When You're Lost in Thought, Use a Mind Map to Find Your Way


Sometimes, I just need someone — or something, like a deadline — to push me off a cliff to get me moving on  a project when I'm stuck for fresh ideas. It doesn't help that I also tend to be lazy and a procrastinator. What I really would like is to be able to organize my thoughts in a way that will make me more creative without having to zap my brain with a Taser gun. That's what got me looking into mind mapping, a brainstorming tool.

Mind mapping is the process of diagramming the words, ideas and tasks bouncing between your ears and corralling them in a way that makes sense to you. To write a round up of apps like this one, for example, would begin with my using AppCraver as a hub. From the hub would radiate the titles of mind mapping apps. Branching off each title would be attributes such as features, benefits, price. Think of it as free thinking within a structure.

iBlue Sky, from Tenero Software, is among the most popular mind-mapping apps in the App Store. It's easy to drop your ideas and topics into colored-coded bubbles and edit and rearrange them. When you're done, you can email them to a colleague or friend. What I didn't care for about this app was its utter lack of help documentation. Oh sure, it's intuitive enough, but there were a few things I tried to do and found out later they were not among the app's features. There's a video on the company's Web site so you can see iBlue Sky in action.

Mind Maker, from Ultravague, doesn't sound like it would be much of an app with a company name like that, does it? It's similar in many ways to iBlue Sky, except Mind Maker lacks the ability to email a map. Instead you have to upload/download maps from its Web site. In the plus column, Mind Maker features the ability to export files in OPML and Freemind formats (common mind mapping and outliner formats) and features online backup so you can access your files. You can bookmark the page or email the map's link from within the app. However, when I tried to upload files, I received a "URL not found" error message. I don't know if that's a temporary or permanent issue, so Mind Maker might not be the right app for you. This app also lacks adequate help documentation.

iThoughts, from CMS, features the same capabilities as iBlue Sky and Mind Maker. That is, you can create bubbles, fill them with key words, move the bubbles around and so forth. It too exports to OPML and Freemind. The difference is that iThoughts doesn't use a Web site to upload/download maps. Instead, it transfers the maps to/from your iPhone over Wi-Fi, which can be more secure than using a Web site for storage. You can also add icons to your bubbles to prioritize them or flag them for immediate follow up. Overall, I found this app easiest to use and it had features to customize each bubble the others lacked. A significant advantage of this app is that you can upload/download files over your network to your desktop where you can use Freemind, an open-source desktop app to work on the maps you created on your iPhone or to create maps on your desktop and load them into your iPhone. Last, you can email your maps. Great stuff.

ThinkDigits, from Ignited Software, provides similar features as some of the other mind mapping apps I looked at but with one huge difference: ThinkDigits is mind-mapping for numbers. Think of it as a flexible, but graphical spreadsheet. If you wanted to map a server you were planning to build, for example, you would start with "Server" as your core. From there, your branches would would be "Amount of RAM," "Hard Drive Storage," "Front Side Speed" and so on. Then you would tie those things to a budget. Changing one item would affect the overall cost, so you could play "what if," with your data. It's the only one of these apps that came with a comprehensive tutorial too. You can also check it out a YouTube video.

For my money, I'd go with iThoughts. I found it flexible, intuitive and more capable than the rest. The ability to upload maps over Wi-Fi to Freehand--perhaps the best desktop mind mapping app available--is just too compelling to ignore.

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  • Rick

    Thanks for your reviews Michael!

    Perfect timing. Just got into mindmaps and was looking for something I could use on the train. I picked up iThoughts based on your review and overall I'm very happy with it. Amazing what can be done on the iphone with it!

    Something about the workflow still bugging me a bit though (it's probably more me getting used to it than a real problem with the app) but I find that I manage to hit "done" more than I'd like and end up back at the file listing when I didn't intend to.

    Even so, a fantastic app!

    Thanks again!


  • http://editorialengine.com Michael Alexander

    Hi Rich,

    I appreciate the comment. Don't forget to take a look at Freemind, the open-source (i.e. free) mind mapping tool. I've been experimenting with it lately it's crazy just what you can do with it. The user interface is old-fashioned but so far, it works well for me.

  • http://www.xmind.net stephen

    we offer another open source mindmapping tool --- XMind 3. It's a eclipse-based and written by java, and has ability to run on Windows, Mac, and Ubuntu.

  • Peter

    Thanks for writing this.

    iThoughts it will be.

    Typo in last paragraph: Freehand should be Freemind

  • http://mymind.anotherview.eu AnotherView

    You might want to check myMind, it's our iPhone mindmapping application packed full with goodies, like instant topic creation, full drag & drop and map styles.
    Beside these, we added a killer feature to browse big maps at ease, a radar map where you see all topics' position in real-time.
    You can visit http://mymind.anotherview.eu to see it live.