Mind Maps – A Love Story

It’s a tacky title I know, but what is really tacky is that it’s true. Over the last few months I have used Mind Maps for such a wide variety of situations, that I thought it deserved its own blog post.

I have found Mind Maps to be an extremely versatile visualization technique, helping me capture and clarify information.  Through the presentation of disparate information objects on one screen, connections between those objects present themselves naturally. I have personally found it also promotes creative thinking.  Because the maps removes the notion of a list or paragraph of text, it instead encourages your brain to not only make connections, but also to think ahead, imagining new and different threads growing from the connected or unconnected objects.

Here are some examples of the scenarios when I have used Mind Maps.

Requirements meetings

This is a BA blog so requirements are the most natural place to start. I have used the Mind Map tool to capture notes in a meeting on requirements and have found it to be very effective. By creating a node for each requirement stemming from a central node of a theme or screen, the notes and comments build around the requirements nodes very naturally and you start to quickly see questions and dependencies between requirements.   Using the relationship arrows, references to previous points can be quickly made, and those relationships jump out at you because of the presentation style of your notes. Also little features such as adding Priority and Star icons let you markup your notes effectively so they can be efficiently acted upon later.

Brainstorming

This is the classic application of this tool. The quick way that nodes can be created, manipulated and connected is perfect for a session where you need to come up with a new idea or creatively work your way out of a situation or dead end. There is a throw-away and casual nature to recording information on a Mind Map.  It feels flexible and malleable, and more of a marker for further discussion. Noting down something on a list creates a more static representation of the information, and, to me anyway, constricts my thinking on topic.

Brainstorm
Brainstorm

Workflows – States & Transitions

This was a surprising application of the tool, and I cannot take credit for it either. A colleague was trying to get his head around the workflow and accompanying states and transitions for a touch screen Silverlight application our team had developed.  There was a bug and it could not be nailed down and we needed some way of seeing the steps on the UI and the behind the scenes associations to methodically track down the problem.   Using the mind map tool, combining the structure templates provided to arrive at a fluid and effective visual representation of the workflow.  It was a more “folksy” or ad-hoc approach to a formal UML activity diagram in Visio, but was immediately understandable and allowed everyone on the team to contribute to solving the problem, whether they are tech minded or not. Since then I have used the same method for a Site Map that also showed a fields and associations. I plan to write another blog post on the discussion this raised for me about when to use formal diagramming techniques vs. whatever technique transmits the information most effectively to the average person.

States & Transitions Mind Map
States & Transitions

Problem Solving

Finally, I have used mind maps to flesh out ideas or to start solving problems that are rattling around inside my head. One of my idiosyncrasies is that I am a verbal problem solver, by saying something out loud I start to understand the problem better and so more often than not arrive a solution at that very point of verbalizing.  But for those times when talking out loud is not possible, I have used mind maps as a way to quickly right down the key ideas and connect and move them around, and the results have been very similar.  It gets those problems out of my head and allows easy manipulation which often allows the answer to present itself.

So what mind map tool(s) are you using I hear you cry? Well just one has been enough, and the good news is it is free!  Check out XMind (http://www.xmind.net/).

You can also try these options listed in the Wikipedia entry on Mind Map Software.

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Mind Maps – A Love Story