Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Software Evaluation Synopsis

The tables below summarize my evaluation of the mindmapping software that I chose to assess and that I described in the previous blogs. It's qualitative, my own impressions during the testing of various aspects of the software. A quantitative analysis would have required a more rigorous testing regime, but I'm not convinced the end results would necessarily have been any different. A quantitative analysis would have removed any personal bias; but what I have found over this past year is that choosing and using mindmapping software "is a personal thing" --- if the software doesn't "feel right", it doesn't matter how many features it has.
Software features were rated on a scale of 0 to 5, zero meaning the feature did not exist and 5 meaning the software at least met my expectations and usually exceeded them.
The following images were taken from an Excel spreadsheet, where I had added comments to many cells. I've summarized a few of the comments below.


Under System Requirements, only FreeMind required Java.
Licensing options can affect pricing significantly: at the time, FreeMind and MindMapper offered only one version, ConceptDraw and Mind Manager offered personal and professional versions, and only MindGenius offered an additional educational version.
I have found page breaks to be very useful in dividing a map into decent readable chunks. MindGenius excels in this regard; however, ConceptDraw does offer its own option of breaking a map into smaller maps that are all maintained within the same instance or file.

MindMapper, Mind Manager and MindGenius offered a presentation screen option, which is useful because additional software, such as Powerpoint, then may not be required.
When it came to principles and elements of design, MindMapper and ConceptDraw were much more flexible and offered the best options.
The two most expensive packages offered the least functionality in regard to branch movement: it was only applied to Level 1 branches. ConceptDraw's branch movement functionality was essentially limitless.

I found the inability to add more than one attachment link to a branch in ConceptDraw to be a disappointment. There was a workaround but it cluttered up the map.
On the other hand, I found the inability to group or link multiple branches, using graphic symbols such as "}" or "]", with a descriptive note, to be equally disappointing in Mind Manager and MindGenius. Considering the cost of these two software packages, this feature and many other frills that are available in less expensive software, should be standard attributes in these two packages.
An interesting aspect of map layout exists only with MindMapper (a later version than the one I tested): multiple main topics. This could be quite useful in some situations (e.g., comparative analysis).
I use the note option extensively, but only ConceptDraw and Mind Manager offered a large enough mouseover window to my liking; it grows with the text. MindGenius' mouseover window is woefully inadequate; that means the full notes window must be kept open, taking up valuable screen real estate. None of the software allows the mouseover window to be size-adjusted, which would be a nice feature.
Resouce allocations, categories and sorting of such, were primarily dedicated to the more expensive packages, which were more geared to business operations. Other than to check of their availability and see how they work, I didn't spend much time on these aspects, particularly resource allocations. For me, resource allocations is a minor "nice to have"; I have other obligatory corporate software to handle this function.
ConceptDraw was the only software that had a full-fledged, integrated, drawing option, which could be a real plus in some cases, especially if other drawing software is not available. ConceptDraw excels again in the availability of built-in drawing symbols and images.

The quality of Input/Output and Import/Export options are extremely important in most situations. Based on the work that I did, ConceptDraw, Mind Manager and Mind Genius appeared to rank equally. All the major options were present, and I used the .doc, .html, .ppt, .txt, .pdf, and image conversions. However, I didn't test all options thoroughly, only those that I knew I would use most frequently.
The most effective and practical presentations were available in Mind Manager and MindGenius.

After considerable use of my chosen software over the past year, I found one feature that I should have tested on all software: keyboard and mouse interactions. Put simply, everything that can be done with the mouse should be readily available on the keyboard and easy to use. Being addicted to the mouse after years of using Microsoft Office products, I find I'm constantly moving between the keyboard and mouse when creating a map. This slows the process and can become quite irritating. As far as I know, the software tested provides keyboard equivalents. But these should be evaluated for their practicality, and then learned. A friend of mine is mouse averse and can still finish work much faster than my dueling with the two devices can achieve.
In terms of feature availability, not one of the software packages met all my requirements. Purchasing more than one package was really not a practical solution. If I wanted all the features listed, I would have had to buy at least 3 and possibly 4 packages. However, in terms of usage, I found I quickly compromised and now use one package for almost all my work.
Selection in most cases will likely be based on a combination of technical capability and emotions. I gave up some major features that I would have liked to have had, in exchange for more flexibility in map design and functionality, and for software that felt right...for me. After a year of using this software, however, I'm still irritated about some deficiencies that I hope a new version will remedy.

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Saturday, November 04, 2006

Selecting Mind Mapping Software……

Ok, now we get into the really interesting side of this little exercise: trying to select just one program in this category to satisfy my selection criteria. All the software, except one, adhere to Buzan’s basic mind map design principles, although it may not be very obvious in some cases.

Variety of options is extensive and leads to a wide range of capabilities with this software. Some software is designed for basic personal uses, others are designed with business in mind. Some offer extensive export capabilities to word processors, spreadsheets, and presentation packages; others have built-in presentation capabilities and can stand alone. Others offer a collaboration option. And if it’s glitz and pizazz that is of interest, there’s a least one package in this mix that would be suitable.

