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Project Managers have been increasingly using mind mapping software to help manage projects. One area in particular is the creation of a work breakdown structure (WBS). Mind mappers are great for brainstorming and can aid your team in understanding the information by providing a visual representation.

If you are interested in using mind mapping, but do not want to shell out the $300 to buy one of the higher-end tools, you should consider trying one of the free mind mappers that are out there. I will take a look at five options in this blog, considering key features such as ease of use, features, and export options.

MindMeister

MindMeister is a simple web-based mind mapping tool that has both a free and a paid account type. The free account lets you create up to three mind maps and has fewer features than the paid version, but the free version still contains what we need. The fact that it is web-based is convenient when you use multiple machines like I do, but is also a major drawback due to the frequent issues I experienced communicating with its server.

Creating a map here was very quick and keyboard shortcuts allow you to move through the map with ease. There are also easy tools for formatting nodes, adding icons, pictures, links and notes. Additionally, you can share your maps with other people allowing for a greater level of collaboration with remote teams. Thirdly, you can also add task information to nodes including assigned to, duration, and due date fields.

One feature that I really liked was the “History View” which allows you to replay all edits to the map and revert to any previous version. This can also be useful if a team member misses the meeting in which you created the map; they can relive the experience!

You can export to PDF, PNG, or RTF; I exported to RTF then opened the file with MS Word. While this gave me a good outline in Word, it did mean some reformatting to move it into MS Excel or MS Project.

 

XMind

Xmind is another free tool with a very slick, easy-to-use interface that is simple, elegant and packed with features. This one is not web-based, but it is cross-platform compatible so no need to worry about what operating system you are on. It features great keyboard shortcuts and formatting options for your nodes so it is very quick and can be used live in a brainstorming session.

For the purposes of making a WBS I was able to quickly add a numbering scheme and export to a simple text file that I could use to build my WBS dictionary. The real good stuff like the Gant chart view and the more advanced export features were not available in the free version.


FreeMind

Probably the most popular of the free tools is FreeMind, and it is no wonder given the set of tools that are available. Customizable keyboard shortcuts let you create maps with ease using the keys that you want (I switched to using ‘Tab’ for child nodes instead of the default ‘Insert’ key). FreeMind also offers a selection of options for icons, flagging, and color coding your nodes, as well.

For the purposes of WBS a key feature is custom attributes. You can create an attribute like cost or hours and assign a value to each of your nodes. You would need some custom scripts to do any manipulation of these attributes, but having this feature in a free tool is a big plus. However, like with most of the free tools, you are limited on export options to just the basics like text, image, or HTML. I was able to make a basic outline for a WBS dictionary by exporting to an .ODT file and then opening in MS Word. There are a ton of great features if you are willing to take the time to learn them.

 

FreeMind also has great support for its user community, including detailed instructions for its more advanced features.

 

MS Visio

I know what you what you are probably thinking: Visio is neither free, nor a mind mapper. While it is not free, most of us already have it installed on our machine so it doesn’t cost us anything additional. And while it is not a traditional mind mapper, it can be used like one by using two different templates: the WBS modeler and the Brainstorming Diagram template.


WBS Modeler

The WBS Modeler is an add-in that you can download free from Microsoft for Visio 2010 (http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/download/details.aspx?id=26229). I will start by pointing out that this does not have the slick, sexy interface of typical mind mapping software; it’s downright ugly in comparison. There are also no keyboard shortcuts for creating new nodes; instead you will have to click on SmartTags. But what it lacks in aesthetics it more than makes up for with MS Project integration. It’s very easy to import and export out of Project and will allow you to add all relevant data including duration and assignments.

Brainstorming Diagram

This is Visio’s real attempt at mind mapping. The experience here is a little better that the WBS Modeler, but you have to give up the integration with Project. In this template there are keyboard shortcuts to create new nodes, albeit not very easy ones (Alt, B, P for a peer or Alt, B, B for a child). You can export to Excel, Word, or XML; when creating a WBS I export to Excel then copy and paste the result into Project. This is fairly manual, but gets the job done.

Either option is within Visio so there are plenty of formatting and customization options. One of the other big selling points: it is an interface with which you are probably already familiar, so there will be a fairly low learning curve.

Whiteboarding

Just a good old fashioned whiteboard has some significant advantages that we should consider.

Whiteboarding is quick, cheap, and easy. If you are conducting your first mind mapping exercise, a whiteboard may be your best choice because you don’t have to worry about the technology getting in the way of the creative process. The fact that everyone now carries a smartphone with fairly high resolution cameras means that the data is easy to capture and share with other stakeholders. You can also use sticky notes to help move ideas more easily and colored markers to organize and emphasize certain topics.

The drawback here is that you will have to go back to your desk and retype everything into your other PM tools.

Conclusion

I found that MindMeister was the easiest to use, FreeMind had the most features, and Visio has the best export options. So the tool you pick is going to be your personal preference, but since they are free, try out a couple and see what you think.

Once you get your feet wet with these free tools you can decide if you want to take it to the next level and look into some of the paid tools. MatchWare MindView and Mindjet MindManager are two good options (but certainly not the only ones) that offer a complete set of Project Management tools with great integration options and are worth considering.