Sometimes they're called brainstorming tools; other times they're called mind-mapping apps. Whatever you call them, this genre of software helps your business generate, execute, and share creative ideas and business strategies with colleagues and clients.
Mind maps, which bear a passing resemblance to flowcharts or org charts, generally launch from a central topic and then branch out into related subtopics, or nodes. Depending on the scope of your project, each node could spawn a mind map of its own.
Why use a mind mapper?
These apps emphasize ideation, thought process, concepts and relationships. They can be text-focused packages that resemble traditional whiteboards, or visual apps that let you conceive, track, connect, and systematize ideas in colorful trees, linked diagrams, or flowcharts.
For notetakers, mind maps help you visualize the relationships between concepts and uncover topic depth and permutation. Mind mapping is often superior to outlining for brainstorming, as it allows you to relate concepts in a more creative and ad hoc way. For problem-solvers, mind maps let you analyze aspects of your issue visually to discover and evolve alternative solutions. Those who seek task and project management tools can benefit from mind mapping because it lets you observe and analyze your tasks from a different perspective. You can even use a mind map to envision, set goals or plan a project for the future – or use it for anything else you can think of.
What to look for
If you are scouting around for the best mind-mapping app, here are some things to consider.
Interface – Your mind map software should be pleasing to the eye, as that encourages more productivity, use and thought process. Looks aren't everything, but they do count for something in an inherently visual app.
Ease of use – You shouldn't have to read a manual to get started with a mind mapper. Some basic instructions should suffice, or you can just jump in and learn by trial and error. If a brainstorming tool is too complex and requires too many steps to accomplish something simple, then it's kind of a drag. Make sure your software is intuitive.
Price – Apps range from free mobile or online versions to desktop apps for which you can purchase a license at various levels. Buy what you need, because most mind management apps for small companies are reasonably priced.
Interoperability – If you're planning to work on the go, make sure you can tote your mind map with you and adjust it anywhere, anytime. You should be able to start a mind map on the desktop and then resume working on it on your mobile device. If you want to hand off the mind map to another document or different software package, make sure it has enough import and export options to do that.
Coggle is an online mind mapper that you can use in any desktop or mobile browser. You must first create an account and log in with Google, and then you can get started creating colorful diagrams immediately. The free version gives you three private diagrams, unlimited public diagrams, more than 1,600 specially designed icons, unlimited image uploads, the ability to auto-arrange branches and more. The Awesome and Organization versions are available for $5 and $8 per month respectively, adding advanced features like chat history, high-resolution image uploads, collaboration, multiple start points, bulk export, user and data management, and branded diagrams.
With XMind, you never have to worry about being confronted by a blank screen. Available for Mac, Windows and iOS, the software gets you up and running immediately with a collection of themes for you to choose from and modify with your own data. The app features advanced rendering coupled with a library of original stickers to make your diagram look intriguing.
Markdown support offers easy text formatting. Zen mode lets you automatically hide extra panels, helping you concentrate on mapping. Saving your maps as vector PDF files lets you enlarge and print the map – or you can share the map directly to Evernote. The Zen desktop version costs $27.99 for six months, and if you add the iOS companion app, the cost rises to $29.99 for six months. The iOS version alone is $9.99 for six months. Xmind 8 Pro adds Gantt chart and presentation features for $129.
While Mindomo is purposely targeted to teachers and students, the simplicity and logic of its operation make it ideal for small businesses too. The app features unlimited mind maps and task maps, online storage, integration with Dropbox and Google Drive, embedded audio and video, password protection, auto-sync with iOS and Android apps, and up to 12 import and export formats. Concept maps and outlines are deep and detailed, helping small businesses gather and analyze information.
Available on all desktop and mobile platforms, Mindomo's free version gives you three maps, which include collaboration, email notifications, mobile apps, an RSS feed of your changes, presenter mode, icon and image galleries, chat, and more. Premium, Professional and Team versions (for 5-100 users) are available for $36, $90 and $142 per six months respectively. Paid versions offer guest user and editing capabilities, as well as multiple users, a team interface and team folder. All data is encrypted and backed up daily. Mobile apps are free.