Most of the software in this category will meet the demands of the criteria I laid out; however, the degree to which they meet the criteria varies considerably. If I just wanted some software to do some simple mind mapping, then I think any of these packages would suit me. But I was looking for software that would meet my criteria to the greatest degree possible. I ranked each criterion per program on a scale of 0 to 5, zero meanng the option or feature wasn’t available and 5 meaning the software offered exactly what I was looking for and often more. The ranking was subjective and qualitative. Despite the selection available, however, I did not find one software package that fully met all my demands; so I had to compromise.

When it came to trial testing software, I was able to select several packages that I thought might be satisfactory. Of those rejected, quite a number in the list were similar to Freemind, others were similar to MindMapper, and still others just did not have a very impressive website.

Freemind was the first mind mapping software that I found, so all other freeware was compared to it. I didn’t see significant differences and certainly not enough to warrant changing my selection.

As for Mind Mapper, it was the first trial software that I downloaded. Whenever, I looked at new software, I was comparing it to Mind Mapper and often found too many similarities to warrant changing my selection.

I eventually added three other, more expensive, packages: ConceptDraw MindMap Pro, MindManager Pro, and MindGenius Business.

Freemind really didn’t meet all my needs, but this didn’t surprise me. It’s quirky and has a certain simplicity to it. But it just doesn’t measure up to the quality of commercial software output. But if the software has only to provide brainstorming, party planning and to-do lists, then I think this software is more than adequate…..and let’s face it, it’s free.

I initially thought Mind Mapper would suit me, but it too lost some ground to the remaining three packages, once I started into a detailed comparison. Mind Mapper, on the other hand, had some features that I wanted but didn’t find on more expensive software.

While reading program reviews, either in the journals or on the internet, reviewers tend to give a feature by feature analysis of one specific software package at a time. It’s not often that one sees programs going head-to-head; and when this does happen, the comparisons are usually again based on feature availability, rather than performance.

Feature comparisons are necessary, but I also wanted to see how the software would perform in completing a typical map that I might want to create. This would not only give me an idea of how well each program could produce an expected map, but would also give me an idea of how the program performed in actually producing the map.

From my notes on the history of knowledge mapping, I constructed a mind map, using the five selected software packages. The objective was to produce the same map, as much as practically possible, using the basic formatting features of the software and not resorting to any convoluted manipulations. I wanted to be able to intuitively construct the maps, with minimal manual referencing. I moved back and forth between the five programs, tweaking the layouts, until the maps all had the same basic layout and format.

The five figures that follow depict the maps that I generated with each program. All the maps have the same basic format and the same tree-branch-twig structure. Differences lay in the additional features possible with some software, the look of the display, the feel of working with the software, the print and output capabilities, and the ease of map creation and manipulation.

I didn’t notice until after my software trial periods had run out that I had some minor detail discrepancies between the maps. However, these did not enter into the evaluation in any way.

Freemind
Freemind ranked lowest on my list with a score of 151. The end product was correct but it’s a basic map with a few icons. In terms of added features, however, the software can’t compete with the other programs. If it was basic maps that were of interest, then this program would have provided what I wanted at no cost. No scaling or local layout control were available, so one can’t tinker with the map layout.

There is no image capability; according to the literature, this is a noted weakness of the program. Controlling mouseovers and subsequent changes of focus was a little irritating; it took a combination of keyboard and mouse movements to maintain the focus so it didn’t keep hopping about. I’m not sure how this software would handle large maps that need to be split multiple times; I didn’t find an option for this.

Mind Mapper
SimTech Systems' Mind Mapper 4.5 Pro came in fourth at a score of 277. Based on the score, alone, I would have passed on the software; however, seeing the map it produced changed my mind. It was a surprisingly very good map on the first attempt. The program auto-adjusted as I added branches, twigs, images, re-formats, etc., always maintaining a clean display. Re-scaling was very easy. Local branch-twig layouts were possible, without using the ‘focus’ feature, something that only Mind Manager and MindGenius, could also do. I tend to produce very large maps, however, and as with Freemind, the ability to produce sub-maps did not appear to be possible with the software. As can be seen in the image, I also had a little difficulty sizing pictures that were imbedded in a branch.

One feature that was lacking in all the software tested was the ability to have more than one main topic with inter-linkages. However, version 5 of Mind Mapper has apparently added this option, which will make it more versatile.

ConceptDraw MindMap
CS Odessa's ConceptDraw MindMap 4 Pro came in third at 320. When I first started working with this program, I found it was the most flexible of all the programs in terms of layout control. It was the one program that allowed independent movement of all branches and levels. However, I couldn’t find the control optioin in the program to force auto-adjust as branch information was added, resulting in branch and text overlaps until the map was refreshed. Consequently, the map needed a lot of tweaking in order to arrange the image to match that of the other programs.

Local layout control was also lacking. Maybe this can be adjusted through options, but I didn’t find the solution. Graphics control, however, was excellent.

