although handy, it is definitely in need of some improvements.

Thanks

Phil

I’d like an invite to the MindMeister beta if you still have one available. I used free map for a while but find that I have less time at my home computer than elsewhere, nowadays.

Mike Gunderloy

Mindomo probably picked the Insert key to add child nodes because that’s consistent with the user interface of the Windows version of MindManager.

Nancy White

Thanks for the great overview. I blogged a pointer – you saved me a task I had on my to do list. Brava!

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