One aspect of information maps or “mind maps” produced by mind mapping software is the wide range of uses, and the variety of maps that can be produced. Given this diversity, is there a common way to profile them?
Trying to measure things helps us to improve them, even if it’s not a very scientific or accurate measure. An “Information Dependency” (or “D”) factor for maps can be estimated as
D = H / P
- H is the amount of subject information that still remains in the author’s Head (or heads) after creating the map, and
- P is the amount of “standalone” subject information that has been captured on Paper (or on the screen).
The ratio D indicates how dependent the map is on information, knowledge and context that is available only to the authors, requiring supporting explanations if anyone else needs to understand it.
A high value for D means the primary role of the map is as a reminder or aide memoire. High-D maps often use plenty of images, colour coding and single-word topics. The structure is not especially important. The map may be a short term brainstorm, or a revision aid, or a step in the process of understanding a complex situation or problem. All of these are perfectly valid uses for mind maps. Note that high-D maps need not necessarily be the work of just one person. It is often said that the best way to achieve “buy-in” for a map is to involve others in its creation. What this does is increase the size of the audience who understand the goals of the map, and for whom it is a reminder of discussions, negotiations and consensus. Collaborating with others doesn’t necessarily change a high-D map into a low-D map. High-dependency maps are, by definition, not suitable for sharing with an unfamiliar audience without any guidance. They can sow the seeds of confusion and create barriers to understanding.
By contrast, low-dependency maps are designed to get as much of the subject information as possible into the map, and leave as little as possible in the author’s heads. Low-D maps have a lower apparent “information density” because they make fewer assumptions and use less jargon. (Jargon is any form of abbreviation for a trusted audience - not just technical terms). Low-D maps use fewer images, and their design is often more influenced by style than by trying to code meaning. They have a clear message and structure, and stronger patterning. They are used for navigation, presentations and overviews, and are often limited in size. For non-mapping audiences, the presentation format usually needs to conform to a passive environment, e.g. a static image of a map in a slide or on a page. This takes away the interactive navigation that would allow a larger map to be used. However, several of the vendors now offer interactive viewers that work in a web browser.
As a map author, it can be very difficult to tell the difference between your low-D and high-D maps. Everything looks like low-D to you. When you read something, you automatically add your own meaning to it, which is hard to discriminate from the original text. To check whether your map really has the low dependency factor that you hope it has, you have to test it on others. Or you can leave it until you have forgotten the contents and context, and review it again yourself in a few years time. You may be surprised at how a brilliantly insightful map becomes less than obvious when far removed from its context.
Which is better, high-D or low-D? Of course, neither is. They both offer value in their own ways, although a high-D map where low-D would be expected will cause problems.
So here’s an interesting question – in fact, quite a curious one. How many of the leading mind mapping software vendors use low-D maps to communicate real information on their web sites? By this, I don’t mean showing a picture of a map, or examples of how you might use one, but actually using a map to convey key messages and navigate resources. I have not searched extensively, but a quick tour of the leading names shows that hardly any seem to use their own products to communicate with us on the main pages of their site. Why is that? Collaboration is a strong theme in mind mapping software at the moment. Selling a concept is collaboration for mutual benefit – important messages need to be conveyed, understanding achieved and action taken - yet there seems to be little confidence in using maps to support this. I don’t only want to see examples of what I might be able to do with the product if I invest enough time – I want to see it in action (conceptually and physically) in front of me, dealing with the comprehension issues that accompany any new proposition.
I would love to hear the rational explanations of why maps are not suitable, not appropriate, not technologically practical, not representative, not what people expect, too niche, too radical, not proven and so on… these are surely the exact barriers that users of the products face within their own organisations. The industry is keen to move on from mind mapping, but actions speak louder than words, and one conclusion to be drawn from a brief visit to the shop fronts is that the value of visual mapping software is something that users create and consume personally. We should be trying harder to widen that restriction.
Or, if you are a vendor and use low-D maps to communicate on your web site, please feel free to share them here!