One feature that I really liked about this program was its ability to isolate separate branches or even whole maps, yet keep them within the same instance of the program. For large maps, this becomes very useful because the map can be broken down into independent sub-maps, but maintained within the same file, and one mouse-click takes you to any sub-map.

One drawback I found, however, was that only one attachment could be applied to each branch. This presented a problem when I tried to attach several web links and some files to a branch. I ended up creating multiple dummy branches, each containing one link, where one should have sufficed.

For branch variety, this program offered the most options for layout, colour and independent control. Consequently, it offers the greatest variety of map variations, far more than any other program reviewed.

On top of these features, this program was the only one reviewed that has a built in drawing program and an extensive option file of template adjustable symbols. Using this option, it’s possible to construct a concept map without actually using the mind mapping control within the program. But it also means that any mind map can be embellished internally much more so than maps generated by other programs.

Mind Manager
Mindjet’s MindManager Pro 6 came in at 321, which is essentially the same score as ConceptDraw Mindmap. This appears to be a nice, tight program that produces very clean, organized maps. It is so organized, in fact, that I had difficulty diverging from the basic pre-determined structure. I found this rigidity to be a drawback of the program; all map examples that I have seen on the internet also tend to look the same. Whether that is a characteristic of the program or the lack of imagination on the part of the user, I didn’t spend time investigating.

I’m surprised that, for a program as sophisticated and business-oriented as Mind Manager is, better control of map segregation wasn’t available. While a ‘focus’ feature may allow temporary isolation of a map segment, maps are often so large that linkages to a separate map would be preferable, without actually creating separate maps.

MindGenius
Gael’s MindGenius Business 2005 came in first at 354. MindGenius offered just about everything the other programs offered and more. It constantly auto-adjusted for additions. It allowed local branch layout control. Scaling and tweaking were easy. Image manipulation were easy and images maintained their proportions.

The program offered the widest variety of templates; and plenty of branch layout control was available, although not near to the degree that ConceptDraw MindMap offers.

The variety of import/export and I/O options available was probably the greatest with this program, although I didn’t test every option.

For large maps, page breaks could be inserted within the map to indicate where a branch segment would be printed on a new page. For very large maps, it was easier t link to another map, which would be brought up in a second instance of the program.

The ability of this software to produce several options for presentation material was an added feature that I had not initially considered. But MindGenius also came out near the top in satisfying this criterion; only Mind Manager might surpass it.

Priority setting, category selection, and associated sorting were big features of Mind Manager and MindGenius, as I’m sure resource allocation was also. From a business perspective, these would likely be of major interest, if the software were to be used for project management.

All the software in this category came with on-line documentation; however, MindGenius’ documentation was the most extensive and provided detailed examples of each major optional use for the software.


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Friday, November 03, 2006

Selecting Generic Concept Mapping Software……

Choosing software in the concept mapping category was relatively easy, despite the variety of available software in terms of structure, format, and developers’ ideas of what concept-mapping software should deliver. But most software in this category appear to do one, or perhaps a few, functions really well, but not necessarily all the functions that I was looking for.

Prices ranged from zero to more than $800.

I expected to find software that was very flexible, almost free form but in this respect, my selection options were extremely limited.

When I looked at what was being offered at the time, in comparison to what I wanted, there just wasn’t much to get excited about. Cost was not a factor in my decision because I had already resigned myself to paying up to $200. Although there was plenty of software costing more than this amount, it was functionality for my personal use that I concentrated on.

In the end, I narrowed my selection for further evaluation down to CMap Tools, Inspiration, and SmartDraw.

CMap Tools
Cmap Tools is free, as it should be; it has to be the most bare-boned piece of software in this category. But it does what it is supposed to do, I think. The design of this software is based on the Novakian concept map model of concept-label-concept triads.

To those in educational environments who spend their time trying to figure out what makes people tick (i.e., how they learn) and for educators attempting to instruct grade schoolers, this package might be their panacea. But most of the maps produced by this software remind me of my Dick and Jane school days, even the NASA and Mars maps on the home website.

Whenever I tried to create a map with this software, using Joseph Novak's rules, I felt that I was simply parsing sentences and taking up an awful lot of space to do it, regardless of the level of concept degradation I chose to use. And the maps all look the same. The structure did not elicit better memorization or recall, and it was of little value in presenting material to others (in my case, engineers and scientists).

Constructing triads for each incremental detail of a concept map quickly led to an un-manageable maze of connectors. Even for simple diagrams, the complexity of triads seemed excessive. Of course, this complexity can be reduced by consolidating or grouping propositions into more general functions. Continuing in this manner would lead to a black box, compartmental, concept map --- not much detail, except for the basics.

At this point, I had to take a step back and re-assess what I really wanted concept mapping software to do. And the answer was to be able to design concept maps, not just those based on any one specific model, but on any model.

I decided to try creating a concept map without strict adherence to Novak's rules. Using a hand-drawn concept map as a template, I tried to duplicate the map using CMap Tools. The Nitrogen Cycle concept map was the result. Apart from a couple of logic/technical errors in the template itself, the CMap Tools map it's not an exact match to the template, but it is close.





