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UX Design
6 minute read

Gray Matter – What Is a Mind Map in the Design Process?

Mind maps are widely used as a thinking tool. Designers can use them to organize ideas into an arrangement for clarity as well as untangle system complexity to make things more understandable.

When brainstorming a new product concept or evaluating a new feature idea during product design, note-taking sometimes gets out of hand—one can end up with pages of scribbles which are often more confusing than helpful. Mind maps are a great way to organize thoughts more productively.

What Is a Mind Map?

Mind maps are also called spray diagrams and spider diagrams (or spidergrams, for short) because of how they look. This method and the term “mind map” started becoming popularized in 1974 by Tony Buzan, a British psychologist, author, and educational consultant during a BBC TV series titled Use Your Head. However, the use of diagrams that visually map information existed long before that.

Because mind maps are two-dimensional in structure, they show us the shape of the subject, the relative importance of each point, and how the facts relate to each other. Being able to see all of this in one place helps us review information efficiently, remember it better, and improve creative problem-solving.

Mind maps are effective because they leverage the natural tendencies of our mind to think visually and understand a subject by making associations. Even the most abstract thinkers remember images better than any other type of information. Mind maps are also very flexible in nature. They can be used to convey different types of information—a series of steps, information hierarchy, or random thoughts around a specific subject.

The Anatomy of a Mind Map

Mind maps always start from a central point, which is the main topic, and branch out into subcomponents. Here’s an example of a simple mind map:

What is a mind map? A mind map example
Mind map example (from Coggle).

Aside from hierarchical lines (the main branches), mind maps can also have relationship lines. These can be shown as dotted lines that indicate relationships between elements that exist on different branches.

Although not pictured in the example above, mind map nodes can also contain images or icons. There’s no rigid structure to such maps. That’s what makes them great. They should be as free-flowing as a person’s thought process.

When to Use Mind Maps in the Product Design Process?

When trying to understand a subject, mind maps can be used anytime during the research phase in the product design process. In the design thinking process, mind mapping is a useful exercise to do during the first three stages: empathizing, defining, and ideating.

When designers are kicking off a new project, everyone on the product team probably has a fuzzy idea of what that project should be. Mapping out the system will help everyone gain clarity so that when it’s time to wireframe an app, for example, the team has a clear picture of the system they need to build—what the main sections of the app are, what features it needs to have, how those features interact with the rest of the system, and so on.

Often, the mind mapping exercise will help the team discover a lot of things that haven’t been thought through properly or that need a decision. This is also a great time for designers to think about the problem to be solved, and whether or not the system being designed solves the problem. Jumping straight to wireframing and prototyping can often cause teams to get lost in the details, playing around with UI elements and text, trying to figure out the system architecture as they go.

Mind mapping techniques can be applied to project management
Mind mapping techniques can also be applied to project management (source).

A Practical Mind Map Example

Let’s imagine the following scenario. A startup founder wants to build a mobile app for pet owners and caregivers, where pet owners can post a job for walking a dog, taking a pet to the vet, or looking after a furry friend while their owners are on vacation. The initial client brief includes a description of what the app needs to do, a couple of competitor examples, and some details about the target market.

After some research, the product team has a clear picture of what the problem is, the user personas, and the companies’ competitive advantage. Now, it’s time to figure out what the app needs to do and how it will do it.

This system will need two types of accounts: pet owners and caregivers. Let’s look at the caregivers’ side. What would they need in the app? More than likely the following:

  • Available jobs
  • Profile
  • Settings
  • A place to put secondary items (terms & conditions, link to rate the app, customer support, etc.)

Mind mapping techniques

Next, let’s break down each section. What would Jobs consist of? More than likely the following:

  • Available jobs
  • Filters and sorting functions
  • A list of “favorite” jobs
  • A history of jobs they applied for
  • A list of their ongoing jobs

Mind mapping process

Let’s do one more branch: What would a job page need to contain? For example:

  • Job description
  • Pet pickup location
  • Owner profile
  • Pet profile
  • Pay offered
  • A button to apply
  • A button to save/mark as favorite

Mind map example

This mind mapping process goes on and on until the entire system is mapped out. In this case, because there are two types of accounts that interact with each other, there would be two mind maps on the same canvas, with dotted lines that show relationships between different elements that interact with each other.

