Thursday, June 19, 2008
Collaboration Comes To MindManager
One last post about mind maps and we'll move on, I promise! :-)
It's no secret that I am a big fan of visual mapping techniques. Mind maps allow you to capture, quantify and organize information in ways that mirror how our brains actually work. They allow you to see beyond simple linear lists to understand relationships between ideas. While traditional mind mapping as developed by Tony Buzan utilizes paper and colored markers, pencils, crayons, etc., the sheer amount of information we deal with as information technology professionals and indeed the medium we work in make electronic mind maps much more compelling. While there are many choices of mind mapping software, my tool of choice is the outstanding MindManager Pro 7 from Mindjet.
MindManager puts the power of mind mapping at your fingertips. I've been using MindManager for a few years now, but I think that MM7 is a big leap forward. Mindjet has done a great job of continuing to progress the tool with each release and the move to version 7 has been no different. I love that I can be productive with the software using the keyboard or the mouse, depending on my desired work mode at the time. It has a lot of powerful features that obviously couldn't exist in a paper-based map, such as task tracking, filtering, integration with Microsoft Office (I know...we need to get them to support Lotus Symphony!), the ability to interact with a map in presentation mode, and many more. MindManager allows the user to very quickly generate maps, certainly much faster than most of us could build a paper map. While the default styles aren't highly artistic, they are perfect for use in the business environment where people tend to be more conservative. That doesn't mean that MindManager can't produce stunning maps. Quite the contrary...the formatting features are plentiful and allow the user to produce very attractive maps with minimal effort.
I'm a big believer in getting your hands dirty in order to truly understand something, so rather than hearing me go on and on about features, I encourage you to check out the Mindjet site and download the free trial version of the software. With a little practice, I think you'll find the ideas of mind mapping to be truly compelling. To get an idea of the kinds of maps people use in the everyday world, check out the Map Gallery.
Before you go, there are a couple of major innovations in MindManager that I want to tell you about. The first is the fluid UI or Ribbon, introduced in the new line of Microsoft Office products. The second is the addition of collaborative and web functionality that is sure to see adoption of MindManager increase.
Let's talk about the collaborative stuff first. Actually just introduced yesterday, Mindjet Connect provides users with the ability to create shared workspaces in which they can share their mind maps and work on them collaboratively with a team of people. The collaboration features include real-time team editing, chat functionality and instant meetings. While I would have loved to see these features as integration points into the Lotus suite of products, just the fact that Mindjet has recognized the need to enable better collaboration is a plus. As part of Mindjet Connect, a slimmed down web-based version of MindManager is available, bringing the major functional points of the software to a browser near you. I look forward to playing with these tools more in the future, but for now I have to say congratulation to Mindjet for the new evolution in mind mapping software.
Now...on to the Ribbon fluid user interface. Although I had read a lot about it, I had not had an opportunity to actually use it until I installed MindManager Pro 7. I tried to approach the new UI with an open mind, as I heard cheers and jeers from both camps...those who loved it and those who hated it. For me, I was immediately enamored by the new way of working. The fact that the multiple layers of drop down menus were now gone seemed to immediately improve my productivity.
Basically, I see the Ribbon UI as a hybrid between the menuing system, tabbed dialogs and the toolbar, but one that is far easier to use than all three metaphors combined. I think that the way related commands are logically grouped together helps speed recognition and the fact that the more frequently used features are larger in scale allows me to target them much faster with the mouse. Another benefit of the Ribbon UI over the traditional toolbar or drop down menu is the fact that the full text of each function is readily visible. Thus, I don't have to worry about memorizing which icon is which or spend my time hovering over the toolbar icon waiting for the popup text to confirm that I've selected the correct option. All of these features are immediate productivity enhancements for me.
I find the fact that the Ribbon is contextual to be very powerful. Elements change, become grayed out or become active based on what I'm actually doing at that moment. In addition, I find that I am saving time by using the Ribbon instead of choosing between right-clicking an element, going to the menus or using the toolbar. I'm not sure if the Ribbon in the Microsoft products work the same way, but I really love the fact that many of the options exposed by clicking on an element in the Ribbon bring up a little submenu that uses pictures. For example, it's easier to select boundary shapes now than in past versions of MindManager, since I can click the Boundary Shape element in the Ribbon and I get a visual representation of all the types.
While it appears that the Ribbon takes more screen real estate than standard toolbars, it still seems reasonable. I actually like the slightly bigger size as it makes it easier to click the appropriate option. A bonus is that you can easily hide the Ribbon completely by double-clicking the menu area of the Ribbon. The options are still only a click away and this allows you to free up the area if you're working on a big map. Since MindManager allows you to so easily move from place to place on a map, however, this hasn't been an issue for me, so I just leave the Ribbon visible at all times.
When I opened the program for the first time, there was probably a minute or two of confusion as I couldn't see any File menu. Then I realized that the big "MindManager Button" replaced this menu. It didn't just replace it, though...it pumped it up several levels. It leverages the same mental model as the Start button in Windows and the fact that it is large and in the corner makes it very easy to acquire (a great example of Fitt's Law). I love, love, love the fact that it is divided into two "panes", one showing the traditional options (New, Open, Save, etc.) and the other changing context based on the option I'm hovering over. It's a very intelligent system and just immediately made perfect sense to me. If I'm hovering over the "Open" command, it shows me a list of my most recent documents. If I'm hovering over "Export", it gives me an easy to read and understand list of my export options. This is really nice...thumbs up for this functionality.
Overall, I find the Ribbon UI to be a big leap forward in the user interface of MindManager. It is similar enough to the standard concepts we are used to in most commercial software, but it has improved the user experience in such a way that I feel I am now more proficient with the software and can perform certain tasks faster than I could before. Although sometimes change is hard, I would encourage anyone hesitating about upgrading because of the new UI to give it a try and allow yourself a little time to get used to the Ribbon. It is a great interface concept and I think most people will come to appreciate it.
If you've stayed around this far, then it's either for my highly engaging and witty writing style ;-) or because you are truly interested in the ideas of visual mapping. If it's the latter (which I hope), then please check out MindManager and let me know what you think. I'd love to hear your feedback and I'd be glad to offer any pointers or assistance as you explore this new path.