Inspiration
Inspiration is obviously designed for the educational market as its intended client. But the software offered more flexibility than any other software I had reviewed at the time. It may not have some of the sophistication of a package like SmartDraw (below), but it is definitely free form and can get the job done.

For those who “just want to get on with it” or are seeking the “quick fix”, this software might at first try one’s patience, as you are expected to do some independent thinking in putting your map together (not such a bad idea for someone who is supposed to be conceptualizing). On the other hand, as with CMap Tools, this is one of its strongest features; you can do virtually anything you want with this software.

It will produce Novakian concept map models, if that’s what is needed. But it will also produce just about any type of generic concept map, with as much detail, color, images, notes, etc. as one is interested in creating. The same Nitrogen Cycle created with this software produced a map with a little more diversity than the CMap Tools map.

At the time of this evaluation, I used version 7. Version 8, which I do not have yet, also offers a mind mapping option (see below).


The two maps above are close in accurately portraying the template and have a fairly close resemblance to each other. Some of the differences lie in the availability of options in the software (e.g., objects design, text formatting), which are weak in CMap Tools. Inspiration also offers a drawing capability and the option to create and add user-based object module libraries. Although CMap Tools does have a much cleaner and responsive screen display than Inspiration, hard copy printout quality was almost identical.

If it’s more sophistication and options that one wants, then SmartDraw is available at double the price.

SmartDraw
This is a very impressive program. It has lots of concept map templates of just about every variety. And if it doesn’t have what you want, you can create your own, either based on an existing template or from scratch.

One of its strength is that it has a very robust drawing component built into the software. It has plenty of options to make a map as staid, dynamic, colourful, even gaudy, as one prefers. In a business setting, this package can probably provide all the chart and diagram templates and flexibility one could want (I considered buying this software for my firm for this reason alone).

I had not created the Nitrogen Cycle concept map with this software before my trial period ran out. However, the quality of maps that I did produce was excellent.

For my own personal use I found the price of US$300 a bit steep; and I really felt that I would likely use only about 50% of the package. But that said, I really liked this program and I keep tabs on the developer to see what might come in the next version.

Since my wife already owns Inspiration, there is little incentive to change. And it does offer a few more options than CMap Tools. But the cost of CMap Tools (free), its quality and ability would be impossible to ignore, if I were just starting out to find concept mapping software.

When I began this exercise, I was not aware of Compendium. This is collaborative freeware and has a rather unusual, but very interesting showcase of example uses. The software looks very promising; I’ll have to download a copy and play with it.


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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Candidate Concept Mapping Software……

When it came to evaluating concept mapping software, I simply searched for all the concept mapping software that I could find advertised or reviewed on the internet. And I looked at two basic criteria:


  1. Was there enough information available to do a quick assessment without actually obtaining the software?
  2. Could the software be downloaded on a trial basis?

I then divided the software packages into 3 groups:


  • General Concept Mapping
  • Mind Mapping
  • Unique (software that claimed to do both concept mapping and mind mapping, or software that appeared to have other unique characteristics).

I ended up looking at the following software in each group:

General Concept Mapping*
Banxia Decision Explorer ₤395 = ~$831 ----- can’t Inspiration do as much at 1/3 the price?
Conzilla free ----- basic concept mapping software
Cornerstone £74 = ~$150 ----- similar to Inspiration, but appears to be less complex
IHMC CmapTools free ----- the Novakian concept map modelling software
Inspiration v.7 $149 ----- the standard concept mapping software
Knowledge Manager €290 = ~$412 ----- Difficult to assess from the net; few examples and need to download them along with the program; suspect it is like Inspiration, but how can you tell from the website; a lot of words and little imagery for something that is supposed to be offering visual enhancement
MindFull £42 = ~$100 ----- stores information in folders; not much flexibility; resembles note-making software; Sonant intentionally produced non-complex software to reach specific client needs (e.g., those with dyslexia).
SmartDraw $297 ----- basically a charting and diagramming software with concept and mind mapping built in; lots of templates, lots of options, very flexible; but most charts are not applicable for my work.
SMART Ideas $59 ----- looks very much like Inspiration
StarThink £49 = ~$100 ----- basic post-it note style thought organizer for writing

Recent Additions – not originally evaluated:
Axon Idea Processor $165 ----- has both concept and mind mapping capabilities; the user showcase of ideas is impressive; definitely worth looking into
Inspiration v.8 $149 ----- originally reviewed for concept mapping, but v.8.0 appears to have mind mapping capabilities too.


