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Methodologies & Frameworks
What Is Mind Mapping? (+ How To Do It & Best Software)

Have you ever had one of those moments when your mind is racing over a project and won’t let you sleep? Mind mapping is a visual tool that will not only help you stop that racing mind, but help you both express your ideas to your project team and gather ideas from them! 

In this article, I’ll cover:

What Is Mind Mapping?

In a nutshell, mind mapping is a method to map out all that great stuff that wanders around in your head, which your brain naturally tries to make sense of or look for patterns in.

It is a technique to document, share, and make sense of all that noise while also building relationships between the different thoughts. This is a key tool that can be used in facilitating brainstorming sessions among teams. That said, mind mapping can also be used individually.

While it's been around since the time of Aristotle—it was used by Porphyry of Tyre in the 3rd century to map out categories of Aristotle—it was more recently popularized in the 1970s, and remains a great tool in the facilitator's toolkit for visual and creative thinking.

Simplistically, it is a diagram that kinda looks like a tree:

generic mind map example screenshot
A generic mind map example.

For creating this I’ve used Miro’s Mind Mapping template—more information about it here.

At the center is the concept, problem, or idea to be discussed and then from that center or trunk, the branches and nodes extend. From each branch are subsequent branches which build on the previous branch to communicate finer and finer details. 

For example this could be what the start of a mind map for a problem or idea looks like: 

mind map for a problem screenshot
A mind map focusing on a problem or idea, with ideas for solutions on one side and issues being caused on the other.

You can see in this example that the branches come out from the central problem or idea and then the nodes build off of individual branches. These can start off really simple, but you can then build them to something way more complex:

complex mind maps graphic
A sample complex mind map.

The Purpose Of Mind Mapping

In our digital project management world, mind mapping is a great tool or technique to map out ideas and relationships, particularly related to developing requirements with clients in brainstorming activities and problem-solving.

The goal is to build a visual representation of the discussion and the associated relationships around the central theme (the problem or idea). Visual models such as mind maps really help teams collaborate effectively together in a meeting, and these models are much better at capturing relationships between ideas than simple text in a document. 

Learn more about the benefits of mind mapping here.

Mind Mapping Examples

Let's go through three case studies to better understand when and how to use mind mapping.

  • Brainstorming: a great way to flesh out vague requirements into more meaningful details
  • Problem solving: a great way to work out what the root cause of the problem is and better scope the problem
  • Visual thinking: a great way to get those ideas out of your head and into a structure so you can explain them to someone else

Brainstorming

A scenario I’ve run into multiple times, particularly in projects that involve designing and building digital assets, is one where we need to design a particular page with very vague requirements from the client. Let's say it's a sales page. 

We know that key elements of a sales page are:

  • Headline
  • Copy
  • Interesting graphic or video
  • Call to Action
  • Lead Capture Form

What you would do with the mind map is: put the type of sales page in the center of the map, with five branches—one for each of the above key elements. You would start with something that looks like this: 

brainstorms mind map screenshot
A brainstorm mind map around a sales page for “Product A.”

Then have the team—possibly with the client—build out further branches off of the 5 core branches to create the associated content for each one. You may want to even have alternative options within the main branches that can then be evaluated or selected from. 

Problem Solving

In our second scenario, problem solving, an example that readily comes to mind is presenting a web page to a client and then having them decide it doesn’t work. The problem is that they haven’t given you specific feedback that is helpful in the redesign. What you’ll need to do is understand what the problem with the page really is. 

To use a mind map in this scenario, start out with some of the standard elements of the page; things like the headline, navigation, etc. Then you’ll want to have the input from the team on what additional branches of the issue could be—softer or less specific elements such as look and feel, or more specific sub-branches, such as the headline being too big or too little. 

These may not always be specific enough to know what to do (at least without confirmation from the client) but it will help paint a picture of where the issues are. This would result in a mind map that could look like:

mind map for solving a problem screenshot
An example mind map for solving the problem of vague and unhelpful feedback.

From there, your team can select which elements to work on to redraft the home page. 

Visual Thinking

I find this to be a great tool to ‘unravel’ an idea that is noodling around in my head—so this example is about working through something independently. Mind maps can be a great way to help you get a good night's sleep. Draw the trunk and a couple of branches out and go back to bed! 

One example that might wake you up or make it hard to go to sleep: finding a new project management job! Here’s what it could look like: 

mind map for organizing thoughts screenshot
It can often help to organize your thoughts visually using a mind map.

How To Get Started With Mind Mapping

Start with the central idea or main idea—this is the ‘trunk’ of the mind map. Don’t forget you’re building a tree that will have multiple limbs and branches. Don’t make this complicated. Pick a couple of keywords—one noun and one verb are sufficient to describe the central idea.

Then have each person (if you’re working with your team) add a related idea to that central trunk. Ensure you get one new idea per person, to make sure everyone participates and is heard in the brainstorming session. This is also why you don’t want to do this with groups larger than about 6 people—you’ll want to make sure you have the right people in the room helping you build your mindmap! 

In order to produce a tree that is not unwieldy and overly complicated, have the group work individually or in small groups to build the sub-branches of the mind map. Each of these sub-branches should directly relate to the ‘branch’ before it. 

What Is Mind Mapping Software?

Mind mapping software allows you to create mind maps online (and often collaboratively with your team). 

Be aware that when you’re looking for mind map software you probably want it to be capable of doing multiple types of diagramming. Think about other diagrams that you frequently use for your digital projects—things like storyboards, concept maps, spider diagrams, process flow diagrams, and wireframes. Make sure the mind mapping tool does these things well too! 

In the use cases we discussed above, you will likely want to create lots of different mind maps—and a large volume of them—but probably not with tons of complexity. I would recommend finding a tool that has multiple diagramming possibilities and also multiple ways to output your results so you can share them with your team and your clients. 

Here are some of the best mind map maker options on the market today:

  1. Whimsical

    Best for real-time mind map collaboration

  2. Lucidspark

    Best virtual whiteboard for mind mapping and collaboration

  3. Miro

    Best mind mapping with built-in communication tools

  4. Invision

    Best design template library

  5. Creately

    Free mind mapping software with ULM diagram templates, task management tools, & real time collaboration features. Unlimited mind maps on any paid plan.

  6. Mindomo

    Simple concept mapping tool with a key feature being their user-friendly, omni-platform experience across cloud, desktop, Android, & iOS.

  7. Ayoa

    Best all-in-one mind mapping and task management tool

  8. MindMeister

    Best mind mapping software for business

  9. MindGenius

    Best simple mind mapping software

  10. Microsoft Visio

    Best mind mapping software for Microsoft users

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You can read the full reviews of the tools on our list here.

Where To Go Next

Do you want to learn more about not just mind mapping, but about other great collaborative facilitation and brainstorming tips? Subscribe to the DPM newsletter where we’ll be exploring more great tools and techniques. Stay tuned for affinity diagrams, decision tools, and process mapping blog entries!

Don't miss my facilitation workshop, where I discussed facilitating group discussions, advancing project goals, and encouraging team participation (all in Miro!).

By Annie MacLeod

Annie MacLeod has a real passion for ensuring that her clients are successful, both personally and professionally. She began her project management career in the tech sector in the 80s and started her own consulting firm almost 25 years ago. More recently she has become a Miro Expert and is an evangelist for harnessing the power of collaboration in project teams. She has facilitated hundreds, if not thousands, of brainstorming and team collaboration workshops over the last 30 years.

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