As the product team does this exercise, they’ll often find that a lot of questions come up—for example, is the pay fixed, or is there some sort of bidding system? After a job is awarded, does the app handle communication between the pet owner and the caregiver, or does it simply show the contact info from the owner’s profile?

Such and similar questions would be answered during a meeting with the startup founder. In some ways, this step is similar to the “expert interviews” exercise in design sprints, except the output is more than a list of problem statements.

Designers during a mind mapping process
Mind maps are a great way to organize thoughts during the design process.

Apps for Mind Mapping

There is a plethora of mind mapping apps to explore out there, but to make it easy, here are three recommendations: Coggle, Miro, and Whimsical.

Coggle has the most features for drawing mind maps, it’s cheap, and saves maps to Google Drive. The Free Forever plan is great for testing and light usage. Paid plans are $5/month for personal use and $8/user/month for teams.

Miro is a great all-rounder that can do much more than mind mapping. It can be used for user story maps, customer journey maps, flow charts, kanban boards, wireframes, and more. The free plan allows for a maximum of three projects. Paid plans start at $12/month for consultants and $40/month for teams of a minimum of five members. Miro also has apps for desktops and mobile devices.

Whimsical is another awesome tool that, besides mind maps, can also do flowcharts, sticky notes, and wireframes. The free plan includes four boards. Paid plans are $10/month for individuals and $12/user/month for teams.

Whimsical - a mind mapping tool that helps with mind mapping techniques
Whimsical, a mind mapping tool.

Mind Mapping Technique Tips

Don’t make it too neat. Resist the urge to make the map too neat and have everything perfectly lined up. This exercise is meant to be quick and dirty. It’s not supposed to be as clean-looking as, say, a site map.

Bring multiple maps onto the same canvas. There’s no rule as to how many maps can exist on the same canvas. For complex systems, there can be multiple maps for different user roles, different apps that are part of the same ecosystem, or the old version of an app and the new one.

Indicate hierarchy on the map. Although mind maps are hierarchical by nature, some branches that look the same are often more important than others. While drawing the map, think about what the most important branches of a specific node are and highlight them using color, an icon, or text size. Going back to the example above, the most important part of the Jobs section is the list of “ongoing jobs.” Taking note of such things on the mind map will make wireframing much easier.

Braindump, then refine. Avoid being too precious with the first iteration of a mind map. Let ideas flow freely and put them on the map. Some ideas won’t make sense or will need to be moved to other branches. That’s okay. Edit and refine it on the second pass when going through the mind mapping process.

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Further reading on the Toptal Design Blog:

Understanding the basics

A mind map is a non-linear diagram used to visually organize information. Using mental triggers like colors, images, icons, keywords, symbols, and short phrases, it provides an overview of a topic and is typically used to brainstorm, plan projects, outline strategies, and take more efficient notes.

Software is often used to create mind maps but they can also be hand-drawn. Mind mapping techniques include: Structure first; Center point start (hand-drawn only); Free form mind dump; Drilling down from central idea into subtopics. Depending on topic and available information, a mix and match of methods can work.

The mind mapping process creates a “relationship web” around a central concept by using a graphical layout where main themes radiate from the central image as branches comprised of a key image/word. Major ideas are connected directly to the central concept, and other ideas branch out from those.

The mind mapping process can improve creativity, memory, and retention. Mind maps help to generate ideas, engage the mind, reduce complexity, structure ideas/concepts, broaden perspective, and identify relationships/connections between ideas, data, and information.

The advantages to using mind mapping techniques outweigh any disadvantages overall. However, a mind map can become unwieldy if not structured well, which can lead to confusion. Also, strong linear thinkers may find the radial thinking of the mind mapping process difficult to deal with.

The brain likes to work with associations and will connect ideas and memories to thousands of other concepts. A mind map is a mirror of how the brain functions (in a radial, rather than linear manner) and "maps out” thoughts using associations, connections, and triggers to stimulate further ideas.