Mind Mapping
Aviz ThoughtMapper $59 ----- similar to Freemind, but fewer options
BrainMine $52 ----- similar to Mind Mapper
ConceptDraw Mindmap $249 ----- intrigueing software, with a strong drawing base; most flexible software that I found; too bad it had some drawbacks
Creative Thinker $114-167 ----- uses Hexagon Modeling; looks like a brainstorming software in hexagons; very expensive for what is seen on the website; no trial download
Crystal Maps $99 ----- Described as a type of mind mapping software, using concentric circles and pull-outs; I don’t get it,
DeepaMehta free ----- a semantic map, a networked semantic desktop, a topic map; interesting idea that doesn’t do what I want exactly, but I can see other possible uses for it; can also use online
FreeMind free ----- basic mind mapping getting better with each version
HeadCase €50 = ~$100 ----- interesting software to simulate hand-drawn mind maps; still in in beta testing mode, I think. A bit course & garrish for my use.
KDissert free ----- similare to Freemind
Map it! $58 ----- similar to Mind Mapper
MindChart $44 ----- not sure what this software does; website not much help; no examples
MindGenius $247 ----- has almost everything Mind Manager has; better graphics; better output options
MindManager $349 ----- expensive; supposed to have all the bells and whistles; why do all the maps on their website and on other sites look so much alike?
Mind Mapper $180 ----- basic mind mapping software; has a few nice features that more expensive packages lack
Mind Pad $60 ----- strictly mind mapping software with a few twists (fishbone)
NovaMind $116-140Cdn ----- certainly provides the most visual impact; high graphic content; probably can be dumbed down for Mind Manager types; but other than that, it’s not much different than other products at much less cost; has a script or screen writers feature??
OpenMind $249 ----- very much like others; has storyboard and timeline features
SoftNeuron €15 = ~$20 ----- can’t tell much about this software from the website, but it looks similar to Freemind.
Spark-Space $300 ----- another way to mind map, but appears limited to radiant drawings
View Your Mind free ----- similar to Freemind
VisiMap £69 = ~$140 ----- I have the impression that its much like other software, but it’s also difficult to examine – no examples, no apparent users.
Visual Concept £98 = ~$200 ----- different hexagonal shapes; don’t see how this makes map easier to read; probably makes it more difficult.
Visual Mind $229 ----- another like Mind Mapper

Recent Additions – not originally evaluated:
Axon Idea Processor $165 ----- has both concept and mind mapping capabilities; the user showcase of ideas is impressive; definitely worth looking into
i2Brain $59 ----- goes beyond mind mapping; appears to allow multiple main topics; basic visual options
InfoRapid KnowledgeMap free for private use or $99 for professional use ----- part of the InfoRapid Suite of freeware/shareware programs; seems to be more like an outliner with maps thrown in, but needs to be looked at more closely; the example site is interesting.
Nelements $30 ----- a 3D outlining tool that uses the Roman Room Technique; says it’s a mind mapping software; maybe, but it’s definitely unusual

Unique
3D Topicscape $49 Special, Regular $149 ----- looks interesting but has a very unique display; not sure the program is really practical for many things I want it to do; need to download trial, but it requires a better graphics card than I’m currently using.
aibase $64 ----- knowledge builder, brainstorming tool, learn helper, outliner, vector graphics editor; but it really doesn’t seem to be designed for traditional concept mapping and mind mapping
PersonalBrain $80 ----- certainly different, but closely resembles the display technique developed by Thinkmap; worth exploring further because of its unique format.
Thinkmap $5000 minimum?? ----- makes the Visual Thesaurus; interesting software; but way too expensive; I suspect that Personal Brain might provide the equivalent at much less cost.

My evaluation was initially qualitative. After many hours of reviewing manufacturers’ websites, it was relatively easy to cull those software packages that didn’t need to be evaluated via trial downloads.

  • Several packages were very similar to others in the lists, in regard to the product provided. In this case, I looked at what appeared to be the best of the best, based on what I saw at the website and what I could decipher from the marketing information.
  • For some software, the end product appeared to be almost a carbon-copy of others. I took the same approach as above.
  • Some packages were just too expensive for what apparently was being offered and were ignored.
  • Many sites offered poor or few examples. If the company can’t take the time to showcase their product, I have to wonder how much quality is really in the product. No or few existing users and examples of how the software is used in day-to-day experiences?—that’s not a good sign.
  • Some sites were just poorly designed and, in a few cases, contained grammar and spelling errors—again, a lack of attention to the promotion probably reflects on the probable quality of the product.
  • For products that appeared to be of equal quality, I looked at options and features, based on the promotional material, and selected the software that appeared to offer the best options, regardless of cost. In a few cases, I downloaded all the software and did a quick comparison, but my initial assessment, based on website information, was usually confirmed.

I don’t get it.

  • Why would a company advertise their graphics software with just words and no visual images?
  • Why would a company produce a website with grammar and spelling errors?
  • Why would a company produce a website to promote a good product, yet fail to give realistic examples?
  • Why would a company try to promote a product and provide a list companies that are using it, but fail to give some examples of how they are using it?

C’mon guys! Put some effort into the user and promotional side of the business. Otherwise, competitiveness in the market will likely be short-lived.


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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Concept Mapping Selection Criteria……

When I set out to obtain mapping software, I first set down my objectives, consisting of some very general characteristics of software that needed to be considered, some personal applications for which I would use the software, and finally some potential business applications for which the software might be used. I then set down a series of questions to be answered in regard to what others and I believe a concept map should be able to achieve. Finally, I reviewed and tested the software available and attempted to marry the responses to the objectives, expectations, and performances questions together.

