Thursday, June 19, 2008

Collaboration Comes To MindManager

One last post about mind maps and we'll move on, I promise! :-)

It's no secret that I am a big fan of visual mapping techniques. Mind maps allow you to capture, quantify and organize information in ways that mirror how our brains actually work. They allow you to see beyond simple linear lists to understand relationships between ideas. While traditional mind mapping as developed by Tony Buzan utilizes paper and colored markers, pencils, crayons, etc., the sheer amount of information we deal with as information technology professionals and indeed the medium we work in make electronic mind maps much more compelling. While there are many choices of mind mapping software, my tool of choice is the outstanding MindManager Pro 7 from Mindjet.

MindManager puts the power of mind mapping at your fingertips. I've been using MindManager for a few years now, but I think that MM7 is a big leap forward. Mindjet has done a great job of continuing to progress the tool with each release and the move to version 7 has been no different. I love that I can be productive with the software using the keyboard or the mouse, depending on my desired work mode at the time. It has a lot of powerful features that obviously couldn't exist in a paper-based map, such as task tracking, filtering, integration with Microsoft Office (I know...we need to get them to support Lotus Symphony!), the ability to interact with a map in presentation mode, and many more. MindManager allows the user to very quickly generate maps, certainly much faster than most of us could build a paper map. While the default styles aren't highly artistic, they are perfect for use in the business environment where people tend to be more conservative. That doesn't mean that MindManager can't produce stunning maps. Quite the contrary...the formatting features are plentiful and allow the user to produce very attractive maps with minimal effort.

I'm a big believer in getting your hands dirty in order to truly understand something, so rather than hearing me go on and on about features, I encourage you to check out the Mindjet site and download the free trial version of the software. With a little practice, I think you'll find the ideas of mind mapping to be truly compelling. To get an idea of the kinds of maps people use in the everyday world, check out the Map Gallery.

Before you go, there are a couple of major innovations in MindManager that I want to tell you about. The first is the fluid UI or Ribbon, introduced in the new line of Microsoft Office products. The second is the addition of collaborative and web functionality that is sure to see adoption of MindManager increase.

Let's talk about the collaborative stuff first. Actually just introduced yesterday, Mindjet Connect provides users with the ability to create shared workspaces in which they can share their mind maps and work on them collaboratively with a team of people. The collaboration features include real-time team editing, chat functionality and instant meetings. While I would have loved to see these features as integration points into the Lotus suite of products, just the fact that Mindjet has recognized the need to enable better collaboration is a plus. As part of Mindjet Connect, a slimmed down web-based version of MindManager is available, bringing the major functional points of the software to a browser near you. I look forward to playing with these tools more in the future, but for now I have to say congratulation to Mindjet for the new evolution in mind mapping software.

Now...on to the Ribbon fluid user interface. Although I had read a lot about it, I had not had an opportunity to actually use it until I installed MindManager Pro 7. I tried to approach the new UI with an open mind, as I heard cheers and jeers from both camps...those who loved it and those who hated it. For me, I was immediately enamored by the new way of working. The fact that the multiple layers of drop down menus were now gone seemed to immediately improve my productivity.

Basically, I see the Ribbon UI as a hybrid between the menuing system, tabbed dialogs and the toolbar, but one that is far easier to use than all three metaphors combined. I think that the way related commands are logically grouped together helps speed recognition and the fact that the more frequently used features are larger in scale allows me to target them much faster with the mouse. Another benefit of the Ribbon UI over the traditional toolbar or drop down menu is the fact that the full text of each function is readily visible. Thus, I don't have to worry about memorizing which icon is which or spend my time hovering over the toolbar icon waiting for the popup text to confirm that I've selected the correct option. All of these features are immediate productivity enhancements for me.

I find the fact that the Ribbon is contextual to be very powerful. Elements change, become grayed out or become active based on what I'm actually doing at that moment. In addition, I find that I am saving time by using the Ribbon instead of choosing between right-clicking an element, going to the menus or using the toolbar. I'm not sure if the Ribbon in the Microsoft products work the same way, but I really love the fact that many of the options exposed by clicking on an element in the Ribbon bring up a little submenu that uses pictures. For example, it's easier to select boundary shapes now than in past versions of MindManager, since I can click the Boundary Shape element in the Ribbon and I get a visual representation of all the types.

