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.

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.

System Requirements

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


  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?


  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?


  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?


  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

  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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Blogger Hobie Swan said...

Wow! Staz, you have covered the waterfront on things to look for in a mapping program! Excellent resource for those looking for the killer mapping app.

I read the list closely to see if you included what we at Mindjet think will be the #1 requirement of the future; the ability to import and visualize information from other sources. You did, but let me elaborate just a bit.

Regardless of where we work or what we do, many of us are looking for the same Holy Grail: an efficient way to aggregate information from all the bizillions of places it comes at us from these days, organize and synthesize it so that it makes sense to us, and then use that aggregation of information, ideas and data to create knowledge and take action.

There are a lot of mind mapping programs on the market these day--which is a great thing! But those on the search for the perfect app might want to pay special attention to those apps that are designed at their very core to enable importion of vast arrays of data--as well as innovative ways to display and/or access such data in the map itself).

(You might also add something about the company that develops each app: Is the company stable? Does it offer support and training? Does it have user groups and blogs? How easy it is to talk to an actual person at the company? Are other companies developing new extensions/add-ins/plug-ins for the app? Who does the company partner with? Is it evolving the app to keep up with improvements in other technologies?)

Anyway, very good list! Thanks for a great resource!

November 12, 2006 10:32 AM  
Blogger Staz said...

Hi Hobie,
Good points, particularly in reference to future needs and especially from a corporate perspective. I have little doubt that Mindjet is at the forefront in this regard.
The criteria you mention add another layer of important considerations for an evaluation. I intentionally based my evaluation solely on the product at hand. I didn't have sufficient time or knowledge to address the criteria you mention. And although, I tested the most promising software, I did not run each through a thorough feature-by-feature analysis. So, I would also add "product stability and performance" to your list. This is where user forums could assist in providing a wide range of experiences, both good and bad. Unfortunately, there wasn't much of this on the net at the time I did my study.

November 15, 2006 9:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A great list - fairly comprehensive. I have found Spark-Space a great program. See

January 06, 2007 5:38 PM  

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