Objectives
The first task was relatively easy. I wanted the software to have specific, basic abilities:

  • To re-draw diagrams with ease
  • To re-structure or re-arrange diagrams as needed
  • To re-map, re-create map designs
  • To eliminate the constraint and confinement of “one-pagers”
  • To provide an archive of information that would be easily retrievable
  • To allow the addition of new information at a later date
  • To design, display and print professional-looking maps
  • To produce maps that could be easily interpreted, perhaps years later
  • To export map information in a convenient form to word processing software
  • Ideally, to create both concept and mind maps of equal quality

I thought these were very basic needs, but I discovered that the functionality of available software in this regard varied considerably.

For individual or personal applications, I was looking for software to accomplish the following tasks:

  • Preparing to-do lists
  • Researching and learning new concepts and subjects
  • Preparing writing reports, essays, papers, etc.
  • Assisting in learning a new language
  • Note-making, maybe note-taking in real time
  • Brainstorming—personal and collaborative
  • Preparing and delivery of presentation material


From a business perspective, I was looking for the following applications:

  • Planning activities and processes
  • Developing, preparing and managing project plans
  • Managing meetings, actions, to-do lists
  • SWOT analysis
  • Six Hat analysis
  • Change management
  • Problem solving
  • Resource management & assessment
  • Project planning & time management
  • Cause & effect analysis
  • Impact analysis


Now, evaluating and comparing software to satisfy the criteria above is really no small task. I attempted to make the list of questions to be answered as specific as possible, but not overwhelming in number. I’m not sure I succeeded on the second front.

I was fortunate in finding an article on the Internet, written several years ago by Abi James, entitled Comparison of Concept Mapping Software (Note this article is under constant revision and it would be worthwhile reading the latest edition). The author compared several software packages in performing some specific tasks. I took this idea as a template and proceeded to expand it for my own evaluation. The end result was a series of questions, under specific characteristic headings, to be considered for each software product.

Features
System Requirements


  1. Is the software Windows XP compatible?
  2. What are the minimum computer system specifications?
  3. What are the licensing options?

Flexibility

  1. Is there a brainstorming function?
  2. Can you add notes to concepts?
  3. Can resources and tasks be allocated?
  4. Can local layouts be applied?
  5. What methods are used to enter new ideas? How easy is it?
  6. How can you change the order or location of concepts?
  7. How can you change the hierarchical level of a concept?
  8. What map layouts are available?
  9. Can layouts be altered?
  10. Can the map be edited from within an outline view?
  11. Can the map branches be numbered?
  12. Can the outline be numbered?
  13. Can the maps be fitted to one and multiple maps?
  14. Scalability—can one zoom work to get more detail?
  15. How flexible and varied are the principles and elements of design (line, color, shape, value, texture, space, form, balance, emphasis, unity, variety, proportion, movement, etc.) for branches, nodes, twigs, etc.?
  16. Can maps be automatically transformed to other map representations or formats?
  17. Is there automatic language translation?
  18. Is a collaborative option available? Networkability?

Display

  1. How are notes indicated?
  2. Is the notes field visible while editing the map?
  3. Can notes be viewed in the outline view?
  4. Is a text outline view available?
  5. Can the outline and map be viewed at the same time?
  6. Can overviews be generated?
  7. Can display focus be set at all levels?
  8. Is graphical differentiation between concepts and links, areas, zones, clusters, etc. available?
  9. Can elements in the map be proportionately sized according to parameters or properties of the concepts and linkages being represented?
  10. What filter options are available?
  11. Is there a presentation view function to avoid having to export to MS PowerPoint?

Editing

  1. Can notes be formatted?
  2. Can notes be spell-checked?
  3. Can map text be formatted?
  4. Can the map be spell-checked?

Import/Export Options

  1. What various file formats can be imported & exported?
  2. Can information be imported and converted from various formats?
  3. Can notes be exported?
  4. Can text outline be exported to MS Word?
  5. Can the map be exported as a presentation?
  6. Can maps be exported to those who don't have the program?

Map Enhancements

  1. Can concepts consist of virtually unlimited textual content?
  2. Can you attach an image to a concept?
  3. Can images be added to the map without text?
  4. Can icons be used to categorize concepts?
  5. Can multiple files & hyperlinks be attached to concepts?
  6. Can you link another map to a concept?
  7. Can boundaries be set and how many? Can they be nested?
  8. Can concepts be categorized?
  9. Are Mental Connections possible?
  10. Can personal categories, symbols, and icons be added to the program for use as such? Maybe they can be added, but they are still treated as just additional images?
  11. Can un-associated floating images and text be added?

Templates

  1. Are there various draft templates available?
  2. Can user templates be designed?
  3. Can personal templates be set to default?

Print Options

  1. Can maps be printed in various configurations and formats?
  2. Can the outline view be printed?
  3. Can headers, footers, drafting identification blocks, titles, etc be added during the print phase?
  4. Are notes printed with the map or separately?