Lucidchart makes it very easy to jump right in and create a new mind map with built-in sample maps that let you start almost immediately with the app's drag-and-drop interface. Business can use it for flowcharts, org charts, data-flow diagrams, business process maps and more. Since it's an HTML5 web app, you never have to worry about installing or updating, because you'll always have the most recent version – and you never have to install Flash.
Lucidchart supports group chat and comments, revision history, and embedded documents (in a wiki, website or blog). It integrates with Google Apps and Drive, Jira, Confluence, Visio and more. The app encrypts and backs up your data and stores it in secure data centers. Lucidchart offers a Home, Pro and Team version for $4.95, $9.95 and $27.95 per month when billed annually. Month-to-month subscriptions cost slightly more.
This desktop software for Mac and Windows offers a palette for your visual and creative thought process. Different map views – Brainstorm, Time Map, Fast Capsule, Organizational Chart, Presentation and the new Radial Map – are available, depending on your project. A highly detailed side panel lets you choose graphic elements like line color and width, font face and size, and central images. You can preview and play a variety of multimedia files in a pop-up window from within the app.
The new split screen lets you work across two views simultaneously, while a flowchart feature lets you organize your information. You can transform branches into tasks, complete with real-time collaboration. It even has a 3D mode that lets you see your map at all angles. iMindMap comes in Home & Student, Ultimate, and Ultimate Plus+ versions for $100, $235 and $310 respectively.
MindNode for Mac and iOS is one of the easiest and most intuitive apps to dump the contents of your brain into. Anything you can think of that relates to your topic, even just peripherally, can be included in your mind map via the Quick Entry feature. Smart Layout ensures that all your ideas – in words, images, links, tasks or notes – are properly placed and legible, letting you make the conceptual connections you want while maintaining flexibility with a drag-and-drop interface. You can add styles to text and nodes and use built-in layouts and themes to immediately visualize complex information.
You can work either on the desktop or in the iOS companion app, as sharing and syncing with iCloud Drive lets you access your documents on all your devices. MindNode also supports import and export for a variety of document formats. You can also choose to upload an interactive version of your documents to the company's servers. The app is $39.99, with a free two-week trial version.
The web and iPad Popplet app is simple and fun for schoolkids and business folk alike. Small businesses will appreciate Popplet's assistance in brainstorming, project planning, idea generation and notetaking. Idea cells called popplets let you name a topic, color-code it, adjust its text size, draw or add an image, and move it around the board.
When you sign in to Popplet, you see some existing examples that you can use as models, but you can freestyle your own just as easily. You must first sign in with your email account to use the app and must also enable Flash (the Chrome browser seems to work best). Popplet's free plan offers 10 popples. A monthly plan for unlimited popples costs $3 per month; a yearly plan costs $30.
An attractive and intuitive mind mapper, MindMeister stands out for its ease of use and flexibility. The web app comes with major template categories for general business, education, entertainment, productivity and technology, and it offers immediate business-oriented charts for Brainstorming, Project Plan, Org Chart and more. MindMeister appeals to virtually any kind of business, and a series of short tutorials built into the interface gets you up and running quickly.
A free version lets you share, collaborate and import up to three mind maps. The Personal, Pro and Business versions are available for $4.99, $8.25 and $12.49 per month respectively, offering features like unlimited mind maps, file and image management, PDF and PowerPoint export, teams and admins, and custom styles and themes.
Some small companies like their mind maps super simple, while others love the detail of delving deeply into their brainstorming plans to tease out a variety of options and outcomes. MindManager for Windows and Mac is a high-end, multifeatured mind mapper that streamlines the complexity of your chosen task by providing map templates to get you started. You can use MindManager for creative problem-solving, productivity, information, knowledge, task and product management, and business planning, dressing up your map with graphic and media elements. The HTML5 export feature lets you share maps both inside and outside of the company.
The disparity in pricing between the Windows ($349) and Mac ($179) licenses reflects the differences in feature depth between the two platforms: The Mac version has fewer Integration & Sharing, Presentation, and Dashboard features. While the Windows version has more features, both work well for any size of business, including enterprises.