ConceptDraw MINDMAP Review

ConceptDraw's MINDMAP software stands out among other mind mapping products on the market because it is focused, more than any other product reviewed so far, on business processes and management. The package comes from an organization called CS Odessa, which has a base in the USA as well as in their home town of Odessa, Ukraine. Although it is used in educational establishments as well, MINDMAP comes as part of an office productivity suite (ConceptDraw Office) which comprises MINDMAP, project management software and a business graphics application. As Graphics.org is interested purely in the mind mapping package we opted to download that tool on its own, but it is an interesting indication of where the tool is coming from.


Downloading and Installing MINDMAP

ConceptDraw MindMap Startup
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Packages are available for most recent flavors of Windows and Macs, but not Linux. That's one way of saying that Windows 7 is not yet explicitly supported, according to the product description on the website. As far as Macs go, the Snow Leopard compatible version was only released in September 2009, so there is an indication that Windows 7 users may have to try their luck or wait for a bit longer. We downloaded version 6.2.8.0 for the Windows platform, the latest at the time of writing, and ran it on the venerable Windows XP demo system.

The impression of business focus is a little thrown by the demonstration package being made available in a zipped package. This seemed a little odd; surely a self-installer would have been a better bet? The zipped file contains a self-installer anyway and the amount of data saved is only two or three Mb out of a total of sixty-odd, so presumably it's not been done to speed up download times. The install asks for a license key but does point out clearly that you don't need one to trial the software, so you can click through and carry on.

 First Impressions

The screen that opens is certainly a busy one but anyone familiar with Office 2003 will recognize the toolbar layout and style. There is a task pane on the right hand side, the top half of which contains tabs for the various formatting options, with the lower half containing properties and notes. The top of the screen has the usual drop-down menu with two rows of toolbars underneath. Again many of the icons and drop down lists will be familiar to anyone who uses Microsoft Office, at least before the tabbed toolbar interface was introduced with Office 2007. Down the left hand side of the screen are two toolbars that contain the commands most frequently used when creating or modifying mind maps.

ConceptDraw Formatting
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 Tutorial 

The splash screen presented over the central workspace at startup offers a number of options with the tutorial highlighted in the middle. As we always like to see what software manufacturers are offering in the way of help for first time users, we plumped for the tutorial. Perhaps we have been spoilt by the interactive video training of iMindMap or the screencast movies of Compendium, but to be dropped into a Windows9x style help file was a little underwhelming. Having said that the tutorial is just that, a complete tutorial, taking you from novice level to a point where you have at least touched all the functionality of MINDMAP. The examples used along the way are a business plan, a conference report and then two planning exercises, so they are good real-life choices.

Very few other mind mapping packages have tutorials that encompass the use of mind maps for planning projects to this level, so this is good to see. It will benefit those experimenting with mind maps, with a view to using them rather than more traditional linear project planning tools. The other beneficial aspect of the tutorial is that it covers the essence of mind mapping itself rather than just the use of MINDMAP tools and features. This makes the whole experience more valuable for the first time mind map user and is more likely to engender loyalty. It's worth pointing out that the website has a number of videos and documents that show more advanced usage of mind maps, and using them in a variety of contexts, but the overall verdict for the tutorial has to be nice content, shame about the presentation.

ConceptDraw Sales Call
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Fast Track Mind Mapping

 It is well worth going through the tutorial because selecting 'Start to Mind Map' leaves you with a central node and little else. But, in common with most other mind map software programs, MINDMAP allows you to create mind maps from scratch using the keyboard. This is a boon for those of us who resent having to move their hand to find the mouse, move it and click something only to have to return to the keyboard again. Pressing the Enter key creates a new node at the current level and Insert creates one down one level. If you type ordinary alpha characters the program will interpret those as labels for the node, then pressing Enter will create the next node, the program auto-arranging them as you go.

This seemed a lot more intuitive than some other mind map programs' creation methods (FreeMind springs to mind as one that is a few degrees more obscure) but it took a while to get used to the labels appearing immediately and then another new topic being created when you press Enter. In software generally it is more natural for Enter to end the text editing mode so that you can then issue a command, so for a while there were lots of spurious new topics being created. But after those few false starts the method became second nature and mind maps were created quickly and easily.

ConceptDraw MindMap Tutorial
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Formatting Options

One of the underlying concepts of mind maps as learning tools is the ability to use different colors and shapes for sections of the map. This helps to fix the associations in the brain and the information in the map is better remembered and easier to recall accurately. Often this is counter-intuitive and first-time map creators will try and make their maps neat and regular. It takes a while to realize that a haphazard array of clashing colors, clip-art and links is more likely to work as a learning tool.

To this end MINDMAP has as many, if not more, different aspects to apply to topics and nodes as any other mind mapping package. The full Windows color palette is available as are all the additional options such as clipart, symbols, shapes and freehand drawing. Links can also be made, to URL's of course, but also to local documents and those on internal networks. Links can also be inserted to topics (nodes) in the same map, something that is very useful on complex and large scale maps. All these facilities are easy to apply as the relevant icons are available to you from the default screen layout. The icons are well thought out, making them intuitive to use. One feature that is present in MINDMAP and is fundamental to mind mapping (as described by Tony Buzan, who popularized the concept in the 1970's), is the option to place labels actually on the connecting lines between nodes. As far as we are aware at the moment the only other packages that can do this are FreeMind and the Buzan-backed iMindMap.