Practical Usage
Manipulation

  1. How easy is it to get around the software (keyboard controls, mouse control, menus & icons?
  2. Is there a Navigator bar?
  3. Are maps configurable or set to specific designs (such as radial, affinity, funnel, input, output, organogram, and outline for mind maps)?
  4. Can branches be moved, yet still tied to the parent branch?
  5. Can branches be freed and moved about (but still bound to parent branch)?
  6. Can branches be re-arranged at all levels?
  7. When brainstorming, how easy is it to add multiple entry nodes without using a lot of keyboarding or mouse movements (should be able to enter multiple text blocks, each followed by a Return)?
  8. Can I manipulate the overall design on the fly in order to adjust as the map becomes more complex (refresh, re-arrange branches, select new configuration)?
  9. Can pages be set at will (important for large maps, is option even available; if not, what's the alternative)?

Screen Views

  1. Are the menus easy to read and are they configurable?
  2. How flexible are the windows (re-sizeable, hide)?
  3. How varied and flexible are the Views and Map Arrangements that are possible?
  4. Can the screen be cleared of everything but the map or the outline (some auxiliary windows may not be completely hidden, therefore taking up valuable work area)?
  5. Can I set the focus on a particular node?
  6. Are Page Breaks available?

Design Options

  1. Can images, text, icons be attached to a node but not necessarily be imbedded in the node itself?
  2. How easy is it to design nodes, branches and twigs?



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Concept mapping today…….

Recent proponents of concept mapping give the impression that this is a new phenomenon—it’s not. Concept mapping is ancient in origin and probably one of the first documented art forms of communication.

The earliest known examples of knowledge mapping occurred around 30,000BCE, thereby pre-dating both written and oral language. And sometime between this period and 6,000BCE, petroglyphs and pictographs made their appearance.

The oldest known codified knowledge map is on the Maikop Tomb vase, dated about 3,000BCE. This is believed to be the first instance of a map providing strategic information on game and hunting. The oldest known cartographic maps appeared in China and, although there appears to be some debate about who was the first cartographer, these maps appeared between 300BCE and 1200AD.

Skipping forward to the 19th century, we find military maps were used for pre-battle strategy and post-war analysis (e.g., Napoleon’s march into Russia in 1812); today these types of maps are used for military manoeuvres and gaming.

By the 20th century, knowledge mapping had been widely adopted in such fields as education, sociology, informatics, engineering and business.

What modern proponents have done is given knowledge mapping techniques structure, rules, some gloss and polish, several distinctive names, and promoted their application in a very wide range of situations.

The term, knowledge map, encompasses a very large diversity of map types known by such names as cognitive map, concept map, mind map, semantic map, semantic network, cognitive structure, knowledge structure, conceptual knowledge. There are no doubt synonyms in this list (maybe they are all synonyms of each other), but I am restricting my comments for the moment to two popular terms under the knowledge map umbrella: the concept map and the mind map.

Even with these two terms, there is disagreement regarding their relationship to each other. References have described a mind map as simply a free-form variant of a semantic network or the name for a unique form of concept map. Other references were equally adamant that there is really no similarity between the two: the concept map is supported by scientific study; mind maps are the product of unproven, parapsychological or pseudo-scientific thinking.

As a consequence of this debate, there continues to be two schools on the web and in the literature: those promoting concept maps and those promoting mind maps, as if they are two, complete, separate entities or techniques. Seldom does one read the opinion that “a mind map is a concept map” but, nevertheless, I believe that that is the case.

Some proponents claim that concept maps and mind maps cannot be converted to each other; however, my own experience suggests that this is not wholly correct, although it may require an inordinate amount of effort to achieve adequate equality, if either map is of even moderate size. And why would anyone bother; these maps are really intended to serve very different purposes.

But it appears that there is a lot of confusion in the world of concept mapping regarding these two terms. A scan of numerous websites and published papers reveals a rather careless mix-and-match nomenclature to constructed maps by their creators.

Nevertheless, I prefer to disregard the concept map versus mind map arguments that pervade the many website discussions, as it serves no real purpose in regard to my work. Both mapping techniques work for me, but not necessarily equally for all purposes.

Arguments concerning the definition of a concept map vs a mind map appear to persist due to a mistaken belief that a concept map must equate to a model recently developed by Joseph Novak and therefore must follow its rules. However, the Novkian concept map model is really only one of many models, all collectively falling into the category of the general term, “concept map”. The Novakian concept map model was developed to satisfy specific requirements in the educational field for teaching and learning and associated evaluation and assessment processes.

Similarly, the Trochim concept map model was recently developed to satisfy specific requirements in the field of sociology.

But concept maps are utilized in many fields of study and they don’t necessarily follow the rules set out for either the Novakian or Trochim model. There are many types of concept maps and techniques for constructing concept maps.

Choosing one map method over another is a personal decision, based on what is the best way to portray the concept(s) for a specific purpose. At work, if I’m asked a question, the staff know that I’m going to head for the white board and start drawing, as soon as I detect a lack of understanding to a verbal exposition. These drawings often turn out to be a combination of a concept map and a mind map.