While it appears that the Ribbon takes more screen real estate than standard toolbars, it still seems reasonable. I actually like the slightly bigger size as it makes it easier to click the appropriate option. A bonus is that you can easily hide the Ribbon completely by double-clicking the menu area of the Ribbon. The options are still only a click away and this allows you to free up the area if you're working on a big map. Since MindManager allows you to so easily move from place to place on a map, however, this hasn't been an issue for me, so I just leave the Ribbon visible at all times.

When I opened the program for the first time, there was probably a minute or two of confusion as I couldn't see any File menu. Then I realized that the big "MindManager Button" replaced this menu. It didn't just replace it, pumped it up several levels. It leverages the same mental model as the Start button in Windows and the fact that it is large and in the corner makes it very easy to acquire (a great example of Fitt's Law). I love, love, love the fact that it is divided into two "panes", one showing the traditional options (New, Open, Save, etc.) and the other changing context based on the option I'm hovering over. It's a very intelligent system and just immediately made perfect sense to me. If I'm hovering over the "Open" command, it shows me a list of my most recent documents. If I'm hovering over "Export", it gives me an easy to read and understand list of my export options. This is really nice...thumbs up for this functionality.

Overall, I find the Ribbon UI to be a big leap forward in the user interface of MindManager. It is similar enough to the standard concepts we are used to in most commercial software, but it has improved the user experience in such a way that I feel I am now more proficient with the software and can perform certain tasks faster than I could before. Although sometimes change is hard, I would encourage anyone hesitating about upgrading because of the new UI to give it a try and allow yourself a little time to get used to the Ribbon. It is a great interface concept and I think most people will come to appreciate it.

If you've stayed around this far, then it's either for my highly engaging and witty writing style ;-) or because you are truly interested in the ideas of visual mapping. If it's the latter (which I hope), then please check out MindManager and let me know what you think. I'd love to hear your feedback and I'd be glad to offer any pointers or assistance as you explore this new path.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Unlock Your Creative Side And Create More Compelling Designs

Programmers and IT types in general are not usually well known for their creative and spontaneous ways. Most in this profession are very logical and linear thinkers, and often those qualities lend themselves nicely to this field. An unfortunate byproduct of this fact, however, are the thousands upon thousands of badly designed applications that have been forced upon poor, unsuspecting end users. If you've been here for any length of time, you know that I have a couple of sacred mantras. One is that the interface is the application as far as the end user is concerned. They could care less about your SQL backend or cool use of classes in OO to abstract the blah, blah, blah. :-) Another is that because of mantra #1, it is our duty as developers to design everything with the end user in mind. Now...if you are a logical and linear thinker, then this might not be the easiest thing in the world for you to do. The key is to recognize that you need to work on developing your design skills and to continually grow them. One technique that can help in that regard is mind mapping.

Mind mapping is a technique used to visually depict concepts in a non-linear way, with lines radiating out from a central concept that group related items together. They are very useful in allowing you to see relationships in seemingly non-connected information. Mind maps are also great devices for brainstorming. The power of mind mapping comes from the fact that it allows you to utilize both sides of your brain, the creative and the logical. One of the key concepts of mind mapping is including multiple colors and pictures within your map. In doing so, you draw upon those creative tendencies, which just in itself provides value by keeping your brain sharp. Mind mapping began by using the same kind of tools you use for low-fidelity prototyping...pens, crayons, pencils, paper, etc., but you can also now find many mind mapping applications for the computer (stay tuned for an upcoming review of my favorite, MindManager). To learn more about Mind Mapping, check out the definitive work by Tony Buzan (The Mind Map Book) and another great work by Jamie Nast (Idea Mapping)

Click to enlarge

I think that mind mapping provides some great benefits for programmers and designers. One way I use mind mapping is to capture and display all of the little nuggets of information that I come across during the requirements gathering phase. I often find that seemingly insignificant remarks or off the cuff comments that don't appear important at the time make a huge difference to some design aspect of my application later down the line. By having these bits of information laid out in front of me in a mind map, I can occasionally find relationships in the ideas that the end users didn't explicitly spell out or I can identify areas where further interviews and exploration is necessary.

Mind maps work very well for project tracking and managing programming tasks as well. When I get down to the point of writing code, I try to capture the major design points in a map. I know many programmers who do this with basic To Do or feature lists, but by using a map, you can see how the various components of your design are related. It also allows me to visually represent the importance of one item over another, so at a glance it is easier for me to see what I should be working on.

