An Introduction to Mind Mapping for more than Test Design

An introduction to mind mapping

Mind maps have long been an important part of my work, right from organising management tasks through to test design and ideas generation.

I’ve learned a lot about how my thinking unravels by using mind maps. Despite my success with them I’m conscious that not everyone works well with a mind map. Here are a number of ways in which mind mapping has helped me. I’d be interested to hear about other ways people are using mind maps, or other techniques for organising thoughts, data and information.

A sample mind map
A sample mind map

Mind maps for brainstorming, thinking and writing

I’ve been using mind maps for about 15 years now for brainstorming and aiding my thinking. I’ve never moved away from them. They’ve been invaluable in helping me to generate ideas and connections.

Most of my blog posts, books and other content comes from an idea which forms the central node of a mind map. The outline of “Diary of a Test Manager” was done in a mind map. I’ve got another book I’m working on that’s been outlined in a mind map also. Some of my more complicated blog posts start out as a random thought that is then structured, explored, exploded and refined in a mind map.

For those new to mind maps they work (at a basic level) like this – from Wikipedia.

mind map is a diagram used to represent wordsideas, tasks, or other items related to a central key word or idea. Mind maps are used to generatevisualizestructure, and classifyideas, and as an aid to studying and organizing information, solving problemsmaking decisions, and writing.

Most electronic mind mapping software allows you to move thoughts (nodes) around, add notes, add hyperlinks, cut/paste and create relationships (links) to other nodes. If you are using paper then this flexibility is less of an option. It is possible to export (from electronic system) the map in a number of format such as jpg or txt.

For me the central idea for my writing typically forms the central point in a mind map. From this central point I can spawn a number of child nodes exploding the idea. I typically don’t self edit at this point, instead I choose to let the ideas flow.

After a while I will start to drag and drop the ideas in to logical groupings before applying edits to the spelling, typos and removing ideas that no longer make sense. New ideas will obviously come to light and can be added quickly and easily to the mind map.

I can quickly spin up new nodes, add web links, add resources and create to-do tasks.

Tool I use for this : XMind

Mind maps for test ideas

I use mind maps to document my thinking around user stories, features or capabilities that I will be testing. I will map out my ideas (no matter how crazy) and then regroup, re-factor and create associations later.

I typically do this during story chats and design meetings. I used to do this process of capturing test ideas in excel which was very effective but the re-ordering and associating process was trickier. It was also slower to brain dump.

I typically export the mind map to text and copy/paste this to excel to give me the reporting and ordering aspects that excel can offer. I know some testers continue to use mind maps for their planning, measuring and reporting too. I’ve found them less useful in this respect but my needs will differ from others.

Tool I use for this : XMind / Pen and Paper

Mind maps for Product Outlining

One of the first things I do when working on a new product is to map out the capabilities and structure of that product in a mind map. This essentially gives me a more visual representation of the entire system (and sub-systems). I can start to build a picture in my mind of how things hang together and what changes/testing might affect different parts of the product. During this mapping I will take notes and typically create another mind map with my test ideas.

I print this out and stick it on the wall for quick reference. (some mind maps don’t print well if they are large though).

Tool I use for this : XMind

Mind maps for Team “Things To Test”

Every team I have worked in has had a number of standard (or regular) areas to consider or components to check for feedback when testing. For example at NewVoiceMedia when we test we always check the “call recordings”, “audit log”, “call quality”, firebug outputs and of course the web server event logs.

We typically check these areas no matter what testing is taking place. These and many more areas give us feedback and clues as to the state of the system, even if they may appear to not be directly related to what we are testing.

These areas are documented in a mind map so that we can quickly see what areas should be consider. It’s a cheat sheet basically.

Tool I use for this : XMind

Mind maps for documenting meetings/gatherings and training/events

I use mind maps for documenting meetings and other gatherings so I can keep my notes short and concise. I have terrible handwriting so I tend to keep my writing limited to nodes in a mind map.

I use paper based mind maps for this task because I prefer the freedom a pen and paper brings when information is coming thick and fast from discussions etc. It’s also less annoying for other people in the meeting as I’m not tapping away at my laptop or mobile device.