Today, I use various forms of concept map in both work and leisure activities. More than half of my mapping time, however, is probably spent mind mapping.

Whether it’s a concept map or a mind map, it takes time to create it, and even more time to revise and refine it. But maps are never really finished; there is always room for improvement. Sometimes the maps must be completely re-done.

There is no doubt a tendency, after the first hand-drawn draft, to consider a map complete because of the work involved in re-working the map, even a little. Changes, corrections, additions can quickly make a mess of a map, unless it is re-drawn.

Computer software provides a solution to this problem: maps can be easily revised, re-drawn and completely re-designed. And when one is looking to use mapping for a variety of purposes, as I am, software can become a necessity, if it truly does what is intended.

Although I consider mind maps to be a sub-set of concept maps, it is convenient to consider the two mapping techniques as uniquely separate because, for the majority of the software industry, that is how the software is designed. Until recently, I had not found any software that could easily create good representations of both types of maps. So, when it came time to select some software, I was looking for two software packages, not one.

I’ve spent several months researching conceptual mapping (primarily concept and mind mapping) and then associated mapping software in hope of achieving what I was seldom able to accomplish using paper and pen: 1) maps that could be easily refined, redrawn and restructured as needed, and more important 2) maps that would serve the purpose for which they were intended.

To date, I’ve read quite a lot of history, research papers, and software promotional material, and reviewed close to 50 software packages, via specification sheets, trial downloads, and actual purchases. And I'm still at it.

I established a set of evaluation criteria and assessed how each software package performed assigned tasks. Fortunately, I didn’t have to actually run all the software; there are a sufficient number of similar packages on the market and software specifications available, so that the selection process could be narrowed down considerably.

Although my analysis may not have been scientifically exhaustive, I think I covered the subject matter more than adequately. I’m going to post the procedures I followed and some general personal opinions regarding software suitability.



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Monday, October 23, 2006

My introduction to concept mapping......

Sometime in high school, I began to construct bubble maps by accident, as I doodled and assembled random pieces of information for essays or reports. These were crude assemblages of sentence fragments and I didn’t associate this activity with the learning process. I was simply trying to put a few sentences or paragraphs together in an order that would make sense in the least amount of time.

First Concept Maps
My first exposure to well-organized concept maps was in my engineering courses, although they were not called concept maps. These were flowchart and circuit diagrams. Later, as a computer systems engineer in industry, much of my time was spent drawing hardware and software systems maps and programming flowcharts, i.e., concept maps, although again they weren’t identified as such.

Later, when I returned to university to complete degrees in biology and toxicology, concept maps were a common occurrence in textbooks. Anyone who has taken courses in these disciplines will recall growth cycle maps, food webs and chains, biogeochemical cycle maps, energetic flow diagrams, biochemistry process diagrams, etc. Eugene Odum’s book, Fundamental’s of Ecology (1971) is packed with examples of such diagrams. And while studying for my final exams in biochemistry, the wall of my study was covered with biochemical concept diagrams.

First Mind Maps
It was following my engineering degree, however, that I also became aware of a kind of mind mapping, but it wasn’t called by that name at the time. I attended an Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics Course and what might now be referred to as modified mind maps were presented as Recall Styles, used to improve the recall of material recently read. These recall styles consisted of various diagrammatic templates for recording information, appropriately named:

  • spider
  • pictorial
  • random
  • radial
  • slash
  • linear
  • and fishbone
Later on, while rummaging about in a book store, I picked up Tony Buzan’s 1974 book, Use Your Head. The book was published by the British Broadcasting Corporation to accompany a series of 10 BBC-TV programmes of the same name. This book not only re-affirmed what I had learned in the Reading Dynamics course about how to read and recall, but expanded on the technique of mind mapping as the foundation for a total learning process, called the Organic Study Method.

A little trivia……..

I don’t believe the terms, mind map and mind mapping, appear anywhere in that first edition of Use Your Head (I still have it). Rather, terms such as Brain Pattern and Knowledge Pattern are used. The 1974 version of the book was reprinted eight times between 1974 and 1977. The 1974 edition was also revised twice (1982 and 1989) by which time, according to later books, the terms Mind Maps and, apparently, Mind Mapping had been coined and trademarked.

According to the U.S. Trademark Application and Registration Retrieval system, The Buzan Organisation, Ltd. filed for registration of “Mind Maps” as a trademark in 1989 and registration was granted in 1990. It was also registered with the U.K. Patent Office about the same time. The submission also indicates that the first use of the term was in 1974, which means that the use of this term occurred shortly after the first edition of Use Your Head was published.

I have been unable to find a registration for “Mind Mapping” in the U.S., Canada, or the U.K. Does anyone know where and when this term was trademarked?

Regardless, I don’t think anyone can realistically dispute the claim that Buzan created or invented both terms.

I have been unable to find any trademark registration for the term, Concept Map, although one was attempted several years ago and was withdrawn or rejected. It’s likely that this term and its counterpart, “Concept Mapping”, are so imbedded in our everyday language that they cannot be trademarked.



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