Handy Zoom

ConceptDraw Mindmap Zoom Feature
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Talking about links to other nodes within the same mind map, there is another facility which makes looking at large mind maps a lot easier and is unique to MINDMAP. Take a large map where the text is hard to read when the whole map is on screen than drag (left click) across the region you are interested in and hold for a second or so. MINDMAP will render an image of the selection area and present it in blown-up form until you release the left mouse button. Easy, slick and handy, this is one of the features you miss the most when using other mind mapping packages.

 Going back to the keyboard shortcuts the list is impressive and MINDMAP scores points for having an entry for keyboard shortcuts at the top level of the Help drop down menu. But those points are then thrown away because this points to a PDF file placed on your system when the software was installed. Compare this to XMind's immediate on screen pop-up and this is tediously slow. It has to be recognized that this does perhaps have more to do with Adobe's desire to cram more and more irrelevant functionality into Reader than any inefficiency of MINDMAP. If anyone could recommend a lightweight, reliable and comprehensive PDF reader we would be eternally grateful.  

Brainstorming with MINDMAP

ConceptDraw Brainstorming
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Having got to grips with the keyboard shortcuts and the straightforward method of constructing mind maps it is then time to look at brainstorming mode. This mode can be is used to quickly capture ideas, perhaps in a project or brainstorming meeting, a facility that XMind and a number of other mind mapping products provide. MINDMAP's version goes back to the basics of the brainstorming concept. Nearly every single item of the screen is removed, leaving a largely blank screen with a couple of boxes at the top. Brainstorming mode only allows text to be input so that the only interaction is to collect ideas can be collected, no matter how seemingly irrelevant or bizarre they are, and that's the whole point of a brainstorm. MINDMAP also, uniquely as far as we know, adds a countdown timer to put pressure on brainstorm attendees.

 While in brainstorming mode the spell check is active, but only if you use the mouse to click back into a topic. This is really useful, although it is against the essence of brainstorming, so it's perhaps best left until the end. Once the topic is exhausted or the timer runs out, spell check the topics, then click the 'Finish Brainstorming' button. You are returned to the main screen with the topics captured and ready to be reorganized into a full mind map. The topics are all 'floating'; i.e. there are no relationships in place, but topics can be grouped together then dragged to a main topic. They then instantly becoming sub-topics of that main topic and can be formatted and rearranged to suit.

ConceptDraw MindMap Brainstorm
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Integration with Other File Formats

Integration is a key strength of MINDMAP. Although CS Odessa have decided not to go down the route of providing simultaneous mind map editing, as Mindjet does, their products are very strong on import and export options, allowing mind maps to be integrated into an office or academic environment. Mind maps can be saved as various graphic formats, HTML and PDF, so that they can be shown to people who don't have MINDMAP on their systems. Mind maps can also be exported to MS PowerPoint (this is particularly slick) and MS Project formats, with RTF for those organizations not using Microsoft products.

CS Odessa are strong on providing the ability to export and import to and from the other software programs in the ConceptDraw family but they are also keen to tackle other formats. It should be noted that the 'Open in PROJECT' option in the File menu refers to ConceptDraw's project management tool, not the more widely used offering from Microsoft.

Exporting to the World

 Outline formats supported are Microsoft Office, Mac's iCal and OPML, the XML-based open outline markup language. Combine this with the ability to assign task-based properties to any node on a mind map and the usefulness of MINDMAP to project managers becomes clear. Starting with a brainstorm, all aspects of a project can be captured, organized in map mode, assigned times, owners and other resources, then exported to a project management program to produce a fully operable and updateable project file. At the same time exports to PowerPoint, using the provided templates, can quickly and easily produce presentations to deliver to management and colleagues. There is a choice of exporting as an outline or a slide show and both options work very well.

MindMap Collapsing
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 The most unexpected export option is to an iPod. This allows a graphic picture of the mind map, the notes and an outline to be copied directly to a connected iPod. It's an odd option to pursue but perhaps iPods are more likely to be used in the academic world as they aren't particularly favored as business productivity tools. There is also a desktop plug-in to allow the use of Google search on MINDMAP files on your computer or local network.

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Conclusions

There's no denying that ConceptDraw's MINDMAP is a well engineered and stable product. There are some rough edges, particularly in the help which lags slightly behind the program and has some odd phraseology. This also affects the website but not to such an extent as, for example, XMind. There's no free version, CS Odessa operates a traditional model where the package is available fully operational for a one month trial. After that you have to buy it at rates comparable to other commercial software packages (£139/ €169 at the time of going to press), with bulk deals available to corporate and academic users.

In a world where free mind mapping software is available, although not as robust and feature packed as MINDMAP, business users might well be more likely to pay for the breadth of functionality offered by ConceptDraw MINDMAP.

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