The first question most people ask is, “What is mind mapping?” Then comes, “Why do I need it?” and “Is it hard to use?” Let’s discuss these questions for a few moments before we get to the free part. There are several excellent free packages and each is tailored to solve specific uses better, but all these tools are very flexible. Some are better for collaboration, or code generation, or personal productivity, or general problem solving.
First,”What is mind mapping?” It is a visual approach to problem solving or even problem definition. There are examples of how it has transformed peoples worst situations from studying for tests to creating business solutions to planning social events to solving global issues. The only limit on how it can be used is the limit you place on it. In fact, the first free mind mapping technique is the hand drawn version, illustrated step-by-step here. So I guess I answered the first two questions with this. One version of this software has been nominated as ‘Most likely to change the way you do everything.’ I think that pretty much sums up why you need it.
A great way to see the variety possible when doing mind maps is to see several different versions all depicting a similar idea. One such topic that has been mind mapped extensively is that of global warming and other world population issues. Some great examples can be found at live-the-solution.
Here are a few of the highest quality free mapping software applications that can be used if you would prefer to do it with software instead of drawing by hand. Besides the link, I provide a brief description of the primary strength of that tool relative to the others. At its purest, mind map enthusiasts insist that the process is about a free form association of all tangential ideas that are interconnected to one central idea. For more on the differences between diagramming processes and the ‘purist’ version of mind mapping, check out mindmap.com.
Freemind – An open source solution that will run on any computer – PC, Mac or Linux. Very mature, very easy to use, and lots of information available on how to use it. One unique feature is an applet that can be placed on your website that allows people to interact with your mind maps dynamically. Sourceforge has lots of background on how to use it, done appropriately enough, as a mind map featuring this capability.
Xmind – An open source, yet more commercial product that offers both a free and a paid pro version. For those that want to commit to this tool and maximize productivity, there are more export options, plus an ability to collaborate with others built in. Keeping your collaborative maps private is an additional bonus of the pro version. This tool, because of it’s output options, is used in agile development.
The Brain – A personal productivity version that allows you to store and retrieve information. This product focuses on making you more productive and able to use the information you have accumulated.