Mind maps are a useful way to both record and display information. While studying for university courses, I’ve found it useful to use pencil and paper and to out the concepts and relationships. While drawing out on paper works well initially, it’s all too easy to run off the edge of the page, requiring an adjacent page or a redrawing. I also like to electronically preserve my diagrams for later reference, or use in other documents such as reports or presentations. This started my search for options in the way of mind mapping software.
I finally settled on XMind. It has a free option with a limited but functional feature set. There are also two paid tiers, Plus and Pro, each of which add features to the lower level. XMind indicates that the Pro license is the most popular. The paid licenses are not what I’d call cheap (especially on a student budget) but XMind offers generous discounts at both levels. I paid for the Pro license noticeably less than the full price (sometimes it’s nice to be a student :D).
The current version, as of this writing, is XMind 2013, released in November 2013.
XMind is primarily intended to be installed before use. However there is a portable version available which does not require installation. I’ve been able to keep this on a USB stick so I can use XMind on school computers, which have nice big monitors.
XMind includes templates for numerous common diagram types – it isn’t limited to just mind maps, but can support numerous similar diagrams.
Also included are several themes, which appear to just be cosmetic dressing. I suppose that if one spends a lot of time in this software, it might as well look pleasing to the eye.
There is a range of markers that can be added to a diagram; these markers include priority numbers, progress indicators, flags, stars, arrows, months, and days.
The ability to export diagrams comes in at the Plus level (and is also included at the Pro level). There are numerous output file types available. I can see the utility in exporting a mind map containing research to a document for further use. The ability to export to SVG is especially welcome, as the resulting image can be resized without quality loss when used in other documents or programs.
One of my current courses recently had a guest speaker presenting on the use of big data in health care. He was presenting remotely, via the teacher’s computer, and was himself using mind map software to overview the topics and delve into them one by one. I decided that instead of just taking standard notes, I would also replicate the diagram using XMind. I’m glad I did because it’s much easier to later recount the presentation structure with a visual representation than with just notes alone.
This next example shows a diagram for which I could have used the XMind years ago. When starting university, I had to review my required courses list and determine their prerequisites, and any prerequisites thereof, so I could plan out when I would be taking which course. My initial attempt was in Excel for some reason – probably for organizing by term and then by course. In this diagram, I divided the data by year and then term. For each term, courses within the term were followed by prerequisite courses.
Admittedly, this is an after the fact representation as I am almost done my degree, but the diagram does show how such a tool can be used to organize structured and related information.
The diagram above only shows my fourth-year courses; there’s also a full version available which shows everything. There’s some repetition among the prerequisites – some courses were prerequisite for more than one later course.
There’s a learning curve to XMind, but I think a fairly short one. Once the interactions are figured out, including keyboard shortcuts, building diagrams is pretty easy. The useful features, including export, templates, and markers give this tool a good level of utility. The price is reasonable, especially if one can get a student discount.
The bottom line: I recommend XMind as a general diagramming tool, and especially for mind mapping purposes.