One of my team, Simon, showed us in this weeks “tool time” meeting how he used the very excellent “The Brain” to document his teams retrospective. Another really good use of mind maps. BTW – The Brain is awesome….but pricey for the full licence.

Tool I use for this : XMind / Pen and Paper / The Brain

Mind maps for documenting presentations at conferences

Those that followed EuroSTAR 2011 might have seen a number of mind maps from me documenting the presentations I attended. Presentations aren’t typically as fast as meetings hence I get more time to type (and annoy other people with my keyboard tapping).

I find mind maps to be a good way of documenting the ideas and thoughts from the presenter (especially as some presenters may order their presentations differently to how my mind accommodates the information). XMind also has a cool feature which means I can publish the mind map straight to the web from the XMind client.

Tool I use for this : XMind / Pen and Paper

Mind maps for learning and studying

When I read a book I make notes. Loads of notes. If it’s a physical book I make notes on scrap paper or (much to many people’s horror) inside the book itself, then scan/input these notes to Evernote.

Once in Evernote I add the notes to a topical mind map.

I have a number of mind maps for different areas of learning from “communication” to “Social Media” to “Bento Tips and Tricks”. I can use hyper links and notes to add further context. Mind maps allow me to pull together learning from a number of sources around a central topic, all in one place.

For Kindle/Digital books I can use the highlight option and then pull the text from the text-file to Evernote. I then follow the same process above.

The same goes for blogs, white papers and eBooks. Everything ultimately ends up in Evernote with tags. It then makes it’s way at a later date to the mind map, at which point relationships are created and meta data added.

There is a cool feature in XMind (and probably in other tools also) that allows you to add a new sheet to a node which essentially gives another core node in the same mind map file. This technique makes it much easier to nest notes and ideas without making each mind-map sheet too big to read.

Tool I use for this : XMind

Mind maps for Checklists and To Do lists

I often stick a checklist in to a mind map format and print it out A3 size to remind me of things to do. I posted about the Phoenix Checklist mind map here.

I’ve had very little success with using mind maps for To-Do lists but I know others in the community are using them in that way.

Tool I use for this : XMind

Keeping Mind maps in Sync across devices

One question I get asked often is how to keep mind maps backed up and in-sync across devices.

My approach (and note, there are many others) is to use Dropbox to store the files. This way they sync across many devices. XMind is available on most platforms also so this isn’t a problem.

On iPad I use iThoughts which supports Xmind – although to be honest I typically use Evernote to store the information, or pen and paper then add to a mind map later.

There are a number of cool apps for Android and iPhone also. A quick search will find many. I’ve not personally used mind mapping on my mobile so cannot comment on their effectiveness.

There are a number of file sync services though to help keep your files available and up-to-date across devices. Services such as iCloud, SpiderOak, Wuala, UbuntuOne, Google Drive, SugarSync and Windows Live Mesh.

There are loads more but these are the only I have personally used. Try AlternativeTo for more.

Problems with mind maps

Mind maps are not a Silver bullet. I once spent a long time explaining an idea for a book to a someone using a mind map. They just didn’t understand the structure and the way I’d represented the format, characters, plot and sub plots.

I then exported the mind map to a .txt file and walked through the pure text and they got it right away. Not everyone leans towards visual thinking. Some people don’t find mind maps useful. Some people prefer other mechanisms and ways of organising information and data. Some people don’t find mind maps easy to read.

One of the major criticisms of mind maps (and I would agree) is that they are often poor at communicating messages (to some people). Sometimes the mind map has been crafted in a logical fashion by the author and to the author it makes sense. If that meaning (and context) is missing from the readers mind then that mind map might not make sense at all.

Mind mapping tools

Example Mind maps – Software Test Related

Extra Reading


3 thoughts on “An Introduction to Mind Mapping for more than Test Design”

  1. Thanks “The Social Tester” for a guide to mind-mapping which testers can use.

    Also, I would love to add a point so that your blog readers can know about MindMaps repository which is free and open source. At TestInsane, we developed a platform for sharing testing mind-maps at And they are open source which means you can download the source (*.xmind) and edit them based on your project context (MIT License – Open Source).

    Thanks again!

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