A software package a day: Mindjet MindManager
Developing complex software means keeping track of a lot of details. For larger projects that require a lot of communication I like to use BaseCamp although recently I am experimenting with Storm (a set of Drupal modules). Before using any of these tools I find it useful to do some brainstorming. For that, I prefer some type of mind mapping tool. There are several options, including the open source FreeMind, web based MindMeister and my favorite, MindJet’s MindManager.
MindManager uses an interface that mimics the Office 2007 look and feel. I’m not terribly fond of that interface, but it is fairly usable in this context because the number of commands and contexts is relatively low. (Personally, I find the ribbon to be cluttered in more complex applications and wish they would implement a command search feature.) The basic idea of all the programs I mentioned earlier is the same: the map has a central area from which the various subtopics, sub-sub topics and so on branch. Many people (including my wife) find the tree branching of a mind map to be cluttered and confusing. However, I think that it is a great way to manage ideas while brainstorming. Mind maps are nothing more than two dimensional outlines where the links can wander, but computers add a feature that I use a lot: the ability to drag and drop the various ideas to create new patterns.
This drag and drop capability takes a mind map beyond the outline that it otherwise would be topologically equivalent to. As a particular branch becomes “heavy”, it is usually possible to subdivide that branch into a few higher level concerns. The deeper the tree gets, the more indicative that this area is a thorny problem and deserves extra attention. Eventually I have all the parts and pieces of the project brainstormed and at that point I can use MindManager’s task panel to add estimated times to the various tasks I have uncovered. For a small project the task panel is enough to track the progress and keep notes about the project’s development.
Beyond the task panel, I also find the ability for MindManager to integrate with websites via an integrated browser useful while doing research. The integration with Microsoft Outlook via Appointments, Contacts, Tasks and Notes makes it so I can take a task and put a deadline on it in Outlook, or pull a contact’s information into the map for later reference. Finally, an ability to link out to the local or network file system means that keeping project related files at a fingertip distance is a snap.
I wouldn’t recommend planning a multi-year project with it, but for short iterative projects it is the perfect blend of ease of use and comprehensiveness for me. There is now an online collaborative component which I have not yet tried, mostly because of the annual user price per year turns my stomach. GoToMeeting is $39 a month for me to invite as many people as I want to as many meetings as I want (as long as I don’t exceed 10 users *at a time*). MindJet Connect is $120 per *named user*. My problem is that I interact with so many distinct users over very short periods of time each that it is simply prohibitively expensive to invite them to use it in the way that I would need. The good news is that I can package my maps up and upload them to my website via an export and receive my feedback the old fashioned way or while connected via GoToMeeting.