I find mind maps are a perfect way to begin thinking about the hierarchy of a new application design. Items like navigation structure and UI design elements naturally lend themselves to the kind of relationships a mind map is designed to convey. If I'm working on a new website, for example, I'll create a mind map of the taxonomy. When I share this with end users, it's a lot easier for them to understand since they "see" how the website will be laid out. Remember the old cliche..."a picture is worth a thousand words". I think as much as you can simplify the design process for the end users with pictures and easy to read visuals, the closer you will get to meeting their requirements when you deliver the application to them.

Although I have not done this yet, I think mind mapping would be an ideal way to visually see how your LotusScript or Java code is laid out. I remember working on an application for "Really Big Company" that had tons of script libraries. I spent a lot of time when I was first learning the system digging through the various functions and methods and taking notes on what called what, how they were related, etc. I think a mind map could show these relationships much more elegantly. I'm going to try this whenever I get back to writing code.

Beside the applications mind mapping has in a professional development capacity, they can be used for almost anything else. I find that my memory of certain things is improved when I use a map over a standard linear way of writing information down. Mind maps are great for capturing meeting minutes, brainstorming, taking notes on a book you are reading, etc. But the biggest benefit and why I bring this topic up has to do with the creative nature of mind mapping. When you follow the "tricks of the trade", you begin to rely on both sides of your brain and unlock that creative potential that you have inside. In doing so, you'll find that your problem solving skills are sharpened and you can more easily envision the various dimensions of a given issue or task. I believe mind mapping also helps you become a better observer and certainly the act of creating a map helps commit what you are writing to memory much faster than any other method I've used before.

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Don't just take my word for it. Some superheroes from the Notes community that use mind maps (or have at least dabbled with them) include Bruce Elgort, Eric Mack, Tim Tripcony and Stephan Wissel.

When it comes to designing innovative UIs that your users enjoy working with, creativity is key. I hope you'll consider mind mapping as one possible way to help cultivate your creative side.

P.S. Here's a short little interview on what I do with MindManager.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Spreading A Little Lotus Notes Love

Besides Lotus Notes, the other software product I'm most passionate about is MindManager from Mindjet. I've talked about it a little in the past on this blog, but for those unfamiliar with this product, it is an tool for creating mind maps on your computer rather than with paper, pens, crayons, etc. It has a UI that is as simple to use as paper, but with very powerful features that provide results you couldn't expect to achieve in the analog realm. I just upgraded to the new version the other day (thanks, Gaelen!) and you can expect a full review coming soon. The short take is that MindManager 7 rocked my world, especially with the new Ribbon UI.

I was recently featured in Mindjet's Customer Vignette section and wanted to point out that even when talking about another product, I'm spreading the Notes love. Not only did I mention using the Lotus Notes client in one of the interview questions, but I also gave them my Notes URL mind map as a sample of how I use MindManager.

Ah...Lotus Notes and MindManager...two great tastes that taste great together. :-)

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Speaking of Mind Maps...

After I posted my Notes URL mind map last week, Tim Tripcony did some "tinkering" for a few minutes (man...the brain power of some of you people really scares me! :-) and he came up with some LotusScript that allowed him to generate a mind map of his mail file. Sweet!

Nice work, Tim...


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Friday, June 15, 2007

Mind Maps For Lotus Notes: Notes URLs

As I have mentioned here once or twice, I use MindManager for creating mind maps that I use for work and for personal items. I have several maps that I keep for reference on various Lotus Notes topics and since I know several of you in the community use MindManager as well, I thought I'd clean them up a bit* and make them available here.

I love using Notes URLs for different tasks, especially for having integration with Notes in other programs. I'm currently exploring the boundaries of what the Notes URL syntax can do in an effort to help make the ActiveWords more compelling for Lotus Notes users. Since I'm playing around with them lately, I thought my Notes URLs - A Reference map would be the first one I would throw out here. If you click on the picture below, you can interact with the mind map in your browser (sorry...IE only). If you don't have MindManager and you don't want to install the free plugin, you can still check out the PDF.

Download the Mind Map
Download the PDF

Have a good weekend and Happy Father's Day to all the dads out there!

*clean up = make a new one so it's pretty :-)

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